There's not likely to be much drama in the Eastern Conference 2015-16 NBA season. Barring major injury, it's going to be the Cavaliers & everyone else. Let's project the Top 4 finishers in the East.
East Is Least
The NBA did a smart thing this offseason in changing the seeding process in each conference. Now it's simply by a team's overall record and not whether it won a division title or not (it wouldn't have affected the East's seeding last year but would have in the West). Previously, a division winner couldn't finish lower than fourth but did not receive home-court advantage if its playoff opponent had a better record. Many people want the league to just do away with divisions entirely, and Commissioner Adam Silver has said that a possibility in the near future.
There are also new tiebreakers this year. Head-to-head results have become the first criterion to break ties for playoff seeding and home-court advantage between two teams with identical regular-season records; the second criterion is whether a team won its division. Previously winning your division was tiebreaker No. 1.
What some also are pushing for is Silver to do away with conferences altogether when it comes to the postseason and seed the playoffs 1-16 like an NCAA Tournament bracket. There were many unhappy people last season when three teams from the East, Milwaukee (41-41), Boston (40-42) and Brooklyn (38-44), all made the playoffs while Oklahoma City (45-37) did not in the West. If we see a couple of below-.500 teams in the East make it again this year, which is quite possible, the cries for a total overhaul of the playoff system will gain steam.
Breaking Down The East
LeBron James has often been compared to Michael Jordan, and the Eastern Conference right now is essentially like it was when Jordan's Bulls were in their prime: the only way the Cavaliers don't finish atop the East would be key injuries. One already has hit with starting guard Iman Shumpert expected to miss three months with a wrist problem. But mostly I'm talking about to James, Kryie Irving or Kevin Love. The Cavs are going to open the season on Oct. 27 in Chicago without Irving, who is still working his way back from knee surgery. And it's possible that Love won't be quite ready yet off his shoulder surgery. Power forward Tristan Thompson still hasn't agreed to a contract with the team. So it's not like the Cavaliers are perfect. They have a wins total of 57 on NBA odds, and I'd probably go a bit 'under' that with all that's going on. But by the end of the season, they should take the No. 1 seed.
It might be easy to forget that it was Atlanta, not Cleveland, which led the Eastern Conference with 60 wins last year. The Hawks, who were swept in the East Finals by the Cavaliers, lost excellent two-way forward DeMarre Carroll to free agency but added a good center in Tiago Splitter as the Spurs had to deal him due to salary-cap issues. Splitter should allow Al Horford to stay at his natural power forward spot for most of his minutes. The Hawks also added a potential Carroll replacement in Tim Hardaway Jr. from the Knicks. Atlanta is still a good, well-coached team. But I believe it was exposed a bit in the playoffs by not just Cleveland but also Brooklyn and Washington. The Hawks have a wins total of 49.5 on NBA picks.
The Chicago Bulls still have the roster best equipped in the East to challenge Cleveland, but it's all about injuries as usual for this team. And already Derrick Rose is dealing with a fractured orbital bone that will keep him out the entire preseason and possibly the season opener on Oct. 27 at home against the Cavaliers. The Bulls were oh-so-close to taking a 3-1 series lead in last season's East semifinals against the Cavs, but LeBron hit a game-winning 3-pointer at the end of Game 5 and the Cavs rolled from there. How will Chicago adjust to new coach Fred Hoiberg? Hard to tell yet with no Rose in the preseason. The Bulls have a wins total of 49.5.
Assuming Cleveland, Chicago and Atlanta finish among the Top 3, the final spot of the Top 4 should come down to either Toronto (46.5 wins), Washington (45.5) or Miami (47.5). The Heat probably have most upside but also most injury concerns with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. If Otto Porter Jr. plays like he did in the playoffs, look out for the Wizards.
NBA Free Picks: Go with Cleveland, Chicago, Washington and Atlanta.