There are many uncertainties in the NBA, but one fact seems to be a near guarantee—LeBron James will play in the NBA Finals. That’s been the case in every year since 2011, and there’s little reason to believe it won’t happen again in the 2017 NBA Playoffs.
James remains the league’s best player, and he’s arguably having his best season since returning to Cleveland in 2014. Kyrie Irving put up the best regular-season numbers of his career, and Kevin Love is easily having his best year as a Cav. The Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs are probably the only real contenders to win the title.
Cleveland’s road to the finals, however, could be filled with more bumps than it has been in each of the last two seasons. The Cavaliers had the lowest winning percentage of any of James’ teams since 2008, and their defense ranks among the league’s worst.
Let’s take a look at the teams in the Eastern Conference that could give Cleveland the most trouble.
1) Washington Wizards
The Wizards have the clearest path to challenge the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals. They seem well on their way to beating the Hawks in the first round, and it looks like they might face the No.8 seed Bulls in the conference semifinals. John Wall is making the case to be considered a top-10 player, and Bradley Beal is finally realizing his potential as one of the NBA’s elite shooters. With one of league’s best backcourts and an offense that’s scored at least 100 points in eight straight games, Washington has the best chance of exploiting Cleveland’s defense.
2) Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks are underdogs in their series with the Raptors, but they’ve stolen home-court advantage after splitting the first two games in Toronto. Milwaukee is playing as well as any team in the East, going 16-7 to end the regular season. James is the only reason that Giannis Antetokounmpo isn’t the best player in the East, and he’s on his way to becoming the NBA’s next superstar. Milwaukee’s three best players are all 25 years old or younger, and their athleticism could present issues for Cleveland.
3) Toronto Raptors
If the Cavs were somehow upset before the NBA Finals, there might be a better chance for it to happen in the second round than in the conference finals. Toronto or Milwaukee will give Cleveland one of their toughest tests in the East. The Raptors managed to take the Cavs to six games last year, and Toronto has since added Serge Ibaka. The Raptors are the East’s best offensive team after the Cavs and they rank eighth in defensive efficiency. But with four wins over Toronto by at least 19 points in the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals, it’s hard to fathom that the Cavs would lose to the Raptors in a seven-game series.
4) Boston Celtics
Before the start of the playoffs, the conventional wisdom was that Boston had the best chance to keep Cleveland out of the finals. After all, they finished with the better record and would have home-court advantage against the Cavs. But the Celtics might not even make it past the first round after dropping the first two games of their series to the Bulls. Boston’s inability to rebound is hurting them in the postseason, and they can’t make the finals without a true superstar. Isaiah Thomas is a terrific scorer, but the Celtics don’t have that one player that gives them a chance to beat the NBA’s elite teams in a series.
5) Chicago Bulls
The Bulls barely made the playoffs with a .500 record, and now it appears that they have a real chance to make the conference finals. In some ways, Chicago is the most dangerous opponent for Cleveland in the East. They have a top-10 player in Jimmy Butler, they have championship experience with Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo and the Bulls managed to sweep their four games against the Cavs in the regular season. However, James won’t be upset by a team that couldn’t even put together a winning record over 82 games. Chicago doesn’t have nearly enough shooting to compete with Cleveland.
6) Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks have certainly had their share of success against the Cavs this season. They defeated Cleveland in three out of four meetings, including back-to-back victories earlier this month that cost the Cavs the No.1 seed. Unfortunately for the Hawks, they need to win two more series to face Cleveland, and their postseason might be over after only four or five games. Even if Atlanta managed to face Cleveland, they wouldn’t have nearly enough offense to win a seven-game series, considering they rank 27th in offensive efficiency.
7) Indiana Pacers
Give the Pacers credit. They haven’t made things easy for the Cavs in the first round, nearly stealing Game 1 and making Cleveland sweat in Game 2. That might be as close as they get to winning a game in the playoffs, considering James simply doesn’t lose in the first round. He’s gone undefeated in his teams’ opening-round series since 2013, and Paul George doesn’t have nearly enough help to take Cleveland beyond four or five games.