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Cavs, Bulls expected to lead the East

The return of injury-plagued Derrick Rose makes Chicago a contender in the East. (Associated Press)
The return of injury-plagued Derrick Rose makes Chicago a contender in the East. (Associated Press)
Tim Reynolds Associated Press

LeBron James is again surrounded by an All-Star caliber guard, a big man who can score and 3-point sharpshooters.

Sounds familiar.

What’s old is new again for James, who left home for four years, learned plenty and returns eager to ply those lessons. Except this wasn’t college; this was free agency and he chose Miami, where he became a two-time champion. And now he’s back in Cleveland, where his career began and where it will presumably finish, with the four-time MVP driven by a quest to deliver a long-awaited title to his native Northeast Ohio.

In Miami, his star mates were Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. His favorite shooters included Mike Miller and James Jones.

In Cleveland, James’ star associates will be Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. And he’s got Miller and Jones with him again.

Cleveland’s biggest challenge in the Eastern Conference likely will come from the Chicago Bulls, a team that won 48 games year ago despite former MVP Derrick Rose missing basically the entire season with the latest in a series of injuries.

Playoff-bound

1. CLEVELAND CAVALIERS: James has been to the NBA Finals in each of the last four years, and he’s put a supporting cast together in Cleveland that could ensure that streak continues. There’s so many questions about the Cavs, but James alone provides plenty of answers.

2. CHICAGO BULLS: Rose is healthy, Joakim Noah is an elite big man and the Bulls added another 7-footer with championship savvy in Pau Gasol. They could be a size nightmare for plenty of teams, and Rose has to be extremely motivated after dealing with injuries for so long.

3. WASHINGTON WIZARDS: John Wall and (when he comes back) Bradley Beal could be the East’s top backcourt, Paul Pierce makes the Wizards better and smarter, there’s depth and there’s confidence. A year ago, they were a surprise to some. Now, contending is expected.

4. TORONTO RAPTORS: Plenty of other teams in the East are reinventing themselves. Not the Raptors. Toronto’s top seven scorers (in terms of total points) from last season are all back this year, and this team went 22-10 to close out the regular season. Watch it closely.

5. MIAMI HEAT: Motivation might have been in short supply last year. That’s not the case anymore. Beaten by the Spurs in the Finals, then spurned by James in the summer, the Heat have taken plenty of shots in recent months. Time to see what Bosh and Wade will do.

6. CHARLOTTE HORNETS: Lance Stephenson’s arrival makes a team that went to the playoffs last year better, even though the Hornets – Bobcats a year ago – will have to deal with losing Josh McRoberts to Miami. Al Jefferson is one of the East’s best big men.

7. ATLANTA HAWKS: A second year of Mike Budenholzer’s system will help, and having Al Horford back will help even more. The Hawks have a big in Horford and a shooter in Kyle Korver.

8. NEW YORK KNICKS: Never doubt the power of the triangle. The Knicks are rebuilding under first-year coach Derek Fisher, but they have a star in Carmelo Anthony and a scheme that may create plenty of headaches.

In the mix

9. BROOKLYN NETS: Brook Lopez already being hurt, though just minor, is not a good sign.

10. INDIANA PACERS: Losing Paul George to that awful leg injury changes everything.

11. DETROIT PISTONS: Stan Van Gundy starts his building project, and he’s got some talent.

Facing long odds

12. BOSTON CELTICS: Even with Rajon Rondo the Celtics don’t seem ready for a leap.

13. ORLANDO MAGIC: The Magic could win more games than the 23 they did last year.

14. MILWAUKEE BUCKS: They’re long and feature Rookie of the Year candidate Jabari Parker.

15. PHILADELPHIA 76ERS: Michael Carter-Williams, Joel Embiid and Nerlens Noel may be great – someday.

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