These Are the Teams Trying to Take Down the Struggling Cleveland Cavaliers
LeBron James has owned the Eastern Conference for seven straight years.
During his incredible run, he’s only really been threatened once, in 2014 when the Indiana Pacers took James’ Miami Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. Recently, James’ Heat and Cavs teammate Dwyane Wade went as far as to say the Heat should have lost that series.
But they didn’t. And no one else has really come close since 2010, when Kevin Garnett and the Boston Celtics booted James from the playoffs one last time.
For the entire decade, we have basically been able to pencil in whatever squad James was rolling with into the NBA Finals. That very well may happen again this year. But so far, this team just doesn’t seem the same.
Through 11 games, the 2017-18 Cleveland Cavaliers are basically the worst team James has played for since high school. They’re 5-6 and, according to Basketball Reference, they’re currently on track to have the worst defensive rating in the 34 year history of the stat.
The question is not if this team can be beat — even if they get back on track, they are decidedly beatable. The real question is, is there anyone in the conference who will actually pull it off?
Let’s break down the four candidates to end LeBron’s brutal Eastern Conference reign.
Biggest Strength: Top 10 in offense and defense; strong roster top-to-bottom
Biggest Weakness: You should probably know by now
The Toronto Raptors are a phenomenal regular season team. Kyle Lowry is a remarkable point guard, DeMar DeRozan is an unstoppable force for 82 games a year. There’s nothing less fun in sports than the “They can’t win in the playoffs!” narrative, but there is simply too much evidence to deny at this point.
Every year, Toronto wins 50 games or more, and turns into an entirely different team in the playoffs. On paper, they are a really interesting matchup with the Cavs in some ways. But none of it will matter come playoff season.
Biggest Strength: Outstanding defense; great versatility
Biggest Weakness: Lack of depth; lack of experience
The Celtics were the last Eastern Conference team to beat the Cavs in playoff series, and if Gordon Hayward hadn’t gotten hurt, they would probably be the next.
Boston currently owns the best defense in the league by a pretty comfortable margin. They’ve won 10 games in a row mostly with their defense. If that sustains, they become a remarkably compelling matchup with the Cavs.
Coach Brad Stevens currently has his team playing at the fifth slowest pace in the NBA. Cleveland plays fast, and has gotten their few wins with their excellent offense. If Al Horford and the Celtics can control the pace and turn the series into a defensive struggle, things will get mighty interesting.
A slow-paced battle between these two squads would ultimately come down to one thing: can Stevens, Horford, and point guard Kyrie Irving get this offense — currently ranked 12th in the league with the help of some extremely hot shooters — playing well enough to outweigh the simple fact that the Cavs have LeBron James?
Until we see it happen, you have to assume that’s a no. The LeBron factor usually wins. A team relying on this many rookies is likely one Gordon Hayward away from taking this team down.
Biggest Strength: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Biggest Weakness: Depth; style of play
The Bucks, currently sitting at a disappointing 4-6, weren’t even in this conversation as of Monday.
Tuesday, they traded Greg Monroe and a couple oddly-protected picks in exchange for Phoenix Suns point guard Eric Bledsoe. That’s enough to get them involved.
Milwaukee has the personnel to defeat the Cavs. They really do. Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, Tony Snell, Antetokounmpo, and Thon Maker is a great balance of shooting, defense, shot creation, and athleticism. Most crucially, Antetokounmpo looks fully ready to go toe-to-toe with James.
Unfortunately, coach Jason Kidd just doesn’t have these guys playing the right way. They’re currently ranked 29th in defensive rating, still three points per 100 possessions better than the Cavs, but still unacceptable for a team with their personnel.
The Bucks give up 7.1 corner threes — the best shot in basketball — per game, one of the worst marks in the league. Last year, they gave up 8.5 threes from the corner, the most of any team in the NBA.
They’re also seventh in the league in opponent field goal attempts in the restricted area. They allow 29.2 per game and 58.6 percent of those shots go in.
They also aren’t forcing enough mid-range jumpers. A team with this much length and skill should be manipulating offenses to take the most difficult shots possible. Kidd has them doing the opposite.
On the offensive end, it’s the mirror image. The Bucks are bottom ten in shots attempted in the restricted area, and below average in frequency of corner threes — extremely misguided for a team with a passer like Antetokounmpo and shooters like Snell and Middleton.
If they had these things figured out, they would probably beat the Cavs. For now, they remain one coaching change away.
Biggest Strength: Top-level talent; athleticism
Biggest Weakness: Bench; consistency
If any team is going to take Cleveland down, it will be John Wall and the Wizards.
They have the talent, they have the scheme, they have the matchups. Really, it is all up to them to put it together.
For a stretch last year, the young Wizards committed to defense. They gave their all on that end, and they were absolutely unstoppable. It was the stretch that earned them the four seed after starting the season 1-7.
With the leaps that Otto Porter and Kelly Oubre Jr. have taken this year, and the addition of bench pieces like Jodie Meeks and Mike Scott, this team has the tools to beat Cleveland.
The issue is, they also had the tools to beat Boston last year. They may have even had the tools to beat Cleveland. We never got a chance to find out because they just couldn’t put it all together.
Washington has a tendency to get out of whack and stop playing their game. It’s the reason they’re 5-5 right now when they could probably be 8-2. They get selfish on offense, and lazy on defense.
Maybe with another year of experience under their belt, they’ll patch it all together come playoff time, the way that great teams do. Let’s all band together and hope they can; the fate of the Eastern Conference depends on it.