Dumpster fire. A month ago, the Cleveland Cavaliers were a complete dumpster fire and in the process of dropping below the Bucks in the playoff standings. Now at the All-Star break, these lovable scamps are in a close-quarters knife fight for the three seed with dare-to-dream aspirations for the two seed.
As miraculous as it may seem, it is time to start worrying about seeding, match ups and the rabbit hole of over thinking playoff brackets. That means it is also time for two dashing Midwesterners to have a casual conversation about potential playoff matchups.
Care to join us?
Let me start off by saying the East is tougher than I would have guessed after the first month of the season, and only getting tougher. I did predict the Bucks might be sneaky good, but the seven and eight seeds may be tough by the time the playoffs start, too. The Heat with a healthy Wade, Bosh and Whiteside could play any team tough. The Pacers may get Paul George back in a month.
For as tough as the Bucks and Heat could be, it's the Pacers that scare me. Assuming George is healthy by the time the playoffs come around, that team scares me more than any other team in the East.
They went to two straight Eastern Conference Finals. They play a physical brand of defense. They rebound well and get back in transition. And then there's George. He was a superstar last year, and good teams with superstars scare me more than good teams without superstars. Oh, and they added three point shooting, which could very well offset the loss of Lance Stephenson (who killed their locker room last year anyway).
I feel the same way about the East - the bottom is still a giant cavern of sadness and despair, but the top six teams are solid, the seventh and eighth seeds could be the Heat and Pacers... you know, the two shoo-ins to the conference finals a year ago. Of course, Miami and Indiana are way different nowadays, and in no way title contenders, but that doesn't mean one or both couldn't be pesky in a seven game series.
But there's a fine line between "pesky" and "scary." Neither team is scary. Outside of Miami's top three (which includes a guy who was on the scrap heap two months ago) their roster is a mishmash of borderline washed up (Udonis Haslem) and borderline unplayable (peep Norris Cole's stats... ew). As for the Pacers, you're right about the team culture (defense and physicality), but, even if Paul George comes back, how long will it take him to get back into the swing of things? Can he save their offense (26th in offensive rating)? I mean... Do you know who's leading the Pacers in minutes played? SOLOMON HILL.
Now, the Bucks are an interesting case. They're clearly not on the same tier as the top-five (Atlanta, Toronto, Washington, Chicago and Cleveland) but certainly aren't as bad as the Heat, Pacers, Hornets, Nets, Pistons or Celtics (all of whom are within two games of the final seed, as crazy as that sounds). What would you think of a potential matchup with Milwaukee?
Oh sure, I would never say I'm afraid of the Heat. I also think they're going to be the eight seed, so thinking about them is probably a moot point.
If I overstated how afraid I am of the Pacers it's because of the Clevelander in me. It would be so Cleveland to work their way up to the second seed only to face a Pacers team that fully pulled everything together in time for the playoffs. It's unlikely, sure, but it is my fear. And remember, Paul George coming back means a lot less Solomon Hill. Even a Pacers team that doesn't threaten to beat the Cavs in a series is something I want no part of in the first round. No thank you.
The Bucks are the first round match up I am itching for the Cavs to pull. To me, this series is the perfect blend of fun as hell and not very competitive. I love the way Jason Kidd is having them play, but their four best players are Brandon Knight, John Henson, Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo (both by PER and by my personal opinion). That is a young group with very little playoff or even league experience. And you know, when a team employs Knight and Antetokounmpo as its two best scorers, I like my chances. Drawing this team with the three seed is pretty much my dream situation.
I also like that their defense will be good enough to test the Cavs' offense and push them there, but they won't kick the crap out of the Cavs physically the way the Pacers would. And for all the concerns about the Pacers, we pretty much know right now what we're going to get with the Bucks.
Can you think of a better situation than the Cavs pulling the three seed? I can't. Of course, I'm also guessing the Bulls end up with the four or five seed if the Cavs get the three seed. That's important.
I think you're selling the Bucks just a tiny bit short. Sure, they don't have anyone down low who you'd consider to be an imposing physical presence, but after 50+ games they have the second-best defensive rating in the league - they should not be taken lightly. If Ersan Ilyasova gets up to speed, the Bucks are going to run 10-deep, which doesn't mean as much in the postseason as it does in the regular season, but it would give Kidd all kinds of lineup options to throw at the Cavs. Khris Middleton and Jared Dudley have been lights out from beyond the arc. O.J. Mayo could go on a ballistic scoring tear and help steal a game (stop laughing). And if Larry Sanders gets his head on straight, as unlikely as that sounds...
Cleveland should want no part of Milwaukee, either way. They're going to make you work - they're young enough and naive enough to believe they can win. So to me, Cleveland needs to gun for the two seed. It's easier to envision him "saving" himself by coasting against either Miami or Indiana rather than dealing with all of the Bucks' wings (especially Giannis) for six games.
For the sake of the conversation, let's assume Atlanta and Cleveland make it out of the first round. Two of Chicago, Toronto and Washington will make up the other second round contestants. So of the Bulls, Raptors, and Wizards, who would you like the Cavs to face the most? The least?
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the Hornets and Pistons as possible first round opponents. I think neither will be there, but either one would be the easiest out of that potential first round group.
So assuming the worst doesn't happen and the Cavs instead get the two or three seed, I most want to face the Raptors in the second round. I least want to face the Bulls.
I do not believe in what the Raptors do. They are a version of the Hawks with worse shooting, worse bigs and a worse best player. Then instead of sharing the ball, they have an ISO heavy offense. I don't think that translates to the playoffs.
Their main advantage is depth, which isn't unimportant in the playoffs, but it is less important than in the regular season.
All of the potential second round opponents are tough, but I think the Raptors are slightly below the rest. I'd take them ten times out of ten. You?
About the ISO-heavy offense thing... the Cavs have one of those, too, especially when it comes to crunch time. Granted, they have better players to isolate with (obviously), but the point remains.
That said, I think I'd most like to play the Wizards, and here's why: who the hell on that team guards LeBron? Paul Pierce? Rasual Butler? Otto Porter? Pierce is a Hall of Famer, Butler's a great story and Porter is going to be a very good player. I know LeBron wins most (all?) one on one matchups in the league, but he'd dominate any combination of that trio being thrown at him. I also don't believe Washington can score enough to keep up with Cleveland, which pains me, because you know how much I love Bradley Beal (swoon) and John Wall (SWOOOOON).
The Raptors' defense is kinda crappy, but they could turn a series with the Cavs into a track meet pretty easily. That's a little concerning. But you're right, though - if I'm Cleveland, I want no part of Chicago, especially if they're healthy. Nope. No thanks. Nuh uh. I know the Bulls aren't the defensive juggernaut they've been in the past, and that they have injury issues right now, and that Derrick Rose is having a weird season - I don't care. A healthy Rose-Butler-Dunleavy-Pau-Noah lineup with Taj, Mirotic and Snell off the bench? With Thibs facing off against Blatt for seven games? That doesn't sound like fun.
Hahaha. I knew you were going to mention the Cavs having an ISO-heavy offense. I'll give you that. In general, I don't like when teams are ISO-heavy, Cavs included, but if they are, it's always best to have superstar players doing it. The Raptors don't, and like you said, they don't really have a good enough defense to counteract an offense that may not translate to the playoffs.
The Wizards are the consolation prize for me. I wouldn't be as happy facing them, but your point about who guards LeBron is true. I think Pierce would want to take that challenge on for old time's sake and completely fail. I love Wall and Beal, but I think if you can control Wall's scoring, their offense will stall out completely.
Okay, you may have half-convinced me about the Wizards.
Neither of us want a part of the Bulls in the second round for obvious reasons, but what about the Eastern Conference Finals? Let's say the Cavs get the two or three seed and the Bulls face off against the Hawks in the second round. Who do you want coming out of that Bulls/Hawks series? Who haunts your dreams as new Cavs fan?
I'll let you have first crack at that question, but if I'm the Hawks, the Bulls are the scariest possible Eastern Conference opponent. They have bigs mobile enough (when healthy) to guard Horford and Millsap, and Jimmy Butler (when healthy) can switch between guarding Teague and Korver based on who is killing them at the time. And Rose seems to be coming around a bit.
Scary for the Hawks. Now who is scariest the Cavs?
Basically, you're asking who Atlanta's scariest matchup is, and who Cleveland's scariest matchup is.
At risk of oversimplifying this: Atlanta's scariest matchup is Cleveland, and Cleveland's scariest matchup is Atlanta. And I'm pretty sure they're on a collision course for the Eastern Conference Finals, and I can't wait to watch it.
Why the Hawks are a bad matchup for the Cavs: the Hawks swing the ball and turn many possessions into spot-up shots, which they excel at knocking down. Per Synergy Sports (I'm working on something for later this week on this) the Cavaliers are one of the worst teams in the league at closing out on spot up shots. Atlanta has the 5th-best offense and 6th-best defensive rating in the game. The Hawks can throw Thabo Sefolosha, DeMarre Carroll and even Mike Scott at LeBron, Jeff Teague is a pesky defender matching up against Kyrie and their bigs can handle the Cavs' bigs. They're one of the best teams in the league at defending the paint.
Why the Cavs are a bad matchup for the Hawks: in crunch time, I trust Kyrie and LeBron to get shots. I don't know who Atlanta has that can do that. I'm in no way saying that they can't get shots when they need to - Mike Budenholzer's out of bounds and after timeout plays have been gorgeous this season - but when it comes down to a one-on-one situation, I like what the Cavs bring to the table just a little more.
I don't know who wins the series. But I'm pretty sure it's going to be seven games, and I'm pretty sure it'll be appointment television.
Let me first say that both the Bulls and Hawks scare the crap out of me. Picking which team scares me more doesn't indicate that the other team doesn't scare me. Respect.
The Bulls are the team I don't want to face in the Eastern Conference Finals. When I look at these kinds of match ups, I don't worry so much about an opponent's floor as their ceiling. I worry about what a team's best punch will be.
For the Hawks, the punch that scares me the most is if they get hot from three and destroy the Cavs from there. I saw that in 2009 when the HGH Magic couldn't miss, so that's a very real fear of mine. The Hawks could definitely get hot shooting jump shots for a series and bury the Cavs.
For the Bulls, they have multiple punches that scare me. Some of them I mentioned when talking about how they match up against the Hawks. Their mobile defensive bigs can take turns terrorizing Kevin Love. Jimmy Butler can switch back and forth between guarding Irving and LeBron, probably playing entire games without resting. Sure, they don't have two perimeter stoppers to throw at Irving and LeBron, but few teams do and Snell isn't a defensive slouch either.
I fear the ceiling of good teams with superstar players more than good teams without superstar players. This fear is all dependent on Rose regaining his sense of rhythm by the Eastern Conference Finals, but that's three months from now. Maybe he doesn't make the full leap back to superstardom, but man, that's a lot of time for him to get there.
When a team has a superstar player they can rely on, things don't have to go as perfectly than a team without one. Superstar players can take over when all else fails. In the playoffs, there are almost always moments when all else fails.
That's why when you look at the history of the NBA for the last 40+ years, few teams without superstars have even made the Finals let alone won it. In the last 20 years, the Pistons made the Finals twice and won it once without a superstar. Maybe last year's Spurs count as a superstar-less team, but if Parker and Duncan weren't superstars, they were pretty damn close.
And the Bulls have other ceilings they can reach as a team, too. They haven't been themselves defensively this year, but I have no doubt they can turn it on defensively. Part of the problem there has been injuries to Noah and Butler throughout the season. Assuming they're both healthy, they can help push the Bulls into the best defensive team in the playoffs. Especially with the amount of game planning Thibbs will be able to do going into a playoff series.
Add those ceilings to their new found stellar offense. That's a team I least want to face in the East.
Those are all very good points, and I've already said my piece on the Hawks, so I won't go into any long counterpoints on all that. Altanta and Chicago are both scary. Cleveland is definitely not a lock to make the Finals, no matter how good they've looked over the past month.
If there's one thing I'd like to bring up before we end, though, it's this: I believe the NBA is undergoing a paradigm shift with regards to superstars. The way you detailed the history of the Finals is pretty accurate, and the Spurs had great players last year who they could rely on... but certainly no top-ten players. LeBron's Heat teams had three stars, but their offense was hardly iso-heavy when they won their titles. Over their four years together, Miami developed a very beautiful offense predicated on ball movement, penetration and catch-and-shoot threes. Dallas' 2011 title team was much the same way.
When I look around, I see many more teams like the Spurs, Mavericks and Heat title squads, and fewer of the my-turn-your-turn offenses that may have characterized past champions. Golden State, Atlanta and the 2015 versions of both Dallas and San Antonio exemplify this, and I firmly believe, as crazy as it may sound, that all of them are more than capable of winning it all, even though none of them have a superstar in the truest sense of the word.
In my mind, this year's Cavaliers resemble the 2010-11 Heat, or the 2011-12 Thunder. Both of those teams were ISO-heavy, as the Cavs are sure to be when push comes to shove, and came up short despite Prime LeBron, Wade and Bosh, and the insane young core of KD, Russ and Harden. And both the 2010-11 Heat and 2011-12 Thunder had top-10 defenses; the Cavs currently rank 23rd, and even over their scorching-hot past month, they're league-average (15th).
In summary: the Eastern Conference Finals are going to be very tough. The Cavs might not be ready to leap all the way into title contention this season. If they do make the Finals, though... is there anyone they can beat?
I don't disagree with your assessment of ISO-heavy teams. I think David Blatt agrees with you, too. The Cavs are close to unbeatable when they're moving the ball. They are less good when LeBron and Kyrie dribble the ball too much. They have time to figure it out this year, but I honestly don't think they will until next season. That probably means settling on making the Eastern Conference Finals or Finals (tough thing to settle on, right?).
If the Cavs make the Finals, there are teams out of the West they can beat. Neither the Warriors or Grizzlies are one of those teams. Their defenses are too good. They share the ball too much. Both teams have superstar players to rely on if all else goes wrong. I'm simplifying things, but they're everything I fear in a team. That's before getting into the many unfavorable match ups. Since those are the teams I think may come out of the West, no. They aren't winning a title unless things get weird.
How about you? I'm a little afraid to ask because you have a more objective outside view than I do, but who would you like to see? Who do you think the Cavs would see? Do you think there's any chance in Hell the Cavs make the Finals?
There's absolutely a chance that the Cavs make the Finals. This season is weird, and while I love the Hawks (based on what they've accomplished thus far) and Bulls (based on what they could become if they're healthy and clicking), Cleveland's in the mix based on their absurd talent alone. The J.R. Smith / Iman Shumpert / Timofey Mozgov acquisitions give them adequate role players and depth they were solely lacking, and they still have two months to gel further. And once the playoffs begin, I expect "Chill Mode" LeBron to... thaw out... (God, forgive me for that pun).
You're right about Memphis and Golden State being unbeatable unless they're decimated by injuries. I would have a hard time picking against either Dallas or San Antonio as well. (Maybe I'm insane.) I hope the Cavs do make the Finals, because it'd be entertaining as hell and I want to see Kyrie and Love on that stage. Ultimately, I believe you might be right. They'll likely "settle" for an Eastern Conference Finals appearance, or a Finals loss.
Which will, you know, be disappointing, but a year ago Cleveland was looking at a Dion/Kyrie rift, had given up what was thought to be a valuable pick to rent Luol Deng, and a number-1 overall pick who was... like, pretty disappointing.
Things are slightly better now. It's going to be a fun few months in The Land.