The Cleveland Cavaliers ended their city’s 52-year championship drought in remarkable fashion, overcoming a 3-1 deficit against the star-studded Golden State Warriors to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy.
LeBron James was incredible in the NBA Finals, averaging 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals and 2.3 blocks while shooting 49.4 percent from field and 37.1 percent from three-point range. James led all Finals players in total points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks – becoming the first player in NBA history to do that in any playoff series. He also made a number of signature plays that will show up in highlight reels for years, such as this insanely clutch chase-down block against Andre Iguodala.
Kyrie Irving was also excellent against the Warriors, averaging 27.1 points, 3.9 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 2.1 steals while shooting 46.8 percent from the field, 40.5 percent from three-point range and 93.9 percent from the free throw line. He also turned over the ball just 2.6 times per game despite being asked to create on offense quite a bit. Irving outperformed unanimous league MVP Stephen Curry, who averaged 22.6 points, 3.7 assists and 4.3 turnovers and shot just 40.3 percent from the field in the series. Irving also came up huge down the stretch, hitting a crucial three over Curry in the final minute of Game 7.
Now, Cleveland brings back largely the same roster in an attempt to defend their title. The Warriors won the offseason by adding Kevin Durant, but the Cavaliers are hoping they have enough to take down Golden State should we see the two juggernauts face off for a third straight time in the NBA Finals.
Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
FIVE GUYS THINK
“The champ is here!” The Cavaliers pulled off the unbelievable by surviving a 3-1 series deficit in the NBA Finals and rallying to win the title with three consecutive clutch victories. What makes Cleveland’s triumph even more impressive is the fact the Golden State Warriors had just pulled off a historic NBA regular season and were being led by the first unanimous MVP in league history. The unfathomable Finals win proved All-Star forward LeBron James is still the best player on the planet despite getting deeper into his 30s. Expect more of the same this season, as the Cavaliers should be competing for another title next June for the third straight season.
1st Place – Central Division
– Lang Greene
As long as LeBron James is still reasonably healthy and employed by the Cavaliers, they’re going to be the best team in the Eastern Conference, regardless of whatever else is going on. The fact that in this case, “whatever else is going on” includes having Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and arguably the league’s best offensive rebounder in Tristan Thompson around him means the Cavs have as good a shot at toppling the Golden State Warriors this year as anyone. We’ll have to see if the defending champs are able to re-sign J.R. Smith, but it’s not like there’s a market for the guy outside of Cleveland. Assuming he’s back, the Cavs look primed for another big year, but that might mean scaling back LeBron’s regular season minutes a bit. This season is the Cavs’ victory lap, which they earned, but they’re going to have to work even harder if they want to earn a second straight title.
1st Place – Central Division
– Joel Brigham
There’s the Cavaliers, and there’s everyone else in the Eastern Conference. So long as LeBron James and Kyrie Irving are alive and kicking, the Cavaliers will be head and shoulders above every other contender in East. Instead of asking yourselves who will win the Central Division, ask yourself which team will earn the right to challenge the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals? Also, ask yourself what kind of accomplishment would it be for LeBron James to compete in seven consecutive NBA Finals? Barring an unforeseen injury, that’s obviously where this is all headed, no?
1st Place – Central Division
– Moke Hamilton
As I’ve stated in some of our other team previews, I think there’s a large gap between the Cavaliers and every other team in the Eastern Conference. Teams like the Celtics and Raptors are very talented, but I’d be surprised to see any team other than Cleveland representing the East in the NBA Finals this year. The Cavs are ridiculously talented and, even though they weren’t very active this offseason, that’s probably for the best because chemistry and continuity are important in the NBA. Ty Lue will continue to get better as a head coach as he gains experience and this group will only improve as they become more and more familiar with each other. Many NBA fans don’t want to hear this, but I’m predicting round three of Cavaliers versus Warriors in this year’s NBA Finals.
1st Place – Central Division
– Alex Kennedy
The Cavaliers pulled off an incredible comeback in the NBA Finals last season. LeBron James was incredible and Kyrie Irving came up clutch when his team needed him most. The Cavaliers are bringing back roughly the same roster as last season and have a direct path to returning to the Finals this season. There are other Eastern Conference teams such as the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics who could make things interesting, but the Cavaliers are the clear favorites at this point. However, assuming the Cavaliers return to the Finals, they will likely have to face the Golden State Warriors, who added Kevin Durant this offseason. The Cavaliers will have to maximize their talent, hope that James, Irving and Love are healthy and find a way to slow down perhaps the most talented team on paper in in NBA history. Beating Golden State last season was tough enough, but doing so again with Durant now wearing a Warriors uniform will be the toughest challenge in James’ career.
1st Place – Central Division
– Jesse Blancarte
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Kyrie Irving
LeBron James could obviously be listed here as well, and he actually led Cleveland in scoring last year with 25.3 points per game. However, James will get plenty of love throughout this preview and Irving deserves credit for his impressive offensive contributions. Irving is the better shooter and ball-handler of the two players, and he excels at creating his own shot.
During the postseason, Irving showed why he is such a terrific offensive weapon for Cleveland when he averaged 25.2 points and hit 44 percent of his three-point attempts. And, as previously mentioned, his 27.1 points per game during the NBA Finals were absolutely huge for the Cavs. The one-two punch of James and Irving is incredibly hard to stop, especially since the two players complement each other so well. Perhaps the scariest thing about Irving is that he’s still just 24 years old, so his best basketball is very likely still ahead of him.
Top Defensive Player: LeBron James
James’ defense may not be as dominant as it was several years ago (when he made five straight All-Defensive First Teams), but he’s still very, very good. We’ve seen that he can flip a switch and become a defensive monster when needed. Anyone who can average 2.6 steals and 2.3 blocks during the NBA Finals and lead all players in rebounds, blocks and steals is a freak of nature. James makes his presence felt all over the court on defense and continues to be a match-up nightmare with his size, strength, speed and skills.
Last season, James ranked first among all NBA players in Real Plus-Minus (9.79), 11th in Defensive Plus-Minus (3.30) and 12th in Defensive Win Shares. Also, during the postseason, James averaged three deflections per game, which ranked seventh among all players. It is worth noting that James will turn 32 years old in December (with a lot of miles on his odometer), so who knows how long he can continue to be an elite defender? But for now, he gets the nod in this category.
Top Playmaker: LeBron James
James is a terrific point forward who is at his best when he’s running the offense and facilitating for his teammates. His court vision and basketball IQ are incredible, and good things typically happen when the ball is in his hands. Not only did James lead the Cavaliers in assists per game (6.8) last year, he ranked eighth in the NBA. James also finished 11th among all players in assist percentage (36 percent), and he was the only non-guard to finish in the top 20. There’s no question that James is one of the best playmakers in the league and that isn’t going to change anytime soon, especially since he’s surrounded by talented scorers.
Top Clutch Player: Kyrie Irving
Again, Irving and James are both clutch and deserve to be mentioned here. James’ chase-down block was a jaw-dropping play and we’ve seen him take over in many late-game situations. However, Irving gets the top billing here because of that amazing three-pointer over Steph Curry in the final minute of Game 7 and the fact that he hit the exact same shot late in Team USA’s August victory over Australia in Rio. No moment is too big for the 24-year-old Irving, and he has proven that time and time again.
The Unheralded Player: Channing Frye
Acquiring Frye from the Orlando Magic last year was a very underrated move, and the stretch-four ended up helping Cleveland on and off the court. He gave the Cavs some more frontcourt depth and spaced the floor with his shooting. He hit 37.7 percent of his three-point attempts during the regular season, and then hit a ridiculous 56.5 percent of his threes during the playoffs. Also, Frye is a terrific glue guy. In talking to people in and around the organization, he brought the team together after landing in Cleveland. He’s very inclusive and loves to bond with all of his teammates, so he was responsible for getting rid of some of the cliques that had developed behind the scenes. Suddenly, the whole team was hanging out and enjoying each other’s company, which helped them on the floor. Not to mention, Frye is a consummate pro who works extremely hard, brings a smile to work every day and exudes optimism. On a star-studded team like the Cavs, he doesn’t get much attention, but there’s no question that he was an integral part of this group’s success. Oh, and he’s on a great contract that will pay him $7,806,971 this year and $7,420,912 next year.
Top New Addition: Mike Dunleavy Jr.
The Cavaliers weren’t really active this offseason, choosing instead to re-sign their own free agents and prioritize continuity over marquee moves. The team did add 38-year-old big man Chris Andersen, who will provide interior defense, and 5’9 rookie point guard Kay Felder, who could eventually emerge as a spark off of the bench. However, Dunleavy Jr. will likely make the biggest impact this upcoming season with his ability to space the floor and make the right basketball play more times than not. Dunleavy Jr. was a full-time starter for the Chicago Bulls over the last two years, but now he’ll be a quality reserve for Cleveland. Last year, he averaged 7.2 points and hit 39.4 percent of his three-point attempts. He battled some injuries over the last two years, but Cleveland hopes he can stay healthy and contribute in a more limited role. Cleveland’s roster is full of savvy veterans, and the 36-year-old Dunleavy Jr. is another.
– Alex Kennedy
WHO WE LIKE
There have been plenty of jokes about how LeBron James is the head coach of the Cavaliers, and that always bothers me. Lue did a fantastic job as the team’s sideline general and deserves credit for his hard work. Lue was an upgrade over former head coach David Blatt because he held his stars accountable, utilized his players better and motivated the group. When Lue took over, there was plenty of drama behind the scenes and he had a ton of pressure on him since he would’ve been blamed had things gone wrong. However, he did a fantastic job and helped lead Cleveland to the title. When his team was down 3-1 in the NBA Finals, he kept them believing and made adjustments to climb out of that hole (which was unprecedented). As he continues to gain experience on the sideline, Lue will only get better as a head coach and I believe Cleveland is in very good hands with him at the helm. Yes, it’s always easier as a head coach when you have studs like James and Irving on your side, but let’s not take away from Lue’s success. It’s also worth noting that coaching so many stars means one must manage egos and get their players to sacrifice, which Lue also did in Cleveland.
Like Lue, Griffin doesn’t get enough love for the job that he’s done as general manager of the Cavs. James obviously played a role in recruiting and attracts players to Cleveland, but Griffin has done a very good job of assembling this team as well. When he took over the job, he was expecting this to be a rebuilding effort. Then, when James joined the Cavs, he had to shift into win-now mode and did a terrific job transitioning to that approach. He has acquired pieces like Kevin Love, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Timofey Mozgov, Mo Williams, Channing Frye and Mike Dunleavly Jr. to give this squad an impressive supporting cast that works well together. He also did a great job of re-signing his own free agents – from Irving to James to Love to Tristan Thompson (and Smith is likely next, at some point). People on Twitter like to joke about LeBron running this organization from top to bottom, but Lue and Griffin are very good at what they do and shouldn’t be overlooked.
It may seem strange to have Smith listed here, since he’s currently an unrestricted free agent. However, the general consensus is that the veteran shooting guard will be back with Cleveland next season. The two sides continue to discuss a deal, and it seems like only a matter of time until Smith is back with the team. Smith is listed here because he played some of the best basketball of his career with the Cavs last year. He averaged 12.4 points as the team’s starting shooting guard and shot 40 percent from the three-point line. He also drastically improved as a defender, which was very important for Cleveland on the perimeter. In the playoffs, Smith averaged 11.5 points and shot 43 percent from three. He became an important part of Cleveland’s supporting cast and it’s hard to imagine the Cavs letting him go, especially since they’d have a very difficult time replacing his production given their cap situation.
– Alex Kennedy
SALARY CAP 101
The Cavaliers did not dip below the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap this summer, instead using a portion of their Mid-Level Exception to re-sign Richard Jefferson, without triggering a hard cap at $117.3 million. Instead, the Cavaliers are free to spend, albeit with a potentially hefty luxury tax bill to come. The team currently has 12 guaranteed players, with a spot open for the yet-to-be-re-signed J.R. Smith. The presumption is that Smith and the Cavaliers eventually agree to terms, but that has yet to happen and training camp is here.
If Smith signs for $10 million for the coming season, and the Cavaliers keep two minimum-salaried players, the team would be looking at nearly $25 million in luxury taxes. At $15 million, Smith would push Cleveland’s tax bill to about $40 million. With Smith, the Cavaliers have two available roster spots for DeAndre Liggins, Jordan McRae, Cory Jefferson, Markel Brown and Eric Moreland. Looking ahead to next season, the Cavaliers do not project to have any space under a $102 million salary cap.
– Eric Pincus
Cleveland’s star power is their biggest strength, as some teams just don’t have the talent to match-up against LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and company. There will be nights when a rebuilding team simply won’t have a chance against the Cavs because they just aren’t ready to seriously compete with a juggernaut that can dominate on both ends of the court. On offense and defense, Cleveland is effective and efficient. Last season, the Cavs had the NBA’s fourth-best offense (scoring 108.1 points per 100 possessions) and 10th-best defense (allowing 102.3 points per 100 possessions). They also ranked third in rebound rate (52 percent) and third in effective field goal percentage (52.4 percent). In addition to stars, Cleveland has an experienced supporting cast of veterans who fill their roles perfectly and know what it takes to win (especially now that all of last year’s players now have a title on their resume).
– Alex Kennedy
A number of Cleveland’s players are somewhat injury prone, including key cogs Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Injuries and general decline are also a concern because the team has a ton of veterans. Eight of the Cavaliers’ players are at least 31 years old – and some are significantly older such as Chris Andersen (38), Mike Dunleavy Jr. (36), Richard Jefferson (36), James Jones (35), Channing Frye (33) and Mo Williams (33) among others. Head coach Ty Lue is around the same age as a number of players; he’s just one year and two months older than Andersen, for example. One other weakness is the wear and tear on this team. Not only are they defending champions, many of these players have been to the NBA Finals for several years straight, which can run guys down. Managing minutes will be very important, especially since Cleveland can likely coast through the regular season and still win the East if all goes as expected.
– Alex Kennedy
THE BURNING QUESTION
Can the Cavaliers repeat as champions?
When you have a payroll that may be as high as $116,494,181, it’s championship or bust. Winning back-to-back titles is extremely difficult, but it’s even tougher when the team you just beat in the Finals adds an MVP-caliber player who makes them one of the scariest teams on paper in NBA history. Cleveland has shot to repeat as champs, but it certainly won’t be easy. Still, that’s the only goal for the Cavs entering this season. The curse has been lifted, and now Cleveland wants to add to their trophy case.
– Alex Kennedy
Williams, Clippers Will Keep Pushing Through
The Clippers veteran guard chats with Spencer Davies in a one-on-one Basketball Insiders exclusive.
For the second straight year, Lou Williams started his basketball season as a resident of California.
Despite being moved by the Los Angeles Lakers at the trade deadline back in February, it wasn’t a long stay for the 31-year-old in Houston. After bolstering the Rockets’ bench in a big way during their playoff stretch, the organization dealt the veteran guard to the LA Clippers, meaning he was going right back to the City of Angels.
Which begs the question—did he even relocate from his old place?
“Yeah, I moved,” Williams told Basketball Insiders in Cleveland on Friday. “But I ended up moving back into the same neighborhood that I was in, so it was all good.”
The familiarity with the area must’ve been comforting, but playing for three different teams in such a short amount of time can’t be easy. It’s only been 15 games, but he already notices a discrepancy between the two that share the same arena.
“Obviously when you have different people running it,” Williams answered when asked to compare the Los Angeles franchises. “I think the Lakers were in a different space than the Clippers are. The Clippers are a more veteran group, so two completely different atmospheres.”
Winning four straight games to kick off the 2017-18 campaign, the year started out great for he and his new team, but it’s gone downhill in a hurry.
The Los Angeles Clippers are hurting in every way. Literally.
Only halfway through a five-city road trip, they’ve lost eight consecutive games and 10 of their last 11. Key members of their team are absent and they have been plagued by injuries out of the gate.
First, it was international sensation Milos Teodosic who went down with a foot injury in just the second NBA game of his career. Then there’s Danilo Gallinari, whose ailing hip has kept him out of action for two weeks. To top it all off, Patrick Beverley is dealing with a sore right knee that has forced him to miss over a week as well (he’ll reportedly be active on Monday night).
Without the trio, the Clippers are missing a little bit of everything, and Williams is eager for them to return to the floor because of it.
“It’s three starters,” Williams told Basketball Insiders. “One guy’s our heart and soul on the defensive end. We have another guy who was leading us in assists and we have another guy who’s second in scoring.
“Three very important pieces of our team are missing. But we have other guys that’s stepping in doing the best job that they can. We’re just falling short.”
Aside from their most recent 15-point loss to the equally struggling Charlotte Hornets at the Spectrum Center, Los Angeles has competed and been in almost every game during the long skid.
In Cleveland, they led for most of the way until midway through the fourth quarter. It was a back-and-forth affair when the Cavaliers struck back, and once the game went into overtime, the Clippers went cold and ran out of gas.
Taking out the element of overtime, the “close game, but no win” trend has been apparent as they attempt to get over the hump for a victory. Williams sees his team battling. They’re just not getting the outcomes they desire.
“Just continue to push,” Williams said of how LA can climb the wall. “We’ll have a couple of guys back this week from injuries.
“We’ve been playing extremely hard giving ourselves an opportunity to win these games and just haven’t been able to finish. Get guys back, just continue to push. We’ll break through.”
If Williams keeps on producing the way he has, especially as of late, that could be sooner rather than later. Over the last five games, the scoring assassin has put up over 30 points in two of them and 25 in another. In addition, he’s averaged over four rebounds, four assists, and more than a steal per game during the stretch.
When asked about what’s made him so comfortable, he kept it simple.
“Just playing,” Williams told Basketball Insiders.” Taking what the defense gives me and try to make shots. That’s it.”
Williams is special when it comes to how much he can impact a game in the snap of a finger. Over the course of his career, he’s one of those guys that have been able to just go off at any given moment.
“Just continue to play,” he said. “Play [as] hard as I can. I never really think about it until after the game. I just go out there, play [as] hard as I can. Put myself in position to score points and live with the results.”
You can recall Williams being an elite sixth man in this league for just about every team he’s been a part of. Whether it was with the Philadelphia 76ers, Atlanta Hawks, Toronto Raptors, Lakers, Rockets or even with the Clippers now, he’s constantly been a guy to provide a powerful punch off the bench.
With the consistency and the energy he’s provided with second units throughout his career, it’s rather surprising that Williams has only won the Sixth Man of the Year award one time in his career. Having established this reputation, it should only be a matter of time before he’s rewarded again.
That being said, it’s got to be one of his aspirations, right?
“Not anymore,” Williams told Basketball Insiders, admitting he felt slighted in last year’s race. “Nah. Probably had one of the best seasons of my career and finished third, so I don’t really care no more.”
Furthermore, as one of the top sharpshooters the NBA has to offer, he told Basketball Insiders he doesn’t wouldn’t care to participate in the three-point contest, either.
Moving away from the individual side of things, Williams has enjoyed his time with the Clippers for the short time he’s been a part of the franchise.
One good reason is the opportunity to play under one of the league’s most respected head coaches in Doc Rivers, whom he credits has a unique manner of making adjustments.
“Doc is a high basketball IQ coach,” Williams said. “He knows how to break down the game on the fly, which is impressive. A lot of coaches, they make a lot of corrections at halftime or in film sessions. Doc makes them on the fly, which is great.”
Playing alongside two superstars isn’t so bad. DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin are a pairing that can dominate each and every time they step on the floor. In fact, having those two alone should be enough for the Clippers to get things turned back around.
When the frontcourt duo clicks on a nightly basis and the team returns to full strength, Williams believes that’s exactly what’s going to happen.
“It’s been fun,” Williams told Basketball Insiders of the experience with Griffin and Jordan. “Obviously, we would like to win some games and I think that tide is gonna turn once we get back healthy.
“But these two All-Star guys in this league that’s done an exceptional job for this organization—so it’s been a good time being with these guys.”
NBA AM: All-Time Biggest Comeback Wins
The Warriors’ big 24-point comeback over the weekend was incredible, but where did it rank all time?
One of the biggest NBA stories of the weekend was the Philadelphia 76ers scoring 47 points against the Golden State Warriors in the first quarter Saturday night, only to blow their 24-point lead in fairly embarrassing fashion.
Kevin Durant joked about not being able to lose to Philadelphia for fear for Joel Embiid peacocking on Twitter afterward, while Embiid wrote about taking the loss in stride, adding “blowing a big lead” to their arsenal of experiences to avoid repeating in games to come.
In any event, that 24-point comeback was one of the most impressive comebacks in NBA history, though the good news for the Sixers is that there have been bigger blown leads than their own. Some of them much, much bigger. Heck, the Miami HEAT blew a 25-point lead just two weeks ago, so crazier things have happened.
The following are those crazier things. These are the biggest blown leads in NBA history:
#5 Boston Celtics vs. L.A. Lakers (2008) – By the time Game 4 of the 2008 NBA Finals had started, the Celtics had taken a 2-1 lead in the series, and the pivotal Game 4 was going to go down in Los Angeles. From the get-go, the Lakers looked like they were going to tie the series with little problem, jumping out to a quick 26-7 lead and finishing the first quarter up by 21 points. The lead got as large as 24 at one point, with L.A. still holding a 20-point lead with six minutes left in the third quarter.
But Boston ripped off a 21-3 run to finish the third quarter, cutting the lead to two and making it a much more exciting game than the first two-and-a-half quarters suggested. Their spirits broken, L.A. lost the game and, eventually, the series.
#4 Utah Jazz vs. Portland Trail Blazers (2010) – The Jazz came into Portland for this February game back in 2010 without starting center Mehmet Okur, whose absence was felt immensely as the Jazz fell into a 25-point deficit, trailing by 23 halfway through the third quarter. After chipping away at that lead throughout the fourth quarter, Utah still faced a four-point hole with just 30 seconds to go in the game, but Deron Williams made a couple of free throws, the Jazz got a stop on the defensive end, and Carlos Boozer put-back a last-second miss to send the game into overtime, where the Jazz put the finishing touches on the remarkable comeback win.
#3 Minnesota Timberwolves vs. Dallas Mavericks (2008) – The Minnesota Timberwolves in 2008 were not good. Still rebuilding post-Garnett, they had no business jumping out to a massive lead over the much more talented Dallas Mavericks, but that’s exactly what happened. The mediocre Wolves built a seemingly insurmountable 29-point lead, but as it happens, the lead was in fact quite mountable, as the Mavericks ripped into that lead thanks in large part to 24 second-half points by Jason Terry. With a seven-point victory, the Mavericks pulled off an impressive 36-point turnaround, albeit against one of the league’s worst teams.
#2 Sacramento Kings vs. Chicago Bulls (2009) – In one of the most stunning comebacks in league history, the Sacramento Kings rallied from being down 79-44 with 8:50 remaining in the third quarter to demoralize a Bulls team that flat-out didn’t see it coming. Sacramento finished the quarter on a 19-5 run to cut the lead to 19, then got it down to 95-91 with 2:28 left in the game. Rookie Tyreke Evans outscored the entire Bulls’ team 9-3 the rest of the way, and the comeback was complete. All of this was in Chicago, and the city’s fans literally booed the Bulls off the court. Needless to say, that was Vinny Del Negro’s last season as head coach in Chicago.
#1 Denver Nuggets vs. Utah Jazz (1998) – In the midst of a seven-game winning streak, a Jazz team featuring Karl Malone and John Stockton did not enter this contest against Denver in 1998 expecting to fall into a 36-point deficit. The score was 70-36 at halftime with the lead expanding further in the third quarter, but that’s when Utah started to grind their way into the lead behind big nights from Malone (31 points) and Jeff Hornacek (29 points). Despite it being a record-breaking comeback, there was no one big remarkable moment. Rather, the Jazz just dismantled the Nuggets through attrition over the course the second half en route to a truly impressive come-from-way-behind victory.
The fact that teams have come back from deficits this huge is exactly why current NBA teams talk about never taking the foot off the gas. Almost no lead is safe, and that’s the beautiful thing about basketball. Sometimes the momentum shifts, and all that planned Twitter bragging goes right down the tubes. At least in Philadelphia’s case the team on the other end of the comeback was the defending champs.
And as this list proves, it could always be worse.
NBA Sunday: Raptors Aren’t Extinct Just Yet
The Celtics should be a concern to the Cavaliers, but the Raptors shouldn’t be overlooked, either.
The Toronto Raptors aren’t extinct—not yet, anyway.
With the whirlwind of movement that dominates the headlines this past NBA offseason and the growth of several young players, we’ve spent far more time discussing the likes of the Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons, Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks than the team from up North.
We’ve asked ourselves whether LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers can win the Eastern Conference for a fourth consecutive year and whether or not the Washington Wizards are finally ready to give some credible resistance. Some of us have even gone as far as to predict that, in the ultimate irony, Kyrie Irving will lead the Celtics to the conference crown this season.
And that doesn’t even begin to talk about the storylines from out West.
All the while, quietly and meticulously, Dwane Casey and his Raptors have stalked, and you peer at the standings and realize that they enter play on November 19 at 10-5, tied with the Pistons for the second-best record in the conference.
What has made the Raptors thriving especially improbable is the fact that they’ve done it despite missing a few key contributors for a game or two. To this point, they have ranked respectably both in points allowed per game (102.6) and points allowed per 100 possessions (107.8). Those metrics rank them eighth and 11th, respectively.
So, where exactly do the Raptors fit in the grand scheme of things?
It seems like a question we’ve been asking for a few years now.
* * * * * *
Having qualified for the playoffs four consecutive years, Dwane Casey’s team has won three playoff series over the course of that duration, but haven’t exactly found timely and efficient play from their two star players in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.
Now, as the Eastern Conference begins to feature younger players with appreciable upside—Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, Ben Simmons and Jaylen Brown to name a few—it’s totally fair to wonder where the Raptors fit in. It’s also fair, believe it or not, to wonder whether they’ll be able to provide as much resistance to the Cavaliers as the Celtics.
In effect, the Raptors have become a modern day version of Joe Johnson’s Atlanta Hawks. After signing with the Hawks prior to the 2005-06 season, Johnson led the revival of the franchise. They would end up qualifying for the playoffs five consecutive years, but never advanced past the second round. A similar story can be told of Chris Paul’s Los Angeles Clippers.
The point is, however, that over the years, the Raptors have developed an identity and are a team whose hallmarks have come to be toughness and ball-sharing—two characteristics that most coaches would love to embody their team. While we’ve been paying close attention to the things that are brand new and exciting, the Raptors are the same old crew that they have been. And for a team like that, the 2011 NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks will continue to be the gold standard.
The Mavericks notably rebuilt and tore down several incarnations of their team around Dirk Nowitzki until the team was finally able to surround Nowitzki with the right complement of players to score one of the biggest upsets in NBA Finals history.
Whether anyone chooses to acknowledge it, the Cavaliers are vulnerable.
Entering play on November 19, LeBron James leads the league in both total minutes played (617) and minutes played per game (38.6). Of the players who will comprise James’ supporting rotation in the playoffs, the majority of them are players whose impact will be mostly felt on one side of the floor: offense. To this point, the Cavs have 10 different players averaging 20 minutes played per game—an incredibly high number. More than anything else, that’s a result of Tyron Lue playing with his rotations to figure out which units work best, while also taking into account that the team has been playing without both Tristan Thompson and Derrick Rose for long stretches.
Still, of those rotation players—James, Rose, Thompson, J.R. Smith, Kevin Love, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade, Iman Shumpert, Kyle Korver and Jeff Green—the simple truth is that it is only James who has performed like a true two-way player.
It’s a troubling trend upon which the Raptors—and other teams in the conference—could capitalize.
The best two words to describe the Cavaliers to this point in the season are “old” and “slow,” and that’s simply a fact. The club still ranks dead last in points allowed per 100 possessions and 28th in the league in points allowed per game.
In short, the Cavaliers, at least to this point, have certainly appeared to be vulnerable. It is those same Cavaliers that have ended the Raptors season each of the past two years.
You know what they say about third times—they’re often the charm.
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There’s obviously a long way to go, and any chance that Toronto would have to get past the Cavs rests in the ability of Lowry and DeRozan to find some consistency in the playoffs. Still, as the complementary pieces around them have slowly improved, we have spent the early goings of the season fawning over the brand news teams and storylines in the conference and have paid no attention to the old guard.
And depending on how the brackets play out, any Cavaliers foray in the conference finals might have to go through the familiar road of Toronto.
If that happens to be the case—if the Cavs do have to square off against their familiar foe—they’re ripe for the picking.
Just as they have been over the past few years, the Duane Casey’s team will be there waiting for their opportunity.