How the East’s Top Four Match Up

Posted: 02/22/2017 by levcohen in Basketball

I’ve got to admit that I was a bit puzzled when I saw that the Wizards essentially traded their first round pick — their best trade chip — to the Nets for Bojan Bogdanovic. The full deal was the first rounder, Marcus Thornton (who hasn’t played since January 3rd), and Andrew Nicholson (25 minutes played since New Year’s) for Bogdanovic and Chris McCullough (D-League for most of the year). Don’t get me wrong: Bogdanovic will certainly improve Washington’s porous bench. The 6’8″ wing is averaging 14 points per game and is solid (36%) from beyond the arc. He’s an obvious upgrade over Tomas Satoransky and Thornton. But the Wizards had to use their first round pick to get him, and they’re still sorely lacking someone who can run the offense when John Wall sits. And while Bogdanovic is fine from beyond the arc, they really need a good-great shooter coming off the bench. That’s why I think they would have been better off dealing for Sacramento’s Darren Collison, a point guard who’s shooting 42% from beyond the arc. Anyway, they’re definitely a better team today than they were yesterday. Now let’s see how they match up with the other three powers in the Eastern Conference.
Note: As of now, it seems unlikely that Boston will trade for either Paul George or Jimmy Butler. If they do get one of those stud wings, everything obviously changes.

 

Boston-Cleveland:
These two teams have played twice this year, with both games following a similar path: Cavs take a big early lead, with the Celtics rallying in the fourth quarter to lose by six in high scoring games. To be fair, the Celtics were without both Al Horford and Jae Crowder the first time they played Cleveland, which was way back in early November. As I detailed in the post about the Celtics, Boston’s biggest issue on either side of the ball is Isaiah Thomas’s defense. It’s the main reason that the Celts have been mediocre defensively. Against Cleveland, Boston can hide Thomas on whomever the Cavaliers are playing at shooting guard (a luxury they won’t have against Toronto or Washington). And the Celtics actually match up pretty well with the Cavaliers across the board defensively, at least on paper. Avery Bradley is one of the best on-ball defenders in the NBA, and he’d be tasked with sticking Kyrie Irving. Jae Crowder and Jaylen Brown are both long, quick defenders, which is the only type of player that can even hope to slow down LeBron James. Kevin Love will be tough to defend, but given that he’ll miss at least the next six weeks with a knee injury, I don’t know how close to 100% he’ll be in the playoffs. I haven’t mentioned Marcus Smart, who can be placed on pretty much anyone defensively and acquit himself well.

A big problem for Boston would be keeping Tristan Thompson, one of the best offensive rebounders in the league, off the glass. The Celtics are a really poor defensive rebounding team, as Horford has never really been a commanding rebounding presence. It’s hard to give an offense like Cleveland’s a bunch of extra possessions and survive.

Cleveland’s defense is nothing special, and the Celtics would probably be able to score fairly easily in quarter one through three. But I’d be interested to see what would happen if the Cavs put LeBron on Isaiah Thomas in crunch time. On paper, this is a pretty friendly matchup for Boston. But it’s hard for me to imagine a full-strength Cleveland team losing a series to a team without any two-way stars. The Cavaliers with a semi-hurt Kevin Love? That makes things more interesting.

Washington-Cleveland:
These two teams played one of the best games of the season a couple of weeks ago. The final score was Cavs 140, Wiz 135 in overtime. Kyrie Irving took over after LeBron fouled out. Washington’s five starters scored a combined 119 points, as Bradley Beal led the way with 41. It was an offensive clinic. Kyrie has surprisingly had his way with Wall and the Wizards throughout his career, shooting 47/40/84% and putting up 23.2 points per game. Likewise, Wall has been great against Cleveland, averaging 20.3 points and 9.5 assists per game and shooting 48/37/78%. For Washington to win this hypothetical series, Wall needs to win his personal battle with Irving. I think he’s a better player, but can anyone stop Irving in the playoffs?

The Cavaliers rank in the bottom half of the league in opposing three point percentage at 36.2%. That’s bad news against a team with two of the best three point shooters in the NBA (Otto Porter and Beal). I’d expect Iman Shumpert to play a lot of minutes in this series, because I’m not really sure who else can guard Washington’s guards. And again, look for LeBron to guard Wall down the stretch.

The tough thing for Washington in this series is that the best way to beat Cleveland is by tiring them out with a lot of quality bench players. The Wizards don’t have said quality bench players. If you go mano-a-mano with a starting lineup including LeBron, Kyrie, and Love, you’ll probably lose. That’s especially true given that the Wizards don’t really have anyone who can guard James. Otto Porter’s done a good job defensively this year, but he’s nowhere near athletic enough to slow LeBron down. The Wizards can beat almost anyone with a cohesive starting lineup that will play long stretches together in the playoffs, but I don’t know if they have the versatility to beat the Cavs.

Toronto-Cleveland:
The Raptors have been plagued by close losses all season, so it’s no surprise that their three losses against the Cavaliers this year have come by a combined 11 points. This series would be the most familiar out of all of these, because it was last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. A refresher: the Cavaliers won the first two games, then dropped two in Toronto, then closed out the series in six. The series was never in doubt, and Cleveland’s four wins were by margins of 31, 19, 38, and 26. LeBron shot 62% from the field, and Kyrie scored basically whenever he wanted to. There’s no doubt in my mind that the Raptors have closed the gap, but have they done so by enough?

The answer is that it’s tough to know. If Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are as efficient against Cleveland as they have been in the regular season, then I believe that the Raptors have a legitimate chance of beating the Cavs. But last year, each guard saw his efficiency nosedive in the playoffs. If it takes DeRozan 30 shots to score 30 points, Toronto’s offense isn’t going to be efficient enough to keep up with the Cavaliers. The Raptors also now have the Serge Ibaka factor. I think Ibaka could make a huge difference in a potential series with the Cavs, either as a small-ball center or a power forward. The Raptors were looking to add defense, and they’ve accomplished that goal. I don’t expect Serge to put up huge numbers on a team with two ball-dominant guards, but he’ll provide rim protection, he’ll stretch the floor for Lowry and DeRozan (remember, the Raptors have been dominant offensively when they put enough shooters on the floor. Ibaka gives them that ability while also allowing them to maintain defensive competency), and he’ll be able to guard Kevin Love, who was bad in last year’s playoffs but had seemingly found his game this year before getting injured.

It’s also worth noting that the Raptors are still looking to add another piece. They need a wing defender, because DeMarre Carroll couldn’t stop LeBron last year and certainly won’t be able to now that he’s deteriorated even more. Carroll was horrendous against the Cavaliers last season, but he’s still probably a member of Toronto’s crunch-time starting five (along with Lowry-DeMar-Ibaka-Jonas Valanciunas) simply because he can defend a little bit. But the Raptors are probably hoping that someone else can step up and give them a solid fifth guy who can defend LeBron, because that’s all that’s standing between them and a very competitive series.

Boston-Washington:
This seems like a pretty good matchup for the Wizards. They rebound pretty well and should control the glass against the small Celtics. More importantly, there’s nowhere for the Celtics to hide Thomas. Put him on Wall, and it’s all over. Same goes for Beal. Otto Porter would just shoot over him or take him to the hole. This is a big problem for the Celtics and a large reason that Beal and Wall combined for 58 points the last time these two teams played. Boston, of course, will sink or swim with their star point guard. But I’m worried that they’ll end up sinking, at least on the defensive side of the ball.

The most interesting part of this matchup is the fact that it’s a lot of depth against what’s been a dominant starting lineup. Generally, the better starters will win out in the playoffs, as I’d suspect would happen in this series. But it’s worth considering that these Wizards might be a flash in the pan, since they were the worst of these four teams last year and since they started poorly before their recent torrid stretch. I just think that it’s more likely that something’s clicked for the starting lineup, and that the rapid improvement of Porter and the resurgence of Markieff Morris have made it really tough to stop. I’m also pretty confident that Marcin Gortat would be able to bully Al Horford down low in a way that no Cleveland Cavalier would. The Cavs are a better team, but in a lot of ways the Wizards are the tougher matchup for the Celtics.

Washington, by the way, has also played the best defense of these four teams. That makes it even less likely that the Celtics would be able to keep up with the Wizards’ scoring. Unless, of course, the Celtics find a lineup that’s been as efficient as Washington’s, which is entirely possible given the weapons they have. Here’s the best way for me to leave things: if the series started today, I think the Wizards would win. But the Celtics have a higher upside and (probably) a marginally better chance to beat the Cavaliers.

Boston-Toronto:
Since the start of the 2013-14 season, the Raptors have won 10 of the 15 games between these two teams. That’s because they match up very well with the Celtics. They’re another team with two scoring guards and therefore create another defensive problem for Boston. There’s a reason they’ve gone over 100 points in 10 of their last 12 games against the Celtics. Toronto’s offense is very hard to stop even for a team that matches up well. So can the Celtics keep up in a high-scoring series? Well, yes, which is why I’d expect this to be a very tight series. There’s a reason the Raptors are shopping for more defense. And this probably isn’t a series where Ibaka would help that much, especially if he does what he did last year against the Warriors and falls in love with the three point shot. Ibaka’s a decent long range shooter, but when you have an offense like Toronto’s this year or OKC’s last season, you can usually find a better shot. So that’s one thing I’d look out for if these two teams do end up meeting. In the end, I think this series would go seven games and come down to whether Boston’s young, athletic wings could slow down Toronto’s stud guards.

Washington-Toronto:
These two teams have only played once this season, so I’m excited to see how the upcoming home-and-home at the beginning of March will go. Both teams rely heavily upon a great all-around point guard and a scoring shooting guard. The Wizards have the edge at small forward, but I’m not sure Otto Porter is good enough yet to make the Raptors sweat defensively. That’s big, because the Raptors are a better overall offensive team, so the Wizards will need to take advantage of any matchup advantages they have. Talent-wise, I think these teams are similar, so it’ll come down to which team executes better down the stretch. That’s where the Raptors’ experience might come into play.

The Cavaliers should still obviously be favored to make it out of the Eastern Conference. But they’re going to find it more challenging than they did last season, because Boston, Toronto, and Washington are all really strong teams. The way these teams end up being seeded is important. All three of the challengers obviously want to avoid Cleveland, but the Cavs are a much tougher matchup for Toronto than they are for Boston, for example. There’s a reason that all four of these teams have already tried to strengthen their squads at the trade deadline. I think there’s a legitimate chance that any of the four could end up representing the East. As of today, I’d rank them Cleveland, Toronto, Washington, Boston. But the Celtics have the upside to challenge the Cavaliers.

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