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article imageOp-Ed: Five questions for the NBA's Eastern Conference

By Daniel Reynolds     Oct 1, 2014 in Sports
With the 2014-15 NBA season set to start at the end of the month, it's time to ask five questions for the Eastern Conference.
1) How do the Miami Heat bounce back?
When a team loses a good player it's sometimes hard for the organization to maintain its standing. If you're Miami though, and you lose the greatest player on the face of the earth, maintaining your standing is all but impossible.
After adding Lebron James in 2010 the Heat went on four straight runs to the Finals, winning twice. The addition and evolution of Chris Bosh helped, obviously, as did the cadre of veterans (Mike Miller, Ray Allen, Shane Battier, etc.) that the team was able to recruit and rely on. But the engine for it all was Lebron.
And now he's gone.
Still, for Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem, the team's longest serving members, the situation is not entirely hopeless.
The Heat did re-sign Chris Bosh, a skilled, multi-talented forward who is perfectly suited, with his inside-out game, to play in the modern NBA. They added Luol Deng, a defensive force with his own versatile offensive game. And they've further shored up their front line with the addition of Josh McRoberts. Along with a returning Chris Anderson, Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole and coach Erik Spoelstra, the Heat have a playoff ready team, good for a maybe the fifth or sixth seed in the conference and capable of providing a scary first round matchup.
The real question is: how much does Dwyane Wade — having appeared in only 54 regular season games last year — have left in the tank?
2) Are the Cleveland Cavaliers ready for a championship run?
The short answer? Yes. Any team that can field Lebron James at this point in his career is ready to go to the Finals. Take a look at the Cavaliers's 2006-07 roster. I mean, really stare at it. That team, a team that started Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden, went to the NBA Finals. That's the magic of Lebron.
On the new look Cavs, James is now complemented by two of the best young players in the league in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. That's three All-Star calibre players — three multi-dimensional players who have competed on some of the biggest stages in the world — all rising to the peak of their powers.
There's a longer answer here, one that mentions that the Cavaliers are still thin at centre behind the creaky Anderson Varejao, that they are relying on an aged Mike Miller and Shawn Marion, that Dion Waiters and Irving have yet to actually show that they can co-exist in the backcourt, that Tristan Thompson has yet to rise to the level expected of a fourth overall draft pick.
But then: Lebron James. How much more of an answer do you need?
3) Are the Toronto Raptors a threat?
Fresh off a franchise best 48 win season, the Toronto Raptors seem poised to claw their way into the NBA's upper echelon. When you look at the players on the roster, this would appear to suit them just fine.
At their heart, the Raptors are a team of the undervalued and overlooked. Returning point guard Kyle Lowry has been yo-yoed up and down the depth chart throughout his career, DeMar DeRozan has been previously dismissed as one-dimensional, Amir Johnson was thought of as overpaid, even reserves like Patrick Patterson have been traded multiple times, always as if merely a spare part.
Through the machinations of General Manager Masai Ujiri, the Raptors have assembled a startlingly deep and effective squad. The additions of Lou Williams and James Johnson — to provide bench scoring and defensive toughness, respectively — were wise moves that cost the team almost nothing in terms of assets or flexibility. The continuity the team sought through re-signing all of its key free agents (Lowry, Greivis Vasquez and Patterson) is also here. Every player sounds like they really want to be in Toronto.
What remains is a hope that the growth of its young players Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas, last seen being an absolute wrecker during the FIBA World Cup, will continue; that the element of surprise the Raptors had last year will congeal into something resembling a confident consistency; that the power of chemistry will overlook the team's lack of a transcendental superstar.
But really, the Eastern Conference teams would be foolish to ignore the Raptors now.
4) Can Washington build on the successes of last year?
As the playoffs started last season it seemed inevitable that the young Washington Wizards would be booted out by the tried-and-tested Chicago Bulls in the first round. Even though the Wizards had some of the more talented players in the series (John Wall and Bradley Beal, first and foremost), the Bulls were led by warriors like Joakim Noah.
The Wizards ended up crushing the Bulls 4-1 and came out as a special team on the rise.
So, what's changed for them this year? The key players are back for the Wizards: Wall and Beal are ready to seize the mantle of best backcourt in the East (that's what they've been saying, anyway), Marcin Gortat got paid to return, and Nene will renew his campaign of Jedi mind tricks in the post. They also added one of the premier veterans in the league, Paul Pierce.
For a team that has long (long) been thought of as a joke, adding a player of Pierce's calibre, one that can single-handedly crush the spirits of teams, is a huge boon. They’ve also got a helpful mix of bench players that includes DeJuan Blair, Kris Humphries and Andre Miller.
Like the Raptors, the Wizards want to be taken seriously. And also like the Raptors, a run to the title still feels unlikely. That being said, this team is set to improve and their turn in the playoffs, unlike last year, will not be so surprising.
5) How far will the Chicago Bulls go?
The amazing thing about the Chicago Bulls is just how long they've managed to tread water. With superstar and one-time MVP Derrick Rose on the shelf for most of the past three seasons, they've had to be patient. Is this the year it finally pays off?
First, the plusses: the Bulls have replaced Carlos Boozer with a re-energized Pau Gasol. Granted, Gasol is not much better on defense, but his offensive skills and playmaking ability far exceed what Boozer brought to the team. Sweet shooting rookie forward Doug McDermott should also help the offensively challenged Bulls. Meanwhile, they've finally carted over Euro star Nikola Mirotic, who is still mainly an unknown quantity, but a very highly touted one nonetheless. And of course, the defensive hydra of Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler, led by the maniacal coach Tom Thibodeau, remains.
On paper, this is another Bulls team ready to rumble with any team that comes their way. Their ceiling will be determined by exactly how high Derrick Rose will take them. That's the unfortunate minus. While Rose did play for Team USA in the FIBA World Cup, he is still clearly rounding into form. Can he get back to that MVP level?
It's a question that hangs over his still young career and the hopes of his team.
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Keep an eye open for Five Questions for the NBA's Western Conference. Coming soon!
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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