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When LeBron James announced that he would be leaving the Miami Heat to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the NBA Eastern Conference blew wide open. Obviously, everyone knew the Cavs would be one of the best teams in the league; but even with the best player in the world on the court it wouldn’t be easy for them to go from the bottom of the league to NBA Championship in one season.
The Heat represented the East in the Finals for the prior four seasons, and much like the West, history favors the higher seeds. Since 2003, only the 2010 Boston Celtics made the playoffs as a fourth seed.
The Atlanta Hawks were the biggest surprise of the 2014-2015 NBA season, coming in quickly and winning 60 games with no superstars on the roster. Mike Budenholzer did a fantastic job with the team. The Hawks went on a 19-game winning streak early this season, and for a while they seemed to be the sure-fire Eastern champs-to-be. Unfortunately, the Hawks declined after the All-Star break. If they wanted to best the other top teams in the East, they needed to get back to form in the early rounds of the playoffs.
The Cavaliers actually had history on their side—seven of the past 12 Eastern Conference champs were the second seed. On top of that, the Cavs had LeBron to lead them. Between James, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving, the Cavs have the best big three in the East. Cleveland still had some problems to iron out, but at the end of the day there are very few teams in the NBA that could compete with the raw talent they brought to the hardwood each night.
After the Cavs, the East took a pretty sharp decline. While the Toronto Raptors and Chicgao Bulls had the potential to make a huge upset over the Cavs or Hawks to take the Eastern Conference championship, neither of them really matched up with the best teams in the West.
That being said, with Derrick Rose back, the Bulls spirits were high. The team knew that with Rose on the court they have a legitimate shot at a trip to the NBA Finals. The Bulls were one of few teams in the league with six different players that averaged double-digit points per night. With Jimmy Butler, Pau Gasol, and Derrick Rose on the court, the Bulls were one of the better teams in the East. With a healthy Rose, the Bulls had the best chance of upsetting the Cavs or Hawks in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The Washington Wizards were the last team in the East that could have been considered a serious competitor. Although a long shot, it was hard to completely ignore what John Wall and Bradley Beal were capable of when firing on all cylinders. On top of that, the Wizards have Paul Pierce, who was well used to the playoffs and knew what it takes to win as an underdog in the conference. Marcin Gortat is one of the better big men in the NBA right now as well. The Wizards had the talent to compete, but their talent was only starting-five deep.
As per usual, the NBA Western Conference is the most competitive conference in professional sports. Nine teams had a winning record, and only the Golden State Warriors were safe in their seed because of their 60-win season.
The Western Conference has been very friendly to the higher seeded teams over the past 11 seasons. Since 2003, the third seed has won the Conference twice (2006 and 2011 Dallas Mavericks)—every other year belonged to the first or second seeded Los Angeles Lakers or San Antonio Spurs, except for 2012 when the Oklahoma City Thunder made the Finals.
There’s another point of interest: every NBA Finals since 1999 has featured either the Lakers or the Spurs except for three. The Spurs have represented the Conference each of the previous two seasons and were currently the defending NBA Champs; so it’s hard to not give them the nod to repeat, especially with their play going into the playoffs
The Spurs had history on their side; and with the Lakers having their worst season in franchise history, the Spurs seemed even more likely to repeat. However, the Warriors are here to break the trend.
The Warriors had a picture perfect season. With over 60 wins and home-field advantage secured throughout the playoffs, the Warriors looked to be on the fast track for the NBA Finals. Sharpshooters Steph Curry and Klay Thompson have been knocking down everything this season. The Warriors are also one of the youngest teams in the NBA, making them a defensive nightmare for older, more experienced teams.
The Rockets also had a fantastic 2014-2015 season despite being without Dwight Howard for a lot of it. MVP candidate James Harden was absolutely unstoppable on offense, coasting the Rockets to a 50 win season and decent playoff seed. Howard was able to return in the playoffs, and with both him and Harden on the court the Rockets were one of the most dangerous teams in the NBA.
The Grizzlies were pretty quiet this season, but they were arguably one of the top five teams in the league. Marc Gasol is their go-to guy with over 17 points and eight rebounds per game, Zach Randolph provided enough toughness for the entire team, and Tony Allen remained one of the best defenders in the NBA. The Grizzlies played a very balanced offensive and defensive game, and it worked wondering for them this season.
The Los Angeles Clippers rounded out the serious championship competitors in the West. The Clippers brought a very balanced attack to the court each night—in fact, they were one of few teams to have at least six players averaging double-digit points per game. Blake Griffin and Chris Paul lead the attack, and DeAndre Jordan was always there to grab 20 rebounds. At the end of the day, they were probably the longest shot to make the Finals; but given a few years they should be at the top of the league.
In the End, the NBA Finals consisted of the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors. LeBron James, arguably the best player in the league, had to play without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Lowe, both of whom were out with injuries. LeBron averaged over 35 points, 13 rebounds, 8 assists, and 44 minutes, per game in the series. The Cavs got out to a 2-1 lead in the series, but then dropped 4 straight to the Warriors in game 6. The Warriors managed to stay healthy while the Cavs were wrecked by injuries. Stephen Curry and Andre Igoudala both were notable players in the Warriors Championship run. Curry averaged more than 28 points per game and Igoudala was named the NBA finals MVP.
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