For most of 2016, the Toronto Raptors have looked like the biggest threat to seize the NBA Finals bid that has looked, all season long, like the property of the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Raps have maintained at least partial possession of the East's No. 2 seed for all but eight days of this calendar year, and they've had sole occupancy of that slot every single day since January 11. Drake's squad has the conference's second-best record, second-best point differential, second-best offense, and second-best title odds in both ESPN's Basketball Power Index and FiveThirtyEight's CARMELO Projections. They're good, in short.
Other indicators shine brightly on Toronto as well. The Raptors have the East's second-best record in games against teams with a .500 record or better. They have the third-most double-digit wins and the second-fewest double-digit losses, and they have the East's best record in games that were within five points at any time during the last five minutes. Until very recently, the Raptors were one of two East teams with a top-10 ranking in both offensive and defensive efficiency. (The Hornets leapfrogged them on defense to snag the second spot away.) All of these things are classic indicators of a true contender.
Just before they locked up the first 50-win season in franchise history, the Raps also learned that DeMarre Carroll hopes to return before the end of the regular season. There had been reports as recently as two days prior to Carroll's comments that he would not return unless the Raps made a deep playoff run, so that was an encouraging development. All year, Carroll's return has been projected onto Toronto's playoff hopes as a helpful lift; now, like the playoffs themselves, it appears to be near.
Toronto has survived, even thrived, in Carroll's absence; he has been active for only 23 games this season, after all. Dwane Casey has mostly split the starting small forward job between James Johnson and rookie second-rounder Norm Powell in Carroll's stead. After making only one three-pointer through the end of February, Powell has recently begun sniping away from outside (he was 20 of 47 from deep in March) while occupying Carroll's spot with the starters. Powell has also got some bounce to him, and his play over the last month has earned him a spot in the rotation even when Carroll gets back.
You have been waiting for the "but" part, and here it is. Because the Raps can't have nice things without suffering some sort of karmic payback, the Toronto Sun reported that Kyle Lowry recently aggravated an elbow injury he originally suffered during a game against the Magic in London back in January; the news broke the day before Carroll announced his impending return. The aggravation occurred during another game against the Magic on March 20, and while Lowry sat out only one game, he has gone 30 of 88 (34.1 percent) from the field and 14-for-48 (29.1 percent) from beyond the arc since his return. As the Sun noted, his free-throw percentage has been dipping with each passing month as well: he made 88.4 percent of his foul tries prior to the initial injury, 84.1 percent through the rest of January, 77.5 percent in February, and 71.5 percent in March.
It's a nasty injury, and Lowry's numbers make it clear that it's affecting him. Rest supposedly won't help; the Sun reported that Lowry recently had the elbow drained, but if that doesn't help, the Raptors are suddenly a very different team. DeMar DeRozan is an All-Star, too, but everything the Raptors do offensively flows from Lowry's abilities. If he's not at full strength, the Raptors' ceiling is suddenly much lower. Which means another team could emerge as the primary challenger to Cleveland's Eastern Conference throne.
The four teams currently occupying the East's 3-6 slots are separated by a mere game and a half. None of them seems like a sure bet to overtake the Dinos as the biggest threat to LeBron's squad, but any of them could seize that opportunity.
Boston had the No. 3 seed for a few different stretches of the season, but fell from that perch over the last few weeks after an injury to Jae Crowder. The C's went 1-2 in their three games against the Cavs this season, in large part because Cleveland neuters the game of their best offensive creator in Isaiah Thomas. The Cavaliers have thrown size and length at Thomas, disrupting his drives to the rim and generally knocking him off his game. Isaiah is shooting just 34.7 percent (17 of 49) in those three matchups, his worst shooting percentage against any team against whom the Celtics have played at least three games; his 4.0 assists-per-game average is third-worst against the same group of teams. Both figures reflect the fact that Thomas has struggled to get in the paint against Iman Shumpert and Matthew Dellavedova, the primary defenders Cleveland has used to guard him.
Because Thomas is the Celtics' one true off-the-bounce creator, taking him out of his game creates a ripple-effect through the rest of the team; less metaphorically, it manifests in lots of contested jumpers. The reason Crowder, Avery Bradley, Evan Turner, Kelly Olynyk, and the rest of Boston's frontcourt mishmash have shot as well as they have this season is because of Thomas' ability to knife through the paint and draw the defense. Well, that and Brad Stevens' ability to scheme them open; but a lot of that is dependent on Thomas getting into the paint. The Celtics have a good enough defense to hang in the playoffs, but without The Full Isaiah, it's doubtful they'll be able to score enough to hang with the Cavs.
The Atlanta Hawks have the NBA's best defense by a decent margin since the calendar flipped to 2016, shooting all the way up the leaderboard during that stretch to second overall in points per 100 possessions allowed on the year. The list of teams without top-flight defenses that went on to win a championship, or even represent their conference in the NBA Finals, is pretty slim. It works in the Hawks' favor that they've tightened things up on the less glamorous side of the floor.
But the floor has two halves, and the Cavaliers made the Atlanta offense look almost comically inept for much of last year's conference finals. This year's Hawks do not score nearly as well as the 2014-15 squad did. Jeff Teague has not been as dynamic, Kyle Korver went through a prolonged slump at the start of the season, and the offense misses DeMarre Carroll, even if they have found adequate replacements in Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore. Unless they can completely stymie the Cavaliers' offense—a difficult task made more so for Atlanta because of their weak defensive rebounding and the Cavs' excellent glass-cleaning on the offensive end—it doesn't seem like the Hawks have enough on offense to hang with them, either.
The Heat have taken off over the second half of the season. They're 16-8 after the All-Star Game despite the absence of their best player, Chris Bosh. As a team, they're sixth on offense and eighth on defense since the break.
The league's oldest starting lineup—Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson, Luol Deng, and Amar'e Stoudemire—is absolutely smoking teams to the tune of a 121.6 offensive rating, and the scoring dip that group takes when Hassan Whiteside, Justise Winslow, and Josh Richardson replace the olds on the court is made up for by the defensive lift their young legs provide. Miami has enough collective experience and savvy to stand up to the Cavs, but it's hard to escape the sense that their surprisingly stout group of starters has too many defensive holes to keep the Cavs from scoring at will. You can't guard a team that has LeBron James as the fulcrum with Dragic, Wade, Joe, and Amar'e. It's a disaster waiting to happen.
And then there's the Hornets. Steve Clifford's crew has the East's best record since the break at 17-7, ranking ninth in offensive efficiency and sixth in defensive efficiency in that span. They're also playing gorgeous basketball, hitting threes at a 39 percent pace since the break and smothering opponents on the other end. Kemba Walker, Nic Batum, and Marvin Williams in particular have reached career-best levels and powered this team to a season-long top-10 ranking on both ends of the floor. That's the mark of a true contender.
But the Hornets have looked the most like a contender against non-contenders; they're 25-9 against teams with losing records and only 19-24 against teams at or above .500. Crucially, they're also now 1-3 against the Cavaliers this season after losing to them on Sunday afternoon. Charlotte's pick-and-roll based attack could cause problems for a Cleveland defense that springs leaks against sufficiently quick and smart ball movement, and in those four games the Hornets have been able to get to the free-throw line and mostly avoid turnovers, while avoiding putting the Cavs on the line in turn.
But they haven't been able to win, in part because their relatively conservative allows the Cavs to work through action without risk of turning it over themselves; the Cavs have been able to work and work and work for open looks. When you're at a talent deficit, which the Hornets would be against Cleveland, higher-variance strategies and educated gambles can help bridge the gap. That's not exactly Charlotte's style, and they haven't really tried it.
In the end, if it's not the Raptors, the biggest threat to the Cavs might just be the Cavs themselves. The Eastern Conference's best team is weirdly grim; these Cavs just do not seem to enjoy playing with each other, and those interpersonal issues seem more likely to detail Cleveland before the Finals that any Eastern Conference team. The Cavaliers have the look of a team that could defeat itself; the question is whether any of the East's pseudo-contenders can take advantage of it.