Not since 1998 have the Cleveland Cavaliers made the playoffs without LeBron James.
This season, they’re at least assured of a spot in the play-in tournament after an impressive turnaround.
The 10 teams in the Eastern Conference that will advance beyond the 82-game regular season are already set. The only suspense left is determining seeding — and which teams will avoid the play-in and go straight to the playoffs. Chicago, Toronto and Cleveland, who finished 11th, 12th and 13th in the conference last season, are now battling it out to finish in the top six.
The Bulls (45-33) and Raptors (45-33) are tied for fifth, just above the play-in cutoff. The Cavaliers (43-36) are in seventh.
Chicago hasn’t made the playoffs since 2017. Cleveland hasn’t made it since 2018 — before James left the team for a second time. Only Charlotte (2016) has a longer playoff drought in the East, and the Hornets made the play-in last season and have done so again this year.
The Cavaliers went 22-50 a season ago, but they’ll finish 2021-22 with a winning record. Cleveland has the fifth-best defensive rating in the league this season after finishing 25th a year ago. It hasn’t been a great stretch run for the Cavs, who have lost six of their last eight and appear headed to the play-in round.
“My biggest concern is our habits, and if we’re doing things correctly,” coach J.B. Bickerstaff said after a recent win over the New York Knicks. “We do things correctly, we’ve got enough to win basketball games. So that’s what we’re focusing on is those habits and continuing to do the right things, and then you let the teams in front of you do what they need to do.”
Cleveland still has Kevin Love, a veteran link to the Cavs’ 2016 championship, but younger players like Jarrett Allen, Darius Garland, rookie Evan Mobley and Lauri Markkanen have really helped drive this improvement.
Markkanen went to Cleveland from Chicago in an offseason trade, but the Bulls have done fine without him, climbing the standings after they went 31-41 a season ago. Their big new addition, DeMar DeRozan, is averaging a career-high 28 points per game, helping change the Bulls’ outlook considerably.
Chicago’s defense has actually slipped since last season, but its offensive rating has improved from 21st in the league to 11th. DeRozan scored 50 points in an overtime win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday night. DeRozan said a missed free throw late in the fourth quarter left him frustrated, but the Bulls took the game anyway.
“I think he gets really mad all the time, to be quite honest,” coach Billy Donovan said. “I think he holds himself to such a high standard, and I think that’s what makes him a great player.”
Chicago’s next two games are tough — against Milwaukee on Tuesday night and Boston on Wednesday night — but they’re both at home. Then the Bulls host Charlotte before playing at Minnesota to end the regular season.
Toronto finishes with home games against Atlanta, Philadelphia and Houston, followed by a game in New York against the Knicks.
The Cavaliers need help from the out-of-town scoreboard to avoid the play-in, and although they have a very winnable game Tuesday night at Orlando. They then play at Brooklyn and at home against Milwaukee.
The top seed in the East is still up for grabs, with Miami (51-28) hoping to hold off Boston (49-30), Milwaukee (48-30) and Philadelphia (48-30). The Heat have home games against Charlotte and Atlanta before a trip to Orlando. Milwaukee hosts Boston on Thursday night, but it remains to be seen if either of those teams still has a chance at the No. 1 seed by then.
Of the top 10 spots in the East, the largest separation between any two of them is three games, so there’s still a lot of uncertainty left, even if everyone but those 10 teams has been eliminated already. That’s a lot different than the West, where Phoenix (62-16) has secured the top seed and Memphis (55-23) has locked up No. 2.