The Cavaliers are the closest Tier 2 Team to challenging Tier 1

Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland Cavaliers. (Photo by David Richard-USA TODAY Sports)
Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland Cavaliers. (Photo by David Richard-USA TODAY Sports) /

For the first time since 2018, the Cleveland Cavaliers reached the NBA Playoffs this past season. Despite having a home-court advantage in Round 1, the Cavs were eliminated in five games by their kryptonite, the New York Knicks.

Right now, the Cavaliers are in “Tier 2” of the Eastern Conference, along with the Knicks, Miami Heat, Brooklyn Nets, and Indiana Pacers (they’re going to be a dangerous team this season), a step below the Celtics, Bucks, and 76ers. Tier 2 consists of teams who are playoff contenders, but not yet title contenders.

Despite losing to the Knicks last season and despite the Heat’s impressive run to the NBA Finals as a No. 8 seed, the Cavs are the closest team to challenging the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, and Philadelphia 76ers who are on Tier 1.

The Cleveland Cavaliers can threaten the East’s best

Milwaukee, Boston, and Philadelphia are in Tier 1 because they’ve put a bit of separation between themselves and the rest of the conference. The Bucks won the championship in 2021, the Celtics reached the NBA Finals in 2022 and pushed Step, Klay, Draymond, and the Golden State Warriors to six games, and the Sixers have the reigning MVP Joel Embiid.

Boston and Milwaukee have firmly cemented themselves as part of Tier 1 this coming season, but Philadelphia’s place isn’t as firm. The duo of Harden and Embiid likely played their last game together as it appears Harden is headed elsewhere. This shakeup to Philly’s roster makes them the most vulnerable to fall out of Tier 1.

There was speculation that the Cavaliers could have been targeting Philadelphia small forward Tobias Harris, but the package the Sixers wanted in return included Evan Mobley, Jarrett Allen, and a draft pick. The Cavs didn’t go through with that trade because Evan Mobley is one of the cornerstones of the franchise and Allen appears to be an integral part of the team as well. Despite the trade for Harris not coming to fruition, the Cavaliers still need to look around the free-agency market and find shooters to go alongside their dynamic duo if they want to jump the Sixers and get into Tier 1.

They need to find someone to replace Issac Okoro as the starting small forward because he has not progressed enough offensively as he goes into his fourth year. There are options out on the free agency market that would fill the hole such as Kyle Kuzma, Kelly Oubre Jr., Miles Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo, Max Strus, or PJ Washington.

Not only would any of these guys be that dynamic scorer missing from the starting lineup, but they also would provide the shooting that the Cavaliers desperately need. Furthermore, they’re all capable of pushing the Cavs to keep up with the best in the conference.

The Celtics have Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the Bucks have Khris Middleton, the 76ers have Harris, the Heat have Jimmy Butler, the Nets have Mikal Bridges, and the Pacers have Tyrese Haliburton and Buddy Hield (who took a major step forward last season). All of these guys are capable of scoring 30+ points on any given night, although Tatum and Brown can both explode for even more. The Cavs don’t have a starting wing player who can keep up with these guys in the scoring column, and the Knicks were able to expose that weakness in the playoffs and focus all of their attention on Garland and Mitchell.

How do the Cavaliers stack up?

Last season, the Cavaliers came within one win of sweeping the-then defending Eastern Conference champion Celtics. A 3-1 regular season series win appears dominant, but it most certainly was not. All four games came right down to the final seconds, and three of them went into overtime. In watching all four games, it was clear that the Cavaliers and Celtics were evenly matched. Each game felt like a UFC championship fight that was headed into the championship rounds- Round 4 and Round 5. Both teams were trading punches and trying to counter what the other was doing.

It’s a shame that these two didn’t get to collide in the playoffs because it would’ve been great to see Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell go head-to-head with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum over the course of seven games. If the schedule pattern holds true, then the Celtics and Cavaliers will see each other three times this coming season.

The Celtics shook up their core by trading former DPOY (Defensive Player Of the Year) guard Marcus Smart to the Memphis Grizzlies as part of a three-team deal in which they landed Kristaps Porzingis. Even though they’re firmly in Tier 1, they might have as much to prove as the Cavs with their poor performance in playoffs.

Cleveland and Milwaukee split the regular season series with each team taking both games on their respective home courts. Even though Middleton declined his player option to become a free agent, he’s most likely going to re-sign with the Bucks to keep their championship core intact. There have been comparisons made between Evan Mobley and Giannis Antetokounmpo, and although Mobley might be able to get to Giannis’s level one day, he’s not there yet and there’s no need to put that type of pressure on Mobley to reach Giannis’s level.

The Cavs would need to make serious roster moves or see internal development to reach Milwaukee’s level this season. The gap between the Cavaliers and Celtics is narrow, while there’s a wide gap between the Cavaliers and Bucks.

The Celtics and Bucks both have trios that make up their championship cores. The Bucks have Jrue Holiday, Middleton, and Giannis while the Celtics have Brown, Tatum, and now Porziņģis. Boston and Milwaukee have complimented their trios with players who know their roles and thrive in them. After the Harden news, the 76ers are not going to have a trio anymore.

The Cavaliers have the pieces in place to create a formidable trio of their own with Garland, Mitchell, and Mobley, but they also have to prove themselves as a unit, and GM Koby Altman has to put the pieces around the Cavs trio for them to succeed at the highest level.

Next. Grade the Trade: Cavaliers send Garland to Brooklyn in shocking proposal. dark

Tier 1 in the Eastern Conference includes the Bucks, Celtics, and 76ers but they’re on shaky ground. Tier 2 consists of the Cavaliers, Knicks, Heat, Nets, and Pacers. Of all the teams in Tier 2, the Cavaliers have the best chance at crashing the party.