Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Analyzing the Cavaliers' playoff chances

When the Cleveland Cavaliers acquired Luol Deng from the Chicago Bulls for Andrew Bynum and a variety of draft picks, the immediate reaction was simple and straightforward from Cavs fans. Deng’s acquisition, the thought was, was the piece that takes the Cavaliers from the Eastern Conference cellar to the edge of or into legitimate playoff contention. Fair or not, that is the expectation now for the 2013-2014 Cleveland Cavaliers – playoffs or bust. That was the expectation coming into the season (again, fair or not) and that expectation has only become expected more so since Deng’s acquisition.

Let’s get one thing straight here: Deng makes the Cavaliers better, but he doesn’t solve all of their issues on either end of the floor. What he brings to the table is the ability to handle the ball, off-ball cutting and solid defensive abilities – which definitely helps. He also brings a legitimate veteran presence to a Cavaliers team that desperately needs it on the court and of it and can benefit from his experience playing for some very good Bulls teams over the past few years.

What Deng doesn’t do is solve some of the Cavaliers bigger issues. For starters, Deng is a career 33.3 percent shooter from behind the arc, which is slightly below league average. He is much better in the mid-range and getting the ball of cuts – meaning he won’t solve some of the spacing issues the Cavaliers have had dealt with at times this season. Granted, they were at least somewhat caused by Bynum clogging up the paint, but nonetheless they still exist. And with Deng now a starter, the Cavaliers now have a starting front court that is unable to stretch the floor beyond 18 feet.

This isn’t a knock on the Deng deal; it made sense when it happened and the Cavaliers can only get better on and off the court because with the two-time All-Star around. And at the very least, it means no more having to watch Earl Clark and Alonzo Gee man the three spot on a nightly basis. But he doesn’t heal every wound the Cavaliers have and he doesn’t instantly make the Cavaliers such a lock that you should feel comfortable putting your life savings on them playing the basketball that really matters. At best, Deng helps make the Cavaliers a playoff team that make it in by the smallest of margins. But variety of reasons not worth diving into, anything less would be a disappointment.

As of Sunday morning this is how the East would look if the season ended today.

Team

Games Back of First Place

Indiana Pacers

0

Miami Heat

3.5

Toronto Raptors

11.5

Atlanta Hawks

12.0

Washington Wizards

13.0

Chicago Bulls

13.0

Detroit Pistons

15.5

Brooklyn Nets

15.5

Charlotte Bobcats

16.5

Cleveland Cavaliers

17.5

New York Knicks

17.5

Boston Celtics

19.0

Philadelphia 76ers

19.5

Orlando Magic

22.5

Milwaukee Bucks

25.0

Only two teams – the Indiana Pacers and the Miami Heat – are locks to be playing basketball in May and probably beyond. On the flip side, only three teams – the Milwaukee Bucks, the Orlando Magic and the Philadelphia 76ers – are sure fire bets to be picking in the lottery. The Boston Celtics are trending towards the latter group as well, meaning there are six playoff spots up for grabs and nine teams with a realistic shot of nabbing one of them. And only six games separate the team currently at the top of that heap (the Toronto Raptors) from the team at the bottom of it (the Cavaliers and New York Knicks). Barring something unforeseen, this all but assures a tight race for those spots over the second half of the season.

Those six spots actually drops to five, however, when you note that someone has to win the Atlantic Division. The Rudy Gay-less Raptors currently hold a four game division lead over the Brooklyn Nets in that division and the Knicks sit six games back. One of those teams will hold a top-four seed in East at the end of the season and for my money, the Raptors are the favorites in that race. There is too much dysfunction with both teams in the Big Apple to have any sort of confidence in saying they will win a division that is prime for the taking.

So, assuming the Raptors win the Atlantic, that leaves this group of teams in contention for five spots: the Cavaliers, the Bulls, the Nets, the Knicks, the Detroit Pistons, the Washington Wizards, the Charlotte Bobcats and the Atlanta Hawks.[1] Two of these teams – the Bulls and Hawks – have suffered roster changes that remove them from the group considered a guarantee to make the playoffs. The Bulls, without Deng, are missing their longtime glue guy and likely will take a dip over the next few weeks. Atlanta, due to Al Horford’s torn pectoral muscle, will also likely take a tumble down the standings. However, with a trio of Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver and Paul Millsap keeping them afloat and they should still have enough to make the postseason. On the other hand, it’s relatively unlikely that the Bulls can keep playing at a level that guarantees them a playoff spot.

The Wizards, Pistons and Bobcats are all similar in the sense in that they all have shown flashes of being good teams, but all have some issues their own respective issues they need to sort out. Washington runs a very short bench and isn’t getting consistent production from anyone not named John Wall on a nightly basis. The Pistons are struggling to incorporate offseason acquisition Josh Smith into the fold with Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe in a quest to win now, but they are good enough on paper to make the playoffs. The Bobcats, who looked like almost a sure thing a few weeks back, play solid defense and are getting a career year out of their big offseason signing, Al Jefferson. But they have been inconsistent as of late and are looking more and more like the lottery bound Bobcats each time they lose.

As for the Knicks and the Nets, their issues are well documented. The former is playing less small ball and hitting less from deep than they did a year ago while also dealing with some serious injury issues. That’s not even the tip of the iceberg, as the J.R. Smith saga and Mike Woodson’s lineup management are some problems that fixable because well, it’s the Knicks. The Nets, just a few subway stops away at the Barclays Center, lost their best player for the season when Brook Lopez broke his foot and aren’t getting the expected production from any of their high priced starters. And while Jason Kidd has gotten better on the bench, he still hasn’t proven he has what it takes to lead the Nets through tough times and into the postseason.

One thing every single one the teams mentioned above will need to even sniff the playoffs are wins. Over the last five years, the following number of wins have gotten a team the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference are as follows:

Teams

Number of wins

Milwaukee Bucks

38

Philadelphia 76ers

35

Indiana Pacers

37

Chicago Bulls

41

Detroit Pistons

39

On average, that’s an even 38 wins to get the eight seed. But when you consider that the East is mud weaker than normal this season, it is reasonable to consider that a team that wins 35 or 36 games could get into the playoffs. For the Cavaliers, that means going 20-22 or 21-21 the rest of the way. They also have 20 games left on the road (which leaves 22 home games) where they currently have a 5-17 record. The Cavaliers will also have to do so against a fairly strong schedule, as the remaining teams on the schedule have a winning percentage of 48 percent. That falls smack dad in the middle of the teams competing for the remaining playoff spots. It helps that the two teams in their division – the Bulls and Pistons – have a tougher remaining schedule.

Team

Winning percentage of remaining opponents

Chicago Bulls

50 percent

Atlanta Hawks

50 percent

Charlotte Bobcats

50 percent

Detroit Pistons

49 percent

Cleveland Cavaliers

48 percent

Washington Wizards

47 percent

Brooklyn Nets

46 percent

New York Knicks

46 percent

Toronto Raptors

46 percent

Barring injury, Mike Brown will probably run out a starting lineup of Kyrie Irving, C.J. Miles, Deng, Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao the rest of the way. On the west coast trip (which was marred by the 44-point loss in Sacramento and bad performance against the Lakers) Brown filled out his rotation with Dion Waiters, Jarrett Jack, Tyler Zeller, Earl Clark and the occasional dose of Matthew Dellavedova. This grouping can play up-tempo, play some half court and, as the Denver game showed, is capable of winning games against quality teams. This team is still inconsistent and has some issues (like finishing in the restricted area) but it has potential. They can mix and match lineups to find the ones that work best on a nightly basis and there’s a fairly good chance Earl Clark becomes much more useful as a backup power forward than as a starting small forward.

The bench as a whole, since Waiters moved to the bench on November 20th, has become a real asset for the Cavaliers. Heading into the Denver game, the bench was averaging 41 PPG since Waiters’ move to the bench –  which is second in the league behind the San Antonio Spurs during that time span. That gives the Cavaliers an advantage over teams like the Wizards and Bobcats who struggle to get production from their bench.

What is working against the Cavaliers here is where they are currently placed in the Eastern Conference standings. Their slow start means they will have to play at .500 level the rest of the way to even get what may not be even enough wins to make the playoffs. The teams above them can play a little bit below .500 and get enough wins. However, teams like Atlanta and Chicago are likely to slide down the standings over the next few weeks and this helps the Cavaliers as well. [2].

Out of all the teams discussed above, the Cavaliers are only ahead of the Knicks in the standings. They are currently 1.5 games out of the eighth speed, which isn’t too big of a deficit to overcome with about the half the season left to play for every team involved. It’s not out of reach by any stretch of the imagination and it’s reasonable and fair for Cavaliers fans cautiously optimistic about the Cleveland’s playoff chances.  It’s by no means a guarantee – even with Deng now on the roster – but there’s a real shot we see the Cavaliers playing basketball come May. It’s going to be a climb, as even if the Cavaliers aren’t in the cellar talent wise, they are only 1.5 games ahead of Philadelphia.

There will be some tough stretches, a lot of games against Western Conference teams and it is just as likely that the Cavaliers miss the playoffs as they make them. Whatever happens next for the Cavaliers should be well worth watching and whatever does happen next likely will affect the Cavaliers beyond this season. And remember: The next 42 games will define what the 2013-2014 Cavaliers will be remembered as. Will it be as a team that from an awful start to make the playoffs or a team that failed to meet preseason expectations that were a little two high in the first place and only time will tell us the real answer.


[1] The Cavaliers play these teams 17 more times.

[2] They also play Chicago once more (on January 22nd) and the Hawks once more (on April 4th)

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Tags: Anderson Varejao C.J. Miles Cleveland Cavaliers Kyrie Irving Luol Deng Mike Brown Tristan Thompson

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