The Cleveland Cavaliers know what it feels like to enter the season as Eastern Conference favorites.
They begin this one with an entirely unfamiliar label — defending champions.
The rest of the East has spent the last six years unsuccessfully trying to unseat LeBron James from the throne. Whether he has been in Cleveland or Miami, James has led his team to the NBA Finals every year since 2011. But his crowning achievement came last season, when his Cavaliers captured the city’s first pro sports championship in 52 years by defeating the record-breaking Golden State Warriors.
Now the Cavaliers are wearing an even bigger target on their backs.
“It’s the same mindset: Let’s win a championship,” James said. “We just want to be able to put ourselves in position to do that. We have the ability, we have the personnel, but we have to work now. We can’t expect for it to happen just like we didn’t expect for it to happen last year. We put the time into it.”
The Boston Celtics finally found a star in Al Horford to team with a lunch pail group that has overachieved under coach Brad Stevens. The Toronto Raptors are back for more after falling to the Cavs in the Eastern Conference finals and Chicago and New York brought in aging stars in a desperate attempt to change the balance of power in the league’s weaker conference.
James’ reply: Bring it on.
“We can’t be entitled to anything we’ve got to go out and get it and work for it,” he said. “We’re a team that’s very driven and we look forward to all the challenges the season holds.”
A look at the East:
1. Cleveland — Championship hangover? No one expects that with the Cavs. There is one certainty in the NBA: LeBron will make it to the finals.
2. Boston — Horford and Stevens appear to be the perfect match.
3. Toronto — Keep doubting the Raptors. Kyle Lowry wants you to. Should be nip and tuck with the Celtics all season.
4. Washington — Here’s where it starts to get dicey. Wiz are betting Scott Brooks will be able to push the buttons Randy Wittman couldn’t.
5. Atlanta — The Hawks took a step back last season, then swapped Horford for Dwight Howard. Things could go either way in Hotlanta this season.
6. Charlotte — Mostly stood pat this summer after a surprising sixth-place finish last year. A healthy Michael Kidd-Gilchrist sure could make a difference.
7. Detroit — Would have picked them higher, but Reggie Jackson’s injury is a concern.
8. Indiana — Pacers swapped out the underrated George Hill for Jeff Teague, traded Frank Vogel for Nate McMillan and brought in Thaddeus Young and Al Jefferson to funk things up.
IN THE MIX
9. Chicago — Dwyane Wade’s homecoming is a great story. But the severe lack of shooting figures to hold the Bulls back.
10. Miami — With Wade and Chris Bosh gone, it’s rebuilding time. Don’t expect Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra to be down long, though.
11. New York — Manhattan is all excited about the star power that Phil Jackson brought in. The reality is Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah have not been completely healthy for years.
12. Milwaukee — Khris Middleton’s injury is a killer that prompted scrambling for wing help. The Greek Freak at point guard, thought? That will be appointment viewing.
FACING LONG ODDS
13. Orlando — Vogel landed with the Magic and he has all kinds of defensive weapons at his disposal. That will be essential because scoring may be difficult to come by.
14. Philadelphia — You have to be kidding us with the Ben Simmons injury. Hey, at least Joel Embiid is healthy. Please keep it that way.
15. Brooklyn — Move over Philly, there’s a new basement dweller in the East! Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson are well thought of, but it’s going to take time to get this thing turned around.
WHAT TO KNOW
LEBRON’S LEGACY: The last time James did not appear in the NBA Finals was 2010 when the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Celtics. James’ Cavaliers were eliminated in the East semifinals by the Celtics, and he signed with the Heat that summer.
WALL AND BEAL: Much has been made of the chemistry, or lack thereof, in Washington’s backcourt. If John Wall and Bradley Beal are on the same page, the Wizards are dangerous. If they can’t find a way to harmonize, Washington could plummet down the standings.
NEW FACES: Brooks in Washington, McMillan in Indiana, Vogel in Orlando, Atkinson in Brooklyn and Jeff Hornacek in New York start their first seasons as coaches after a summer of upheaval in the conference.
SCHRODER TIME: The Hawks traded Teague to Indiana to open the door for Schroder’s slashing game. He’s been waiting for this chance, and his ability to run the team, play defense and knock down the occasional jumper will be critical to Atlanta’s chances.
ROOKIE WATCH: Only three of the top nine picks in the draft went to teams in the East. Youngsters to keep an eye on include Jaylen Brown in Boston, Jakob Poeltl for Toronto, Thon Maker in Milwaukee and Denzel Valentine in Chicago.
AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report.