The Cleveland Cavaliers have had a rollercoaster of a season. Throughout the first half, the Cavs played on a good level offensively but hit an all-time low defensively. Ranked 29th in defense for most of the season, they were losing big leads to teams like the Orlando Magic. To top that off, LeBron’s impending free agency had a new GM scrambling for ways to make him happy.
Cleveland’s Finals chances were looking much slimmer as they went into the All-Star Break. On trade deadline day, Cleveland shipped off a defensive liability in Isaiah Thomas and a handful of other players that were not meshing, and in return received a batch of younger, more determined role players to complement LeBron James. Since then, they have played more consistently, and more importantly, LeBron has been on a tear in his 15th NBA season. The Cavaliers, for the first time since the beginning of the season, look ready to function as a well-oiled machine in the playoffs as they try and find a rhythm against the blossoming garden that is Victor Oladipo and his young, hungry Indiana Pacers.
It’s easy to say the Cavs biggest strength comes in “Giving LeBron the ball,” and “getting out of his way”, and while that’s not entirely false, it does go a bit deeper than that. The Cavs are ranked 6th in 3-point percentage. This is a huge strength for Cleveland as it doesn’t really come from James. With four shooters like Clarkson, Korver, Love, and Calderon all shooting above 40% from beyond the arc, defenses will have to stay attached to the hip of these players. This leads to better floor spacing.
Another strength for the Cavaliers lies in their 2nd quarter performances. They average 28.8 points in the 2nd quarter alone. This will allow them to either build a large lead going into halftime or cut down an opponent’s lead. Either way the Cavs generally go into halftime full of confidence.
Compensating for Defensive Limitations
With every strength comes a weakness, and the Cavs biggest weakness lies in their defense. They are ranked 29th in the league in defense, only behind the tanking Phoenix Suns. Besides LeBron, no one on this roster is a lock-down defender from the perimeter, and they don’t have anyone who can consistently protect the rim from opposing teams’ skilled guards or big men. Opponents also score 12.7 points per game strictly off of second-chance opportunities.
This is a rebounding problem and a defensive problem, and it has been this way all season. It will likely continue into the playoffs but like in previous seasons, there is usually enough offense to make up for it.
Cleveland’s X-factor is how they play in crunch time. With a 66.7% win percentage in the clutch (second highest in the league), LeBron and the Cavs are pretty good at closing out games. They average 8.8 points in the last few minutes of those close games, shooting 45.3% from the field off 6.3 shots. However, their 3-point percentage is only 28.9%, so close games in the postseason will likely be decided based on shot selection. If the Cavaliers settle for contested 3’s, they could lose those games — as they did against the Pacers when they only shot 23.5% from three.
Beyond LeBron and Love
An under the radar player to keep an eye on is Kyle Korver. Korver can easily be the deciding factor of any game with his ability to shoot from deep. He can shoot well off screens, he can make contested shots, he typically makes the right play, and his shots always seem to fall at the right time. Defenses always put a lot of attention on LeBron James and Kevin Love late in games, but Kyle Korver is a veteran presence in the playoff rotation that cannot be ignored down the stretch. Unfortunately, he only played three minutes and shot 0-3 in their first game against the Pacers so look for that trend to change as the team’s success does.
Cleveland should be back in the Finals this year. The Boston Celtics are injured, Philadelphia doesn’t have the playoff experience to go very deep, and in a 7-game series Toronto won’t have the extra push to beat LeBron that 4th time. The Cavs should be back in the finals, but I don’t think they have anywhere near enough to beat the Warriors or the Rockets more than once or twice. Especially if they’re still struggling to find their rhythm against the bottom of the East’s barrel.