On Tuesday, Kendon Luscher and I published a long chat we had about potential playoff matchups for the Cavaliers. It was an informal discussion, which was a lot of fun to write and turned out great (in my extremely biased opinion), but it got me thinking about taking another approach to the questions we raised therein. Who does Cleveland match up well against? Who should they want to avoid? Is there a potential boogeyman that isn't actually scary? Is there a team most people overlook who shouldn't be slept on?
A great tool for picking these questions apart is Synergy Sports. When the old consumer version of Synergy went away in October, I was so distraught I wrote a eulogy for it. A month ago, the wonderful people at SBNation got us a subscription to the newer, souped-up rendition of Synergy. I was apoplectic with glee.
What makes Synergy great is that it's like a giant cheat sheet. It has play types and players analyzed to levels of detail that are absolutely staggering. Rather than relying on the eye test, or a few games you've seen here or there, or simply relying on box score statistics, utilizing Synergy can offer a more nuanced view into how players and teams operate and match up with one another.
For instance: watching their games, it doesn't seem like Atlanta posts up very much. According to Synergy, only three teams post up less often than they do, which is interesting, because they have two pretty good bigs in Al Horford and Paul Millsap. What kinds of plays do they run instead? Do they avoid posting up because Millsap and Horford are actually bad at it? What does all that mean for a potential series with the Cavs?
Of course, it's not the be-all, end-all; Synergy is a tool meant to be used in tandem with other tools (subjective factors like the eye test, regular and advanced statistics, etc.) to help inform (and hopefully elevate) the level of basketball discourse. I thought it'd be interesting to dive into a few of the Cavaliers' potential Eastern Conference matchups from the Synergy angle, and explore what the raw data might suggest.
I've drawn a few conclusions of my own, which I'll share, but I'd love to hear your feedback in the comments section below. The way I've interpreted Synergy's information, the other top five teams in the Eastern Conference fall into four categories: one bad matchup (Atlanta), two who might be tougher than most people think (Toronto, Milwaukee), one who isn't as scary as some might believe (Chicago) and one team who the Cavs stack up very well against (Washington).
Here's an example of the charts that will be used to examine each of the potential playoff showdowns:
As you can see, the play type is on the far left, indicating how the possession was "used." The play type descriptions should be self-explanatory, with the exception of "PR Handle", which means the ball handler on the pick and roll (often Kyrie or LeBron for the Cavs) "used" the possession. To "use" a possession is to have it end with a shot attempt, free throws, or a turnover. "Frequency" indicates how often that play is employed. "PPP" signifies "Points per Possession."
You probably notice that the frequency columns don't come close to equaling 100 percent - in the interest of space and sanity, I only used the most common play types.
Are you bored? Should I just get started?
One Bad Matchup:
The Hawks' defense starts with their offense- they will likely be a problem for the Cavaliers because they make shots and limit transition opportunities going the other direction, something Cleveland's attack (number 1 in the league on the fast break) relies upon. Even when Atlanta does miss, as you can see above, they have the second-best transition defense in the NBA.
Atlanta's about as good closing out on spot-up shooters as Cleveland is at knocking down spot-up shots. Millsap, Horford and Pero Antic are all above-average post defenders, per Synergy's rankings. No team is better at covering the ball handler in a pick-and-roll than the Hawks, and they're even a top-10 team at defending isolation plays.
As far as Cleveland's defense goes, they're very good at a few things (covering pick and roll ball handlers, post-up defense and handling isos) and mediocre-to-very-bad at others (closing out on shooters, getting back in transition and limiting cuts). Atlanta is average or better at everything. The Cavs defend post ups well, but as I outlined above, Atlanta doesn't really care to post up anyone. Atlanta has elite catch and shoot guys (Millsap, Carroll, Horford in pick-and-pops, and this guy named Kyle Korver) and Cleveland's ranking defending catch and shoot attempts (16th) isn't terrific.
Again, the numbers above are only part of the evaluation and the Cavs have beat the Hawks this year. But per Synergy, the Hawks look like a really tough opponent for the Cavaliers.
Tougher than you might think
Toronto's defense is pretty bad. Their issues covering spot up shooters and post ups are things Cleveland could exploit, if they so choose. The Raptors are good at getting back in transition, but allow the 7th most shots in the league in the paint and don't have the kind of wing stopper on their roster who could give LeBron trouble when he wants to isolate.
So why might they be a tougher matchup than many Cleveland fans might think?
Because Toronto's offense is 15th or better in literally every category Synergy utilizes. It's difficult to take simply take their strength away, because they do everything well. Even during the Cleveland's hot month, their defensive rating is right around league average. Basically, matching up the Cavs and Raptors would equal a shootout, which could be tricky for Cleveland, especially given their problems getting back in transition.
Whenever a team emerges from years of losing, turning things around wit h an exciting young core, there's a tendency to pat them on the heads come playoff time and chuckle as predictions are made that they'll be a quick out. Doing such a thing with this year's Bucks would be a mistake.
They have the second best overall defense in basketball (by DRating), and take a look how they match up by play type. Their only vulnerability among Cleveland's most common methods of attack is the post up, and even then they're hardly terrible (17th defending them).
Offensively, the Bucks get out in transition effectively, and the Cavs don't defend that well. Milwaukee's offense generates cuts at a higher rate than any team in the league - more than 10 percent of their offensive possessions go that way - and Cleveland struggles to cover cuts. So while Milwaukee's PPP is just 14th, it's the frequency that gives them an edge, because hitting cuts is such a desired result.
Not as tough as you might expect
Cleveland is bad defending in transition and on cuts, but Chicago isn't very good at using either one on offense. The Bulls' weapons shooting from the perimeter (Mike Dunleavy, the evolved version of Jimmy Butler, Aaron Brooks and Nikola Mirotic off the bench) aside, the Cavaliers' defense actually matches up pretty well according to the above data. Kevin Love isn't a rim protector, but he's actually a terrific post defender (85th percentile in the league), so it's not unreasonable to think he could hold his own against Pau Gasol.
Defensively, the Bulls look solid except for one minor problem... look at how poorly they defend pick and roll ball handlers. Yikes. In a pick and roll league, against a team with two guys who can run it as well as Kyrie and LeBron are able - that's a major problem. It's possible Tom Thibodeau doesn't have his team clicking on all cylinders, but the data above is troubling nonetheless.
Bring them on
This pains me. As some of you may know from the social media exploits of your favorite Fear the Sword writers, I'm routinely threatened with termination, oftentimes for expressing my love for John Wall. But hot damn, look at how the Wizards both execute and cover pick and rolls on the Synergy data above. What the hell, John Wall? You're killing me!
The Wizards have a few good shooters (Bradley Beal, especially) but are by no means deep in that area. Their proficiency in transition would worry the Cavs (I feel like a broken record - Cleveland needs to get better at transition d), but outside of that, the Cavs actually match up pretty well defensively.
On the other side of the ball... Washington has a tough time covering pick and roll ball handlers and isolation situations. So... how would they deal with LeBron James, exactly? I covered this in the conversation yesterday, but it bears repeating - Paul Pierce can't do it, Rasual Butler (a nice story!) can't do it, and Otto Porter probably can't do it, either. That's a huge advantage for the Cavaliers.
At risk of inflaming the already tense pseudo-war between the Fear the Sword and Bullets Forever teams, let me reiterate, again, that this post is simply meant to present the data. I still love John Wall and I always will. I don't care what the numbers say; love isn't logical.
I'm not making any definitive declarations on any of the potential matchups, really. I believe Synergy does suggest a few things worth noting, and if all the numbers above were too dull, here are the main takeaways:
1. Cleveland needs to get better at transition defense.
2. See item 1.
3. Cleveland covers pick and rolls pretty well, which is encouraging, and a great sign of Kyrie's defensive development.
4. The Cavaliers both use post-ups efficiently and cover them effectively, and Kevin Love deserves some credit for that.
5. LeBron James and Kyrie Irving make Cleveland the best transition offense in the NBA.
6. But, see item 1... because the only team profiled above that's a below average offensive team in transition is Chicago.
7. Atlanta's a scary matchup.
8. Toronto and Milwaukee might be tougher than many people think.
9. Chicago and Washington are favorable, per Synergy.
10. Seriously, see item 1.