This much is obvious: The Cleveland Cavaliers are simply not going to be as good. Take two starters off any NBA team and you weaken them. Maybe considerably.
That’s the Cavaliers right now. Kevin Love is out for the entire second round of the playoffs thanks to Boston’s Kelly Olynyk yanking his shoulder out of its socket. J.R. Smith is out for the next two Cavalier games because he punched Boston’s Jae Crowder in the face (Smith is lucky his suspension wasn’t longer).
Where does that leave the Cleveland Cavaliers?
However, is there any team in the East good enough to do anything about it?
On paper, the Chicago Bulls could be trouble for this shorthanded Cavaliers team. But on the court we’re talking about a Bulls team that hasn’t played the elite defense we expect of them this season, a team that can’t close out the improving but still young Milwaukee Bucks, a team that let those Bucks be the aggressors and knock the Bulls back on their heels. “Impressive” is not the word you’d use to describe these Bulls so far in the postseason, even with an improved and attacking Derrick Rose (well at least for the first four games, MCW owned him in Game 5).
That said, the Bulls remain the likely second round matchup for Cleveland.
And Cleveland is vulnerable. Anyone who is saying, “Love didn’t fit in with the Cavs they will be fine” didn’t actually watch Cleveland play. Love stumbled and struggled to find his comfort zone, but by the playoffs was giving them 18 points and nine boards a game, hitting 47 percent from three. This is still an All-Star level player, someone who became central to their offense.
Without Love and his ability to hit the three ball, the spacing in the Cavaliers offense falls apart faster than the plot in Spiderman 3. Substitute Thompson into the starting lineup in place of Love (Kyrie Irving, Smith, LeBron and Timofey Mozgov are the other four) and during the regular season the Cavs were 24.9 points worse per 48 minutes. Their offense isn’t the same as there isn’t the same space to drive and get buckets in the paint. When Love has been on the bench this season LeBron’s usage rate skyrockets — and his efficiency drops.
We saw that in the games the Cavaliers played the Bulls this season — Chicago blew out Cleveland in the game Love didn’t play because they could take their big men (Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic) and pack the paint, clogging up driving lanes for Irving and LeBron. The Cavaliers’ starting lineup (with Smith) was 5.8 points per 100 possessions worse just against the Bulls without Love.
Try to find line-ups featuring the other Cavaliers starters but without Smith and Love and you get into minutes so small you can’t really draw any conclusions. With Smith out, Iman Shumpert likely starts but we will see some Joe Harris, maybe some Matthew Dellavedova playing with Irving.
Which is to say, coach David Blatt is going to be experimenting a lot with new lineups, groupings of players he didn’t have to go to during the season.
One lineup he might go to more often — LeBron as the power forward. He is strong enough to defend Gasol (or Noah), and with this smaller lineup the Cavaliers will have some shooting and spacing.
The other concern: Cleveland isn’t that great a defensive team. After the trade deadline moves to pick up Mozgov and Iman Shumpert the Cavs were certainly improved — they went from terrible to a little above average. Post All-Star Game the Cavaliers allowed 102 points per 100 possessions, 13th best in the NBA. Make it just from March 1 through the end of the season and they allow 103.8 per 100, 18th best in the NBA. That’s not great. And the Bulls offense has been good come the playoffs — Rose is attacking again, Jimmy Butler is confident and making plays, and Pau Gasol remains incredibly skilled and smart. Yes, the Bucks have given the Bulls a challenge, because the Bucks are a long and good defensive team.
The Cavaliers will and should still be the favorites if they face the Bulls in the next round — when those teams step on the court for the opening tip, the two best players will still be playing for Cleveland. The Cavs still have the best player on the planet, a guy who can take over games at either end of the court. That’s a huge advantage. And the Bulls have not looked like world beaters of late.
But the Cavaliers are clearly a wounded, vulnerable team.
The second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs just got very, very interesting.