It’s easy to throw a team under the microscope and tear apart their flaws. So that’s what I did.
Each top contender is thrown into the spotlight, where they are given zero benefit of the doubt when compared against other teams featured in the article. That leads to contradictions in the continuity of analysis, so each section exists in its own bubble. In one bubble, the Cavaliers are tripping over their own shoelaces trying to defend. In the next, they’re the bane of the Celtics’ existence.
Cleveland Cavaliers (2% Title Odds): The Postseason Will Not Save Your Defense
The Cavaliers shouldn’t even be on this list, according to FiveThirtyEight. The Washington Wizards, Toronto Raptors, and Houston Rockets all hold better title odds based upon their performances to date.
Of course, the Cavaliers have one more LeBron James than the rest of those teams put together — not only should you give him the benefit of the doubt, but you just can’t give weight to any regular season statistics surrounding him. His teams just have an instantly-acquired habit of coasting through the San Antonio “preseason”, before firing up the grills to cook the Eastern Conference in the postseason.
This is precisely why the Cavs’ 22nd-ranked defense should be taken with an entire salt mine. Like an 82-year-old Floridian’s living room, the Cavalier defense will light up with a simple clap of the hands.
The problem with this idea is that it just doesn’t really happen.
Since the Decision, LeBron title contenders see their DRtg rise an average 0.8 between the regular season and postseason. Remove the obvious outlier (the 2014 Heat’s DRtg got pummeled by the Beautiful Game in the Finals), and the average difference falls to -0.24 — an improvement, but only by one point per 400 possessions. This adjusted average was used above (sorry, mobile users) to forecast how the Cavs’ defense will perform in the postseason.
The mythos of LeCoast probably stems from the Cavs’ impressive 2015 defensive leap. With Kyrie and Love leading the team one and two in minutes played during the regular season, the resulting 18th-ranked defense was not an especially low mark to improve upon. That defensive resurgence had as much to do with postseason ‘effort boost’ as it did with ‘replacing Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving with Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova’. It also didn’t hurt their defense to play the 18th-ranked Celtics offense in the First Round and the 11th-ranked Chicago Bulls offense in the Second.
None of this nullifies the proposal that LeBron and co. will improve their defense come postseason time. A somewhat versatile veteran roster with a superstar ringleader should have no problem crawling out of 22nd place. But improving the defense from its current form to championship levels wouldn’t be flicking on a light switch. It would be Bikini Atoll multiplied by Tsar Bomba.
It’d need to be a drastic leap. Since 2010, the average champion has sported a 103.58 postseason DRtg. Over that time span, the average champion postseason DRtg charts -2.5 points/100poss. under the league-average DRtg from that year. The average 2017 DRtg sits at 108.7, which makes the model championship DRtg 106.2.
The Cavaliers would have to improve their postseason DRtg by 4 points/100poss. to hit this ideal. Such a defensive improvement would be 25% larger than LeBron’s greatest-ever improvement year (2015).
In 2016, with a fully healthy Kyrie and Love, the Cavalier defense actually degraded in the postseason crucible. Dellavedova is but a sweaty ghost in QuickenLoans Arena, and Kyle Korver and Channing Frye may be actively trying to hurt the Cavs on defense.
The good news: in two out of three title runs, Team LeBron’s DRtg actually rose. LeBron’s teams have always been more offensively oriented. The bad news: if the 2017 Cavs’ DRtg climbs any higher, they would be at risk of actually losing to the Miami Heat or Chicago Bulls in the First Round. Clocking in with the 6th and 11th ranked defenses respectively, neither the Heat nor Bulls are going to be outright bullied by the Cavalier offense.
Boston Celtics (5% Title Odds): You’re Undercooked and Over-Early
The Celtics’ issues are more diverse.
The Celtics are green. Their team colors are green as well, coincidentally (wah waaah). The Isaiah Thomas - Jae Crowder - Avery Bradley core has two postseason wins under their belt. Every championship core in the modern era had collected at least one series win in past postseasons before hoisting the trophy. History is hedging against the Celtics very strongly.
On top of a lack of experience, the Celtics haven’t been inspiring against top competition within their conference. The Celtics are only 4-7 against the three other teams that have clinched a postseason birth as of 4/1 (the Cavaliers, Washington Wizards, and Toronto Raptors). They hold a -3.73 point differential in those games and have taken exactly 0 road wins against those matchups. Being the top seed and holding home court advantage would assuage the road troubles somewhat — but relying on two Game 7s to stagger out of the conference is hardly the plight of a champion.
Then there’s LeBron. He’s averaging 27 pts 11 ast 9.33 rbs on 51% shooting against the Celtics this season. Avery Bradley is built to guard Stephen Curry — he’s about 25 lbs away from wrangling LeBron. Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder tread water against him. When you have no unequivocal counter to the best player on the floor, the series is invariably tilted in the opponent’s favor.
It doesn’t help that Isaiah Thomas is a defensive sieve. DRPM, a box-score aggregate, squarely places Thomas as the 461st worst defender in the league (important to note: there are 461 NBA players). The difference between him and the next-worst defender (460th) is the same as the difference between the 460th and 438th worst defenders. Box scores capture only the broadest tiles in the overall mosaic of player impact. The eye-test serves as grout between the tiles, and the eyes show a guy six inches shorter than anyone else on the court; a guy who lacks the supreme instincts required to make up for his physical disadvantages.
Can a championship team’s best offensive player be dual-casted as its worst defender? Can a championship team struggle so mightily against in-conference competition? Can a championship core win zero series before it rips through four consecutive postseason teams?
The Celtics would have to defeat four teams, and NBA history itself, to be crowned 2017 Champions. A championship, like the top shelf in the kitchen, is unreachable to Isaiah Thomas. Maybe with an extra year and a Paul George-sized teammate to stand upon, both can be reached.