Despite the competition around them, the Cleveland Cavaliers are still the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.
LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are not the number one seed in the Eastern Conference and are losing games to good teams; oh boy, it’s the end of a dynasty. Just Kidding. Don’t fool yourself: The Cavs are still the team to beat in the East.
This season, the Celtics are atop the Eastern Conference at 33-10 and have many of the mindset that they are the most formidable team in the East. Chris Mannix of The Vertical was even bold enough to say on “The Herd” that if the playoffs were to begin today, the Celtics would defeat the Cavs in a seven-game series (fast forward to 5:05 to view his take).
In reality, are the Celtics a powerhouse team that can make some noise in the playoffs? Absolutely. But the notion that the Cavs can’t overcome the Celtics’ defensive versatility or overall makeup doesn’t add up, nor does the belief that their playoff experience is irrelevant.
It’s been a bizarre season for the Cavs, to say the least. Whether it be starting the season without Isaiah Thomas — who was the main catch in the deal that sent Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics — coming out of the gates 3-5, then proceeding to win 20-of-23 games, or losing to a number of high-caliber teams over the past two weeks, the Cavs have endured an unpredictable season.
Currently 26-14 and the third seed in the Eastern Conference, Cleveland isn’t where they’d love to be. And losing to the Golden State Warriors, Celtics and Minnesota Timberwolves over the course of a seven-game stretch was a sign that the Cavs are not the most formidable team the league has to offer at the moment. At the same time, it’s important to not overreact.
This season, James is, yet again, putting forth an MVP year and one of the best of his career. Averaging 27.2 points — the most he’s averaged since he bolted for the Miami Heat after the 2009-10 season — 8.2 rebounds, 1.7 steals and a career-high in assists (9.0) and blocks (1.1), he’s having himself another captivating season which should come as no surprise. Around James, the Cavs have a veteran and proven roster.
With Kevin Love hitting the boards, averaging 9.6 rebounds per game and serving as a go-to scoring option (19.4 PPG) out on the perimeter and in the paint and Thomas officially back from his nagging hip injury along with James, the Cavs possess a lethal scoring trio. In addition to their plethora of high-caliber scorers, they also have a number of two-way wings. With Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade, Jeff Green and Iman Shumpert — once he returns from a knee injury — as well as the streaky J.R. Smith and sharpshooting Kyle Korver in place, the Cavs have an overwhelming amount of depth out on the perimeter.
Alongside James and Love, the Cavs have rebounding savvy center Tristan Thompson and big man Channing Frye. They’ve also received production from point guard Jose Calderon who has started 23 games. Plus, while the situation has been hectic with him stepping away from the team and also suffering a left ankle injury, the Cavs could get veteran point guard Derrick Rose back in the near-future.
With James, Love, Thomas, Crowder, Wade, Green, Shumpert, Smith, Korver, Thompson, Frye and Calderon all in place, the Cavs have the deepest roster, when healthy, in the Eastern Conference. Is this a team that has lost five of its last seven and is losing to top competition as of late? Yes, but they’re going through a major adjustment period that isn’t going to resolve itself overnight when it comes to working Thomas into the equation.
Thomas is one of the best point guards in the NBA. While not much of a defensive presence, he’s capable of carrying the scoring load in a big way and was even an MVP candidate last season. And even though trading Irving certainly hurt the Cavs, Thomas is right below, if not on the same level as him. Simultaneously, it takes time for top-flight talent to gel in the NBA, especially on a team with James at the helm.
Thomas is used to having the ball in his hands and being the number one option — which he was with the Celtics –, but with the Cavs he’s going to be playing second-fiddle to James who is adept at running the offense himself. It was an adjustment Irving had to make when James returned to Cleveland in 2014. In fact, it was such a struggle for their unit to gel as a whole that they started the season 20-20. In James’ first year with the Heat alongside Chris Bosh and Wade, they began the year 8-7. In both of those seasons, James’ team went to the NBA Finals and his teams have been in every single June shootout since 2011. With arguably the deepest roster in Cavs’ history, we’re now going to doubt their ability to overcome adversity and whether or not James can lead them to the Finals?
It’s a trend and easy trap to fall for in sports, that being doubting the best. Every year in the NFL, the discussion is whether Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots are going to fall off a cliff. They then proceed to either win the Super Bowl or, at the very least, end up in the AFC Championship Game. Every year in College Football, Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide are said to be falling off their pedestal or claimed to be unworthy of making the playoffs. They then proceed to make it to the National Title game and win it all basically every other year. James and the Cavs are no different.
Every year “they’re doomed” or “have been figured out”, but it just doesn’t seem to matter because they always find a way to get to the Finals.
Is the competition more fierce this season in the East than years past? Sure, but is it really anything more than the Celtics just being an improved squad?
Yes, the Toronto Raptors have one of the best backcourts in the NBA with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, but they continually show that they cannot get over the hump and they eventually run into the brick wall that is the Cavs.
Yes, the Washington Wizards have one of the other more potent backcourts in the NBA with John Wall and Bradley Beal, as well as the two-way Otto Porter Jr. out on the perimeter, but they’re not a very deep team and are yet to make a Conference Finals appearance in the Wall era. Are they now legitimately a real bonafide threat to dethrone the Cavs? For all the talk the NBA world does about the Milwaukee Bucks, their inconsistency hurts them, and they’ve already lost twice this season to the Cavs.
The Celtics, on the other hand, are a different story and a true threat to Cleveland come May. Irving has embraced being the focal point and leader of the Celtics, as they’re currently the number one seed in the East. With versatile and youthful two-way wings such as Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum, as well as center Al Horford and crafty guards Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier, head coach Brad Stevens has a lot of talent at his disposal. Simultaneously, are they experienced or have the mental fortitude to knock off James and the Cavs who turn it into another gear come the playoffs?
At the end of the day, scorers dominate the NBA Playoffs and the Cavs have a number of guys who can do just that in James, Thomas, Love and even Smith, to spitball. The Celtics have Irving. After him, who can be relied on to be a consistent scoring option in crunch time, or just in general? They’re both, without a doubt, deep and talented teams, but the Cavs have more star power and proven scorers than the Celtics.
James and the Cavs may not be at the top of the Conference, in terms of record, but when the playoffs arrive and teams have to beat them four times in a seven-game series to advance, can you honestly say to yourself that there’s a team in the East that will be able to do as such?
James and the Cavs, until proven otherwise in the postseason, remain the team to beat in the East.