Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.
VIDEO: LeBron James leads Cavs’ comeback vs. Blazers
> There’s a logjam in the Eastern Conference standings, with just two games separating the top 10 teams. Are the Cavs still a lock to return to the Finals (as most of you predicted back in October), or is this more of a wide-open race now?
David Aldridge, NBA.com: I still don’t see a team in the East that can defeat a fully formed Cavs team with LeBron, Irving, Love and company four times in seven games. Now, that team has yet to take the floor, and there’s no guarantee it will be there in April. But if it does, Cleveland is still the prohibitive favorite to return. I do think Miami has the best chance with its personnel to challenge the Cavs, but the Heat need a healthy Luol Deng to make a real run at Cleveland in the postseason.
Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: It will be Cleveland. Book the flights. I didn’t pull off the Cavaliers last year when they were 19-20 and trying to reach The Finals for the first time, so I’m certainly not going to doubt them, their formula and their added experience now. At this stage of his career, LeBron James has earned the right to “manage” his way to a sixth straight appearance in the championship round, and it’s on everyone else on this team to line up accordingly. None of the other top East teams cries “legit contender” to me at this point, either.
Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: There’s a difference between calling the Cavs “a lock” and saying “they are the team to beat.” That’s where I came down prior to the season, and that’s where I remain. The fact is they still haven’t had Kyrie Irving on the court this season. If and when he comes back and reaches form, that’s when the Cavs will create separation at the top of the East.
Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: Neither. They are not a lock because there is no such thing in December if the conversation is about May and June. And the East is not wide open. The Cavaliers are clearly the team to beat. That’s the best way to put it. Solid favorites.
Shaun Powell, NBA.com: I’d never call a team to be a lock for anything — even the Warriors winning the title next summer — but the Cavs remain a very solid pick to emerge from the East. Understand that they haven’t had Kyrie Irving, so when he returns, assume the Cavs will be better in the second half of the season. Haven’t seen anything from the pack to sway me otherwise.
John Schuhmann, NBA.com: The Heat are intriguing to me, because they have a top-five defense and have yet to find much chemistry between their three best offensive players. There’s a high ceiling in Miami if they can put it all together. Furthermore, the Cavs have yet to show us that they’re a top-10 defensive team, and I’m not sure that they can be with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love on the floor. Still, I’m nowhere close to picking the field vs. the Cavs in the East, and I’m pretty sure we’ll be in Northeast Ohio in June. I can already taste the banh mi sandwiches from our favorite Vietnamese spot off 9th Ave.
Sekou Smith, NBA.com: While I think things will be far more interesting than expected in the Eastern Conference this season, I still think the Cavaliers will be the team to beat once they get all of their main players healthy and in a groove. Seeing them right now without Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert does not give us a clear picture of what this team will look like come April. That said, I don’t know that the Cavaliers will just breeze through a much improved playoff field in the East. There could be serious challenges from Miami, Chicago and perhaps even Indiana and Atlanta. But in the end, I have a hard time seeing a fully healthy Cavaliers team finishing their season anywhere other than The Finals.
Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: I guess there are no locks anymore, given the increased influence of injuries on the championship race. We saw last year how the Cavaliers were ultimately ruined by the losses of Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. Since those things can’t be forecast, I’m going to show faith in LeBron and insist there will be no stopping him short of returning to the NBA Finals.
Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: I can’t see anyone in the East beating them in a seven-game series right now, and that’s without Kyrie Irving or Iman Shumpert in the rotation. I also feel like right now we aren’t seeing the Cavs at full health, but we’re also not seeing them go full-throttle — once LeBron ramps up to full speed, they’re going to be even scarier for the rest of the East. I know the East may have improved from a season ago, but the Cavs are still head and shoulders above the crowd.