It's been three seasons at the very bottom of the standings for the Cleveland Cavaliers. In 2013-14, it finally looks like the organization is serious about changing that. Some of us were optimistic coming into the 2012-13 season, but injuries and the utter lack of depth doomed the Cavs to another losing season. This time around, the reasons for optimism are a lot stronger. There's more talent than ever, a new coach that intends to change the identity of the team, along with depth and veteran leadership that we haven't seen in years. All of those factors sound like the playoffs are within reach but this team won just 24 games last season.
How likely are the Cavs to make the playoffs this season? I'm not sure there's anyway for me to answer that question without being able to see into the future and predict how healthy Andrew Bynum, Anderson Varejao, and Kyrie Irving will be. But what we can look at is the expected list of teams that will stand in the way of Cleveland's return to the postseason.
Surefire playoff teams
While the Cavaliers are expected to be one of several teams fighting for a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs, there are several teams that are virtual locks to make it. Let's get those out of the way so that we can really look at how many playoff spots are up for grabs.
1. Miami Heat
Again, because duh.
They were a playoff team last year and just added Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. I think they'll make the playoffs.
Tom Thibodeau defense + however many games Derrick Rose decides to play in this season = playoffs, again.
I really don't like their roster at all. But they're probably plenty good to make the playoffs.
People stay sleeping on the Hawks. They got a new coach, re-signed Jeff Teague, and replaced Josh Smith with Paul Millsap. They might not be great, but they're a playoff team.
Four teams fighting for two playoff spots
By my estimation, those six teams are almost certain to make the playoffs. I would predict with 95% confidence that the Nets, Heat, Pacers, and Bulls make the playoffs. I would predict with 80% confidence or so that the Hawks and Knicks make the playoffs. In other words, there are 2 playoff spots that are available for any team to take. The Cavaliers will almost certainly be in the mix. But they won't be alone. I figure three teams will join the Cavaliers in their fight for the playoffs. Let's take a look.
The Wizards are the team that everybody is talking about as a new playoff team in 2013-14. Once John Wall was healthy last season, they played like a playoff team. Now they'll add Otto Porter and Eric Maynor, bring back Martell Webster, and see more development from Wall and Bradley Beal. With Emeka Okafor, Trevor Ariza, and Nene providing the veteran backbone for that team, the Wizards are pretty good candidates for making the leap from lottery to playoffs next year. In games in which Wall played, the Wizards were 24-25 last season. They also had the 5th best defensive efficiency in the league for the entire season. Unfortunately, that was overshadowed by their league worst offensive efficiency.
Washington's top 5-man unit (Wall-Beal-Webster-Nene-Okafor) played just 142 minutes together, but were incredibly effective when they managed to all be on the floor at the same time. They had a net rating of 24 (!!!) points per 100 possessions. Of course, this is a very small sample size and doesn't really give us much to work with. But the second half of the Wizards' season at least gave us some reason to believe that they'll be better next year...if they stay healthy.
The "if they stay healthy" caveat is one that I've seen saved for the 2013-14 Cleveland Cavaliers. Kyrie Irving has had random little injury issues while Anderson Varejao and Andrew Bynum have been wearing suits more often than team uniforms. But I think it's worth noting that the Wizards have their own health issues as well. Nene has battled foot injuries over the past few seasons. Bradley Beal is dealing with a stress injury in his leg, something you really don't want to see in a young player. Martell Webster has had back surgery and John Wall missed a bunch of games last year due to a stress injury in his knee.
I like the Wizards, but we haven't really seem them play good basketball for an extended stretch. And Wizards fans will tell you that that's because they haven't been on the floor at the same time. And that's true, but the kinds of injuries that their key pieces have suffered don't strike me as ones that are typically just short-term problems. Of course I'm not a medical professional, but back and stress injuries tend to worry me more than other types of ailments. All of that said, I think the Wizards have a good shot at the playoffs. But I'm slightly more bearish on them than most people, I think.
The Pistons have certainly made quite a splash this offseason. The finally had cap space after several years of being locked into crappy contracts and they immediately made use of it by signing Josh Smith. Lots of people questioned this signing because Smith doesn't really fit well with Detroit's front court of the future -- Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. But here's what I like about the Smith signing: they got a very good player without giving up any of their current talent. It's not like they gave up a bunch of other players in order to get Smoove, they simply gave up cap space. Sure, you can argue that Smith is a bad fit and they could have made better use of their cap space. But I think it's fair to say that even if it's a strange move, it improves the talent level of their roster and will certainly help them improve their 24th ranked defense.
Along with Josh Smith, the Pistons used this offseason to improve their backcourt. They drafted Kentavious Caldwell-Pope with the 8th overall pick, signed Chauncey Billups, and, as of Tuesday afternoon, apparently worked out a sign-and-trade for Brandon Jennings.
Y! Sources: Detroit, Milwaukee agree on sign-and-trade to send Brandon Jennings to Pistons in a four-player deal. http://t.co/gnBbwVVl26— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) July 30, 2013
Say what you want about Brandon Jennings, but I think he makes Detroit better. At the very least, he's young and still has some upside. He could end up being better than he has been in the past.
The pieces don't fit very well at this point, but Detroit's roster is definitely more talented than it was last year. If their new head coach, Mo Cheeks, can get the pieces to work together, the Pistons will push hard for one of those two playoff spots.
The Raptors appeared to be making a push for the playoff last season when they acquired Rudy Gay from the Memphis Grizzlies. But Gay was pretty terrible for Toronto once he got there and the Raptors ended up several games behind the Milwaukee Bucks for the 8th seed. This year, they didn't really add all that much. They got rid of Andrea Bargnani, which is probably addition by subtraction (specifically on the defensive end).
Toronto will hope to get a better year out of Rudy Gay, more than 68 games out of Kyle Lowry, and defensive improvements all around. But most of Toronto's hope for the playoffs stems from internal improvement. DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross can take big steps forward to make up for the lack of a 2013 first round draft pick. And of course, Raptors fans are expecting huge things from Jonas Valanciunas. Valanciunas was fairly impressive in Las Vegas Summer League this year and towards the end of his rookie campaign. He figures to get more than 24 minutes per game this year and if he's as good as some people expect, he'll help Toronto be in the mix. Personally, I'm not very optimistic about the Raptors' chances, but I think anything can happen in the East this year.
Other potential playoff teams
I think the Bucks are a super interesting team, but I have no idea how good they'll be. They just lost Brandon Jennings to the Pistons and replaced him with Brandon Knight. They signed guys like Gary Neal, Zaza Pachulia, and Carlos Delfino. If they get really good seasons from Larry Sanders and Ersan Ilyasova, I guess they could make the playoffs again. But I don't know. I think they're probably a tier below these 3 teams at the moment.
The Boston Celtics will probably be terrible. I do not think they have a realistic chance to make the playoffs as they start their rebuild.
The Philadelphia 76ers will definitely be terrible. Tank city, baby.
Where does that leave the Cavs?
I unintentionally ranked Cleveland's biggest obstacles in order of what I perceive to be biggest threat to smallest threat. I think the Wizards are best positioned to make the playoffs based mostly on their defensive prowess. They'll need substantial improvements on the offensive end and some good luck with injuries, but they're probably the best of these three teams. After Washington, I think Detroit is better positioned than Toronto. This is mostly due to my preference to lean towards talent, when all else fails. Detroit's roster is more talented than Toronto's. It could blow up in their faces, but the talent of a playoff team is there.
Cleveland is probably right there with the Wizards. The Cavs' roster probably has a wider range of potential outcomes due in large part to Andrew Bynum. If he's healthy, the Cavs could realistically be as high as the 5th seed. If Kyrie, Bynum, and Varejao all struggle to stay healthy, the Cavs' floor is likely lower than the Wizards'.
I think it's too early to be making season predictions, but the point of this article is to outline what the Cavs are going up against. I don't think the competition is all that stiff. If Mike Brown can get the defense to a respectable level and the Cavs have even mediocre health, I think they'll make the playoffs. If I absolutely had to predict right now, I'd say that the Cavs have a 70% chance of making the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. That number will most definitely change as time goes on and we get closer and closer to the start of the season.