Last week, I wrote that there were two teams in the NBA that looked like two of the best in NBA history – the Warriors and Spurs – and I made sure to mention how dominant San Antonio had looked recently. In classic jinx fashion, they suffered a 30-point blowout loss to Golden State last Monday. While that’s only one game - and it’d be foolish to totally discount the Spurs for a singular bad performance - it’s becoming harder to argue against the Warriors being the favorites for the Western Conference. The more interesting question remains, though; who’ll be coming from the East to possibly play the Warriors in the NBA Finals?
The Cleveland Cavaliers, who were finalists last season, are the favorites to return. After all, they were able to take two games from the Warriors in the previous Finals series. That was without their star power forward Kevin Love and mostly without their other star, point guard Kyrie Irving. If LeBron James can almost single-handedly take two wins away from Golden State in the NBA Finals, it’s not totally out of the realm of possibility to envision a healthy Cleveland team having a late-season resurgence of sorts, ala the 2013 Miami Heat.
By their standards, the Cavaliers have had an underwhelming season, but you still can’t sleep on them. They currently boast the third slowest paced team in the league (92.8 possessions per game), along with the third best defensive rebounding percentage. At their best, they grind out victories against other teams and overwhelm their opponents with James, Irving and Love, all of whom can also play up-tempo successfully.
Yet, their success earlier in the year and last season was with their now former coach David Blatt, who is essentially the most successful coach ever to be fired midseason. Questions now remain about the direction of their team. I’ve heard a lot of sports fans talk about how easy it is to coach these guys, but for the time being, let’s assume that the Cavs fired Blatt because their front office thought the team would stand a better chance to win an NBA title with the current coach Tyronn Lue.
Under that criteria for success, only two coaches in NBA history have successfully led a team from midseason: Pat Riley for the 2005-2006 Miami Heat and the 1981-1982 Los Angeles Lakers, and Paul Westhead who took over 1979-1980 Lakers before ironically getting replaced by Riley two seasons later. This doesn’t mean the Cavs are doomed losers, but the odds are certainly not great for them in the long run.
Are the Cavs even that much better than the rest of their conference? It sounds like heresy, but the current No. 2 seed Toronto Raptors are a threat to take the East and also a low-key team that has kept up with Golden State before, losing both of their games to this season by a combined eight points. With possibly the best point guard defender in Kyle Lowry, the Raptors could have a gameplan to stop any offensive threat that faces their team.
Lowry ranks second at his position in ESPN’s defensive real plus minus, and stands at about six feet. He is a few inches shorter than average, but relatively big at 205 pounds. He is both physically imposing against smaller guards and agile enough to keep up with them. Not to mention - his defensive IQ is incredibly high and he’ll rarely get lost on a rotation, switch or any kind of off-ball play. If anything, his size makes it harder for point guards to try to neutralize him with a pick.
The per-play statistics back up the eye test when it comes to his evaluating his defensive performances. His 0.58 points per possession on isolation plays and 0.71 points per possession when defending pick and roll ball handlers on 45.4 percent of shot attempts against him show that he is a defensive force to fear. Lowry also gives up only 0.61 points per possession when teams try to exploit him in off-screen play types and only 0.81 points per possession on spot-up defensive plays. Keep in mind that the Celtics are ranked No. 1 as a team in points per possession in that category (at 0.84) and you’ll realize that Lowry’s skillset is just about as good as anyone else in stopping an opposing player.
Which leads me into my next point: something being possible on paper doesn’t make it a reality. In fact, defense wasn’t why the Raptors were able to keep it close against the Warriors in both of their games, when Curry dropped a combined 81 points to lead Golden State to higher one-game offensive ratings than their average across the season. This suggests that if the Raptors want to outdo their close calls, they have to retain playing better than usual on offense, while stepping up their (in theory) solid defense to another level against their contemporaries in the East.
Could the possible dark horse of the East end up as the No. 5 seed Boston Celtics, who took the Warriors to double overtime earlier in the year and were a terrible Isaiah Thomas brick away from actually beating them? After all, they’re the third ranked East team by SRS. It’ll be a tough ride to get there, as the Celtics have lost all their games to Cleveland and Toronto this season, but if you look at how the team is constructed, they have quite a few strengths that could go in their favor.
They’re the best non-Spurs defensive team in the NBA, with a 101.3 defensive rating. The Celtics are also the third fastest paced team, averaging 98.4 possessions a game: just a possession slower than the Warriors, but still very close. A lot of this comes from their ball-hawking wing defenders, Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder, who lead a team that ranks No. 3 in opposing turnover percent. When they get on defense, they’re not looking to just stop the opponent from shooting; they’re looking to steal the ball and pounce in transition.
As said before, the Celtics could be a tough matchup for teams that try to get shooters open, as they are the best team in the league at defending spot up plays. In other categories of points allowed per possession, they’re also No. 8 in defending the fast break, No. 10 in isolation and No. 8 against roll men.
Their biggest weakness might be defending the post-up, where they rank No. 27, but these are still statistically inefficient plays for an opposing offense to run in contrast to setting up shooters on the floor. If a team like Cleveland, Toronto or even Golden State tries to beat the Celtics through running low-percentage plays, the Celtics will take that any day over being blitzed by threes. What could be a bigger issue on the defensive end is Boston’s tendency to let up the second highest opponent free throws per attempt, but that’s almost inevitable considering their physicality on the perimeter.
That said, though the Celtics stand at No. 14 in the NBA in offensive rating, that’s also not exactly something they should feel confident in when playing an offensive powerhouse or even just a team that can get to the line at will against them. Their lack of star players on the offensive end isn’t bad because they need a closer or a “clutch player”, but because they need a guy to draw defensive attention and maximize play from their role players.
It honestly seems almost like every non-Warriors team is playing for runner-up status anyways - and who wins the East ultimately might not matter. However, if there’s one thing watching professional sports has taught us as fans, it’s to never count out the underdog. At least until Curry puts them on a Vine and has his team blow them out by 30.
Anokh Palakurthi is the associate Life editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.