There’s no argument about the Cleveland Cavaliers being the best team in the Eastern Conference, with LeBron James being in decline or not. But who seems like the favorite to be their runner up in the regular season, and probably the playoffs as well? The Atlanta Hawks seem like a very good candidate.
The Hawks actually finished with the best record in the regular season East of the Mississippi last season, which landed them in their first conference finals in ages. But they got swept by the Cavaliers, lost DeMarre Carroll in the offseason to the Toronto Raptors and were slightly forgotten going into this season. Starting the season with four losses in the first five games helped push them further into the oblivion of teams in the East no one thinks twice about.
But their basketball this month, winning seven of their last eight that included a six-game win streak and a recent 121-115 victory in Houston over the Rockets which exemplified how good their offense can be even without Kyle Korver making any shots (0-for-11 from the field, missing his last 18 3-point attempts). Paul Millsap continues to be one the funnest big men to watch in the league, Kent Bazemore is doing an excellent job as a starter and having Dennis Schroeder back up Jeff Teague continues to give the Hawks a very good option off the bench and not lose too much when the second unit comes on.
Things are a little bit more evident for the Cavaliers, finishing 2015 with a win in Denver, finally getting a big night from LeBron James, who forgot about the four games in five nights and scored 34 points to put those two sub-20 point games to bed. They’re two games ahead of the Hawks in the East and with Kyrie Irving back, it’s probably not going to get any easier catching up with them.
Another conference finals like last season? Way too soon to tell, as things tend to change quite a lot in the next four months, and with plenty of teams giving chase to the Hawks: The surprising Indiana Pacers, the solid Toronto Raptors and the Chicago Bulls, constantly hovering between ‘good as expected’ and ‘slightly disappointing’. The Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic, Miami Heat and even the Charlotte Hornets can’t be counted out from competing for the top 4 spots in the playoffs.
The Cavaliers are probably the only team we’ll be surprised to see out of the top 2, and even not finish first among the contenders in the East. They didn’t have the bad start from last season despite the injuries. While it does seem like they’re struggling to find the kind of form that will make them really scary in the eyes of some teams out West, this team is by far better than anyone else in their conference.