October 23, 2015

It's become an annual tradition: LeBron James enters a season with tons of expectations on his shoulders, challengers coming at him from all sides, then somehow finds his way back to the NBA Finals.

When James was in Miami for four years, getting to the title round was practically necessary to keep the critics at bay. In Cleveland last season, a trip to the Finals was surprising to many - maybe even James himself.

This year, it seems expected.

While there's plenty of teams that think they have a legitimate path toward getting into the Eastern Conference playoff race, it's James and the Cavaliers that look like the unquestioned favorites to represent that side of the league in the Finals again next spring. Yes, they'll be missing an injured Kyrie Irving for a while longer, just got the Tristan Thompson contract impasse solved and Kevin Love is coming off a horrible shoulder injury.

They have questions. But they also have James, who typically has all the answers and is bidding for a seventh Finals trip in his 13 seasons.

The real race might be for No. 2. Miami is getting a healthy Chris Bosh back and improved its bench, Atlanta won 60 games last season, Chicago still is loaded with talent though faces the annual question of Derrick Rose's health and have a new coach in Fred Hoiberg. Toronto, Milwaukee and Washington have reason to think big, Indiana is welcoming back Paul George but lost a fixture in David West, and Boston coach Brad Stevens has been working wonders.

A look at the East:

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PLAYOFF BOUND

1. Cleveland - Expect a slow start mainly because of injuries, then a late charge toward the NBA Finals. In short, a repeat of last season.

2. Miami - Chris Bosh and Goran Dragic finally are together, Dwyane Wade is back and talent got added. If healthy, they could challenge.

3. Atlanta - Surprise of the East last season, went 33-2 in one unbelievable 35-game stretch. Now they must find a way to rekindle that level of success.

4. Chicago - Fred Hoiberg takes over and gets a great backcourt in Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler. If they remain elite, Bulls will contend.

5. Toronto - This could be the wild-card team in the East. Masai Ujiri has built a strong roster, and DeMarre Carroll certainly won't hurt.

6. Washington - East semifinalists in each of the last two seasons, and looking to play faster which could make John Wall seem even better.

7. Milwaukee - Bucks got back to .500 last season, and is looking for their first playoff series win since 2001.

8. Boston - Celtics added 15 wins to their total from 2013-14, finished regular season on a 15-6 tear. David Lee will be a needed veteran voice.

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IN THE MIX

9. Indiana - The Pacers will play faster, get a healthy Paul George, and Frank Vogel is vastly underrated. Will be no shock if they get in.

10. Charlotte - Hornets have tons of size, a top rookie in Frank Kaminsky and went 15-10 last season when Kemba Walker scored 18 points.

11. Detroit - Never count Stan Van Gundy out, but losing Greg Monroe to Milwaukee will add a big challenge to the rebuilding project.

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FACING LONG ODDS

12. New York - It can't be as awful as last season, Carmelo Anthony is back and Kristaps Porzingis is promising. Big problems remain.

13. Orlando - Scott Skiles will bring an air of new toughness and there's clearly some talent to work with, but the Magic need time.

14. Brooklyn - The good news is the Nets are positioned to spend tons next summer. The bad news is there's serious depth issues now.

15. Philadelphia - Ben Simmons could become Philadelphia's most adored Ben since Franklin if he goes No. 1 in next year's NBA Draft.

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WHAT TO KNOW

LBJ 25K: LeBron James is currently 87 points shy of 25,000 for his career. He should approach the top 10 in all-time scoring this season.

Wall's Passing: Washington's John Wall had 792 assists last season, which is 259 more than anyone else in the East posted a year ago.

Korver's Role: If Atlanta is going to match last season, it'll need Kyle Korver to be great again. He led the East in 3's and plus-minus.

New Faces: There's only two new coaches in the East going into this season - Orlando's Scott Skiles, and Chicago's Fred Hoiberg.

East vs. West: Teams from the East went 187-263 during the regular season against the West, a winning percentage of just 42 percent.

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Follow AP Basketball Writer Tim Reynolds on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ByTimReynolds

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