After slogging through the regular season with varying degrees of success both the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors quickly eliminated their first round opponents. As we watch the rest of the action and await our next opponent, I sat down (virtually speaking) with the ever-affable EVR1022 from FtS to discuss both sides of the playoff bracket, upcoming matchups, and LeSwitch.
Can you talk about the Cavs oft-discussed defensive issues? Who do you blame and what are some adjustments that you would like to see?
EVR response: The Cavs had a defensive rating of 110.3 in the regular season, No. 21 in the NBA and about half a standard deviation below league average. Not good. That’s right at the threshold that historically has separated a potential champion from a non-contender. Specifically, only the 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers were this bad on defense in the regular season before winning the championship.
Why was it so bad? Several factors contributed:
1) Age - of the ten guys I consider part of the playoff rotation, six of them are 31 or older. The regular season grind is tough on older players. But with 2-3 days of rest, along with a shorter duration, the postseason allows them to do more.
2) Injuries - J.R. Smith missed 41 games. Kevin Love missed 22, Kyrie missed 10, and LeBron missed 8. Even our ironman, Tristan, missed a couple games (and looked worn out the weeks leading up to the end of the streak). Injuries lead to bad players getting lots of minutes. The Cavs had 2,860 minutes given to players outside the playoff rotation. For some teams, like the Rockets, this number was under 1,000. At present, however, the Cavs are mostly healthy.
3) Scheme - The Cavs roster is constructed to play aggressive defense, with LeBron James and Tristan Thompson snuffing out pick-and-rolls on the perimeter. But that’s a high energy scheme for a roster that is old and oft-injured. The regular season defensive schemes, therefore, were extremely vanilla. We didn’t play aggressively at all. No. 29 in forcing turnovers, No. 25 in blocked shots, No. 28 in opponent free throw attempts (not fouling is good, of course, but also a signal of not playing aggressively). The postseason schemes will be different. Whether they’ll be effective remains to be seen.
It all starts with LeBron’s effort. In the regular season he was putting most of his effort into the offense to patch the deficiencies left in the wake of injuries and roster constructions issues (no backup PG until late in the year). His effort is beginning to amp up, however. 12 steals and 8 blocks in the 4 game sweep of Indiana, along with stonewalling various Pacers on key possessions late in games, the King is definitely on form to start this postseason. The rest of the team has been… inconsistent. Kyrie and Kevin are never going to be ace defenders, but they can do better than they have so far. Kyrie is quick and has good hands. He needs to use those tools to force turnovers. Kevin just needs to hit the boards harder. Indiana’s offensive rebounding was dominant in games 1 and 3. That’s just not acceptable. I thought the Cavs’ wings and veterans were better in round one than during the regular season. Deron Williams, in particular, did a great job in game 3. I’m hoping they can build on that against a tough Toronto team in round 2 (yes, the Raptors are going to win their series).
So you are a firm believer in “LeSwitch”? What’s your level of concern regarding his minutes and workload? I mean, it seems like a risky strategy to be reliant on Lebron saving the day all the time.
EVR: Yeah, LeBron definitely changes gears in the postseason. In the regular season there are defensive possessions where he doesn’t even cross half court, or where he just kind of shuffles in a two-foot radius while watching the action around him and yelling at teammates for blown rotations (which makes me laugh every single time). In the postseason he chases people down in transition, swats the ball into the stands then Forrest Gump's his way into the tunnel. The intensity level is completely different.
Regarding his workload, I really think media concern is overblown. This year was the fewest games LeBron has ever played in a healthy season. Eight games off, including five of the 27 games after the All-Star break. While he led the league in MPG, he was only tenth in total minutes. Do I really want the best player in the world playing fewer minutes than Trevor Ariza? Nah. It’s not like he was taxing himself on defense in the regular season, so plenty of those minutes were relatively light. He also gets a week off after his customary first round sweep, and the Cavs will no doubt notch another sweep sometime in the Eastern Conference playoffs (I’m guessing ECF against BOS/CHI/WAS/ATL).
You say this strategy is risky, but… this team was built for specifically for LeBron. And to build a team for LeBron means building to win championships, not to be happy with a win total in the 60s and an ECF appearance. He’s been there, done that, and found out that people really only care about rings (fun fact: Which historical team had the closest net rating to the 67-win, 2014-15 Warriors? The 2008-09 Cleveland Cavaliers. Remember them? Probably not, because the Magic stomped them in the ECF). The Cavs have gone all-in on a roster equipped to dominate, not the regular season, but the playoffs. They are 28-4 in the EC playoffs since The Return, which is a 72-win pace when extrapolated over 82 games. In the Finals they are 6-7 against an historically great team with Kevin Love missing 7 of those games and Kyrie Irving missing 5. These are the numbers that matter to LeBron and to Cavs fans.
Can you break down the Eastern playoffs for us? How do you see it all shaking out? Any upsets? Which team worries you the most right now?
The side of the bracket opposite the Cavs is just a mess right now. Boston and Chicago have failed to win a home game so far in their series, and with Rondo planning to return for game 5 that trend may continue. Wait, what? Rondo might swing a playoff series? I thought this was 2017? Needless to say, I think the winner of that series (probably Boston, but I’m definitely rooting for Chicago) will lose in the next round.
Washington against Atlanta isn’t much better aside from not being complete trash. Wall and Millsap are fantastic players that were underappreciated this year. But the supporting casts are uninspiring. I think this series goes seven games, and I think Atlanta will ultimately prevail because they have the best player (Millsap), best rebounder (D12) and the best coach. They will proceed to dispose of that Boston trash and meet the Cavs in the ECF for a third consecutive sweep. Okay, okay, maybe they take one game this year (but probably not).
The other side of the bracket is far more interesting. PG13 had a nice playoff showing, a reminder of how good he really is when he locks in. Toronto and Milwaukee are both very intriguing teams. Giannis will be the best player in the league someday. Middleton is a top 25 player and a nearly perfect No. 2 guy. The supporting cast… is rough at this point. They need a year, or more likely two, to become a real challenger in the East.
Toronto, on the other hand, is an excellent team right now. Masai Ujiri made a couple of excellent mid-season trades for Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, a pair of great defensive players both equipped with a reasonable jump shot. Kyle Lowry was on pace to be a fringe MVP candidate before an untimely injury prevented him from getting many reps with those two. The question is whether that injury will be a blessing or a curse. Before his injury the achilles heel of the Raptors was that they fell apart whenever Lowry sat. The injury, combined with those two trades, allowed them to work out some solutions to that problem. Of course, that’s a moot point if Lowry doesn’t regain his early season form in time for the showdown with the Cavs.
If Lowry is 100% then I’d give the Raptors a 25% chance of taking the series. My opinion of the Raptors is higher than that figure indicates, but the Cavs have home court and a week off, while the Raptors take their time disposing of Milwaukee. If Lowry is less than 100%, however, I think those odds drop a good amount. If I had to guess, I’d say he’ll be about 90% and the Cavs will jump out to a 2-0 lead at home, split the pair on the road and finish it off in 5. There definitely is danger in this series, however, and if the Raptors win they certainly wouldn’t be a pushover in the Finals. They have a deep and versatile roster, and could match up with the Warriors reasonably well. Something like Lowry - DeRozan - Tucker - Patterson - Ibaka would have the length and athleticism at each position to stick with the death lineup. I’m not sure how well they’d score on the Warriors defense, but their offense has proven to be very potent at times this year. It would be an interesting series.
Duby: My most sincere thanks for agreeing to participate in this, and then knocking it out of the park, EVR! I really appreciate your willingness to share your perspective with all of us Cavs haterz!
Please be sure and click on over to Fear the Sword for the other side of this Q&A. Where I arrogantly proclaim the Warriors as very, very good. And remember, don’t you DARE use the subject line over there!