The Cavs’ Competition: Breaking Down the Eastern Conference Contenders


Now that we’ve hit the regular season’s two-thirds mark, we have a pretty good idea who will be in the Eastern Conference playoffs. So we figured it would be fun to breakdown the competition and imagine how the Eastern Conference might play out.

Dark Horses (6th, 7th & 8th slots)

Miami Heat. (22-30) Were looking at fight with Charlotte and Pacers for last slots before Thursday’s trades put them in much better position.

Strengths: They grabbed one of the league’s most dominant shot-blockers, Hassan Whiteside, off the D-League trash heap, giving them the center they’ve lacked since Shaq had his brief tenure. Bosh has savored being the #1 scoring option, getting five more shots/gm playing the elbow, posting the second-best shooting % (at least 2 fga/gm) from 10’-14’, where he got less than a shot/gm and shot 41% last year. The addition of 28-year old allstar PG Goran Dragic for the contents of a junk drawer and distant first rounders was a coup that boosts their prospects dramatically

Weaknesses: Offense is only mediocre (12th best eFG%, 20th in PPP) and the defense is much worse (20th Def. PPP, 25th Def. eFG%).They still create a lot of turnovers (15.7, 10th) but they give away even more (15.9, 25th). This isn’t the strong defensive team of the LeBron years either, and Dragic’s average-below average D won’t change that. They allow the 5th highest opp. eFG% and the 10th lowest PPP. Integrating Dragic into the offense in time for the playoffs will e a challenge as well. Nor does Dragic fix the 10th worst defensive rebounding team, and produce the second-fewest fastbreak points in the league.

Prognosis: The addition of Dragic adds some needed firepower to a mediocre, overly deliberate offense, but doesn’t solve their rebounding, defense or transition offense issues. If they’re clicking they could be a first round nightmare, but there are too many issues and too much wear on these tires to go too far.

Indiana Pacers. (21-33) The Pacers didn’t tank or at least not well enough, which is a challenge in the Eastern Conference, and now find a playoff spot in reach with Paul George on the verge of coming back.

Strengths: A lot like the Hornets, the Pacers are a team that excels playing position defense, but doesn’t create many turnovers. They’ve allowed the 4th lowest points-in-the-paint, and is 9th in opp. eFG is 48.6%, just behind the Hawks and Bucks.

Weaknesses: Ballhandling remains suspect. They make 1.6 more turnover than they create and allow the 10th most points on turnovers in the league. (The Cavs are right behind them.) Their offense is just a mess (26th eFG, 27th PPP). They take a LOT of midrange jumpers (5th, behind Knicks, Lakers, Wizards and Hornets) making 41.8% which is 10th best in the league, but also take the 3rd fewest shots from within 5’ (Heat, Knicks worse) which they convert at the 7th worst rate. (Surprisingly, the Bulls and Hornets make even less of their close shots.)

Prognosis: The addition of Paul George presumably shores up some of their scoring weakness, though even with George they’ve exhibited a subpar offense. However, if they can get a shot at Toronto, Washington or maybe the Bulls, they could stage a first round upset.

Milwaukee Bucks. (30-23) The surprise team of the season, Coach Jason Kidd has them playing hard, propelled by the continued growth of their young core. The Bucks play well at both ends and anyone that underestimates them does so at their own peril.

Strengths: Athleticism. With long lean young players like the Greek Freak, John Henson, Kris Middleton, and now Michael Carter-Williams, they’ve managed to post the third-most points off TO in the league (behind Golden State and Dallas), and the fourth most fastbreak points, and they’ve allowed the least of their own, a league-leading 8.5 point swing. They’ve got a very good defense (7th opp. eFG%, 2nd PPP) that excels at defending the 10’-14’ (#1) and 15’-19’ (#3) midrange shots many teams (see, Chicago) live on.

Weaknesses: Their offense is opportunistic because it’s not real dynamic. (17th PPP, 7th eFG%). They’re the league’s third-best three-point shooting team by percentage, but take the 6th fewest shots from range. They take the fourth most shots within 5’, but make them at a middling 12th best rate. They have the 2nd highest turnover rate behind the 76ers. They’re foul-prone (7th most FTA/gm) and poor defensive rebounders (3rd highest Opp. Off. Reb. Rate).

Prognosis: Kidd has these guys playing so well, they recall Indiana a few years ago – hungry and dangerous. They could advance with the right match-up, such as the Wizards, who terrible offensive rebounders and don’t force many turnovers. (For those same reasons, Toronto is a bad match-up for them.) The trade of Knight for Plumlee and Williams adds defensive moxie and more length and athleticism, but at the cost of offense they might have a hard time replacing. That said, Williams style is much more similar to Kidd’s own, and well-suited to the up-and-down game Milwaukee (4th in fastbreak points) likes to play.

True Contenders.

Washington Wizards. (33-21) Probably the weakest of the contenders and currently the 4th seed, just ahead of the Cavs. They’ve endured a lot of injuries, which has held them back. They’re an older team (7 players north of 30) that sometimes seems to play worse than the sum of their parts.

Strengths: A stout defense that has allowed the 2nd fewest shots within 5’ (Charlotte was #1) and the fewest points in the paint in the league (Pacers and Hornets are #2 and #3). They’ve also allowed the 7th fewest fastbreak points while holding opponents to the 5th lowest eFG% and PPP. Third-best defensive rebounding team after Hornets and Pacers.

Weaknesses: They’re just not that great offensively (14th PPP, 10th eFG%), and not real imposing inside. They’re 21st at Points in the Paint, 18th in second chance points, and have the 8th highest Turnover ratio. They’re also one of the worst “Clutch” teams in the league, boasting a net -10 point differential per 100 possessions in those circumstances, while playing the 6th most such minutes. (The Hornets played the 7th most and were nearly as bad (-9), the Mavericks are a league best +30, Warriors half a point behind, followed by the Hawks (+24) and Blazers (+15).)

Prognosis: The players – Nene, Paul Pierce, Bradley Beal, John Wall, Marcin Gortat – seem capable of more than they’ve produced. That lineup has produced an extraordinary 55.6% eFG, 10th best in the league behind only Atlanta and Cleveland’s regular (w/JR & T-Mo) starting lineups in the East. While not as good defensively, it has the firepower to pose anyone a problem when clicking. However those clutch woes loom large.

Toronto Raptors. (36-17) The Raptors have played seven more home games than road games, so while they’ve posted a 65% road winning record during the seasons first two-thirds, they’re record’s a bit deceiving. They’re the opposite of the Wizards, looking a lot less talented than the record or stats suggest.

Strengths: Toronto gets into the paint (8th paint pts) and to the line (4th best) where they make them (4th). They create a lot of 2nd chance points (5th) and points of turnovers (10th). All that contributes to their high scoring (4th PPP) and shooting rates.(7th eFG%).

Weaknesses: For all their inside beef, they’re not very good defensively inside. They allow the 8th highest rate of points in the paint, and the 6th highest number of shots within 5’/game. They’re also 4th worst at defending the 15-19’ shot (Cavs are 5th worst) which typically accounts for more shots than any other region other than up-close. They allow the 9th-highest eFG% (Cavs are 10th), have the 7th highest foul rate, allow a lot of offensive rebound (7th highest rate), though are only 18th in defensive PPP. (The Cavs are 23rd for the season.)

Prognosis: As explosive as their guards are the lack of effective front court offense is going to be an issue in the playoffs when their guards are not able to get the pull-up jump shots (#2 in rate, 25th in FG%) and penetration (#8 in drives/gm, #1 in drive FG%) they rely on. Their defense also doesn’t seem good enough for a long playoff run.

Chicago Bulls. (34-20). At 25-10 on Jan. 6, they looked like challengers to the Hawks (26-8 at that point). Then they lost 10 of 15 in January and early February. They’ve got 11 losses at home more than any winning team other than Phoenix. But they won their last four going into the break, including a victory over our boys, suggesting that perhaps they have turned the corner after their skid.

Strengths: Much better offensively than they’ve been in years, with a high scoring (8th in PPP), three-point shooting (8th best 3 FG%), and free-throw shooting (#2 attempts, #3 FT%) machine. They grab more contested rebounds than anyone but the Pelicans, and their offensive rebound rate is better than anyone in the Eastern Conference.

Weaknesses: For all their size, they’re 20th at points in paint, 27th (!!!!!) at converting shots within 5’, and they’re getting shots blocked than anyone in the league. That’s KILLING them, because they’re getting a lot of them (7th most). They’re also mediocre midrange shooters from 10’-14’ (#23) and 15’-19’ (#15). Their defense is good (#3 in Opp. eFG%) but not as great as it was (13th in PPP). They’re only 12th in Opp. FG% at the rim, they’ve allowed 7th most shots within 5’ (though opponents have converted them at 5th lowest FG% in league). They aren’t creating vary many turnovers (#29) and are 18th in fastbreak points.

Prognosis: They’ve been very good all year but for one stretch where they were BAD. They traded some defense for offense with their offseason additions, and it’s unclear whether the trade-off was worth it, though it seems easier to manufacture defensive intensity than offensive skill. That said, their failures near the basket offensively have to be troubling, and for all his skill Rose doesn’t seem to make his teammates that much better.

Team To Beat.

Atlanta Hawks. (43-11) After all the off-season furor and the team being put up for sale, nobody expected this kind of performance, though Coach Mike Budenholzer coached the team well and they took the Pacers to the limit in the first round last year. Now, they look even better than the Cavaliers, at least for the moment.

Strengths: Like the Spurs, the Hawks are a great passing team, behind only the Warriors and Spurs in secondary or “hockey” assists (the pass that preceded that pass to get the basket). They lead the league in % of shots featuring an assist (67.6, Cavs are 16th at 58.2). They’re arguably the league’s best mid & long range shooters (2nd in 15’-19’ FG% behind Cavs, 1st in 20-24’ FG%, #1 in 3pt%) thanks to that ball movement. They’re 6th in the league in points of turnovers, and 7th in forcing turnovers. They have the third-best point differential during clutch time. Their defense is strong from three-point% (7th) to 20’-24’ (#1) to midrange 10’-19’ (#8). This adds up to a really good defense (#7 in PPP, #8 in eFG%).

Weaknesses: You don’t get the second-best record in the league while harbor a lot of flaws, but they’re there. They allow the second most second-chance points in the league – something Cavaliers bigs will look to exploit should they meet in the playoffs. They aren’t particularly opportunistic either. They’re also 20th in fastbreak points and 21st in points in the paint. They also have some trouble inside where they’ve allowed the 10th-worst FG% defense at the rim. Their Achilles heel is their penetration. They make the third most drives in the league, but at a 14th-best rate.

Prognosis: These weaknesses translate into a couple things. The Hawks are vulnerable to offensive length that hits the offensive boards (Bulls, Cavs), and they don’t have a strong inside game of their own relying heavily on their 3point shooting thanks to ball movement and their ability to drive. Bottle up their penetration and it will be a lot harder to get those open looks. Their heavily reliance on jump shots has to be troubling for them since those tend to be much better contested come playoff time.

Quick Playoff Prognostication

Heat-Hawks. While the Heat will be improved, it’s unclear if they’ll be able to mesh quickly enough to grab the seventh slot from a Pacers team with better chemistry and a weaker schedule. The Heat don’t have enough physicality to take the Hawks out of their game, and they’re not good enough defensively to slow down their very efficient offense. Milsap versus Bosh will be a hoot, but Korver-Teague will prove more effective than Wade-Dragic. Hawks in six.

Pacers-Bulls. The Pacers have a friendly schedule the rest of the way, and with George back they should prevail in the race for seventh. (The Bucks are simply too far ahead for the also-rans to catch.) Their interior size will pose problems for the Bulls, but Butler is a defensive match for George and Rose is more than George Hill can handle. Bulls in six.

Bucks-Cavs. Would not be surprised to see the Bucks win a couple games in this matchup, but they simply don’t have the talent to match-up. But don’t you want to watch the Greek Freak guarding LeBron?? New PG Williams won’t be able to do anything with Kyrie Irving, and the Bucks frontcourt is lacking compared to Kevin Love-Timofey Mozgov. Cavs in five.

Wizards-Raptors. This would be a great series, especially Kyle Lowry versus John Wall. Not sure the Raptors’ excellent backcourt can make up for their frontcourt lack. The Wizards’ playoff experience is the trump card here. Wizards in seven.


Wizards-Hawks. The Hawks simply have too much for whomever comes out of the 4/5 matchup, in all likelihood, unless they somehow meet a hot team with good interior scoring (Bulls, Pacers). Hawks in five.

Cavs-Bulls. This will be an epic match-up. As they showed before the break, they have no awe, and will play physical, in-your-face basketball. The Cavs must step up and show the same aggression without allowing their bigs to get in trouble. Doubt they can get the enough output from Snell/Dunleavy to win the series. Cavaliers in seven.

Conference Finals.

Cavs-Hawks. Not convinced the Hawks will have a huge advantage at home, the real question is how the Cavaliers handle the road and pressure. As a team the Cavaliers have played the third-fewest “clutch” minutes in the league. The Hawks are all about efficiency, so disrupting what they do and playing physical will be key, and after the bruising Bulls series, the Cavs ought to be geared up for it. If the Cavs can consistently out-physical the Hawks and don’t lose their defensive focus, they should be well-matched to beat them. Indeed, to my eyes, the Bulls are a much tougher match-up for the Cavs. Cavs in six.

The addition of Mozgov and Smith change the whole season, and the fit was as good as anyone could’ve wished for. The potential addition of Ray Allen should make the Cavs favorites for the Conference though the team’s limited frontcourt options outside Love/Thompson/Mozgov pose a real issue should there be an injury, foul trouble or both, as we saw against the Bulls.

The stretch run kicks off against Washington on Friday. I’ll be following the game live and tweeting video. You can follow me @CRS_1ne and ready my take on the game on Saturday on the Cleveland Scene blog.

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