Ranking the Eastern Conference’s Top Challengers to Cleveland

The Eastern Conference remains the Cleveland Cavaliers to lose as long as LeBron James is healthy and suiting up in the postseason. Their lack of interest on the defensive end coupled with the recent knee injury that will sideline Kevin Love for at least 6 weeks has opened the door for fellow conference foes to stake their claim as the top challenger. No clear-cut rival has emerged out of the teams chasing Cleveland, so let’s sort out the top 3.

LeBron and Isaiah Thomas/ USA Today

3) Boston Celtics

Isaiah Thomas continues to thrive in his role as 4th quarter assassin where he leads the NBA scoring over 10 points in the final frame. His late game heat checks are becoming the norm for the 2 time All-Star who has joined the MVP discussion. IT4 is 2nd in the league in scoring at 29.9 PPG and is becoming a fan favorite of the Boston faithful. For all of his offensive prowess, it’s the point guard’s lack of defense that plays a major role in how far this team can go in the playoffs.

The current 2-seed has been swept by Cleveland the last 2 postseasons and haven’t improved on the defensive side of the court to pull off the upset. Free agent signing Al Horford is a versatile big man that has helped the team climb the standings, but Horford, like many of Boston’s players, is undersized. He isn’t the rim protector that is needed to make up for Thomas’ defensive limitations. Marcus Smart and Jamison Crowder are afraid of nobody and play with a passion that spreads throughout the roster, but the pair can only do so much. Crowder can’t contain LeBron and Smart has surrendered an average of 32.5 PPG in his two matchups with Kyrie Irving this season, both Celtics losses in high-scoring contests. Defensive ace Avery Bradley is a known perimeter stopper whom could be deployed in a platoon with Smart and Terry Rozier to wear down Kyrie over the course of the series. But Boston also struggles to keep opponents off the defensive glass. They rank towards the bottom of the league in defensive rebounding % while surrendering 14 2nd chance points a game. This is no way to win in the playoffs, especially with a Love-James-Tristan Thompson triumvirate crashing the boards at will.

The Celtics are in line for the top draft pick via Brooklyn’s 2017 pick with young talent across the roster. They have the assets to make a big move at the deadline, but it seems like they’ll hold onto to their picks and young pieces while building for the future. Isaiah Thomas is must-see TV and head coach Brad Stevens is the brightest young coach in the league, but Cleveland will expose their shortcomings once again if they meet in the playoffs.

2) Toronto Raptors

Last year’s Eastern Conference finalist is sitting at the 4-seed after a rough stretch of games that saw them go 5–10 in their last 15. Their defense has fallen to 17th in points allowed per 100 possessions, and All-Star starter DeMar DeRozan has been in-and-out of the lineup with an ankle injury. Kyle Lowry has been sensational all year while doing his best to keep the Raptors afloat while his backcourt mate healed up. Lowry is having a career season connecting on 42% of his threes and making the 3rd most of any player with 185. When their backcourt is healthy, Toronto is as dangerous as anybody in the East. They have viable floor spacers surrounding their ball dominant guards, but always lacked a difference making defender at the 4. Insert Serge Ibaka.

Serge Ibaka/ Toronto Star

The Raptors shipped swingman Terrance Ross and a 2017 1st round pick to the Magic for the services of Ibaka, who was rotting away in Orlando after 7 years of constant contending with OKC. Serge averages 2.4 blocks a game over the course of his career and has extended his range to the 3-point line to become a reliable pick-and-pop shooter. He will slide immediately into the starting lineup providing instant floor spacing to an offense devoid of stretch-4s outside of veteran Patrick Patterson. The offensive spacing and shot-blocking are both important, but it’s Ibaka’s ability to switch on screens and guard smaller players that makes the greatest impact. This will allow head coach Dwayne Casey to theoretically play Ibaka at the 5 with DeMarre Carroll at the 4 with all five players on the court possessing ability to guard the perimeter, something that can’t happen with Patterson and/or center Jonas Valanciunas in the game.

Ibaka’s presence also opens the lane for the All-Star backcourt. Surrounding Lowry and DeRozan with as many shooters as possible will put opposing defenses in consistent binds; do they stay home and place a teammate on an island or slide into the paint for help and allow an open three? DeRozan-Ibaka pick-and-rolls will be deadly, especially with Lowry knocking down 3’s at his current rate and Serge scoring 6.7 points a game on catch-and-shoot scenarios. The offense can play fast and slow it down by throwing the ball into Valanciunas allowing him to go to work in short spurts of energy.

The Raptors may benefit from slumping into a 4 or 5 seed, too. Kevin Love underwent knee surgery and may not be 100% by the time the Eastern semis roll around. The Ibaka trade looks great on paper, but we have yet to see how he meshes on the court. The All-Star break will help him grow accustomed to life up North, so we will see if he is the piece to get them over the hump before they head to an uneasy offseason as Lowry and Ibaka head towards free agency.

  1. Washington Wizards

The top team in the Eastern Conference since December at a record of 28–10 resides in D.C. with the Wizards. John Wall and Bradley Beal are one of the best backcourts in the NBA this season with both scoring over 20 a game. Beal is a known sharpshooter that is healthy and playing at the level we all thought he could if he stayed on the court. Wall remains one of the premier playmakers in the league (10.6 APG) in large part to the array of shooters that surround him. Everybody knows about the shooting stroke of Beal, but the frontcourt partnership of Otto Porter and Markieff Morris are helping Washington reach contender status.

Porter leads the NBA with .465% on 3 pt. attempts and is relishing the open looks Wall creates for him on a nightly basis. The 4th year player was a career .349% shooter from deep coming into this season, but is now a legit threat to beat you off the catch-and-shoot points where he ranks 2nd in the NBA at 7.7 a game. One half of the Morris twins has also improved his offensive game. Markieff knocks down a respectable .367% from deep while putting up 14.9 PPG. This creates so much space for the Wall-Gortat pick-and-roll where defenses have to hope the shooters miss their shots, which isn’t happening this season.

Down to Buck

Porter will see these open looks with defenders leaving him to help protect the paint via the Wall-Gortat pick-and-roll game. The transition 3s will be there if Porter continues to hustle to the 3-point line after turnovers, as he did in this Cleveland game in January.

Their defense is also a main cog in the Wizards’ turnaround. They force the most turnovers in the NBA and have allowed a 5th best 103.9 points per 100 possessions over the last 15 games with a 13–2 record over that span. Wall is 2nd in the league in steals per game spearheading a defense that can switch most screens on the perimeter. The lone weakness on this team is there lack of depth and bench scoring. They are 29th in bench scoring in large part to trotting out the likes of Kelly Oubre Jr., Jason Smith, Trey Burke, Tomas Satoransky, etc. This is forcing first-year head coach Scott Brooks to play hus starters high minutes throughout the regular season. The addition of Nets’ sharpshooter Bojan Bogdonavic will help this problem while giving Wall another player to provide open looks for. This issue is less of a problem when the postseason rolls around with starters seeing an increase in playing time.

As far as matching up with the Cavs themselves goes, the Wiz have a strong case to force them into a 7-game series. John Wall is a better point guard than Kyrie with the latter having no chance of staying in front of Wall defensively. Beal will also have the advantage when JR Smith comes back. Much like the first meeting this season, Cleveland will have to prevail on the backs of LeBron and Kevin Love. LeBron will see many bodies thrown his way between the length of Porter and brute strength of Morris, but James will be in total control as usual. Which puts the spotlight on Love to dominate in the post and make his open 3s, as he did when he put up 39 points & 12 boards in January’s 140–135 OT win. I’d be reluctant to go against LeBron in any series, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Wizards continued to evolve as the season progresses and possibly surprise Cleveland if the injury bug bites them again.