In this series, I will be looking at the teams that are considered contenders and discuss their strengths and weaknesses. While it is still early in the season and it is hard to tell how teams will look at the end of the season, I will take into account previous history of play and capability of turning around. Basically teams that despite struggling (like the Rockets or Clippers) will eventually turn it around. To start this series I’ll analyze the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Why Cleveland will win a championship:
When it was heard Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert would miss extended time, a lot of people started guessing the Cavaliers would struggle in the early going. Well, despite the team-only meetings and what was considered the 5th best schedule, they have started strong with a 13-6 record. They are top 10 in both points per game (8th) and points allowed per game (6th). What was a stagnant offense last season with LeBron James isolation, is now an offense much closer to what we thought David Blatt would bring with ball movement and always looking for the best possible shot, ranking 6th in field goal percentage. This has led to a more involved team, especially Kevin Love who, struggling to adapt last season, is now putting up some pretty decent numbers (some would argue All-star numbers) with 18.9 points and 11.5 rebounds, while also improving on defense. LeBron has been LeBron boasting all-around numbers, that while it may seem natural to him are pretty rare in the NBA (26 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game) and taking over in late game situations (just last game against the Pelicans he nearly pulled off a one-man comeback with 23 fourth quarter points, and he is hitting some clutch free-throws despite his overall percentage). Tristan Thompson doesn’t seem to have missed a beat from the holdout, JR Smith will be JR Smith and Timofey Mozgov adds the interior defensive presence they need. They also have a relatively decent bench, one that will get even better with a healthy Irving and Shumpert (sending Mo Williams and perhaps JR to the bench). The addition of a top-10 point guard in Kyrie that can take over games may just be the final piece LeBron and the Cavaliers need to take over, while Shumpert adds a solid perimeter defense that allows James to take some possessions off. As far as circumstances go, the East is stronger this season. Miami, Indiana and Atlanta are playing very well and the road to the finals will not be as easy as last season. Chicago is still trying to find rhythm not being able to take over on offense under Hoiberg as many expected. However, even without two possible starters, the Cavaliers have one of the best records in the East, so they seem to be favourites to coming out of there yet again.
Out west it’s a different world. The Warriors are dominating this season but come playoff time, the Spurs and Thunder would like to have a word with them. Honestly, I believe the Spurs are a more dangerous team to LeBron because they know him pretty well. The Warriors, while they would have a chip on their shoulder, would face the wrath of James presumably with two All-Star sidekicks by his side, which could be too much for Curry and his boys.
Why Cleveland will not win a championship:
While the overall record is pretty encouraging and numbers tell us the Cavaliers are playing nearly elite basketball, there is still a sense that they are missing something like what Lebron James called “hunger”. They fail to take over games early, and fail to close them quickly which has led to close games against teams that should have been dispatched by halftime, such as the 76ers and Nets (sorry Philly and Brooklyn fans but you know what I mean). While wins against Atlanta, Indiana and Miami were encouraging, losses to the Bucks and Wizards were just disappointing.
They still do not have a solid interior presence, ranking outside of the top-10 in both rebounding and blocked shots, while raking in the middle of the pack in field goal percentage (16th) and three point percentage (11th). This has led to a defensive rating just outside of the top-10 (11th) which needs to improve if they want to win a championship. Despite the more fluid offense, we are witnessing it is still all about LeBron (who has been awful from long range). In close games, the ball is always in his hands and we have seen, in games like against the Pelicans, that when he is double and triple teamed and passes out no one is willing to take late-game shots and those who take them are missing those shots. This is concerning and while Irving returning could solve some of these woes they are still one injury away from being again back to this. For all the improvement I lauded Love earlier, he still looks lost on defense at times and other times on offense he just stands there waiting for a bullet pass from LeBron for a three-pointer (this is also on LeBron and Blatt). Smith will shoot either in or out of a game, as we all know about his inconsistent self. Delly has improved his offense, but is still very limited on that end (on the other hand Mo Williams is limited on the other side of the ball). The issue of assuming that everything is going to be alright when Irving and Shumpert return also has their flaws as they may take time to get back in rhythm and may re-injure (I hope not for the sake of the Cavaliers).
Now the context. The East is getting stronger. Very strong. Miami’s experience can be the Cavaliers biggest test and Paul George-led small ball Pacers can go toe-to-toe with them as far as scoring goes. Chicago is always a good dose of health away from making damage in the playoffs. And the bottom of the East has improved so do not expect the Cavaliers to just cruise in the first round. All of this may lead to a path to the finals that is going to be very demanding for this team. This is not even the biggest test.
In the West, a team that is gunning for a repeat and may be the best regular season team ever with a 20-game win streak to start the season.The Golden State Warriors are just on another level and if Curry can maintain his level alongside with his teammates they may very well destroy everyone who stands in their way. We also have the Thunder with arguably two top-five players in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and their deepest team ever, which can match up against anyone. Then we have the same old Spurs who continue to define logic and keep winning with one of their best starting fives in history, and both of these two are getting ready to take down the Warriors and then whoever comes out of the East with a grinding style.
By: Step Back J