Upon further review, the Cavaliers were probably the second-best team in the Eastern Conference at the end of last season. They entered the playoffs as the fourth seed, but completely outperformed No. 3 Orlando in the postseason, and fared far better against world champion Boston than No. 2 Detroit did.
In other words, Cleveland is in a pretty good position as the NBAâ€™s free agent signing period begins Wednesday. But as any longtime fan of the league will tell you, if a team doesnâ€™t keep moving forward, itâ€™s actually falling behind.
Hereâ€™s where the Eastâ€™s eight playoff teams stand as they prepare to open their wallets and court new players:
Boston: Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen will be a year closer to the end of their Hall of Fame careers, but as long as they remain relatively injury free, the Celtics are still the team to beat. Bostonâ€™s core players will all be back with the possible exception of 3-point specialist James Posey, but he plays the same position as NBA Finals MVP Paul Pierce and has been wildly erratic throughout his career, so it would be no large loss.
Detroit: General manager Joe Dumars fired coach Flip Saunders and is vowing to shake up the team after its third straight loss in the East finals. Reports out of Motown say Chauncey Billups could be moved, but the market doesnâ€™t figure to be real hot for an aging point guard with a big contract. Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess are entering the final years of their deals, so hereâ€™s betting they will go first.
Orlando: The Magic is incapable of winning the conference with its present player mix. Orlando is great up front with Dwight Howard, Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu, but downright awful in the backcourt. Things arenâ€™t going to get any better, either, as the Magic has little maneuvering room and just nine guys signed for next year. Barring a shocking development, the Cavaliers have no reason to fear the Magic.
Cleveland: The expiring contracts of Wally Szczerbiak, Damon Jones and Eric Snow should allow the Cavaliers to trade for a young big man or execute a sign-and-trade for a genuine shooter. As long as they can keep restricted free agents Daniel Gibson and Delonte West, though, there is no pressure to make a major move before the season. Cleveland also has a pair of salary cap exceptions to add a mid-level free agent.
Washington: The Wizards did the right thing for themselves and their season ticket holders by sticking with the status quo and re-signing franchise power forward Antawn Jamison. If standout guard Gilbert Arenas is a man of his word and also re-ups, there is no reason why Washington canâ€™t get past the first round and beyond next year â€” as long as they donâ€™t run into the Cavaliers, who absolutely own them.
Toronto: The addition of Pacers power forward Jermaine Oâ€™Neal makes the Raptors downright scary on the blocks with All-Star Chris Bosh. Yet, Toronto remains a perimeter-oriented team playing a purely international style. Thatâ€™s a fatal combination that has never worked in the NBA. If general manager Bryan Colangelo can add a big, physical guard, things may take a turn for the better.
Philadelphia: Keep an eye on the 76ers, who are the only contender with the cap room to sign a star player. Theyâ€™re a pretty good team as it is, but the addition of either Hawks jumping jack Josh Smith or Clippers power forward Elton Brand would make them a legitimate East title threat. Since Philadelphia point guard Andre Miller is playing out his contract, the Cavaliers will be watching this situation closely.
Atlanta: If the Hawks lose Smith, their collective goose is cooked â€” and either Milwaukee or Miami will leapfrog them as a playoff squad. The good news for Atlanta is the state of the rest of the conference. Indianaâ€™s pieces donâ€™t fit together, New Jersey has thrown in the towel, Chicago is as dysfunctional as a team can be, Charlotte will never win with Michael Jordan in charge, and New York is an embarrassment.
Dulik may be reached at email@example.com or 330-721-4059.