Guest Post: A First Look at the Eastern Conference Playoffs

Cleveland Cavaliers Huddle Houston RocketsWith a stellar 38-11 record, the Cleveland Cavaliers currently lead the Eastern Conference by a large margin as well as hold the top mark in the NBA. But before we get way too ahead of ourselves, who could Cleveland realistically play in the first round of the NBA Playoffs? That is the topic for today’s first Cavs post, as guest writer Matt Manuszak, a student at Fordham University in New York City, previews four possible first-round playoff opponents.

These teams are currently the #’s 5-8 teams in the Eastern Conference and represent a wide variety of scenarios for the next two months plus of the regular season. The Cavaliers are no lock for the top seed in the conference, and this article depicts that by analyzing the matchups, breakdowns and previous meetings with all four of these teams.

You can follow Matt on Twitter @the_real_matt_m. You can also check out his content at The Ram, the newspaper at Fordham University where he writes a regular column titled “The Smush Parker Project.” Yes, that Smush Parker. He is the first and only player in history to play for the Fordham Rams and then Matt’s beloved Cavaliers, hence the name for the column. His analysis is below the jump and he’ll be back next week with a look at some potential opponents in the later rounds of the playoffs:

Cleveland Cavs (38-11) vs Miami Heat (24-24)
Previous Matchups: 11/12: CLE 111 – MIA 104 [Box] and 1/25: CLE 92 – MIA 91 [Box]

Likelihood Percentage: Through Sunday’s games, Miami had 24.1% chance of #4 or #5 seed, 26.8% chance of #6 seed, 26.5% chance of #7 seed and 15.3% of #8 seed
= PROBABILITY OF MAKING PLAYOFFS 92.9% (includes remote chance at #1-3 seed)

Series Breakdown: Clearly, a series against the Heat would be an entertaining one: the matchup of LeBron and D-Wade would definitely produce some memorable playoff games, since their regular season matchups have probably been more entertaining than games between LeBron and any of his other “rivals.” The November matchup between these two teams featured a pace slightly above league average, as Mo and LeBron combined to score over 50% of the team’s points in a game in which both teams shot well from the floor and shot tons of free throws (77 combined).

Dwyane WadeThe matchup this past week, conversely, was played at a snail’s pace, as no-Mo ball for the Cavs consisted of lots of iso-based offense for LeBron and Shaq, who combined for 51. While Mo will be back by the playoffs, look for this game to be a doppelganger of sorts for a possible series, since the pace does tend to decrease in the playoffs. The Heat can score down low with the troika of Jermaine O’Neal, Michael Beasley, and Udonis Haslem, but they are all undersized for their positions. Jermaine can’t guard Shaq, and while Joel Anthony is an excellent shot blocker (he leads the league in block %), he isn’t a great on-ball defender (a rather bland 105 defensive rating). The Cavs would likely continue to try to isolate Shaq on Jermaine or LeBron on Quentin Richardson, since a one on one matchup would be a bucket or foul for both players, and a double-team would be open shots for Mo and the guard gang.

Wade will eventually shift to LeBron on defense, and while he does post some gaudy defensive numbers (almost 3 “stocks” per game, to use some Simmons parlance), most of those come as a help-side defender. Wade isn’t a great on-ball defender- certainly not as good as LeBron- and he is simply not tall enough to guard the King for an extended period of time. Defensively, the Cavs would likely start AP on Wade and look to trap him with double-teams in a scheme that was effective last time. In crunch time, look for LeBron to put the clamps on Wade and force him to become an inefficient jump shooter. While the Heat and Cavs usually play closely in the regular season, the Heat simply are too small to match up with the Cavs: Cavs in 5.

Cleveland Cavs (38-11) vs. Chicago Bulls (23-22)
Previous Matchups: 11/5: CLE 85 – CHI 86 [Box] and 12/4: CLE 101 – CHI 87 [Box]

Likelihood Percentage: Through Sunday’s games, Chicago had 4.3% chance of #4 or #5 seed, 8.9% chance of #6 seed, 16.8% chance of #7 seed and 34.0% of #8 seed
= PROBABILITY OF MAKING PLAYOFFS 63.9% (includes remote chance at #1-3 seed)

Series Breakdown: The Bulls, to me, are a rather interesting matchup. Defensively, the Bulls are solid (9th in defensive rating): Noah is a great defensive center and rebounder (4th in the league in rebounding %), Luol Deng is one of the more underrated wing defenders in the league and uses his freakish 7 ft. wingspan to bother shots, and Tyrus Thomas (if he gets minutes) is a combustible blend of hops and length who can change a game on defense with his shot-blocking ability. Having said that (with apologies to Larry David), the Bulls are terrible offensively (27th in offensive rating).

Their best interior offensive threats are Brad Miller, arguably the slowest and whitest player in the NBA, and Taj Gibson, a solid yet unspectacular rookie forward. Luol Deng can score, but he is pretty inefficient (only a 48% efg) and takes a lot of long two-pointers, generally considered the least efficient shots possible. John Salmons thinks he’s Kobe Bryant with his jump-shooting but just isn’t: chill out, John Salmons. And All-Star Derrick Rose, who is playing pretty well, has simply refused to attack the basket and get to the line as much this year (only 3.9 FTA per game and a 48% efg) and has become more of a jump-shooter.

While most games between these two teams would likely be Cavs blowouts similar to their December tilt, the Bulls defense is good enough that a few games in this series could be close. In November, both Shaq and LeBron played well, but Mo, Z, and Delonte combined to shoot just 5-27 from the floor. Essentially, if we hit our threes, we beat the Bulls: if we don’t there, could be some close games. I really hate to oversimplify like that, but it really is that simple: the Bulls aren’t going to evolve into a knockout offensive unit overnight, so if the Cavs’ supporting cast steps up, the Cavs will blow the Bulls out: Cavs in 5. (Note: this is a game in which a “stretch-4 type would help.”)

Cleveland Cavs (38-11) vs Charlotte Bobcats (24-23)
Previous Matchups: 10/31 CLE 90 – CHA 79 [Box], 11/27 CLE 87 – CHA 94 [Box] and 1/3 CLE 88 – CHA 91 [Box]

Likelihood Percentage: Through Sunday’s games, Charlotte had 40.2% chance of #4 or #5 seed, 27.1% chance of #6 seed, 18.8% chance of #7 seed and 9.7% of #8 seed
= PROBABILITY OF MAKING PLAYOFFS 96.2% (includes remote chance at #1-3 seed)

Series Breakdown: In the same way that the Cavs first few weeks must be taken with a grain of salt, so too should the Bobcats’ games before they acquired Stephen Jackson. The first meeting between these two squads was a rather easy Cavs romp, an 11-point victory in which the Cavs shot a ridiculous 65% efg. However, the two meetings since then, both of which were losses for the Wine and Gold, deserve a closer glance.

Gerald WallaceThe Four Factors, a method designed by statistician Dean Oliver, are meant to measure the four stats that most closely associate with victory: efg%, turnover %, offensive rb%, and the ratio of FTA to FGA. In both of the losses, the breakdown of the four factors were identical: while the Cavs held a large offensive rebounding advantage, the Bobcats were better at shooting, limiting turnovers, and getting to the line. While the Bobcats are a pretty poor team offensively, they are a top-3 team defensively. Their philosophy is focused on contesting three-point shots and trying to limit penetration and not fouling: no easy task, but Charlotte has the horses to execute. Gerald Wallace has stayed healthy enough to earn some national recognition this year due to his rebounding and athleticism, but his defense is extremely stingy (he has a defensive rating of 98, good for second in the NBA behind Dwight Howard).

LeBron only had two and four FTAs in our two losses, which is well below his per-game average of 10. Raymond Felton is an extremely underrated guard (50% efg, solid defense), Nazr Mohammed is having a career year (21.4 PER due to a 56% efg and 18% RB, along with good on-ball defense), and Boris Diaw, though a bit advanced in age, still defends the pick-and-roll better than anyone this side of Anderson Varejao. And Stephen Jackson has emerged as the so-called leader for this team, emerging as the prime offensive option and playing surprisingly efficient offense as well as defense.

The problem for Captain Jack has always been effort, and Larry Brown has apparently motivated the former Warrior as well as the rest of the roster. Remember, Jackson has played the role of giant-killer before with Golden State, so this would be a very scary matchup. To beat Charlotte, the Cavs have to value our offensive possessions more to limit turnovers and get to the line. If Shaq and LeBron can draw some early fouls and get the Cavs in the bonus, that will help. Also, Mo or Delonte will have to step up: the Bobcats have the ability in Wallace and Mohammed to guard Shaq and LeBron nearly one-on-one as well as anyone in this league, so MoLonte will have to create shots. While this will be a slow, defensively-oriented, physical series, the Cavs should escape: Cavs in 6.

Cleveland Cavs (38-11) vs Toronto Raptors (25-22)
Previous Matchups: 10/28: CLE 91 – TOR 101 [Box] and 1/19: CLE 108 – TOR 100 [Box]

Likelihood Percentage: Through Sunday’s games, Toronto had 28.9% chance of #4 or #5 seed, 30.0% chance of #6 seed, 24.5% chance of #7 seed and 11.8% of #8 seed
= PROBABILITY OF MAKING PLAYOFFS 95.4% (includes remote chance at #1-3 seed)

Series Breakdown: The Toronto Raptors are the exact opposite of the Chicago Bulls. I know, I know, another oversimplification, but stay with me here. The Raptors are an excellent offensive team (4th in offensive rating): Chris Bosh is an absolute terror (24 ppg, 25.9 PER), scoring at will on almost anyone from 20 ft and in, Andrea Bargnani is an excellent-shooting big man who creates mismatches, and Hedo “Ball” Turkoglu, although rather inefficient this year, is definitely someone who the Cavs have had trouble with in the past. Having said that, the Raptors are terrible, defensively. Although they’ve improved a bit since November, they still allow 112.4 points per 100 possessions, worst in the NBA.

Bosh works hard on defense but struggles with his lack of size, Bargnani has improved but is still not good enough to guard most opposing centers (112 defensive rating), and Jose Calderon gives Derek Fisher a run worst defensive starting guard in the league. Our loss against them in October now appears to be a bit of an aberration, since we were still figuring out how best to utilize our new off-season acquisitions, including Shaq. Defensively, our much-maligned “Twin Towers” lineup of Z and Shaq was run ragged by the quicker Bargnani and Bosh, who combined for 49. The Cavs shot an anemic 40% efg, which is among their worst shooting nights of the season: that will not happen again, especially in a playoff setting.

We can stop their frontcourt with heavy doses of Varejao, using Shaq mostly on the offensive end and letting Varejao expend his energy guarding Bosh (similar to how the Cavs dealt with the Pacers, where Shaq wreaked havoc offensively and Varejao contained the quick Troy Murphy on the other end while Shaq essentially relaxed. On offense, we should be able to penetrate effectively on offense and work through the post, as no one on their roster can guard LeBron, Shaq, or even Mo one-on-one. Again, the Raptors offense could make a game or two close, but this should be a Cavs sweep: Cavs in 4.

(Lead photo of the team is from David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images. Picture of Dwyane Wade and Erik Spoelstra is from Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images and the photo of Gerald Wallace is from Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

  • Jack

    A first-round series against the Cats scares me…LeBron has trouble breaking down the G-Wall.

  • Kunal

    Good article, I agree with Jack, the Bobcats are pretty scary at this point

  • 5KMD

    No worries guys. Playing the Cats in the regular season and then in the playoffs will be 2 completely different situations. No way the Cavs lose that series. Remember the Atlanta sweep last year? same kind of thing.

  • todd

    this might sound weird but im hoping for a more competitive first two rounds than we had last year — i think it’s part of the reason the cavs were stunned when the magic showed up to play.

  • JP

    just some quick input on the Raptors section, get your facts straight, Calderon isn’t starting, Jack is a good defensive PG(who can guard Mo) and Varejao might be able to give one of Bosh or Bargnani trouble but he can’t guard both of them

  • Alex

    Nice breakdown. I do take issue with one (and only one) point you brought up, though. The whitest player in the NBA is easily Brian Scalabrine. No contest.

  • mgbode

    Thanks for the article. Agree with most points stated. Especially agree that of these matchups, Toronto would be the easiest and Charlotte the toughest.

    Can you imagine an NBA where noone wants to play Charlotte or Memphis in the 1st round?

    I can’t believe that we don’t even have to imagine it.

  • http://www.msblsim.com boogeyman

    This years playoffs should be far more competitive especially in the East then a year ago. The bottom half of the bracket will have enough talent to make whoever plays the top dangerous especially Charlotte. I don’t think Toronto or Chicago will be that tough. A match-up with Miami would be interesting for the Cavaliers but the Heat don’t have nearly enough offense to contend for a full series, in my opinion. Lets keep that #1 seed!

  • Jack

    Hickson’s 1-on-1 D against Tor was encouraging. But they will make me a bit apprehensive until JJ or Powe prove they can consistently help Andy guard the tandem of Barg-Bosh, the type of tandem that always gives us trouble (see losses to Tor, Chi, Bos).

  • Joe

    I actually have to disagree strongly with your prediction of the series with Toronto. Bosh is a monster, and Bargnani will get a lot of open looks with the slower Shaq defending him. Bargnani has gotten a lot better at defending the typical center lately, Antoine Wright (known as the guy who defended Melo in the playoffs last year) is a great wing defender and Jarret Jack is a tough, defensive-minded Point Guard. They can’t stop LeBron and Shaq, but hey, who can? They do have the pieces to contain our offense, and if their defense can get together better than it already has, we might be looking at a very entertaining series.

  • jimkanicki

    jake rosen! auditioning for his role as the chart nerd in simmons’ mega podcast for the nba finals! you’re the best!!

  • jimkanicki

    @boogeyman — i disagree. there’s no one in the east who can touch us as we’re playing now. [knock wood.]

    with this chemistry, i say we stand pat on trades unless we can get a franchise level guy. al jefferson is the only one on the radar i see, AI2 would be ok… but al jefferson would be a long term center for us. no to antawn, no to murphy. why do we need a stretch four when we have post presence? we were only exposed when we had to double down on dwight howard… with shaq handling howard (and with magic without turkoglu) we don’t need that ‘stretch 4.’ am i missing something?

    celts aren’t a factor (old), hawks too undisplined, bulls screwed up a good chemistry team with their gordon trade. the team that scares me is the one way under the radar… i haven’t seen enough of the bucks but their record and youth tell me they’re a team that will be loose and peaking come playoff time.

    once out of the east i see the nuggets as a very scary team to face in the finals.

    what, wait. one game at a time… that’s the ticket.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com Jacob

    @jimkanicki – I appreciate the comments! However, I take absolutely no credit for this post, unless you consider my extraordinary ability to write imaginative yet informative introductions as well as format long stats articles. If that is what you are talking about, then my oh my, sign me up now!

    In all actuality, all the thoughts, comments and predictions in the post are courtesy of Matt Manuszak, a loyal commenter to this site.

  • jimkanicki

    just teasing… you gained my respect by your performance in last-man-standing pool (which is still yet to be acknowledged).

    your posts are always well written/researched. but we’re waiting for you slam a 12 pack of old milwaukees and flame mangini’s stubborn commitment to the 3-4. i think denny the right mentor for this.

  • Matt

    http://sports.yahoo.com/nba/boxscore;_ylt=AsIacw5NS0Z.LWb73wKq_z.QvLYF?gid=2010020211
    Yeah, Toronto sure looks like a bunch of world-beaters…and how bout that defense?

  • http://www.msblsim.com boogeyman

    @12 jim sounds like a year ago when people were fooled into thinking the Cavaliers were hands down the best team in the NBA even when they struggled with the better teams especially those with strong frontcourts. I admit the Cavaliers despite missing Mo and Delonte are playing great and look to be better then a year ago but for some reason I can’t help shake the feeling that when the playoffs come and everything is magnified by a 100 that the fact that the Cavaliers have no inside offensive presence will come back to haunt them especially when/if they play say an Orlando or Boston or possibly Los Angeles in the playoffs. If everyone wants to hitch their wagon to an aging Shaq and think that he’ll single handedly be able to provide a presence at both ends feel free but I’m not. Defensively he’s made a difference but unfortunately age has deprived The Diesel of the ability to be able to do what he once provided offensively. Hickson, Powe and Varejao don’t provide anywhere near the offense to scare teams which is why I’d still like to see an offensive PF added.

    “The Cleveland Syndrome” is at hand though despite the fact that the Cavaliers haven’t won a single title and have just one finals appearance and one division title since LeBron James was drafted people are still worried about next year. This so reminds me of the Indians from the ’90s who thought they could retain all of their young talent and still win a World Seris and it never panned out. People the clock is ticking not only on LeBron James but your chance at winning a championship. It’s insane to be sitting in the position the Cavaliers are right now and be either unwilling or afraid to go out and add a player the caliber of a Jamison or even a Stoudamire. I don’t think there is a realistic chance at Al Jefferson but if there was he’d be high on my list too. I don’t know maybe it’s just me being unwilling to accept the feeling I had a year ago when I watched the team with the best record get dissected in the ECF when only the MVP showed up to play. When you boil it down it’s still the MVP + role players!