The Cleveland Cavaliers playing the Toronto Raptors for the second time this season is a good opportunity to stop and take a look at the two teams who have a shot at ending the LeBron James-Cavs dominance this season: The Raptors and the Atlanta Hawks.
Both are 7-2. The Raptors lost to the Cavaliers in Toronto, which signaled how more seriously the Cavaliers are taking the start of this season. They’re also healthy right off the bat, unlike last season or the year before, when LeBron James struggled with injuries early on. His return in 2015 kicked off a terrific Cavaliers second half of the season. Kyrie Irving needed a lot longer to have the same effect on his team in 2016, but the length of his recovery didn’t matter when he nailed that 3-pointer over Stephen Curry in the NBA finals, the most important basket in the history of the franchise.
The Hawks are actually the only team this season that has a win against the Cavs. It highlighted the two biggest difference makers for Atlanta this season: Kent Bazemore and Dennis Schroder. Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard are going to be fine, but the consistency of their wingman and point guard will determine whether this will be an OK season or a very good one for the Hawks, along with the level of threat they pose to the Cavaliers in the playoffs.
And it’s easy to wave off the Raptors and say their start is all due to DeMar DeRozan averaging 34 points per game. Obviously, having a player at MVP-level at least at this stage of the season helps, but there’s a lot more to the Raptors success. Their offense is ticking (5th in efficiency) but their defense, despite the departure of Bismack Biyombo, has done a good job of adjusting, ranking 11th in the NBA. Lucas Nogueira has become an important part of the rotation, and DeMarre Carroll is healthy, unlike long chunks of last season. That’s almost like a new player, a very important one.
The regular season does matter, to a point. Obviously, the important stuff happen in April, May and June. But the Cavaliers can’t take their last two years of dominance through the Eastern Conference playoffs for granted. They can’t their sweeps against the Hawks for granted. Champions rise and fall, sometimes never to return. While we’re gotten used to LeBron James having his way with Eastern conference teams when spring rolls around, the possibility of a change at the top is present, maybe more than ever.