When the 2017-2018 NBA season began back in mid October, a lot of people thought there would be a fourth rematch between the Cavs and Warriors in the Finals. These same people believed that we could skip the regular season and the entire playoffs without missing a beat. However, there were many events that occurred during this dramatic regular season that swayed people’s decisions.
First, the Celtics started the year off so strong after losing star small forward Gordon Hayward to a season-ending injury, even reeling off a 16 game win streak in the process. Boston is still in a good position, as it will most likely end the season as the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
I haven’t even mentioned the Toronto Raptors, who have had an amazing season while being very consistent throughout this season. I give a lot of credit to head coach Dwane Casey, who I believe should be Coach of the Year. He implemented an offense in which the ball never stops and all five players on the court are involved. This is huge because it represents a strong contrast to the Raptors of previous years in which there was a lot of isolation basketball. The players bought into the system and as a result, are having far greater success than in the past. Shooting guard DeMar DeRozan has elevated his game by adding the three point shot. He doesn’t shoot as efficiently as people like, but he shoots it well enough that his defender must respect his three point shot.
While the East has gotten better this year with the Philadelphia 76ers, the surprising Indiana Pacers led by Victor Oladipo and the Washington Wizards (a consistent 4 or 5 seed in the East), the biggest problems for the Cavaliers this year is arguably in their own home. Although Lebron James has had one of his best offensive seasons, he has been a shadow of himself defensively. Even so, Lebron’s defense was a non-issue because of all the other problems they had. Cleveland was ranked in the bottom three in the league in points given up a game. The problem was only further exploited by other teams when point guard Isaiah Thomas came back from injury. Not only that, Thomas ruined the Cavs chemistry on offense too because of his style of play. I.T. is not a passer, he’s a scorer and he wasn’t scoring at nearly the same rate and efficiency as the year before. Along with some locker room issues with Thomas, it was clear that he wasn’t going to fit in Cleveland long term. So it wasn’t a surprise when he was shipped to the Lakers at the trade deadline for Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr., Cleveland also acquired Rodney Hood and George Hill at the deadline, clear upgrades over Jae Crowder and Derrick Rose. Despite the upgrades, the Cavs are still trying to find a way to work in these new pieces along with Kevin Love’s return from injury.
Despite all these problems and issues with the Cleveland, I still firmly believe that they will represent the Eastern Conference in the Finals. I spoke briefly about Lebron James earlier, in my opinion he is having his best offensive season in his NBA career. He may not have the same athleticism that he once had, but it is clear to me that Lebron becomes smarter and smarter with each year. His three point field goal percentage is 37 percent, which is good enough to keep the defender honest. He is still creating for his teammates at a very high level. Also, I can’t remember a year in which he has posterized so many players. Some of these defenders just need to get out of the way when Lebron is driving!
Another factor in my reasoning for the Cavs winning the East is all the moves the Cavaliers made at the deadline. By acquiring George Hill, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr. and Rodney Hood and trading off Derrick Rose, Jae Crowder, Channing Frye and Iman Shumpert, Cleveland got much younger and more athletic. This will help especially on the defensive end where the Cavaliers have been getting torched all season. Because of the difference in athleticism, the Cavaliers should be able to switch on defense, making them much more flexible. Larry Nance Jr. is going to be a key piece for the Cavaliers because he can run the floor, protect the rim and finish on the offensive end. The Cavaliers need him to be what Tristan Thompson was in 2016 when the Cavs won the championship. Jordan Clarkson gives the Cavs good point guard minutes off the bench. Rodney Hood and George Hill provide more on the defensive end while shooting the three ball well on the offensive end.
And while the Cavs are trending upwards, some of the contenders in the East are starting to slip or at the very least slow down. The Celtics have been dealing with a lot of injuries. Star point guard and former Cavalier, Kyrie Irving will miss about three-six weeks after undergoing a small knee procedure. Even with a healthy Irving, I don’t see how the Celtics could beat the Cavaliers this year. Boston will not have the offensive firepower it needs to beat Cleveland. Boston also has a lot of young guys who have been contributing at a high rate. That’s great, but the playoffs are tougher than the regular season and younger players sometimes don’t have the same postseason success as regular season success. The Celtics have had a great year considering the Hayward injury, but they should not be able to get past Cleveland.
I don’t believe in the Washington Wizards, as they are one of the more inconsistent teams in the NBA, with or without John Wall. The Wizards have talent, but they never seem to put their talent to proper use on a consistent basis. I love Philadelphia and I’m a big believer in the “process” as star center Joel Embiid would say. However, I do think they are too young and are one or two years away from being a consistent NBA title contender.
Now we get to Toronto, who the Cavs will most likely face in the Eastern Conference finals. Toronto has had a great year. However, they have not always had the best playoff success. Remember when I discussed isolation basketball and the Raptors earlier, I was thinking this because that’s when their isolation basketball became a problem, as teams didn’t have to work nearly as hard defensively. Toronto has often shrunk in the spotlight, often having poor shooting days which leads to blowout losses. The Raptors offense has been different this year, but it will be interesting to see if they revert back to their old ways when the going gets tough. It is easy to fall into the trap when you have elite scorers in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and good mid-level scorers in Serge Ibaka, C.J. Miles and others. Also, Lebron has always played well against Toronto. I think he has a mental edge over them. Just a week ago, the Raptors were ahead 15 at halftime playing the Cavaliers in Cleveland. What happened after halftime? You could probably answer that. Lebron took over after halftime and secured a close win for the Cavaliers. I wouldn’t be surprised if this happened in the playoffs.
Photo taken from We Are Basket.