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?
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.