There may not be a more likely candidate to dethrone the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference than if the Cavaliers themselves aren't healthy come playoff time.
Despite 80% of their starting five having undergone surgeries within the past six months, the Cavaliers’ 56.5 opening over/under was seven wins more than the next-highest teams: the Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks. The forecasts were no closer for the playoffs, where the Cavs’ 2–1 championship odds dwarfed those of the Bulls (12–1), Hawks (25–1), Miami Heat (40–1), Washington Wizards (40–1), and Toronto Raptors (50–1). Other prognosticators have been no less sanguine about the Cavaliers’ chances, despite their injury history and the ongoing Tristan Thompson contract saga.
(Sidebar: Can we stop referring to Thompson as a holdout? He is not under contract at the moment, and the CBA actually prohibits any player not under contract from participating in practice. His absence is far removed from a player refusing to honor his contract, which basically never happens in the NBA because the penalties are so draconian and the options for renegotiating an existing contract so limited compared to the NFL.)
Nevertheless, the odds are that one of those five challengers, all currently projected between 45 and 50 wins by Vegas, will finish with a win total in the mid-to-high 50s. Last season’s Hawks were a prime example of this (they ended up with 60 wins), and in the past five years, the Bulls and Indiana Pacers also have unexpectedly surged to the No. 1 seed in the East ahead of a heavily favored LeBron James squad. Of course, those teams were then defeated by James’ Heat and Cavaliers in the playoffs.
So, can any team surpass Cleveland this season, and if so, would it stand a chance in the playoffs?
The threshold variables for the Heat are health, age and sanity. Miami isn't in the conversation if Dwyane Wade can’t avoid injury for most of the year; if he, Chris Bosh, and Luol Deng fail to stave off age-related decline; or if Hassan Whiteside implodes. But assuming the Heat can get individual performances at the top of the realistic range from each member of their starting lineup, they could give Cleveland problems, especially on offense.
Bosh can abuse Love one-on-one, in pick-and-pops, or spotting up for three. Bosh’s range and speed also are too much for Mozgov, and while Thompson is a solid matchup, he would leave Love as the primary rim protector against Wade, Goran Dragic, and Whiteside’s pick-and-rolls. Dragic also is a good enough shooter to punish Mozgov’s preferred tactic of hanging back on pick-and-rolls, and wily enough to finish on him with force. Defensively challenged Kyrie Irving would have to guard Dragic, while Wade is probably too strong for Iman Shumpert in the post.
The mediocre-shooting Deng will provide a relative respite, though, for James defensively. Increasing his volume and accuracy from beyond the arc will (for the 10th year in a row, it seems) be a major project for Deng this year. With Wade perpetually a nonentity as a spot-up threat, offensive spacing will have to come from Deng. If he cannot provide enough gravity when he’s behind the arc, Miami may be forced to downgrade its rim protection by replacing Whiteside with Josh McRoberts in order to get more shooting on the floor.
Even with Whiteside, the Heat’s defense against Cleveland likely is an issue. The Heat lack a great option to defend James. Deng always has been a dogged defender, but even in his prime with the Bulls, he did not have the athleticism to make James uncomfortable when challenging his jumper. He also isn’t strong enough (few are) to deter James in the post, where James should prove more effective in this season’s playoffs, assuming Love’s presence (and shooting) at the four. Should Deng get into foul trouble, the secondary defender on James projects as ... rookie Justise Winslow.
The rest of the perimeter is no better. Wade’s days as a solid defender are long past, although Cleveland’s relatively slow pace should not punish his lollygagging in transition too badly. Dragic, one of the worst starting defensive guards in basketball a season ago according to advanced metrics, isn’t a great option on Irving.
Thus, the Heat will have to count on a superhuman defensive performance from its frontcourt. Whiteside and his 35% defensive rebounding rate can deter the march to the offensive glass from Thompson, Mozgov, and Love, but he will need to take a massive step forward in his awareness and stay out of foul trouble as Irving and James repeatedly get to the rim. Bosh — if he can return to the mobility that characterized his defensive efforts in the Big Three era — could stymie the Cavs’ pick-and-rolls, and still mobilize to Love at the arc.
With all the talent on the roster, the Heat could challenge Cleveland. But even if Miami can get the individual talents to perform at the top of their games, the pieces fit together a bit too awkwardly. The Heat’s perimeter defense is bad enough that it is hard to see them shutting down even the simplistic Cavs attack from a year ago, and outscoring that offense is a tall order for a squad with so little three-point shooting.
Cavaliers threat level: 4 out of 10.
Like Miami, the Bulls must answer a number of questions even to compete with Cleveland at full strength, but at least Chicago has enough talent to bother asking in the first place. For the Bulls, it starts with the health of Joakim Noah. More than a year after an unspecified knee surgery, Noah admits he essentially couldn’t move last year. He was not his customary presence in the pick-and-roll, on switches, or protecting the rim, while struggling to one of the worst offensive seasons in the league. And this was his playoff shot chart:
In 12 playoff games, Noah shot 41% inside of eight feet, but even worse, only took six shots outside of that range as his once-trusty "tornado" abandoned him. The scoring ineptitude also neutered Noah’s passing, his man simply camping out under the basket to deter his backdoor dishes. When Noah didn’t have the ball it was even worse; his man helped with impunity. As a result, the Bulls shot a mere 50.6% at the basket in the Cleveland series. The Bulls hope Noah can rediscover his driving game on short rolls, hit the occasional jumper, and adequately finish dumpoffs at the rim.
The Florida product’s offense is so important because it is hard to imagine Chicago stopping a full-strength Cleveland squad without peak Noah at center. Pau Gasol can’t guard the Cavaliers in the pick-and-roll, and the Bulls will get destroyed on the offensive glass with him at center. And while Gasol is a far superior option to Noah offensively, the Bulls have plenty of other scoring threats. They can’t get what a healthy Noah would give them from anyone else on defense.
Derrick Rose also has some questions to answer if the Bulls are to compete with a healthy Cavaliers squad. Chicago is out of this conversation if he isn’t healthy (for all the criticism he took, the Bulls were dominated by Cleveland when he sat), but he must rediscover his jumper. Despite a few injured years to work on his shot, too often his jumpers ended with an awkward body contortion, even when he was lightly pressured. Also on Rose’s to-do list: improve his shot selection and push the ball much harder in transition under new coach Fred Hoiberg’s system.
At 27, Rose will never regain the change of direction he had at 23, even discounting the effects of his injuries. A near All-Star campaign is still within reach, though, if he can rediscover his jumper, exploit the freedom and space purportedly offered by Hoiberg’s system to ease his finishes at the rim, and get a couple extra buckets in transition (where he remains nearly as fast as before the injuries). This last piece is essential. The Cavs series last season was slow, with the real action often starting when the shot clock was under 12 seconds. For the season, the Bulls were a miserable 21st in both pace and fastbreak points per game a year ago.
Myriad other questions abound. Mike Dunleavy, a 35-year-old plus/minus star since he joined the Bulls, will have to recover from back surgery. In the meantime, the Bulls must get enough from Doug McDermott and Tony Snell to keep Kirk Hinrich out of the wing rotation. Hoiberg must also improve frontcourt usage (where Tom Thibodeau failed), successfully navigating the politics to ensure Noah and Gasol don’t play together.
Gasol is the clear fit for the bench, where he can feast on backup post defenders rather than ineffectively grinding the offense to a halt against starters. Nikola Mirotic has outstanding defensive potential, but he’ll have to improve from being a three-point taker to a maker. Taj Gibson will need to recapture his 2013–14 form. The Bulls will also hope Jimmy Butler (clearly their best player) can consolidate his unprecedented 2014–15 improvement.
If these questions have the right answers, the matchup with a healthy Cleveland team is decent if the Bulls use the right combinations. (Even a healthy Noah trying to guard Love at the arc while playing aside Gasol is a total waste of Noah’s defensive talent, and gums up the spacing on the other end.) Noah and Gibson have been masters of late-clock pick-and-roll switches in the past, and need to return to that level.
The Bulls defended James extremely well a year ago with Butler, and the Cavs have nobody who can stop Butler on the other end, unless James takes on that taxing assignment. Even when Irving was healthy, he couldn't keep Rose out of the lane. (Shumpert was more effective.) Mirotic’s shooting at the four should help alleviate the Bulls problems finishing at the rim. The Montenegrin also should be able to execute his pump-and-drive game against Love, and he has the mobility to keep up with Love defensively. He isn’t a great defensive matchup in the post, but with Cleveland’s weapons, Chicago should count stagnant Love post-ups as a win.
All of this seems great on paper. Unfortunately, Noah’s improved health could be a mirage, and without a prime Noah defensive performance, the Bulls won’t be stopping a healthy Cleveland squad. And while the Bulls’ developing shooters, the shot-creation abilities of Rose, Butler, Mirotic and Gasol, and the free-flowing Hoiberg era all hold promise, I’ll still take James, Irving, Love, and the Cavs’ superior three-point shooting and offensive rebounding in a shootout over their inferior Chicago equivalents.
If Chicago gets 2013–14 Noah and Gibson back, and everyone else stays healthy, the Bulls could truly challenge the Cavaliers ... but what are the odds of that?
Cavaliers threat level: 5 out of 10.
Atlanta’s chances are fairly easily dismissed. The Hawks were outclassed in last season’s Eastern Conference finals by a Cavaliers squad that essentially was missing both Love and Irving. Due to aging and injuries on the rest of the roster, only Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder are likely to play better than last season. DeMarre Carroll, their only two-way threat on the wing (at least as an individual defender), is in Toronto. And Atlanta’s point differential was about five wins worse than the 60 they tallied a year ago. What chance would the Hawks have against Cleveland at full strength?
There are a few reasons to look beyond that simplistic analysis. The Hawks already had been ailing entering the series, and only had one game until Carroll sprained his knee. (They later lost sharpshooter Kyle Korver to a leg injury.) Tiago Splitter will give the Hawks far more than Pero Antic did a year ago, especially on the glass. Thabo Sefolosha, if healthy and effective, might slow down James more than anyone on last year’s roster. Teague, Schroder and Paul Millsap couldn’t make jumpers in last season’s series, despite endless open looks. Those stymied Millsap one-on-ones against Thompson could make some hay on Love.
That concludes the devil’s advocacy portion of this section. The Hawks couldn’t stop Cleveland in the playoffs. Splitter will help a bit, but he won’t be closing games. The Hawks had no answer offensively for Cleveland’s switching of the pick-and-roll, which does not figure to change this year unless Teague takes another leap. There’s also little reason to believe a defense which couldn’t stop James’s simple postup isos a year ago will be much better this time around.
Unlike the Bulls or Heat, we likely saw the best of the Hawks from both a team and individual standpoint a year ago. The upside just isn’t there with this team.
Cavaliers threat level: 2 out of 10.
Randy Wittman’s squad found a new gear in the playoffs, running teams off the floor with shooting at the four. Had John Wall not broken his wrist, they might have defeated the Hawks. There also is a reasonable argument that this team has another gear if everything breaks right. The Wizards’ presumptive best players, Wall and Bradley Beal, are still young enough to take a leap this season. What’s more, they have obvious paths to doing so between Wall’s jump shot and Beal’s shot selection (which he can further focus behind the arc). Otto Porter also can give them a solid three-and-D option on the wing, though building on his breakout playoffs efforts is no guarantee.
Unfortunately, the Wizards’ bigs should trend in the opposite direction. Marcin Gortat staved off decline last year, but Nene looks poised to move into a smaller role this year at age 33. And the debut of “Playoff Wittman” spacing may have to wait until Jared Dudley is healthy from back surgery; until then, the Wizards will be counting on Drew Gooden to continue his renaissance.
Nevertheless, by the playoffs, one can construct a scenario in which Dudley gives the Wizards about what the now-departed Paul Pierce did last year as a smallball four (though he won’t shoot better than 50% on threes in the playoffs), Wall ascends to inarguable superstar status, and Beal is an All-Star. Throw in just enough from the bigs, the team’s typically stout defense (Wittman and his staff have never gotten enough credit for this) and Washington could be a 55-win team if it all breaks right.
Such an ascension remains unlikely though. Washington finished 19th in offensive efficiency a year ago, ranked 22nd in free throw rate, and 28th in three-point attempt rate. While the philosophy is moving in the right direction, the massive evolution required to craft an offense that can really punish Cleveland is probably too much to ask in a single offseason without major personnel changes. And even if the overall team quality ascends to contender status, the matchup against the Cavaliers is not particularly promising.
Porter is unproven as a stopper, and his slight build should prove little deterrent to James in the post. Dudley is too slow and can’t challenge James’s shots. The Wizards don’t have a stronger, more mobile four like Millsap (who had some success on LeBron last year) that they can try, either. With Nene slowing down and unlikely to play as much aside Gortat, the rim protection is only average, as is the defensive rebounding.
Wall has the physical tools to overwhelm Irving on both ends, but he isn’t the type of scorer who can absolutely torch him. The Wizards also don’t have anyone who can punish Love one-on-one, or guard him both in the post and at the arc. With a true stud defensive big man, or a sweet-shooting 30-point-per-game scorer at small forward, Washington could truly challenge the Cavs, but they don’t have quite enough firepower yet.
Cavaliers threat level: 3 out of 10.
Which is less likely to incur the wrath of #WeTheNorth: Dismissing Toronto’s chances or leaving them off this list entirely?
The Raptors have exhibited occasional stretches of contender-y play the past two seasons, but ultimately faltered in the playoffs. Masai Ujiri moved to a new era of Raptors ball with reconstructive surgery on their perimeter defense, moving on from Greivis Vasquez and Lou Williams to sign DeMarre Carroll and Corey Joseph. Shotblocking specialist Bismack Biyombo could also bolster the D in Toronto.
The formula for the Raptors is similar to many: growth from the young guys (Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross and DeMar DeRozan) while the “old” guys (Kyle Lowry, in particular) need to channel their better stretches from the past two years. If everything breaks right, this could be one of the league’s top offenses.
The big Lithuanian, for his faults elsewhere, is one of the league’s best in the post. Lowry can stretch defenses in the pick-and-roll by pulling up for threes off the dribble, DeRozan can create a shot late in the clock, and there will be plenty of shooting around them. At worst, the starters appear a top-10 offensive unit, though a bench featuring Joseph, Biyombo, and James Johnson might struggle a bit more.
By letting Amir Johnson go, Toronto is depending on Valanciunas to improve defensively. He has the tools to protect the rim (the coaches repeatedly drill him on verticality) and decent mobility for his size, but the nuances haven’t clicked in for him yet. He looked improved against less athletic competition at Eurobasket (particularly as Lithuania strangled the favored Serbians), but NBA athleticism and spacing is another beast.
A clear defensive uptick from Valanciunas is conceivable. He’ll be helped by the Raptors finally icing side pick-and-rolls this season to keep him out of no-man’s land in the middle of the floor. Also, the upgraded perimeter should cede significantly fewer blowbys than a year ago, and Carroll’s facility as a small-ball power forward could enable a crunchtime lineup where the Raptors can switch two through four.
Though unlikely, the Raptors have made enough changes and shown enough talent at times that one could see them approaching top-10 status on both ends, but the matchup with Cleveland is daunting. Carroll, even before his injury in the playoffs, failed to slow James in the post. With Lowry (still solid on D when locked in) and Joseph, Toronto has the horses to throw at Irving, but there isn’t really a solid Love antidote between Patrick Patterson and Luis Scola. Defensive rebounding also does not project as a strength.
On the other end, dual threats at the guard spot will force Irving to guard somebody, but James should be able to coast unless the Raptors can really upgrade their ball movement. Cleveland has multiple options to slow Valanciunas, starting with the enormous Mozgov, although Valanciunas’ post-up skill should allow Toronto to punish any pick-and-roll switches.
Another concern for Toronto is coaching. Dwane Casey has done well to get the Raptors homecourt advantage in the last two regular seasons but has run out of defensive answers in the playoffs.
Perhaps Toronto could give Cleveland a bit of trouble if Lowry can light up Irving from beyond the arc in a couple games, but it’s hard to see even the best this team could possibly offer challenging a healthy Cavaliers squad.
Cavaliers threat level: 3 out of 10.
The presumption thus far has been a healthy Cleveland team, but it could be a flawed one. Right now, James is the Cavs' only healthy starter. Irving could be out until December or even January, as the Cavaliers take it easy with his knee, which was either fractured or dislocated.
Irving has been talking about being less aggressive attacking the basket, which could preserve him while rendering him less efficient. Irving depends on his quickness and finishing ability; even at 23 he must be watched closely for signs of decline in those areas after an injury that seems more significant each time we hear more about it.
Unlike Irving’s knee, Love’s shoulder should not affect him physically once he is fully cleared. Still, he missed a whole summer of basketball workouts and was a notable third wheel last year as the Cavs pounded the ball (albeit effectively) in isolations and basic pick-and-rolls. There has been talk of more imagination and ball movement out of camp, and Irving’s early absence could help Love find a way to get more involved this year. James was willing to diversify the attack as he grew into his relationship with Eric Spoelstra in Miami; perhaps David Blatt can start to inspire the same credibility in year two.
Mozgov’s absence also is troubling. That he has been termed only 50% healthy three months after a July knee debridement (for which the initial timeline was six weeks) reveals this might be a bit more of an issue than first believed. He is the only proven NBA rim-protector on this team, so if Mozgov’s mobility and explosion are compromised, teams could play him off the floor by going small. Shooting guard is another huge concern, with Shumpert out at least three months after right wrist surgery. Never the purest of shooters, Shumpert could struggle from beyond the arc upon his return.
In the meantime, the Cavaliers have nobody else who can guard anyone on the wing. James is long past stopper status aside from isolated possessions in crunch time, and Richard Jefferson doesn’t really qualify, either. With Mozgov limited and Shumpert out, Cleveland could find themselves right where they started defensively before the trades last winter. (Note: I haven’t mentioned the Thompson situation. I see it as nearly impossible that he is not with the team by the playoffs.)
The health questions and the desire to keep the stars’ minutes down after Blatt probably overplayed them a year ago might derail Cleveland’s hopes for homecourt advantage, even in the East. While no single contender is a good bet to break through for 55 or more wins, the odds are that one of them will. In the East, the best record is less of a concern, as none of the potential contenders have evinced a particularly daunting homecourt advantage. James’s teams have never had any trouble winning on the road in the East playoffs. Opening the Finals on the road, as the Cavaliers are almost certain to do, is another matter.
With another year gone by, James may prove less able to make up for his teammates’ failings. His play has already dropped off on defense; and even offensively, he is far from his Miami peak. He doesn’t really exhibit much change of direction off the dribble any longer, and his jumper strangely abandoned him during a playoff run in which he shot 23% on threes and 31% from beyond 16 feet.
He still was able to will Cleveland to efficient offense in the East bracket, as his bludgeoning postups sucked the defense away from the three-point line, but he didn’t face any elite defenses in that run. Against the Warriors’ elite unit in the Finals, he was not able to create efficiently for himself or his limited teammates, as the Cavaliers scored at a 76ers-esque 93.8 points per 100 possessions.
James is still one of the league’s best, but he’s turning 31 in December and he may not be able to will Cleveland past even East opposition without the other starters at full strength. Ultimately, the Cavaliers’ health is a larger threat to their presumed Eastern Conference dominance than any other particular team.