Cleveland Cavaliers: Eastern Conference Repeat?

Bradley JenkinsCorrespondent IFebruary 27, 2008

Close your eyes and imagine another time and place. Cleveland: early last December, stuck in the lull between the Indians almost-was in the American League playoffs, to the impending disaster for the Buckeyes in their second straight national championship game, one story could prevail above the rest.

King James is in street clothes, watching his teammates stumble to a fifth straight loss, dropping the defending Eastern Conference champions to a dismal 9-12 through the first quarter of the season.

As in most cases, the stories began to surface on whats wrong with Cleveland. This is a team led by arguably the best young star in the league, on the rise, fresh off their first finals berth. LeBron and the Cavs seemed to be squandering a chance to begin their push to greatness.

Fast Foward to the present: the trade deadline has come and gone. James has missed just one game since a 101-95 loss to the lowly Sonics, while carrying Cleveland up to the fourth position in the Eastern Conference.

To make matters better the Cavs pulled of a monster three team 11 player deadline deal, bringing in a scorer in Wally Szczerbiak, point guard Delonte West, to go along with front court help in four-time defensive player of the year Ben Wallace and former #1 overall pick Joe Smith.

This forced them to give up little more than the trigger happy Larry Hughes, and banger Drew Gooden the Cavaliers appear to have added adequate depth to their equation.

So after 250 or so words, lets start the controversy. It's time to pencil in Cleveland as the favorite to come out of the East.

Back to the Cavs, barring any unforseen injuries over the season final six weeks the Cavs figure to finish as the four or five seed in the Eastern Conference, setting the table for a first round matchup with the Toronto Raptors.

Buried in the land to the North, GM Bryan Colangelo has put together an impressive bunch of players capable of competiting with any team on any night. The continued emergence of big man Chris Bosh along with pure point guard Jose Calderon being thrust into a starting role give the Raptors a strong one-two punch.

Looking beyond the cover however, question marks surround the rest of the Toronto roster. With roleplayers such as Anthony Parker, Carlos Delfino and Jamario Moon not proving consistent enough to carry the load, coupled by TJ Ford's ongoing injury troubles and Andrea Bargnani's disappointment in what could have been his breakout year, the Raptors seem to be easily overmatched in the opening series.

On the the second round, and the three-headed monster that is the Boston Celtics. We've already gone over what the Celts bring to the table, so looking at the matchup, you can see where the Cavs can exploit the Eastern Conference champions.

Against Boston, the acqusition of Big Ben figures to prove its value the most. In Wallace, the Cavaliers have a man who on top of his game has always proved able to slow down the best big men in the league.

Teaming up with Zydrunas Ilgauskas and the pesky Anderson Varejao, Wallace and Cleveland have the potential to slow down the Celts interior offense. On the outside LeBron will have to prove he can defend against one of the game's best Small Forwards in Paul Pierce, the loss of Larry Hughes definately hurts the Cavs perimeter defense but with players such as Sasha Pavlovic, Delonte West and Devin Brown, Cleveland could have just enough roleplayers to slow Pierce and Allen.

Neutralizing the Big Three puts plenty of pressure on the supporting cast, and while each has shown flashes throughout the season, the inconsistencies could be too much for the Celtics to overcome.

In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Cavs would most likely find themselves in a rematch with the division rival, Detroit Pistons. Last season, the Cavs shocked Motown, after two straight losses, winning the next four the send the Pistons home early.

Underneath the final outcome, you see that the Pistons stole the first two games of the series after being outplayed before LeBrons controversial dishoff in Game One, and missed game winner in the second contest. With a few different bounces, many could think the Cavs dominated the series in 2007.

This year has the potential to bear the same result. Between the coaching of Flip Saunders, and Rasheed's inevitable implosion, Detroit as the potential to take themselves out of the playoff picture once again.

One of the largest enigmas in the NBA Rasheed Wallace has the pure skills and one of the most well rounded games of any Power Forward in the league he can post up and use his deadly turn around jumper or stretch the floor knocking down threes from the top.

Recently Charles Barkley went as far as to say Rasheed could be the best player in the league.

On the flip side we are talking about one of the most problematic players in the league from his well documented troubles in Portland to his coveted records for technical fouls, Wallace has proven he lacks the focus to be a consistent force helping his team. Remember it was Wallace's defensive lapse in Game 6 of the 2005 NBA finals that may have cost them a second straight title, and Wallace's complete meltdown against Cleveland last year which may be the most memorable moment aside from LeBron's dominance.

As most fans know, as Rasheed goes, the Pistons go. And with Rasheed just one call away from single handedly burying his teams chances the Pistons face a very terrifying situation. Turning to the man at the top, over the past month, Saunders has received praise in the Detroit media for his utilization of young guns Jason Maxiell, Aaron Afflalo, Rodney Stuckey and Amir Johnson.

While every team needs depth come playoff time, I would not feel as comfortable as most Pistons fans do with a second unit with an undersized big man in Maxiell, three players in their first full NBA season and former first round disappointment Jarvis Hayes.

Throw in Saunders refusal to double team James despite his dominance in last year's series and it is easy to see that Saunders is the deadliest poison to this Pistons squad.

While it takes just one injury or one out of this world performace to change all of this, remember that if anyone in the East is capable of taking over a game, it is King James. In his fifth NBA season, James has put up career highs in points, rebounds, assists and shooting percentages further proving his ability to take over basketball games.

As James proved last year he can turn up the intensity come playoff time and while proving his skill as the best in the league driving to the basket, it could be a short spring for the Eastern Conference favorites as LeBron leads his team to their second chance at their first title.