Which Opponents Present Toughest Challenges to Cleveland Cavaliers Next Season?

Stephen Albertini@@S_AlbertiniContributor IIAugust 14, 2014

Which Opponents Present Toughest Challenges to Cleveland Cavaliers Next Season?

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    LeBron James' return to Cleveland has made them a front-runner in the Eastern Conference.
    LeBron James' return to Cleveland has made them a front-runner in the Eastern Conference.Associated Press

    When LeBron James declared to the world that he was "coming home," he created a seismic shift in the NBA landscape, with the entire Eastern Conference gunning for Northern Ohio. 

    After dominating the conference for four years in Miami, James left the Heat for his home state with the opportunity to reclaim his once relinquished throne. The hometown boy with aspirations of Ohio immortality got one more chance to bring a championship to the glory-deprived city of Cleveland. 

    And he's not coming alone. 

    Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports reports that Cleveland has a deal in place for Minnesota forward Kevin Love. The All-Star will reportedly be sent to Cleveland for a package revolving around a pair of No. 1 overall picks—2013's Anthony Bennett and 2014's Andrew Wiggins. 

    Adding Love to the duo of James and point guard Kyrie Irving would make for a newer, younger version of James' Big Three, which he led to four straight NBA Finals appearances. But is this new version equipped to challenge for Eastern Conference supremacy right off the bat? 

    You bet. 

    There is no team better constructed to represent the East than Cleveland. Beyond their All-Star triumvirate, the Cavs still retain some youth in Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson to go along with veteran Anderson Varejao. Former Heat teammates James Jones and Mike Miller joined James in his exodus, and reportedly there could be more help on the way, per Matt Moore of CBS Sports.

    With James and his new supporting cast taking a crash course in Eastern Conference domination, there are going to be a few obstacles standing in his way. Old foes, young stars on the rise and even some old friends of his are dying to knock the king off his pedestal, but who actually has the best chance to do so?

    Here's a look at the teams that will present the toughest tests for James and the Cavaliers this season, both in the Eastern Conference playoffs and in the NBA Finals.

Honorable Mentions

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    George (left) will miss the entire season due to an injury suffered while playing with the USA men's team this summer.
    George (left) will miss the entire season due to an injury suffered while playing with the USA men's team this summer.USA TODAY Sports

    Indiana Pacers, Brooklyn Nets, Atlanta Hawks and Toronto Raptors

    Paul George's injury this summer in Las Vegas was not only heartbreaking and sickening for every NBA fan, but it shot a missile into every Eastern Conference projection. 

    Already reeling from the loss of Lance Stephenson and the disappearance of Roy Hibbert in last year's playoffs, the Pacers were already sliding down the rankings. Without George, they may have a hard time simply making the playoffs. Once a formidable adversary of James and the Heat, Indiana won't give Cleveland much of a run in the Central Division race.

    Brooklyn still has a monster payroll and a veteran roster but lost its head coach Jason Kidd this offseason to Milwaukee

    With Deron Williams' continued decline and Brook Lopez's health constantly in question, I don't have faith in Joe Johnson to get this team past Cleveland or any of the East's elite. The Nets will still be in the playoff picture but won't make enough noise, even with their payroll. 

    The team they ousted in a thrilling playoff series last season—the Toronto Raptorsand the Atlanta Hawks are the most glaring omissions from these rankings. Both teams are headed in the right direction with up-and-coming stars and deep supporting casts but ultimately lack the firepower to be considered heavyweight contenders to Cleveland's prematurely anointed crown. 

5. Charlotte Hornets

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    Jefferson (left) going to work against James' former teammate Chris Bosh (No. 1).
    Jefferson (left) going to work against James' former teammate Chris Bosh (No. 1).Brock Williams-Smith/Getty Images

    The Charlotte Hornets—formerly the Bobcats—were one of the most surprising teams in the NBA last season, thanks in part to rejuvenated free-agent signee Al Jefferson. Now with new uniforms and a new identity, they look to build on last season's playoff appearance. 

    After leaving the Utah Jazz for Charlotte, Jefferson posted his highest player efficiency rating since the 2008-09 season (22.7). He was a force on the block, scoring 21.8 points per game while shooting over 50 percent and grabbing 10 boards.

    The upstart Hornets were swept by James' Heat in the first round of the playoffs last season, largely because they could not keep up offensively. Their Achilles' heel all season was their inability to spread the floor and get buckets. 

    They ranked 22nd last season in points per game, 27th in three-point attempts and 21st in pace, according to ESPN.com. In an offense running through Jefferson, the Hornets focused more on ball control (league-low 12.3 turnovers per game) and getting to the line (11th in free-throw attempts), playing to the strengths of their personnel. 

    But James and the Heat must have awakened the Hornets front office, because they had a busy offseason, adding pieces to assist in improving those deficient areas. They signed Marvin Williams in free agency to a two-year, $14 million contract and then added the polarizing Lance Stephenson to a three-year, $27 million deal. 

    Both will help with the shooting and playmaking on the wing, where there was a real dearth of talent on the roster save for Gerald Henderson. The Hornets added sharpshooter P.J. Hairston and Noah Vonleh in the first round of June's NBA draft as well. 

    Hairston, the troubled D-Leaguer from North Carolina, is a skilled shooter who averaged 21.8 points per game last year as a member of the Texas Legends. Vonleh is an intriguing prospect with raw talent and a NBA-ready body who fell to Charlotte at No. 9. 

    With all their additions, the Hornets are headed in the right direction. They have a legitimate chance to win the competitive Southwest Division. Jefferson could give Cleveland's new power forward fits at the basket in a first- or second-round playoff matchup, where a shot at redemption against James awaits.

4. Miami Heat

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    Dwyane Wade (No. 3) and Chris Bosh (No. 1) still lead a formidable squad in Miami.
    Dwyane Wade (No. 3) and Chris Bosh (No. 1) still lead a formidable squad in Miami.Noah Graham/Getty Images

    James may have taken some old friends with him to Cleveland, but there's still plenty of firepower down in South Beach. 

    Chris Bosh, fresh off inking his max contract, and Dwyane Wade are now joined by Luol Deng, Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger.

    Bosh will take on more of an alpha dog role with James out of the picture. But for all the hoopla regarding Bosh's contract and the signings of Deng and McRoberts, the success of this team still comes down to Wade and his deteriorating body. 

    He played in just 53 games last season and sported his lowest PER (22.0) since the 2007-08 season, which dipped even lower in the playoffs (18.5).

    While in Miami, James dominated the ball, often playing a point forward role with Wade constantly off the ball picking and choosing his spots.

    His usage percentage (27.9 percent) dipped to its lowest level since his rookie year. By comparison, during his tremendous individual run in the four seasons leading up to James' arrival in 2010, he averaged 34.7 percent. It's imperative that he picks up the slack if the Heat want any chance of challenging James and the Cavaliers come playoff time. 

    Their star power and depth give them a chance, but an old-school Wade "Flash" performance would make it more interesting. 

3. Washington Wizards

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    Bradley Beal (left) and John Wall (right) make up one of the most explosive backcourt tandems in the NBA.
    Bradley Beal (left) and John Wall (right) make up one of the most explosive backcourt tandems in the NBA.Gary Dineen/Getty Images

    With all due respect to Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, and Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, there may not be a better backcourt duo than John Wall and Bradley Beal. They have the nation's capital buzzing and for good reason. 

    Wall wows with his roadrunner speed and finishing ability. Last season, he posted the highest points and assists totals of his young career while playing in all 82 games. Beal is more understated but equally effective, knocking down 40 percent of his shots from deep and playing tough defense. 

    Nene is still a force when healthy. You saw against Chicago in the playoffs last season the kind of impact his presence can have on a game or series. Center Marcin Gortat re-signed a five-year deal this summer to keep the Wizards frontcourt intact. 

    Forward Trevor Ariza, a defensive stalwart and dependable three-point shooter, signed with Houston in the offseason, leaving Martell Webster, the underwhelming Otto Porter and veteran Paul Pierce to fill his void. 

    Washington sets itself apart from other Eastern Conference teams because of its athleticism in the backcourt and physicality in the frontcourtboth of which could present problems for Cleveland in a potential second-round or later matchup.

    The continued evolution of Beal and Wall is what you need to look out for. If Wall can cut down on the negative plays—he led the league in both total turnovers and assists last season—and Beal can add more to his offensive repertoire, then Cleveland has a real threat on its hands in the playoffs. 

2. Chicago Bulls

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    Derrick Rose (left) hopes to stay healthy enough for the Bulls to compete for the Eastern Conference crown.
    Derrick Rose (left) hopes to stay healthy enough for the Bulls to compete for the Eastern Conference crown.Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

    Now it gets interesting. 

    Even when James was in Miami and the Big Three were steamrolling through opponents in their heyday, the Chicago Bulls never feared or backed down from the hype. 

    The 2011 Eastern Conference Finals was perhaps their best chance to oust Miami, with point guard Derrick Rose's injuries now becoming a trend in recent years. Chicago won Game 1 of that 2011 series in dominant fashion, led by a healthy MVP version of Rose. The Bulls ended up losing the next four. 

    But this Bulls team is not that one, and this Cavaliers team is not that 2011 Heat squad. 

    Even after striking out on Carmelo Anthony, the team's No. 1 priority in the summer, Chicago quietly put together an excellent offseason. The essential swap of free-agent signee Pau Gasol and the amnestied Carlos Boozer is a subtle win. Gasol, who spent last season wasting away on a Kobe-less Lakers team, is still an exceptional post scorer.

    Both he and Joakim Noah excel as passing big men; they will be Rose's two best friends as he returns from missing essentially two full seasons. 

    Head coach Tom Thibodeau has two new toys in European sensation Nikola Mirotic and first-round pick Doug McDermott. The 6'10" Mirotic, a 2011 draft pick making his long-awaited trip across the Atlantic, can fill up a stat sheet. He shot 53.7 percent from the field, 46.1 percent from deep and 81.1 percent from the line in 31 Euroleague games for Real Madrid.

    Yes, I'd say the best player in Europe is a major addition to the worst offensive team in the NBA last year. 

    McDermott should be a huge help in that area also. The Bulls traded up in the draft with the Denver Nuggets to secure his services. The NCAA's leading scorer last season will get plenty of open looks in Chicago and will help spread the floor for Rose to go to work. 

    Already a feared defensive group with Noah, Rose, Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler, the Bulls and their new offensive weapons should face off against Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals, not to mention duel them all season for the right to be named Central Division champs.

    They have the pieces and the coach, but will Rose's knees hold up?

1. San Antonio Spurs

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    The defending champion Spurs are still the best in the West.
    The defending champion Spurs are still the best in the West.Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

    The last time we saw the San Antonio Spurs, they were putting on one of the most incredible offensive explosions in NBA history during last year's Finals for a fifth championship under head coach Gregg Popovich. 

    Ball movement, shooting, precision—everything was on full display in the dismantling of the Heat, and it ultimately jump-started James' departure from Miami.

    After appearing hesitant in the first two games, Kawhi Leonard came of age in the next three, shooting over 61 percent for the series en route to being named the Finals MVP. Tony Parker and Tim Duncan were their usual dependable selves, while Manu Ginobili rose from the ashes of his 2013 Finals performance to put his emphatic stamp on the series as only he can.

    The gang is giving it one more run next season with Duncan, Ginobili and Danny Green in the final year of their contracts. Swiss army knife Boris Diaw signed a four-year, $28 million contract this summer, and the Spurs announced they locked up Parker to an extension. Duncan and Ginobili have mulled over retirement in the past, so there is definitely a cloud of uncertainty surrounding the group beyond this year. 

    With Popovich and essentially the same roster as last year, San Antonio is still the best team in basketball and the No. 1 obstacle standing in the way of James and another championship. Of course, the Spurs need to get there first, as this ranking is contingent on both teams making the Finals, but I'm going to give the champs the credit they deserve here. 

    For a team that was often criticized as being too boring over the years, the Spurs were dominant on both ends of the floor, ranking in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency last season, according to ESPN.com. Nothing is changing this year. 

    Is a 2007 Finals rematch a possibility? Absolutely.

    Will the 2015 version yield a different result? We'll see. 


    All contract information courtesy of Sham Sports. All statistics, unless otherwise noted, courtesy of NBA.comFollow Stephen on Twitter for more hoops discussion.