Who’s Going to Win the East? The Case For and Against the Cleveland Cavaliers

Posted: 02/18/2015 by levcohen in Uncategorized

Since there are more contenders out west than there are in the Eastern Conference, the first three of my 13 posts about the teams who have a shot at winning it all were about Western Conference teams (San Antonio, Oklahoma City, LA). That means there are now five teams in each conference I haven’t written about, and since I’m getting bored about talking about Western Conference teams, I’m going to continue with the current EC #5. Remember, I’m doing these from bottom to top by where each team currently resides in the standings, not in inverse order of most likely championship teams. So when I preview Cleveland now, before Washington and Toronto, don’t think that I feel that those teams have better chances of winning it all than the Cavs.

I was surprised to see that Cleveland is now considered basically a co-favorite (either slightly ahead of or behind Golden State) with the Warriors to win it all at around 3/1 odds, far better than the group beneath them of OKC, Chicago, San Antonio, and Atlanta. Although I see the argument, I’m not as bullish on the Cavs. First, let’s start with the reasons that Cleveland is still so well thought of.

The biggest reason: LeBron James. You probably don’t need me to say more about LeBron, but I will anyway. He’s made four straight NBA Finals, winning two of them, although all four championship appearances occurred while LeBron was a member of the Miami Heat (LBJ made one championship appearance in his first stint with Cleveland but got swept by the San Antonio Spurs). Early in the season, there was speculation that James wasn’t the same, that he was declining, and that he wasn’t good enough to carry teams to championships anymore. Well, guess what? Rumors of his demise… you fill in the rest.

A two week break that LeBron took around the New Year sure looks good now. Yes, the Cavaliers lost all eight games they played without James (they are 32-13 with the King and 1-9 without him, which again shows LeBron’s value), but given the state of the Eastern Conference, who really cares? The Cavs are already a game and a half out of the #3 seed after a 14-3 run since LeBron’s return, which has taken them from 19-19 to 33-22. And they don’t even need homecourt advantage; at their best, they will be able to beat anyone, anytime in the playoffs.

There are other reasons to like the Cavs, even when putting aside the big three (more on the Kevin Love situation later). Cleveland made a couple of trades that might prove pivotal come playoff time. They might have made a slight overpay for Timofey Mozgov, but Mozgov has fit in seamlessly with the Cavs and specifically LeBron, who he runs a nice pick-and-roll with. He’s also something the Cavaliers desperately needed; a rim protector. Mozgov is averaging 11 points and nine rebounds along with 1.6 blocks and an above-average 18.9 PER, but more importantly he fills a vital role for a team with title aspirations.

The upgrade from Dion Waiters to J.R. Smith also looks important, for one specific reason. In Miami, LeBron James was surrounded by top shooters, from Ray Allen to Mike Miller to Rashard Lewis (etc.). In fact, the Heat probably wouldn’t have won the 2013 Finals without some of those shooters. In Cleveland, LeBron lacked those role-players who could knock down a few threes in a two or three minute span. Waiters, a 25.6% three-point shooter on 2.6 threes per game, clearly wasn’t helping. Smith is. An absurd 65.5% of his shots as a Cavalier have come from beyond the arc (7.6 of 11.6), and he’s making 36% of his threes. Behind the big three and Mozgov, he’s probably the Cavs’ most important player. The addition of Iman Shumpret shouldn’t hurt, either, as Shump will be able to take some of the defensive responsibilities away from LeBron when James needs to put extra effort in offensively.

Mozgov, Smith, and Shumpret are nice, but to win a championship, the Cavaliers will need LeBron, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love hitting on all cylinders. James is still the best player in the league, but he probably won’t be able to bring it every night in the playoffs like he did two years ago against the Spurs. That means neither Kyrie nor Love can slump in the playoffs. We know who Kyrie is; although he’s probably never going to be a Chris Paul-esque pass-first point guard, he can score as well as any other point guard in the league. His finishing at the rim is impeccable. He can explode for 50+ points on any given night and is averaging 22 points per game. And he’s also shooting 41% from three. He’s a top shelf scorer and a great #2 option.

You all know that Kevin Love has struggled at times this year. Put aside the “Fit-in, fit-out” thing, which I think is totally overblown, and just look at his stats. His scoring is down nine points per game. He’s shooting 5.5 fewer times per game and 3.1 fewer times from the line. The power forward, who in the past has been a force as an offensive rebounder, is often stuck in the corner. It feels as if entire quarters go by without Love touching the ball. Heck, even his assist rate has been cut almost in half (4.4 to 2.3). And yet, there are plays like this. Love is an insanely good basketball player, at least on the offensive side of the court. He can rebound, shoot, and pass with the best of them. That’s why I was so excited to see the pick-and-roll game of KLove and Kyrie or LeBron. It just hasn’t materialized. Instead of playing like the guy he was in Minnesota, Love has been more of a spot-up shooter. That might just be what this team needs, but I think Love and the Cavaliers need to find a middle ground. He’s not going to get the ball in the post every play like he did while he was a member of the MInnesota Timberwolves, but he also needs to be more involved in the offense than he is now. He just doesn’t touch the ball enough, and a frustrated Kevin Love will cost the Cavaliers dearly come playoff time.

I just worry that, against Chicago or even any of the Atlanta/Toronto/Washington trio, something will be off. If the Cavaliers are at their best, they can roll any of the latter three and would probably beat the Bulls, too. But they won’t win four straight series with Kyrie and LeBron playing hero ball for an entire series. Both of them are incredible players, but the Cavaliers also need peak Kevin Love and Timofey Mozgov, because otherwise they are going to get destroyed on the boards and in the paint by the bigger Bulls should they meet in the playoffs as many are predicting. The bottom line is that the Cavaliers have as much talent as anyone else in the Eastern Conference, which automatically makes them a force to be reckoned with come playoff time. But if you ask me to pick between Cleveland at 3/1 odds, Chicago at 8/1, or Washington at 40/1, I’d take Chicago or Washington, and it isn’t close.

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