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Who Is the Team to Beat in the Eastern Conference?

Jim Cavan@@JPCavanContributor IDecember 7, 2014

COLUMBUS, OH - OCTOBER 20:  Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers drives around the defense of Derrick Rose #1 of the Chicago Bulls in the second half at the Jerome Schottenstein Center on October 20, 2014 in Columbus, Ohio. Cleveland defeated Chicago 107-98. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

While a bevy of Western Conference contenders bludgeon one another silly, the East remains very much a two-way race between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Chicago Bulls.

The Toronto Raptors? They’re a force for sure, and on both sides of the ball to boot. The Washington Wizards? Youth and upside hardly have a better avatar. The Atlanta Hawks? Hellish to defend against, and with enough weapons to make a race of it.

Sooner or later, though, the Bulls and Cavs will prove the brass to beat.

Nearing the quarter-mile mark of the 2014-15 season, the question is worth another wager: Who, exactly, is the favorite?

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

As things stand, only three games separate those aforementioned five teams, with Cleveland—in the midst of a conference-best six-game win streak—currently slotted at No. 5.

The Cavs are by no means alone in their winning ways, with the Wizards (four-game winning streak as of Saturday) and Hawks (five) having established themselves as the undisputed crème of the Southeast Division crop.

Indeed, both are boasting cases for inclusion amongst the conference brass.

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Start with Atlanta. Over their last five games, the Hawks have authored a cartoonish net rating of 16.4, third best in that stretch behind the Wizards (21.2) and Los Angeles Clippers (23.6), per NBA.com (media stats require subscription).

Nov 18, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer talks with guard Jeff Teague (0) and others during a time out in the fourth quarter of their game against the Los Angeles Lakers at Philips Arena. The Lakers won 114-109. Mandatory
USA TODAY Sports

In so doing, they’ve proven the offense of head coach Mike Budenholzer—a one-time Gregg Popovich disciple—to be more than a mere San Antonio Spurs carbon copy.

Still, concerns abound Atlanta’s defense, even with its key cog back in the fold.

Here’s SB Nation’s Jesus Gomez:

Not everything is perfect in Atlanta—the team has not made a defensive leap since last season. They got [Al] Horford back, but they are still mediocre on that end, and it severely limits their potential as a sleeper contender. The biggest problem is interior defense—the Hawks allow the highest field-goal percentage at the rim in the entire league.

For Washington, meanwhile, the concern remains whether its offense (on a 112.9 ORtg tear in its last four tilts) can keep up with its reliably stout defense, currently ranked fourth in the league.

For a while at least, the Raptors seemed to offer the best of both worlds—a two-way terror in the truest sense of the term.

Nov 28, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) reacts after going down with a leg injury against the Dallas Mavericks at Air Canada Centre. The Mavericks beat the Raptors 106-102. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY
USA TODAY Sports

Sadly, however, the loss of DeMar DeRozan has already begun to take its toll. In the four games since the All-Star shooting guard was sidelined with a torn groin muscle (he’s expected to miss a month), the Raptors D—ranked 9th through the first month of the season—has plummeted to a woeful (and second worst) 116.7.

There’s scant chance of DeRozan’s injury derailing Toronto’s playoff prospects, of course; the East is simply far too bottom-flimsy. On the other hand, the Raptors' recent struggles should call into question their supposed Finals designs.

Tight though the conference currently is, not even seeming standings supremacy can match the twofold trait touted by the East’s two presumed powers: star experience.

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Cleveland’s script we’re familiar with: prodigal son makes good, galvanizes another star to his and another’s side; early struggles and soap-opera speculation followed by a rapturous six-game respite. If this isn't precisely the team we’ll be seeing in spring, it’s damn scary enough.

All the while, oscillation has been the order of Chicago’s day as well, albeit its flight much further under the radar. Indeed, the Bulls have yet to fully engage their signature stout defense. The offense, meanwhile, has been something of a boon, registering at a 10th-ranked 105.2 prior to Saturday’s date with the Golden State Warriors.

Getting Derrick Rose back healthy and helter-skelter certainly helps. As has the addition of Pau Gasol—such an absurd upgrade over Carlos Boozer, it’s almost cartoonish.

BROOKLYN, NY - NOVEMBER 30:  Jimmy Butler #21 of the Chicago Bulls drives to the basket against the Brooklyn Nets during a game between the Chicago Bulls and the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges a
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

However, the Bulls’ true boon has been the gangbusters play of fourth-year swingman Jimmy Butler. Career numbers near-across the board being the resume of a seemingly shoo-in All-Star bid.

How huge has Butler been? Enough to solicit a string of superlatives from the typically tight-lipped Tom Thibodeau. Via ESPN Chicago’s Nick Friedell:

[Butler] has been been incredible. He's a star, and he does it on both ends of the floor. He's just an amazing player. We've had him play the point, we've had him play the 2, the 3, and tonight he played the 4. And he hasn't had any opportunity to practice the 4. So he just got out there. He's smart, he's tough, he does whatever the team needs and he found a way to help lead us into coming back and having a shot at the end.

But Butler’s sudden, spectacular ascendance is also Chicago’s biggest X-Factor. Pace maintained, Butler becomes the kind of player capable of putting the Bulls over the top.

Should he sprint screaming toward the mean, the descriptor flips back to something measures more humbling: first and foremost, a basketball barricade against the blitzkrieg brilliance of LeBron James.

BOSTON, MA - NOVEMBER 14:  LeBron James #23 Kevin Love #0 and Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the game against the Boston Celtics on November 14, 2014 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges a
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

And therein lies the rub: Despite the early-season darlings—staying power though they may have—we’re talking about a conference where James still reigns. It might not be straight and it might not be smooth, but Cleveland’s path is made all the prim-rosier with the King at the reins.

Perhaps Adam Fromal, of B/R fame, summed it up best:

As much of a roller-coaster ride as the first month of the season has been for James, Love, Irving and the rest of the Cavs, and as predictably unpredictable as that up-and-down nature has been, the progression toward the postseason will eventually meander over to more stable terrain. Early season struggles and all, Cleveland has already proven that much, both through the fruits of its early season labors and the sheer level of talent on its roster.

Eventually, the Cavaliers will stop throwing corkscrews and inverted loops at their fans, and it will be the opposition feeling stomach-churning terror.

We've learned enough over the past however-many years to ignore granteds and givens. As surefire as some teams may seem, the NBA’s under-the-surface insurgency—hardwood offensives of fit and matchups and chemistry impossible go glean until they happen—lurk always just beneath the narrative surface.

The 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks, anyone?

“Shocked” is a word one would be hard-pressed to say in today’s NBA. Least of all, if a team as dangerous as the Raptors, Wizards, Hawks and Bulls somehow rush knives out, hell-bent on filleting the fray.

Just don't blame us for believing none of them can bring blades enough for the Cavs’ cannonade.