Championship Contenders: Eastern Conference

2023 Eastern Conference Championship Contenders
Photo Credit: Halftime Productions

As we slowly creep closer and closer to the 2022-23 NBA season, excitement is beginning to build around the league. The new year brings new hope and possibility for franchises all around the league, especially for these Eastern Conference championship contenders

For some teams, the new year presents another chance at chasing the illustrious goal of an NBA title. For others, it involves hope as their franchises hope to finally turn the corner. In this article, we will take a look at the Eastern Conference, and take a look at which teams have the best chance to be contenders for an NBA Championship.

Eastern Conference Championship Contenders

Tier 1: True Eastern Conference Championship Contenders

Celtics, Bucks, Heat

These three teams all have the best chance to come out of the Eastern Conference, and it’s far enough to clearly separate them from the rest of the conference.

First, we have the Boston Celtics. The Celtics are clearly capable of being in this category, with them being the team to come out of the Eastern Conference last year. They didn’t lose any major pieces, and were even able to add Malcolm Brogdon to the fold this offseason. They should enter as the favorites to come out of this conference.

The Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat should be considered the same. Neither team lost a key player, and both have been actively looking to add talent this offseason, albeit unsuccessfully — for now.

The Bucks nearly knocked the Celtics off last year without Khris Middleton. The Heat, on the other hand, were a missed-three-pointer from Jimmy Butler away from making the Finals last year. Both teams should be considered favorites.

Tier 2: Fringe Eastern Conference Championship Contenders

Nets, Cavaliers, 76ers

These three shouldn’t be considered favorites, but they all do still pose a real threat to make it out of this conference. The Brooklyn Nets have been surrounded by drama all off-season, but as of now it looks like they’ll be able to hold onto Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. Those two alone pose a threat, and with the right squad around them they can certainly make some noise.

The Cleveland Cavaliers just made a splash move, trading for Donovan Mitchell. Mitchell, a proven star who has performed very well in the playoffs throughout his career, will join a very talented young corps. There isn’t enough star talent on the roster yet for them to be in tier one, but this team is extremely talented.

As for the Philadelphia 76ers, the perennial playoff disappointing team will have another crack at it this year. This time, James Harden and Joel Embiid will likely get to play a full season together. If Philadelphia can put it all together in the playoffs this time around, they’ll be a real problem.

Tier 3: Playoff Contenders

Bulls, Hawks, Raptors, Knicks, Hornets

These five teams should still be around come April, but they don’t have everything it takes to truly be championship contenders in the Eastern Conference — yet.

The Chicago Bulls started 2021 strong, but faded as the year went on, and haven’t made any major upgrades this summer. The Atlanta Hawks added Dejounte Murray, and they’re the only team in this tier that has a legitimate argument to be in Tier 2. Unfortunately, the team around Murray and Trae Young isn’t quite good enough yet.

The Toronto Raptors grabbed a playoff spot last season, but were quickly bounced by the Sixers. This unit has a ton of young talent, and they could be a true contender very soon. The New York Knicks added Jalen Brunson, but their inability to add any other star power leaves them down in this tier.

As for the Charlotte Hornets, well they seem to be the same team from last year. With the Bridges issues, and their silence on the market this offseason, they’ve shown no signs of improvement.

Can the Cleveland Cavaliers Take the Next Step in 2022?

Photo Credit: Soobum Im/Getty Images

Heading into the 2022 NBA season, there are several promising young teams across the league. One of the more underrated teams among that group are the Cleveland Cavaliers. After losing Lebron James in free agency several years ago, Cleveland went into a rebuilding phase. They’ve since built the team back up, and have an exciting young core that was able to make the play-in tournament last season. Question is, do the Cleveland Cavaliers have what they need to take the next step and become a true contender in 2022?

The Young Core

First, lets take a look at the young group of players leading the Cavs. First, we have Darius Garland. Garland was picked up early in the first round of the 2019 draft, and through three years he’s already become arguably their best player. The young point guard averaged nearly 22 points and eight assists last year, and was a big reason the team was able to make the play-in.

He was joined in the backcourt with the Cavs’ other impressive guard, Collin Sexton. Sexton averaged 16 points last year, and he plays well with Garland. Sexton did become a free agent this offseason, so it remains to be seen whether he sticks with this core or not. There’s no guarantee on a deal happening, but both sides have been in contact.

At small forward, the Cavs have Caris LeVert. LeVert was acquired at the deadline last year, and he’s got one more year on his contract, so he’ll be a free agent next summer. Whether he decides to stay in Cleveland or not will largely depend on how they perform next year.

In the front court, Cleveland has a dynamic duo with Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen. Standing at 6’11” and 6’10” respectively, the two are an absolute force on defense. Both can score as well, forming a dynamic pick-and-roll duo with Garland.

Offseason Moves

Last year, Cleveland was able to make the play-in, but unfortunately suffered losses to the Nets and Hawks. The Cavs never got to play in the playoffs. For a young team like this, sometimes all it takes is another offseason of development.

With that said, if Cleveland really wants to make a splash move, now would be the time considering a majority of their roster remains on their rookie contracts. A splash move could immediately make them a true contender in the Eastern Conference, but it’s something they’ve failed to do yet this offseason.

The only major asset Cleveland has lost this offseason was Colin Sexton. They could re-sign Sexton, as the two have been in contact. Still, over a month into free agency, Colin and the Cavs haven’t been able to reach a deal. The only two notable players to sign with Cleveland this offseason have been Ricky Rubio and Robin Lopez.

With the addition of those two and the current loss of Sexton, the team hasn’t improved much, if at all. The Cavaliers had a chance to make some significant moves this offseason. Up until now they’ve failed to do so.

Are the 2022 Cleveland Cavaliers Truly Ready?

That question remains very much up in the air. Cleveland took a massive jump in 2021, improving by 22 wins from the 2020 season. That was good enough to make the play-in, but not any further than that.

There is a case to be made that further development from key players like Garland and Mobley, combined with a full season of LeVert might be enough to make Cleveland a true contender. There’s also the case that Cleveland didn’t improve, and may have actually gotten worse if Sexton doesn’t re-sign. Only time will tell, but one thing is for sure: the Cleveland Cavaliers have an exciting young roster, and should at least contend for the playoffs again in 2022.

Cavs Select Evan Mobley at 3

The Cavaliers selected Evan Mobley, center out of USC at number three overall. Mobley is an extremely consistent player. He has a high upside with a solid floor. His shooting needs work, but he can develop that. He also needs to develop more physically, especially if he is to guard larger centers in the post. Mobley is a good rebounder and has a high block rate. He shot 57.8% from the field, and 30.0% from three. He shot free throws at a 69.4% rate. He averaged 8.7 rebounds per game, alongside 2.4 assists, 0.8 steals, and 2.9 blocks, with 2.2 turnovers. Evan Mobley does not foul a lot, at just 1.8 fouls per game in 33.9 minutes. Mobley projects as a good defensive big at the next level. If he can improve his shooting, he has the potential to be an all-NBA caliber player. Evan Mobley fits well with the Cavaliers. Long term, he projects best as a center. However, he can play a little bit with Jarett Allen if he can develop a jump shot. He can be a good pick and roll partner for Garland and Sexton. He will be the future defensive centerpiece of the team. Ideally, he can be the number two on a championship team.

Cavs Future Series: Darius Garland

via Jonathan Bachman of Getty Images

Player Overview

Darius Garland is a 21-year-old, 6’1”, 192lbs point guard for the Cavs. He was drafted 5th overall in the 2019 NBA Draft. He still has another two seasons before becoming a restricted free agent. Garland averaged 17.4 points per game, which ranked 44th in the NBA. He also averaged 6.1 assists per game, which is 18th in the NBA. He averaged 2.4 rebounds, 3.0 turnovers, 1.2 steals, and 0.1 blocks per game. His assist to turnover ratio was 2.03, he had a 54.7% true shooting percentage, and a -0.76 Real Plus/Minus, according to cleaningtheglass’s metrics, which factor out garbage time. His real plus/minus ranks 40th among point guards, and 208th among all active players. His offensive real plus/minus was -0.05, which is 55th among point guards, and 210th overall. His defensive real plus/minus was -0.71, which is 36th among point guards, and 225th overall. has Garland accounting for 2.09 wins, which was 36th among point guards, and 151st overall. In FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR metric, Garland finished at -1.3, which is 55th among point guards, and 207th overall. His offensive RAPTOR was 0.2, which was 46th among point guards, and 122nd overall. In defensive RAPTOR, he finished at -1.5, which was 55th among point guards and 240th overall. They rated him as 1.3 wins above replacement, which is 53rd among point guards, and 191st overall. He ranked 10.1 in’s Player Impact Estimate (PIE), which ranks 68th among guards and 166th overall. He had a player efficiency rating (PER) of 14.24 according to ESPN’s calculations of the stat, which was 33rd among qualified point guards and 175th among all qualified players. That has increased from 8.54 his rookie season. PIE has defensive metrics in it, so Garland ranks higher in PER, a metric that does not. has Garland’s usage rating increasing from 21.6% his rookie season, to 27% this past season. He moved exclusively into a point guard designation from a previous combo guard designation. His points per shot attempt have made a significant increase from 0.983 to 1.096, which moves him from 17th percentile to 50th percentile. According to, Sexton attempted 14.9 field goals per game, 4.9 of which were three-pointers. He shot 45.1% from the field, and 39.5% from three. Last season, he shot 40.1% from the field, and 35.5% from three. Both numbers witnessed a massive increase.


According to’s shooting breakdowns, Garland takes 29% of his shots at the rim, which is the 55th percentile. That has increased from 23% as a rookie, which ranked in the 29th percentile. He makes 57% of those shots (50th percentile), which is a massive increase from his rookie season where he only makes 42% of those shots (3rd percentile). His mid-range shooting makes up 39% of his shots, which is up from 37%. Ideally, that would go down to increase efficiency. However, the breakdown of where those shots occur is beneficial. Of that 30%, around 8% of it is from over 14 feet, which is down from 13% despite an overall increase in mid-range jumpers. Garland shoots mid-range jumpers at a clip that ranks him in the 66th percentile, with short mid-range jumpers ranking in the 75th percentile and long mid-range jumpers ranking in the 39th percentile, down from the 59th percentile. He is fairly efficient on short mid-range jumpers, making 43% of them, even though that has decreased from 47% the previous season. That is a decrease from the 88th to 64th percentile. He is less efficient on long mid-range jumpers, shooting just 39% on them, which is 41st percentile, despite a 5% increase in efficiency from his rookie year. In total, he shoots 42% on all mid-range jumpers, which is 61st percentile among point guards. 32% of his shots (39th percentile) were from three. 6% were from the corner (55th percentile), and 26% were on above-the-break 3-pointers (41st percentile). His corner three percentage has gone down, which is both a good and a bad thing for his long-term development. Ideally, a player will take a large number of corner threes given that they are an easier shot than above-the-break threes. However, above-the-break threes are self-created at a high rate. Garland taking more self-created shots while still scoring at an effective rate is a positive for his long-term development, but it would be beneficial to maintain a higher percentage of corner threes to further help his efficiency. He was assisted on 42% of his total shots, which was down from 45%. That is a decrease from the 68th percentile to the 36th percentile. The frequency of which his shots at the rim were assisted increased from 21% to 31%, which went from the 86th to the 45th percentile. This generally means an improved ability to make the right cuts, which is a good future indicator for his ability to play off-ball. However, as an on-ball creator, a decrease in assisted at rim shots would not be bad, as it would mean increased self-creation off of drives and pick and rolls. He was assisted on 31% of his mid-range jumpers, up from 30% as a rookie. He was assisted on 71% of his three-pointers, down from 76%, which ranks in the 50th percentile, down from the 64th percentile. Garland was fouled on 5.4% of his shots, up from 4.2%, although that still only ranks in the 25th percentile. He finished the shot for an and-one on 20.5% of those fouls, up from 17.2%. That puts him in the 52nd percentile. He also drew non-shooting fouls on 2% of the team’s total plays, however, which ranks in the 64th percentile. Garland needs to continue to improve at his finishing, as well as his three-point shooting, while decreasing the amount of mid-range jumpers taken, to further improve his shooting efficiency.


The Cavaliers averaged 92.2 points per 100 possessions in the half-court using’s garbage time filter when Garland was on the court. This was an increase from 89.8 the previous season. This was an increase from the 19th to the 25th percentile. Given the Cavs’ lack of creation, as well as scoring prowess, these numbers are expected to be low, but they are even lower than they should be. This is due to a lack of elite creation ability from Garland. His assist percentage has gone up, from 18% (41st percentile) to 29.8% (52nd percentile). His assist to usage ratio also rose, going from 0.83 (41st percentile) to 1.10 (48th percentile), while his turnover percentage fell from 16.5% (9th percentile) to 14.9% (23rd percentile). His playmaking is solid and has shown massive improvement, but he still has a lot of room to grow. He turns the ball over at an alarming rate, and still needs to improve on his efficiency, where he currently sits as an average playmaker for a point guard.


On defense, Garland has a long way to develop. He not only needs to improve on-ball but also off-ball. At only 6’1”, Garland is severely undersized. He also weighs just 192lbs, which is in the bottom quarter of all point guards. His fouling has increased, going from fouling on 2% to 2.4% of the team’s defensive possessions. His defensive rebounding has improved. His defensive rebounding percentage on field goals has increased from 4.8% as a rookie to 6.1%, although that is still in the 5th percentile. His defensive real plus/minus is poor at -0.71, and his steals and blocks are also very low at just 1.2 steals and 0.1 blocks. Defense is one of the worst aspects of his game.

Team Play

The team is significantly better with Garland on the floor than with him off, as should be expected from a starter, but it is exaggerated but the complete lack of an NBA-caliber backup point guard. The team’s plus/minus is 5.3 points higher with him on than off, which has increased from -0.4 last season. This ranks in the 81st percentile. The massive leap has a lot to do with losing a proficient backup, and less to do with a huge leap from Garland, although he did make a significant jump. The team’s points per one-hundred possessions are 2.8 points higher with Garland, which ranks in the 74th percentile. The team’s effective field goal percentage is 3.1% higher, which is in the 89th percentile. However, the Cavs have a 0.8% lower turnover rate with Garland off the floor, and a rebounding percentage of 0.5% higher. Their free throw rate also decreases by 0.7. The team has a 3.1% higher effective field goal percentage with Garland on the court. The percentage of shots at the rim decreases by 0.2%, and the number of threes decreases by -1.2%, while the amount of mid-range shots increases by 1.3%. The team sees a significant increase in half-court offense with Garland on the court. There is an increase in points per one-hundred possessions by 2.8 points. However, the percentage of plays that occur in the half-court decreased by 0.9%. The team is better without Garland when it comes to transition defense, seeing a decrease in points per one-hundred possessions by 1.2 points while seeing an increase in transition frequency by 1.3%. This is surprising given that both of these numbers were flipped his rookie season. They are better off steals, but only by 0.1 points per one-hundred possessions. Defensively, their points allowed per one-hundred possessions decreases by 2.5 points, which is in the 74th percentile, despite having an increase of 0.2% on opponents’ effective field goal percentage. An increased turnover rate by opponents of 1.2% as well as a decreased free throw rate can make up for the small increase in effective field goal percentage. Garland plays a large majority of his minutes with both Sexton and Okoro, making drawing conclusions from the team on/off splits difficult, as any one of those players could account for the differences.

Garland’s Role

Darius Garland is currently a borderline starting-caliber point guard but has shown growth throughout his short career thus far. Garland has major holes defensively and needs to improve as a playmaker. Shot selection could be improved as well. He is an effective scorer and has made significant strides to improve that part of his game. The playmaking is good enough if he is playing off-ball, but not if he is to play like a true point guard. The defensive concerns can only be abridged so far due to his small stature and lack of length. To be a quality starter, Garland can merely improve upon his weaknesses to make them less substantial. However, to be a great player, Garland must become an elite scorer. He can improve his efficiency as a scorer by drawing more fouls, and by increasing his percentage of shots at the rim and from three, both of which are average to below average. Garland can play off-ball if given a good playmaker next to him that could defend well.

Garland’s Future

Darius Garland’s best fit with the Cavaliers is either as a sixth man or as a starter, but that cannot be with Sexton. The pair is not good enough defensively, and also not good enough playmakers. To build a team around them, you would have to not only have elite defenders at the other three positions but also have wings that can create for both themselves and others. Given his massive leap from year one to year two, it would be ideal to be able to see how much Garland can improve going into this upcoming season. However, depending on how the draft falls ahead of them, and how they feel about the prospects, they could end up drafting his replacement. Garland could fit well with Green, as that gives a similar fit offensively with improved defense as compared to Garland with Sexton. Garland would also fit well with Cunningham if the Cavs were to trade up to #1 for him. They would have more length at guard, as well as increased playmaking and improved three-point shooting, giving the possibility of filling both of the weaknesses of the Garland and Sexton combination. Suggs would most likely be a replacement for Garland, moving Garland into a sixth-man role in the future. If they pick one of the other three players, the Garland and Sexton combination could continue, and it would give the Cavs one of the pieces needed to make the combination work. However, they would still need to hit on two more players to make it work. Mobley and Kuminga have the potential to be good defensively, which would be needed with that backcourt. They also provide a lot as individual scorers, and each has the potential to be able to create their shot. Barnes has more concerns as a scorer but fills the need for defense and playmaking around that backcourt. The only selection that would definitively affect Garland would be Suggs, and that seems to be the least likely selection to occur.

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