Is Cleveland the Favorite to Win the Title?

 

atl_cle_endBy MICHAEL DAY

The Cleveland Cavaliers completed the first two rounds of the playoffs without suffering a defeat. Not only are the Cavs sweeping the competition, but they are also winning in fine style, featuring a record-breaking three-point shooting performance in Game Two of the previous series against the Atlanta Hawks. Naturally, the expectations are rising among fans and critics (oh, I mean sports writers) that the Cleveland Cavaliers are now the favorite to win the title. While Cleveland has definitely established that they are the best team in the Eastern Conference, they are not better than the Western Conference’s best teams, so let’s tap the brakes on this theme.

Since most people are consumed with a team’s latest performance, it is not surprising that the opinions of the Cavaliers’ chances of winning the title skyrocketed, but it is time to put this last series win in the proper context. Were the Cavs impressive? Yes. Is beating Atlanta anywhere near as difficult as beating the Warriors, Spurs, etc.? No, not even close. Cleveland is Atlanta’s kryptonite.

What Atlanta likes to do offensively, Cleveland can defend. Both Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder are good off the dribble, get in the lane, and finish around the basket. This is okay as long as Cleveland is playing Kevin Love at the five; however, this option isn’t as inviting with Tristan Thompson playing the five as evidenced by Thompson’s crucial block on Schroder’s fourth quarter layup attempt. If Thompson is in the lane, the next logical move in today’s NBA is to pass the ball out to a three-point shooter – a page from Cleveland’s offensive playbook. Besides Korver, who is that option for Teague and Schroder? Atlanta’s most consistent scorer, Paul Millsap, does his best work as a traditional power forward. Al Horford’s three-point shooting is improving, but it is not consistent enough to count on in playoff games. Surprisingly, Kent Bazemore hoisted the most three’s, and he owns a woeful three-point shooting percentage (26.2). Thabo Sefolosha actually shot 36.8 percent from the three-point line for this year’s playoffs, which is decent, but his career playoff number is 29. Basically, Cleveland could play the traditional help defense with an additional defender providing support for Kevin Love when Millsap broke free without inviting a three-point barrage, which is a huge advantage for Cleveland when they are raining down three-point baskets like there is no tomorrow. It’s like taking a boxer’s best punch, smiling back, and then delivering a punch that inflicts twice as much pain.

Cleveland’s three-point shooting percentage will return closer to its average. How much better did Cleveland shoot from the three-point line regarding their normal averages? Well, one example is that Kyrie Irving and J.R. Smith had a better three-point percentage than field-goal percentage. Here are the career versus playoff three-point percentages listed for the players that shot a significant amount of three’s so far in this year’s playoff run.

Career 3-pt %

Playoff 3-pt%

Kyrie Irving

37.8

53.8

J.R. Smith

37.5

50.8

LeBron James

31.8

31.6

Kevin Love

36.3

44.4

Channing Frye

38.6

57.1

36.4

47.5

Almost everyone shot better in this year’s playoffs than their career averages, and even a person with poor math skills can see that when a team shoots and makes more three’s than their average, the chances of winning are greatly increased. At some point; however, with more games played, the shooting percentages should return closer to the averages. Obviously, this means fewer points scored.

Name the star offensive players the Cavs have had to defend in the first two playoff series… Paul Millsap? Who else is on deck from the Eastern Conference? A hobbled Miami team with an aging Dwayne Wade, or how about a slumping Kyle Lowry and Demar Derozan from the Raptors? None of those teams possess any type of the offensive players Golden State, Oklahoma City, and San Antonio offer. The difference is that when their guards beat Kyrie off the dribble, and they will, there are legitimate three-point shooters available, so the help defense that slowed down Atlanta’s offense isn’t as effective. If Cleveland goes small and plays Love at the five, what happens when he can’t handle the post player? The post player either scores or kicks the ball out to a player who can actually make three’s. Channing Frye provided a nice scoring punch of the bench this past series, but does anyone think he can rotate out to defend perimeter shooters if he is paired with Thompson? Can he defend a legitimate post threat if he is paired with Love? How does he even get on the floor against Golden State, should the Warriors make the NBA Finals?

Speaking of defending, who has LeBron had to guard that would require serious effort on the defensive end of the court? So far, LeBron has avoided having to expend a ton of energy there. No one would say that Thabo Sefolosha ranked as an offensive force. J.R. Smith did most of the chasing around screens to defend Kyle Korver. LeBron was able to spend the minimum amount of energy defending his man, which allowed him to leave that responsibility during critical possessions to help out the interior defense. (Please see his defensive stop against Schroder on Atlanta’s last possession during Game Four.) This worked against Atlanta, but it won’t work against teams that have other options (e.g. Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Golden State’s floor spacing with players who can actually make three’s, etc.) How many times can LeBron deliver the “Superstar Performance” when forced to play both ends of the court? This is year 13 for him.

To consider the Cavs the favorite, the following game events are required to happen against better competition.

  • LeBron and Kyrie will have to continue their pick-and-roll mastery and find open shooters with ease so that their three-point-shooting will stay as effective as it was this past series, which will allow them to outscore their opponent from the three-point line. This also includes a consistent, better than average three-point shooting percentage from J.R. Smith, a player whose bio description does not normally include consistent.

  • LeBron plays the dominant superstar role on both ends of the court, so they won’t get punished with Love’s defensive liabilities at the five, and he can make all of the critical buckets when required. Again, LeBron is in year 13 and will get taxed more on the defensive end in the NBA Finals.

  • Frye continues to provide a scoring boost from the three-point line. Maybe Frye can stay on the court long enough to contribute on the offensive end, but I saw him slowly rotate out to a three-point shooter during Game Four of the Atlanta series, and the shot was made. The difference in that game versus the upcoming NBA Finals is that the opposing team in the finals will make more of those shots.

Could all this happen? Sure, but since the Cavs don’t get to play Atlanta or the rest of the Eastern Conference teams in the NBA Finals, it is not the logical conclusion, which is the requirement of a team favored to win the title.



Categories: NBA

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