With 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:
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).
The 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.
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.”)
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.
The 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.
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)