So is this a playoff team? That’s all that matters, right? To be honest, whether or not the Cavs make the playoffs this year is somewhat irrelevant to the long-term goal of competing for a championship. Odds are that the team that competes for a championship a few years down the road will not include Andrew Bynum and probably won’t include Anderson Varejao. So, while this season’s outcome depends a great deal on the health and performance of those two guys, the long-term success of the franchise depends much more on the development of the kids drafted in the last three years, which may or may not translate into a playoff bid. In fact, one more year of tanking might be more helpful in the long run.
But we are all sick of tanking. Besides, tanking doesn’t work all that well when everyone is doing it. In any case, a team with aspirations of contending for a championship needs to begin somewhere, and there are reasons why this seems like a watershed year for the Cavs. For one, they have made it a priority. When an organization, in sports or in the real world, states publicly that reaching a particular goal is their primary focus and then they fail to do so, it makes you wonder if they have the stuff needed to achieve even bigger goals down the road.
Making the playoffs is important simply to change the culture around here, as well. Right now the Cavs are viewed as a rising team with a respected coach, a talented nucleus, and a superstar to build around. If that wasn’t the case, Jarrett Jack and Earl Clark would have signed elsewhere. If all that potential doesn’t start paying off in wins, it will change the perception of the franchise, hindering the ability to lure future free agents and ultimately to keep Kyrie Irving around past his rookie contract.
So, back to the beginning: is this a playoff team? Well, in order to be a playoff team, the criteria is simple: you have to be better than at least seven other teams in the Eastern Conference. The best way to figure that out is to break the fifteen teams in the conference into three groups. Miami, Chicago, Brooklyn, and Indiana will make the playoffs unless something catastrophic happens. Most people would include New York and Atlanta in this group as well, although I see the Knicks falling back a bit this year. On the other end, Philadelphia, Charlotte, Orlando, and Boston can be counted out of the playoff picture with reasonable confidence; indeed, at least two of those teams would likely take corrective action to avoid making the playoffs if the season starts out better than expected. That leaves five teams – Cleveland, Washington, Milwaukee, Toronto, and Detroit – fighting for two playoff spots. So, in order to make the case that the Cavs are a playoff team, you would need to demonstrate that they are better than three of the other four teams in that group.
This is the point where the statheads would look at every player on the roster for each team, assign a numerical value to their expected performance this year, and say that the teams with the highest cumulative numerical value will make the playoffs. This assumes that anyone knows how Andrew Bynum’s knees will feel on Nov. 1, whether Dion Waiters or Bradley Beal will improve more on their rookie seasons, or whether the Cavs will play Mike Brown defense from opening day. Anyone who has those answers should stop reading this blog and go to Vegas and lay some wagers. The truth is nobody knows. All five teams have undergone significant roster upheaval, all five are counting on young players to reach levels of performance that they have not previously achieved, and all five have coaches who are relatively new.
But there are things we do know, and we can combine those things with some theories that seem reasonable to make predictions that seem valid. Here are the three premises from which I am inclined to operate:
1. When talent is roughly equal in the NBA, coaching is huge
2. None of these teams will see their seasons unfold exactly as they planned, so the teams who have enough depth to withstand injuries and players who do not develop as hoped will have a big edge
3. And, finally, it is easier to withstand the pitfalls of an NBA season when you have a superstar to pull your chestnuts out of the fire a couple of times a year.
Let’s start with coaching. Mike Brown has been to the playoffs six times and won nine playoff series. The other four coaches combined have been to the playoffs six times and won a total of one series. None of them are new, they just haven’t accomplished much. We can’t say for certain that this makes Brown a better coach, because none of the other guys had LeBron, but Mo Cheeks and Randy Wittman have lengthy track records of taking developing teams and failing to get them to the next level, so you have to say Brown has an edge over them. Larry Drew and Dwane Casey have shorter careers, so it is not as easy to draw conclusions about them, but it is fair to say that nothing in their track record indicates that they would give their teams a huge edge.
Next: roster depth. Right now, the edge has to go to Detroit in this regard. They have gone out and gotten Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings, plus veterans Corey Maggette and Chauncey Billups for insurance. They have enough depth that they should be good whether Andre Drummond gets better or not, and they do not need to count on the guys they drafted this year. The Cavs are probably second in this category. The Cavs have created depth in the backcourt by signing Jack and have plugged their biggest hole at small forward with a serviceable player in Clark. There are several options at the interior positions, but odds of Bynum and Varejao staying healthy all year and the drop off that occurs if they are not, puts the Cavs behind Detroit. Toronto has no backup plan if Jonas Valanciunas does not develop, and they will be giving major minutes to guys like DeMar DeRozan who really don’t help them. The Wizards are banking on either Otto Porter or Jan Vesely playing a major role at small forward; Porter is a rookie and Vesely just hasn’t done much. The Wizards also have no good options if either Nene or Emeka Okafor goes down. Milwaukee needs Caron Butler and Zaza Pachulia to play better than they have in years and Brandon Knight to figure out the point guard position. Not likely.
Finally, the superstar issue. The only guys on any of these teams who can take over a game right now are John Wall and Kyrie Irving. Drummond can do so defensively, but he needs some post-up moves before he can do so on offense. Brandon Jennings can get hot, but that doesn’t seem to translate to winning games. That gives the edge in this category to the Wizards and the Cavs.
So, adding it up, it is clear that the Raptors and the Bucks fall short in all three categories, leaving a three-team race for what appears to be two spots. The gambler in me wants to say that all three will make it and the Hawks or Knicks will be out, but that seems like too much of a reach. My guess is the Wizards stumble out of the gate until they realize that Randy Wittman can’t coach; if it takes 10 games to figure that out they can recover, but not if it takes 30 games. That assumes his replacement actually fixes things, which we can’t predict. I can see the Pistons going either way; Brandon Jennings can look like Allen Iverson, Josh Smith can utilize his freakish athleticism to finish in transition, Andre Drummond blocks every shot within ten feet of the hoop, and Pistons basketball is a beautiful thing. Or, Jennings goes two weeks without making a shot but never stops shooting, Josh Smith can’t figure out if he’s a small forward or a seven-footer, and they often put five guys on the floor who shoot under 30 percent from three. The Pistons will win a lot of games simply because they have accumulated a lot of talent, but the fact that their talent doesn’t fit very well together will limit them. I see the Cavs in the seventh seed, pushing the Hawks or Knicks for sixth, and the Pistons edging out the Wizards for the eighth spot.