Let’s Argue: Cavaliers’ Biggest Threat in the East

Welcome to Let’s Argue, your weekly opportunity to be #MadOnline. The premise is simple: WFNY’s Mike Hattery and Jeff Nomina will present arguments — maybe just a question or a deep stat dive or a good old fashioned hot take. Then, they will either argue with each other or invite you to come argue with us. This week, Mike and Jeff are starting the argument, but don’t let that stop you for joining in the comment section or coming at us 140 characters at a time on Twitter @SnarkyHatman &@SportsNom.

There are six games left in the regular season and the Cleveland Cavaliers are limping—literally and figuratively—into the playoffs. Of course, the defending champions have enough talent to win a butt-kicking contest on one leg, but to say their recent lull is ill-timed is an understatement.

With back-to-back trips to the Finals, the Eastern Conference hasn’t provided much in terms of resistance for the Cavaliers in seasons past. Is this the year that changes? This week I’m flying solo looking at the major challengers in the East:

Boston Celtics:

Record: 50-27

Offensive Rank: 8

Defensive Rank: 11

Why they are a threat:

Boston is deep, efficient, and annoying. They can throw a steady stream of quality NBA players on the court and run a system that limits mistakes. For a team like the Cavaliers who, let’s say, “struggle” with attention span, Boston is the type of team that will take advantage. They take the third most threes in the league and rarely turn the ball over. So they won’t likely beat themselves. They rank first in the league in annoying narratives, with head coach Brad Stevens ranking somewhere between Greg Popovich and Gandalf in terms of reported magical powers. Isaiah Thomas has been a monster all season, and especially in the fourth quarters. They feature tough defenders such as Marcus Smart, Jae Crowder, and Avery Bradley, who showed his defensive chops against Kyrie Irving earlier this season.

Why I’m not worried:

The Celtics have yet to win a playoff series under Brad Stevens. Isaiah Thomas has put up points, but is a significantly worse defender than Kyrie Irving. They also rely on him for a huge portion of their offense. In the playoffs when a team can scheme and lock-in on a five foot point guard, bad things are likely to happen. Beyond Thomas there just isn’t a whole lot of offensive firepower. Avery Bradley has had a great year, but doesn’t create much for himself. Al Horford is a great player, but Tristan Thompson has dominated that match-up when he was with the Hawks. Horford is spending over 30 percent of his time launching threes now, after spending most of his career with a three point attempt rate under 10 percent. If the Celtics were half as good at winning playoff series as they were leaking trade rumors, this might be a match-up.

Washington Wizards:

Record: 46-31

Offensive Rank: 9

Defensive Rank: 20

Why they are a threat:

In terms of top-end talent, the Wizards back-court of John Wall and Bradley Beal is scary. Wall’s speed and passing creates massive confusion for defenses, an area that, again, is a struggle for the Cavaliers. Wall can push against the Cavaliers’ league-worst transition defense and find open shooters like Beal and breakout wing Otto Porter. Beal is hitting 41 percent of his three pointers this year, and Porter 44 percent. They mix in toughness with a front-court featuring Marcin Gortat and Markieff Morris.

Why I’m not worried:

The Wizards are certainly a good team and playing extremely well, but for the tenth consecutive season, they don’t have an answer for LeBron James. They have the offensive firepower to score a lot of points, but the Cavaliers can go small, spread them out, and win any shootout. There’s no love lost in this match-up, and the John Wall vs. Kyrie Irving arguments have raged forever, so it’s easy to see a series getting chippy early. (Of course, any series that features Markieff Morris is likely to get chippy early.) I trust this Cavaliers team to keep their cool and play within themselves more than I do the Wizards. The Cavaliers have spent enough time bickering with each other that it’s just part of their game, at this point. Still, a twisted ankle could make this a tenuous series very quickly.

Toronto Raptors:

Record: 47-30

Offensive Rank: 4

Defensive Rank: 8

Why they are a threat:

Toronto took the Cavaliers to six games in last year’s playoffs, and while a certain amount of boredom from the Cavs played into that, the Raptors are still very good. Kyle Lowry was having a monster season before his injury, and has likely been the best point guard in the East the last two years (ducks as you all throw rotten vegetables at me.) DeMar DeRozan lifted his game to another level, as well. The Raptors are deep and versatile enough to play big or small against the Cavaliers. They also, of course, added Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker at the trade deadline. Ibaka shored up one of their major holes at power forward while Tucker gives them tough defense and another body to throw at LeBron. If Lowry is healthy, this is a deep, tough, versatile team that has playoff experience.

Why I’m not worried:

The “if” in that “if Lowry is healthy” can’t be overlooked. While they feature a lot of talent, Lowry is what makes it all work. When things tighten up in the playoffs, they’ll need DeRozan and Lowry to create shots. If Lowry is unable to hit contested shots and get to his places on the court, they’re going to struggle to keep up. And while they feature a lot of different guys to throw at LeBron, if the Cavaliers spread them out, they are unlikely to have the shooting on the court to scare the Cavs on defense.

So, let’s argue:

The reality is that even a struggling and discombobulated Cavaliers squad can likely handle any of these teams. While the level of play in the East has improved, if the Cavs are hitting threes, it’s hard to see any of these teams have the firepower to steal a series.

If I had to choose, I think Toronto scares me more than anyone. Boston has been pretty good this season, but it’s hard to see them scoring at a pace that keeps up with a fully functioning Cavaliers squad. Washington has some incredible talent and they have given the Cavs fits in the past, but in a series I think the Cavaliers would likely control most games. Toronto has guys who can create and make tough shots, and a deep bench of defenders to constantly frustrate the Cavaliers. It’s hard to imagine Toronto winning a seven-game series, but it’s easy to see them making the Cavaliers work, and work hard.

What do you think? Who scares you the most in the East and why? Vote in the poll below and tell us why in the comments.