Since January 15th, the Cleveland Cavaliers are 32-7 and boast the league's best offense, tenth-best defense and second-best net differential. LeBron James has been back to his old self following an early season swoon, Kyrie Irving has been one of the best point guards in the league, and Kevin Love has begun to feel comfortable in the offense. In-season acquisitions Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert have integrated seamlessly into the team, providing important depth in the frontcourt and on the wings.
Given their struggles from November through early January, the fact that the Cavaliers will enter the postseason as one of the favorites to win it all is still a bit surreal. The team's season-long numbers still don't exactly fit the profile of past champions, but the Cavs' output over their past 38 games (hardly a small sample size) certainly does. That isn't to say it'll be a cakewalk, of course. At the very least, the Hawks ought to give the Cavaliers a hell of a fight for the Eastern Conference crown. If LeBron and Company do make it past Atlanta, Golden State, Memphis, or San Antonio will likely await them in the Finals, each presenting their own unique set of problems for the Cavs to handle.
Aside from the matchups, there are three keys to unlocking a title run for the Cavaliers. No matter who they face along the way, if these three aspects turn in their favor, they will be extremely difficult to beat in a seven game series.
1. Kevin Love's back issues
This is hardly groundbreaking analysis, but any team hoping to make a deep playoff run needs their top guys to stay on the floor. A freak injury to a top player or a couple of role players can submarine anyone's title chances in a heartbeat. Cleveland is no exception (losing LeBron or Kyrie for the playoffs would kill their chances), but Kevin Love's health deserves a bit of special attention.
The Cavaliers' power forward has dealt with nagging back issues for much of the year. While he's fought through them over the past couple of months, they're a threat to flare up at any time and either hamper his game or sideline him altogether. Love is saying all the right things, recently stating that he feels "as good as he has all season," but once the rigorous schedule of a playoff series kicks in, will that still be the case?
While debating Love's merits has been a point of dispute among Cavs fans ever since he arrived in town, what is clear from both the eye test and the numbers is that his presence provides spacing on one end and a solid post defender on the other. Should Love miss time in the playoffs, James Jones and Shawn Marion would likely see a bump in minutes in his stead. Jones can provide the spacing, but has really hurt the Cavs defensively when he is inserted into lineups as a stretch-four. Marion is a solid defender, but has been nicked up himself and is sinking just 28% of his three-pointers this season.
If David Blatt wanted to avoid too much Jones or Marion, he could move LeBron to the four on a more full-time basis. In fact, he might need to do so in order to manage Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov's minutes. Cleveland doesn't have a fourth big man they would feel comfortable playing in a close playoff game; Kendrick Perkins has been really bad since he was acquired after the deadline, and Brendan Haywood has barely played 100 minutes this season. The ripple effect of missing Love would be trouble managing the center rotation and a shortened wing rotation, effectively making the Cavs a seven man team.
While losing Love for a game or two wouldn't render the Cavs' odds hopeless, they would certainly drop considerably. What Kevin Love probably needs is an extended period of rest and relaxation to get his back right - but hopefully (easy for me to say) he can gut it out for another couple of months before he does that.
2. Iso-ball in crunch time
On the surface, worrying about any aspect of Cleveland's offense seems silly. Since January 15th, they've had the best attack in the league, ranking first in Offensive Rating and True Shooting percentage while grabbing the 5th-highest share of offensive rebounds. The team is similarly dominant when games are in the balance, ranking first in clutch offense (5 point differential or less in the last five minutes) as well as the "super-clutch" (last two minutes of a one possession game) over that span.
A closer look at the numbers reveals something interesting: the Cavs' pace slows way down in those situations. If you've been watching the games, you probably already know the reason: Cleveland's late-game offense primarily consists of either LeBron or Kyrie dribbling the clock way down in isolation before attacking their man one-on-one. And why wouldn't they? Among players with at least 100 iso possessions this season, Kyrie ranks first and LeBron ranks 15th in scoring efficiency.
It'll be vital for that success to keep up when the playoffs begin. Whistles will be harder to draw, defensive intensity ratchets up, and opposing coaches will have the tendencies of both the Cavs' ballhandlers mapped out. Part of San Antonio's success against LeBron during the past two Finals has been their painstaking effort to push his average shot distance further and further back; the blueprint against LeBron late in playoff games is to aggressively collapse in order to force him into a tough shot or a pass.
Psychologically speaking, it's important that a failure by one or the other to hit a clutch shot when the game is on the line doesn't take them out of their element. A miss by LeBron or Kyrie will get the media buzzards circling; if nothing else, a my turn-your turn iso offense will put LeBron and Kyrie's relationship to the test. There's no reason to think they couldn't pull through it, especially given all the drama of the first two months of the season, but it's something to be aware of nonetheless.
For the Cavs, getting their third piece of the puzzle locked in during crunch time could give the opposition much more to think about than just LeBron or Kyrie handling the ball. Cleveland has attempted 50 shots in the last two minutes of one possession games this season; LeBron has 19 of those, Kyrie 16, and no one else on the roster has tried more than Kevin Love's six. While the Cavs' crunchtime offense is already outstanding, spreading things out a bit more evenly might help everyone out, and make Cleveland's clutch play essentially unguardable.
3. Transition defense
In mid-February, I did a Synergy Sports deep dive into the Cavaliers' potential Eastern Conference playoff matchups. The main themes? Cleveland 's offense would pose problems for just about everyone, their post-up and pick and roll defense was better than many give them credit for, and most importantly, their transition defense could use some improvement.
Two months later, that analysis holds up. Given who Cleveland will likely face in the Eastern Conference Finals (Atlanta) and two of the teams who could come out of the West (Golden State and San Antonio), their transition defense will be almost certainly be tested in April, May and June. While having an efficient offense (check) and limiting live-ball turnovers (league-average, so, half-check) ought to lead to an easier time defending fastbreak attacks, the Cavs still struggle with it. Overall, Cleveland is 23rd in the league in transition defense and 16th at defending spot-up shots.
Each member of Atlanta's main lineup (Teague, Korver, Carroll, Millsap, Horford) is capable of starting run outs. Once they're moving, Teague is adept at taking the ball to the hole, while Korver, Carroll and Millsap are able to fill in along the perimeter to knock down threes (seriously, look at how ridiculous their effective field goal percentages in transition are). Golden State is a flying death machine, first in the league in offensive rating, pace, and points per possession on spot-up chances while ranking 4th overall in transition scoring. Stephen Curry can hit shots from anywhere, be it off the dribble or on a catch-and-shoot, and Klay Thompson can hustle down the floor to spot up, all while Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes or Andre Iguodala either do the same or run to the rim. And while San Antonio hasn't put up stellar transition numbers during the regular season, Patty Mills, Danny Green and Manu Ginobili absolutely destroyed the Heat last season by beating them down off of misses and manufacturing clean looks from outside. The Spurs' playoff offense has a tendency to kick things into a higher, faster, frighteningly efficient gear.
Unlike Love's back issues and the usage of Kyrie and LeBron in iso ball at the ends of games, this particular shortcoming is difficult to narrow down to one player. Getting back in transition is a team effort; it requires hustle, communication and discipline. While it's true that crunch time possessions rarely include transition plays, the Cavs' weakness in this area could leave them prone to mid-game leads evaporating in a hurry.
But if Cleveland is able to shore up their fastbreak defense, and Kevin Love's back holds up, and LeBron and Kyrie continue to make plays in isolation at the ends of close games, the Cavaliers will be in a prime spot to capture a title...
A thought that would've seemed impossibly optimistic when they woke up a game under .500 on the morning of January 15th. And yet, the playoffs begin a week and a half from now, and those lofty expectations are more than warranted.