After representing the Eastern Conference for the past two season in the NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers are once again the favorites to win the Eastern Conference title. They currently have a three-game lead over the Boston Celtics for the first overall playoff spot in the East. By the time the playoffs roll around, who are the Cavaliers biggest competition to get back to the NBA Finals?
3. Atlanta Hawks
Even though the Atlanta Hawks are currently only the fifth seed in the East, they are a bad matchup for the Cavaliers. The teams have only played each other once in the regular season, when the Hawks won, 110-106. The Hawks have two good big men, center Dwight Howard (13 rebounds per game) and power forward Paul Millsap (26 points per 100 possessions). The Cavaliers primary power forward Kevin Love (31.2 ppg) and center Tristan Thompson (10 rpg). Love recently received arthroscopic knee surgery and will be out until at least the end of March. The Hawks will be able to expose the Cavaliers down low with Love not at 100%. This was already the weak spot for the Cavaliers so the Hawks would have a decent shot at pulling off the upset.
2. Boston Celtics
Currently, the second seed in the East, the Boston Celtics have taken a big step forward this season. Point guard Isaiah Thomas (43.2 point per 100 possessions), has carried the team this season and currently has scored 20 points in 41 consecutive games (the Celtics have played 57 games this season). Thomas has been the definition of consistent for the Celtics and proved he's the best player in the NBA. He is also averaging 10 points in the fourth quarter, which is the best in the NBA. In the playoffs where almost every game is close, Thomas will be the key to a long playoff run for the Celtics. In addition to Thomas, the Celtics will need power forward Al Horford to step up his game. He is only averaging 6.6 rebounds per game and 22 points per 100 possessions. To be able to beat the Cavaliers, the Horford will have to start dominating the paint. He and Thomas need to become the best duo in the NBA.
1. Toronto Raptors
The Toronto Raptors are probably the most balanced team in the East right now. They currently have six players on their roster averaging double-digit points. They are led by point guard Kyle Lowry (30.5 points per 100 possessions) and shooting guard DeMar DeRozan (39 points per 100 possessions). This past week the Raptors also added power forward Serge Ibaka (25 points per 100 possessions and 6.6 rpg) from the Orlando Magic. Ibaka and center Jonas Valanciunas (10 rpg and 23 points per 100 possessions) can be as good down low as the Hawks and have one of the best back courts in the East. It is going to take a lot to beat the Cavaliers and a balanced team that can adjusted to whatever the Cavaliers throw at them is the best shot upset the reigning NBA Champions.
No matter who the Cavaliers play in the playoffs, the will be the favorites. With the best player in the NBA, LeBron James, the Cavaliers will always have the edge. It is hard to think anyone in the East can beat the Cavaliers in the playoffs. Most fans will take the “I will believe it when I see it,” mentality. If any team has a chance though it is the Toronto Raptors.
The World Baseball Classic is a relatively new event for baseball that was started in 2006. Three events have been held (2006, 2009, and 2013) and have had mild success. It is modeled after the FIFA World Cup where 16 teams get placed in four groups. Each team plays one another and the best two teams come out of each group.
The United States has never won the WBC and, in fact, the best finish they had was fourth, in 2009. This year, the U.S. has a stacked roster, which is managed by former MLB manager Jim Leyland. With all the talent, can they finally win it all?
The U.S. is in Group C with Canada, Columbia, and the favorite and defending champion, the Dominican Republic. Canada and Columbia should be easy wins but the U.S.-Dominican Republic game will be one for the ages. Nevertheless, both teams should come out of Group C.
Last week, a fellow writer, Joel, predicted the lineup for the U.S. team. The roster has a combination of speed, power, and defensive excellence. There is just about everything in their for a dream roster. They even have a deep bench with players like Jonathan Lucroy, Matt Carpenter, and Eric Hosmer. Then another advantage the U.S. has is a stacked bullpen with players like Andrew Miller, David Robertson, and Tyler Clippard. The 2016 MLB playoffs showed that the bullpen is the key to winning in when it counts. After the round robin, the WBC becomes single elimination, and being able to generate matchups with your bullpen will be a huge advantage for the U.S.
If the Americans gets out of the first stage, they will face teams like Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Japan, South Korea, and the Netherlands. Puerto Rico knocked the U.S. off in 2013, Japan won the WBC in 2006 and 2009, South Korea has some of the best hitters in the KBO, the Netherlands has a lot of talent in their Caribbean Islands, and Venezuela is an underdog to watch. The message is it is not going to be easy for the U.S. but it is doable.
The biggest thing for the U.S. to overcome is themselves. There are so many stars on the roster that some personalities might bump heads. Also, the U.S. has not been successful in the tournament, and they will have to wipe away some of the bad luck from past years.
When the final game is played, it will be the U.S. and the Dominican Republic. The two teams are far and above any other team in the tournament. The talent on both teams is just too high for either one of these teams to struggle.
Talent plays a big role in any sport. However, as any good baseball fan knows, that in one game anything can happen. That is why the worst teams in MLB at least will win 35% of the games, even against good teams. It is just so hard to predict baseball. Who thought the Indians would make it to the World Series in 2016? Therefore, is it certain that the U.S. will medal or come in first? No; however, it is pretty likely that they do well in the tournament.
Everyone has different top 10. They are almost as unique as snowflakes. There is one name on my list that others typically do not have and that is Isaiah Thomas. Before he was traded to the Boston Celtics at the 2014-2015 trade deadline, Thomas was never known as a game changer. That changed when he came to the Celtics.
He made an immediate impact on the Celtics leading them to the playoffs. Every game Thomas continued to get better and this current season is averaging 29.9 points, 6.3 assists, 34.5 minutes and only 2.6 turnovers per game. He also is shooting a career-best 47 percent.
The NBA is all about stats which is fueled by double-doubles and triple-doubles and judge the best players in the NBA off of those stats. However, the best players in the NBA need to make teammates better and have a huge impact on a team. That is where Thomas comes into play.
This season, Thomas has played in all but four games for the Celtics and has been a model of consistency. In his last 35 (the Celtics have played 51 games this season) games he has scored at least 20 points and is averaging 34.5 ppg in the Celtics seven-game winning streak. The win streak has propelled the Celtics into second place in the Eastern Conference and it was catalyzed by Thomas taking his game to another level.
The Celtics with and without Thomas are two totally different teams, which is why he is in the top 10 active players. That is why players like Blake Griffin and DeMarcus Cousins are behind Thomas. Griffin missed 47 games in the 2015-2016 season but the Los Angeles Clippers only lost three more games than they did in the 2014-15 season. Cousins has not led the Sacramento Kings to a .500 season or better, let alone to the playoffs.
Thomas currently leads the Celtics in PPG, APG, and games played. He has carried the Celtics to the second spot in the East. Without him, they would not be in the playoffs. That is what makes Thomas a great basketball player, he wins.
Even though Thomas has recently emerged as the face of the Celtics, he has the talent to put himself in the top 10 NBA players. The way he turned the Celtics around and carried them this season, is a rare feat in the NBA. Since there are only five players on the court at a time, individual contributions are much more important in basketball than other sports. Thomas is a superstar in the NBA and will eventually lead the Celtics to an NBA Championship.