This year’s Eastern Conference is a lot better than it was last year and has eight potential playoff teams separated by two and a half games. The competitiveness featured in this year’s conference is astounding, but the Cleveland Cavaliers look primed to make a run for the conference title despite the teams below them in the standings.

Cleveland’s Competition

Coming into the season, I picked a healthy Cleveland Cavaliers team to be the conference champ but expected Chicago, Washington, Toronto or Indiana to challenge them. Watching the first few months of the season makes me question if any team is going to compete with the Cavs. Of their nine losses this season, four have come from top-tier teams in the East:

  • 97-95 loss to Chicago on 10/27/15
  • 103-99 loss to Toronto on 11/25/15
  • 97-85 loss to Washington on 12/1/15
  • 99-84 loss to Miami on 15/5/15

Three of those teams — Washington excluded because of Beal’s injury — have the chance of overtaking Cleveland in the playoffs. Chicago, contingent on Rose’s play, can beat the Cavs because of their outstanding frontline and newly appointed superstar, Jimmy Butler, who’s playing at an MVP-caliber level. Toronto’s backcourt of Lowry & DeRozan is one of the league’s best and DeMarre Carroll is an excellent perimeter defender who can make LeBron work on offense.

Strictly based on personnel, Cleveland’s biggest threat is Miami. Their starting five is one that can match up closest to the Cavs’. Their frontline — Whiteside & Bosh — have the length and athleticism to match up with Love & Thompson; their guards & wing — Dragic, Wade & Deng — are solid perimeter defenders and can make the Cavs work on defense.

With that all said, I think the Cavs’ run starts now because of one thing: the return of regular Kyrie Irving

Uncle Drew, Wes & The King

On Monday, the Cavs blew out the Raptors by 22 behind Irving’s game-high of 25 and 34 combined between Love and James. Cleveland’s defense is one of the league’s best, but Irving’s addition into the lineup reenergizes their offense that was lacking at times during his absence. He was penetrating, euro stepping, aggressive off the pick & roll, and seemed to be in control of a superb Toronto defense.

Since Irving’s return, the trio above has played 96 minutes together and were +41 in point differential. If they played the same amount of minutes (807.9) as the 3-man lineup with the highest differential, +392 by Curry, Green, and Thompson, they’d be +345 in points and would be second to GS’s +392.

With LeBron doing typical LeBron things, Kevin Love more comfortable in the offense, and Kyrie Irving getting closer to his regular self, it’s going to be tough for anyone to challenge Cleveland. Particularly in a seven game series.

*Photo Credit: USATSI / CBSSports.com