Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the top—a fully healthy, fully engaged Cleveland Cavaliers team should by all means be favored to win the Eastern Conference in both the regular season and the postseason. They are the defending champs, and they have the best talent, including one of the best players in the game.
With all that said, things don’t always play out as you might think. Title teams sometimes relax a bit too much. Injuries (unfortunately) happen. Best-laid plans often go astray. Eventually the pack catches up, and it is seldom when you expect it to happen.
The Cavs don’t have anything in particular to prove in the regular season. In fact, with all the miles on LeBron James’ tires, they will be highly motivated to pace him as much as possible. Kyrie Irving has missed significant time at points during his career. Maybe Kevin Love will finally snap after another passive-aggressive tweet from LeBron.
It isn’t a stretch to consider that the Cavs might not finish the regular season with the most wins in the East, which opens a door for teams like the Celtics and Raptors to fight for the No. 1 seed.
Of course the playoffs are another matter altogether. The Cavs could enter as the fourth seed and still be favored to win the conference if they are at reasonably full health (i.e., with James and Irving at full speed).
With that said, there’s a reason why they still play the games. If the Cavs want the brass ring again, they’ve got to go through the competition to get there. By all accounts, the Celtics are poised to be one of those teams in the way of that goal.
No matter the heights these improved Celtics actually reach, they are at least in the imagination, the most enticing rival LeBron will have faced since returning to Cleveland: a squad drilled by one of the league’s better strategists, with a deep bench, and a new star who should pull them out of the Eastern Conference’s grubby middle and into its second-seed. Over seven games, they might be able to give the Cavs trouble. Isiah Thomas could cancel out Kyrie Irving. Jae Crowder can hassle LeBron. Horford will probably outplay Kevin Love. It’s not that any of these things will happen, but that they’re possible.
Sometimes all you need is a chance. The Mavs were underdogs when they faced the Heat in the Finals, and they found just the right mix to win the title. The Celtics have a defense that can give fits to any team, and Al Horford might just be the key that unlocks the offense this season. Plus, we don’t yet know what card Danny Ainge has up his sleeve for February’s trade deadline.
The odds makers and NBA experts are absolutely justified in picking the Cavs as the favorites in the East. But the Celtics aren’t going to hand anything over to them without a fight.