JAY ASSER SAYS YES
We’re so used to seeing LeBron James’ teams stroll to the NBA Finals year in and year out that it’s against our nature to pick against his squad to come out of the Eastern Conference.
While no one should bet against LeBron, it’s obvious there’s more of a vulnerability to the Cleveland Cavaliers this year than in the past two. And that’s not a sentiment drawn from a small sample size – we have half-a-season’s worth of data that suggests Cleveland are beatable.
Since the All-Star break and up to the loss to Atlanta in the first of a back-to-back, the Cavaliers were 12-12 with a point differential of minus-0.7. While their offence has mostly held strong with a 111.4 offensive rating during that span, it’s been the other side of the ball that’s turned into a legitimate liability.
Only the Los Angeles Lakers have a worse defensive efficiency in the second half of the season, with Cleveland surrendering 111.2 points per 100 possessions. They’ve been leaky and it’s no surprise considering they have few average to above average defenders.
And yet, they’ve likely done just enough to retain the top seed after dominating Boston in a game that could have very well tipped the scales against the Cavaliers had they lost, at least from a confidence perspective.
It would be short-sighted to write off the Celtics in a series against Cleveland simply off that one performance, as dismal as it was, but Boston may be the least of the Cavaliers’ concern in the playoffs, with threats also posed from the nation’s capital, as well as north of the border.
Washington have multiple scorers, while Toronto are one of the most balanced teams in the league.
The Raptors appear to be the East’s best chance to beat the defending champions and their mid-season trades of Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker have bolstered their toughness and defence – they own the third-best defensive rating post All-Star break at 102.7.
The Cavs’ decline, coupled with other teams’ improvement, spells a more wide open battle in the East.
JAMES PIERCY, SPORT360 EDITOR, SAYS NO
This season it’s been a little more challenging for Cleveland as, at various stages Boston (who could still get there), Toronto and Washington have had ideas on LeBron’s Iron Throne.
But still the Cavs stand above them, with the feeling there is a little more in the tank. And while that is hypothetical, what has to be considered is, realistically, how much better can that trio play?
Starting with the Raptors, yes, they have Kyle Lowry back at the right time and Serge Ibaka has added improvement both physical and technical at both ends of the floor, but can we expect DeMar DeRozan to go for 25+ points each game beyond Saturday? Or Lowry to be shooting 41.4 per cent from 3-point range (having averaged 30.4 in the postseason last year)? Or Jonas Valanciunas and Ibaka to stay out of foul trouble?
All that has gone so right could easily go so wrong. And they’re also historically awful in the playoffs.
The Wizards are this season’s surprise package with coach Scotty Brooks reinvigorating a stale-looking roster and given John Wall and a finally-fit Bradley Beal the freedom to play.
But Wall has a pretty poor shooting average (37.6 per cent) in the postseason (including a wretched 20.4 from 3-point range), and while he’s clearly a better player that, you’re still not backing him up against Kyrie Irving. At least not yet.
Beal, unlike Wall, has put up some impressive playoff numbers but may find himself having too much to do with a supporting cast of Markieff Morris, Otto Porter Jr. and Bojan Bogdanovic (combined playoff games: 0.
Boston have depth, defence and a clutch scorer to end all clutch scorers in Isaiah Thomas but can a team without a winning record against any of the East’s top six be relied upon to beat the very best in a seven-game series?
Finally, and perhaps most conclusively, it’s those numbers which paint the Cavs superiority in the best light as their regular season record against the next best three reads: 3-0 v Toronto; 3-1 v Boston; and 2-1 v Washington.