The Eastern Conference is shaping up to be very interesting next season. There’s really only one thing that people can agree on with the East, and that is that each team can be placed into one of three groups. There’s the contenders: Miami, Brooklyn, Indiana, Chicago, and New York. Then there’s the terrible teams, who are fairly obvious too: Orlando, Charlotte, Philadelphia, Boston, and maybe Milwaukee. Finally, you have the group in the middle: Detroit, Toronto, Washington, Atlanta, and Cleveland. Within these groups, there’s a lot of debate about what order the teams will finish in. Is Chicago going to be better than Indiana? Will Brooklyn be a real threat? What is Milwaukee? Can Charlotte stay out of the cellar finally? Seriously, WHAT IS MILWAUKEE????
My mission over the next few weeks is to figure out how the Cavs match up with the other teams in their “tier.” I’ll look at the lineups, the schemes, and the coaches, and try to determine just where the Cavs stack up in the Eastern conference. The Wine and Gold’s first opponent? The Toronto Raptors.
Likely Starting Lineups
Cleveland: Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Earl Clark/Alonzo Gee, Tristan Thompson, Andrew Bynum/Anderson Varejao
Toronto: Kyle Lowry, Demar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas
The great thing about this matchup for the Cavaliers is that they matchup up really nicely with the Raptors frontcourt. Thompson is a better version of Johnson, a power rebounder and above-average defender, and Bynum and Varejao can both adequately body up Valanciunas, a decent two-way weapon. The Cavs shouldn’t have any issue being effective against these two on both ends, if the centers are healthy. Lowry will be able to defend Irving better than most, but he’s not Avery Bradley or anything as a defender, and offensively isn’t a major weapon. Also, for whatever reason, Lowry really struggles against the Cavs, shooting 18% from the field in 12 career games against Cleveland, per Basketball-Reference. Kyrie still should have an advantage. Then, we get to the wings, where Toronto will likely have a huge advantage against Cleveland. DeRozan and Gay are horribly inefficient on offense. However, DeRozan is a half-decent slasher, and in a matchup against Waiters, both should be able to get baskets fairly easily. The major hole here is that the Cavs don’t have a guy who can match up well with Gay, who’s 6’8,” can get a shot anywhere on the floor, and is a pretty solid defensive player. Gay is basically a shorter, less athletic, streakier Josh Smith, and you can’t sick Gee on that and hope for good results. Clark’s also not quick enough to handle Gay. Honestly, going with Anthony Bennett for a majority of the time on Gay and hoping he doesn’t get hot might be the best option, but even then, we don’t know if Bennett will give the defensive effort to handle Gay. Regardless, these two starting lineups are relatively even, and success for either team likely would hinge on how Valanciunas and the Cavs centers perform.
Here’s where the Cavaliers have a pretty good advantage. With Bennett, Clark or Gee, Varejao or Bynum, and Jarrett Jack able to come in and play big minutes, the Cavaliers have a pretty nice set up as far as depth. Toronto’s bench does have some skill as well, with Tyler Hansbrough and Terrence Ross likely providing big upgrades over what was a mostly useless bench last season. However, outside of Hansbrough, there aren’t any proven threats on the Toronto bench. Ross shot worse than Waiters did last season, and doesn’t really do much outside of throw down dunks and take threes, which he’s not very good at making. D.J. Augustin, while an upgrade over John Lucas, isn’t really a quality bench option, and Steve Novak doesn’t do much besides stand around the perimeter. Meanwhile, Cleveland can insert a dominant defensive center, the best bench point guard in the league, and/or the number one pick from this year’s draft into their lineup. I’ll take the Cavs depth.
The Raptors play at a slow pace offensively, with an offense predicated on getting open looks for Gay and DeRozan, as well as getting the ball inside and letting Valanciunas and Johnson go to work. This team will take a ton of long twos, but with Novak and a (hopefully) fully healthy Lowry, we could see a shift to more three-point attempts this season for Toronto. As we’ve previously discussed on this site, we really don’t know what the Cavaliers will be running offensively. We do know that they have the weapons to be a dominant pick-and-roll team, and that their mid-range shooting should be outstanding. They also will likely play fast, which could make for an interesting game between the Raptors and Cavs thanks to contrasting styles. Defensively, both of these teams were ghastly last year, with the Cavs finishing 27th in defensive efficiency and the Raptors finishing 22nd. That will likely change this year for both, as the Cavs will assuredly be better with Mike Brown at the helm and potentially a full year of healthy Varejao, and the Raptors will rely more on Valanciunas playing with Amir Johnson and Hansbrough, both excellent defensive options. Valanciunas/Johnson combos allowed a little under 97 points/100 possessions last season, and we should get more action with these two playing together. I expect the Raptors to be the better defensive team, but the Cavaliers to be the faster and more efficient offensive team. Once again, I feel we’re incredibly even.
The Cavaliers and Raptors match up pretty well with each other. Both teams will likely be improved this season, and should be healthier than they were last year. Ultimately, I think the main advantage the Cavs have over the Raptors is their depth. The Raptors may have a more talented starting lineup than the Cavs, but the spots 6-9 on Cleveland’s bench give the Cavs a lot more flexibility, and feature a lot more talent, than the Raptors bench can offer. The Cavs also should be much more efficient offensively than Toronto, which will be a huge issue for the Raptors because of the difference in pace. Fast and efficient is vastly superior to slow and inefficient, and that should be the case for Cleveland against Toronto. The Cavs should be able to handle the Raptors next season.