Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

ESPN projects the Cleveland Cavaliers to finish atop the East in 2016-17

Back-to-back? ESPN seems to think so, at least when it comes to the Eastern Conference.

Just over a month ago, the Cleveland Cavaliers won the 2016 NBA championship after overcoming a 3-1 deficit to beat the Golden State Warriors to bring the city of Cleveland its first major sports championship since 1964. With the 2016-17 season still months away, ESPN has already began to project who will be the best teams in the East. They project that the Cavs will finish atop the Eastern Conference, with the same 57-25 record that they finished the 2015-16 regular season with.

The Cavaliers cruised to 57 wins last season and will face an even lighter challenge in the East this season, according to our forecast. While free agentLeBron James is expected to return, J.R. Smith could still sign elsewhere this summer. Smith led the Cavaliers with 204 3-pointers last season, 46 more than anyone else on the roster.

After losing big-men Timofey Mozgov and Sasha Kaun and guard Matthew Dellavedova, the Cavs have already added rookie Kay Felder and and sharpshooting forward Mike Dunleavy. While the loss of Delly could be tough to replace, the wine and gold still have plenty of talent across the roster and ESPN agrees. Also, LeBron James has already said that he will re-sign and three-point machine J.R. Smith will likely be back as well, which are two of the team's five starters.

While the Celtics continue to be on the rise due to their free agent signing of Al Horford along with plenty of draft picks, they still don't have enough to overcome the wine and gold. In fact, they may never have enough until James decided to call it quites.

As they showed last season, the regular season - and even home-court advantage throughout the East playoffs - isn't very important for the Cavaliers. While they secured the No. 1 seed and home-court, head coach Tyronn Lue rested James and other players throughout the regular season in order to keep his team well-rested ahead of the long playoff run. With a championship run already under their belt, the wine and gold will likely treat the regular season as an 82-game preseason in order to stay healthy ahead of the playoff

Complete East projections (projected record):

  1. Cavs (57-25)
  2. Celtics (51-31)
  3. Raptors (51-31)
  4. Pistons (45-37)
  5. Pacers (45-37)
  6. Hawks (44-38)
  7. Hornets (43-39)
  8. Wizards (41-41)
  9. Knicks (40-42)
  10. Bulls (40-42)
  11. Bucks (39-43)
  12. Heat (36-46)
  13. Magic (35-47)
  14. 76ers (20-62)
  15. Nets (20-62)
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