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PBT Mailbag: Should Luka Doncic go No. 1 over Deandre Ayton?

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Welcome to the first ever edition of the PBT Mailbag. This week, we prepare for the 2018 NBA Draft as teams around the league try to scramble for Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, both, or neither.

The draft is one of my favorite dates on the NBA calendar simply because most of the draft board changes via reports and rumors are simply general managers and agents trying to influence via disinformation. It’s really masterful to see, and some of them have gotten so good at it that you can barely even tell that they’re mostly full of crap.

The reality of the situation is that the draft itself is luck influenced by data analysis and risk assessment. What doesn’t become public are the most important things: parents, what their background is, what their support network is, their work ethic, whether they eat nothing but Everlasting Gobstoppers, etc. Talent can float you for you for little bit, and will rise your draft stock, but it takes work and character to go from 19-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo to MVP-threat Giannis Antetokounmpo. I hope all your teams draft Durants and avoid an Oden on Thursday.

Submit your questions to the mailbag for next week by e-mailing pbtmailbag@gmail.com.

Let’s get to your questions.

Incite

Who gets selected first between Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson, Marvin Bagley and Mo Bamba?

I really like the presumption to this question, which is that the Sacramento Kings are so decidedly dedicated to their insanity that they are all but guaranteed to select Michael Porter Jr. with their No. 2 overall pick.

The Atlanta Hawks are apparently angling to take Doncic with their third overall selection, so that seems to be the answer here. Normally I like to err on the side of disbelief when it comes to big names being reported as favorites in the hours leading up to the draft. However, this is the Kings we are talking about here, and reporting about Porter being their favorite has come from some big-name, big-sourced writers.

Taking Porter with the second overall selection, complete with his injury history and murmurs about his personality, would be such a Kingsy thing to do so I am 100% all in on that definitely happening.

John

Shouldn’t it seem obvious that with the way the NBA is heading that Doncic should he the first pick? A combo guard/wing who can play multiple positions and switch onto multiple guys on defense vs Ayton; a big who can’t stretch the floor and would have trouble finding minutes and a matchup in these last finals?

The NBA has changed a lot in just a few years. Just yesterday I was talking with a friend about the difference between sort of these weird, muscly athletic guys coming out of the college game being sort of outdated already. It wasn’t too long ago that guys like Blake Griffin, Jabari Parker, and Julius Randle were boasted as being positionless players. Now we are slowly talking about their limitations.

The 3-pointer is king in the NBA, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. The problem with Doncic is translation. There is not some kind of comparative ratio you can use to weigh college players versus professional European players. NBA talent scouts have been looking at guys in domestic college ranks for longer than they have in Europe. Even then, resources put towards Europe versus college scouting has and still is tipped toward the scale of the NCAA.

That’s really where the reticence with Doncic lies, even if DeAndre Ayton seems a little too raw to take a chance on at No. 1. Frankly, the fact that some of the other wing type of guys aren’t higher up the list is a little bit surprising — I guess never count out an NBA team’s propensity to fall in love with a physical freak of nature.

I am not sure Ayton wouldn’t find a role in these past Finals, but certainly given his lack of experience on defense that would be the case in year one. Many of the guys in the top five feel like they will be good enough players over the next three years, a factor that may be pushed further by the emergence of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. However, as is often the case, big men are projects coming out of college unless they are can’t-miss guys like Karl-Anthony Towns. If the Sun’s take Ayton with the first pick, they are going to have to wait for him to develop. The hope is that his ceiling will be higher than Doncic’s.

Chris

What does our supreme leader Ernie Grunfield do for DC’s fourth favorite sporting franchise on Thursday night? Does he reach and draft a European superstar? How about a player with more swag than basketball skill? Think he should trade it for a sixth man type who has the season long flu?

Seriously though, is it worth grabbing a center in this day and age? Wall and Gortart’s pick and roll game was unreal when they liked each other.

Confusingly,
Chris from Philly

It feels like the Wizards could really go either way. Their backcourt and wing players are going to cost them a bajillion dollars over the next four years or so, so they could try to bring in a player they’ve had an eye on and try to replicate some of that production with a far cheaper price tag.

Then again, Gortat seemed to be on his way out over the course of this season, and was rumored to be some kind of trade bait, albeit without much value. He certainly doesn’t seem to have a future with the Wizards, and Ian Mahinmi has not really worked out for DC. John Wall does need some extra pick-and-roll help, and they need to get younger across the front line overall.

Washington is the ultimate roulette team when it comes to the draft. They’ll either get a high VORP guy like Otto Porter Jr. or Bradley Beal, or they’ll draft this year’s Jan Vesely with no inbetween.

Let’s be honest, the best thing that could happen to the Wizards during the draft is that LeBron decides to head to the Western Conference. Any selection after that is secondary.

Alfredo

Chris Paul‘s first trip to the conference finals has convinced me the only way to get a ring is to play for a team who has won before, like Lakers, Celtics, Spurs, Warriors, even Cavaliers. This means, those teams who have made the playoffs, but not a deep run, are plum out of luck.

What were the fatal flaws behind the Paul-led Pelicans and Clippers that kept them from getting out of the 2nd round vs. Rockets? Of the teams to have reached the conference finals and Finals, but not won a title yet*, which new team do you see winning next? Are the Pelicans, Hornets and Clippers considered dead end franchises, just because they can’t get out of the 2nd round?

First, I really appreciate the fatalism here. It takes a special kind of broken fan to admit that they think their team will probably never win a championship and that the odds are, for whatever cosmic reason, forever stacked towards the teams who are traditional powers. I really jive with that.

I think it’s easy to say that a lot of those Chris Paul teams suffered because of injury. But there is also something to be said about the surrounding players on the bench for a lot of his squads. Do you realize that Bonzi Wells was a contributor for the Hornets the year they got beaten by the San Antonio Spurs in the second round? That was in 2008, many years after Bonzi was a useful player.

The same can be said about those Clippers teams, who had a lot of front line star power but who also rolled out the likes of Glen Davis and an ancient Danny Granger against Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant in the playoffs. Whose idea was that?

I wouldn’t say it’s fair to call any franchise “dead end” because team owners eventually have to die. That’s the real thing we don’t talk about enough when it comes to why the more sordid franchises are annually terrible. The Knicks would be a great destination if James Dolan decided to wear a fedora and do his Guitar Hero: Bruce Willis thing full time.

You can’t fire an owner but you can hope they sell the team. I’m not sure if that means you should root for team valuations to go up or down, but it’s something.

Daniel

Hey Dane, I wanted to know what kind of food is acceptable for a draft viewing party, and does acceptable draft night food vary for fans of different teams? I’ll take my answer off the air.

I’m really torn here because I think it depends on the context of the draft watch party. Is this a bunch of fans of one team who have struggled for years and are hoping for a breakout star to go to them in the top five? Or is this a bunch of NBA dorks getting together to watch the draft because they have nothing better to do on a Thursday night?

The former deserve to eat whatever their hearts desire. If it’s at your friend’s house, I would say you should go with the least messy thing you can find. Don’t try to eat wings at a buddy’s kitchen island. You’ll end up blowing through two rolls of paper towels all by yourself, and that’s nothing compared to when you sit down and rub something out of your eye 35 minutes later completely forgetting that you ate wings but didn’t wash your hands. You’ll start screaming, although if this is a Kings draft meetup everyone will just assume you are inconsolable about Vlade taking Michael Porter Jr.

If this shindig is just for NBA nerds, you should be doing nothing but snacking. Chex Mix, chips and maybe some guacamole. It’s a Thursday night, it’s a casual get-together, and you have to get up early in the morning.

Xander

Is there any chance Portland acquire someone that could be considered as a 3rd star without trading Collins?

No.

PDX HYPE SQUAD

Will the summer blockbuster, “Uncle Drew” be enough to get us all drinking Pepsi again?

I have to admit something: I have always been a Pepsi drinker. To be honest, seeing the Uncle Drew trailer in the theater made me want to stop drinking it. We have truly reached the zenith of capitalism when commercials that are based on a Robin Williams movie from 1993 end up as movies themselves.

Can I just say one more thing about Uncle Drew? How was it that we are in 2018 and we can turn Josh Brolin into a giant pink behemoth and a time-traveling clone, but we haven’t advanced the “make a young guy look old” technology past “Big Momma’s House”? The whole concept of these movies are unbelievable mostly because they look exactly like a guy put on 17 hours of prosthetics just to cross somebody over while Kevin Hart makes quips in the background about taking calcium to cure their broken ankles. I hope it was worth it, Kyrie Irving. I’m setting the “Uncle Drew” over/under on Rotten Tomatoes at 24.5%

Bret O

Out of LBJ, George, and Leonard, who is most likely to end up in a Sixers uni and why?

LeBron James has the most agency out of any of these guys, so it seems like he’s the least likely to head to Philadelphia. More and more rumors come out every day about how he’s heading west, although we don’t know where. Meanwhile, NBA players really do seem to love Russell Westbrook, and whether George ends up in Oklahoma City or elsewhere, I’m not sure that the 76ers are a top destination for him.

That leaves us with Kawhi Leonard, who the Spurs are refusing to send somewhere in the Western Conference. That fact alone so that gives the most credence that he would be the most likely to end up in Philadelphia out of these three guys. Plus, since Leonard has reportedly said he wants to head to Los Angeles, he’s completely tanked his own trade value. Philly has a few non-essential assets, and could give up something in exchange for a one-year rental on Kawhi as they try to take over the Eastern Conference and convince him to stay on for a championship run.

Andrew T.

Does Kawhi have a no-trade clause? Can he veto any trade? If he does, and refuses to play for the Spurs, do they have to pay him? Is Kawhi worth multiple first round picks?

Kawhi does not have a no-trade clause, and he does not have the ability to veto any trade. If he refuses to play, they do have to pay him although they can just go ahead and fine him right back. We have never seen a player do that for a significant amount of time that would warrant a real intervention from the league or the players union, and I don’t see that happening here.

As it stands today, Leonard is not worth multiple first-round picks. Heck, he’s not even worth one. He has completely killed his trade value, and even under regular circumstances it’s hard to tell what he would garner on a trade market that he hadn’t killed with his own hand. First round picks have sort of varied in their worth over the last decade. First, they started off as easily moved trade pieces. Then they exploded in value, sometimes becoming more important than actual good players. It seems like they’re sort of on the downslope again, although on a very shallow fall.

Doug L.

Does the concept of “hometown discount” exist anymore? Did it ever? There’s examples like Dirk & Durant taking less than they could have gotten, but I don’t remember ever seeing a guy like Evan Turner or Harrison Barnes taking less than what they feel they’re worth. Why does that always seem to come up when discussing someone like Marcus Smart‘s free agency when it almost never happens? Or even other stars like Kyrie, LeBron, Klay, or CP3?

You also have to remember the context for Evan Turner and Harrison Barnes at the time. Barnes was the guy on a team that hasn’t performed up to his potential. Giving him that kind of money was really questionable, especially within the context of how much Klay Thompson had evolved over the course of his contract.

The same can be said for Evan Turner, who was invaluable in the Eastern Conference during his time in Philadelphia and Boston, but who wasn’t necessarily an integral piece of the fabric for either. That doesn’t excuse the Portland Trail Blazers for handing him $17 million a year, but it’s not like anyone was thinking Turner would even need to take a hometown discount.

I think it does exist, but it’s nothing we need to worry about just yet. If multiple MVP-type guys start taking massive cuts just to group together on the same team, then the NBA has a problem.

Adam F.

What should be our new NBA position labels be? Currently 1=PG 2=SG 3=SF 4=PF 5=C. Why can’t we divide it into Play Maker (1) / Wings (2,3) / Bigs (4,5) In fact we could further divide it to quickly accommodate everyone’s unique contributions?

0.5 / Small Wing / Aaron Brooks, non-Boston Isiah Thomas Types, short defensive liabilities who max out as 6th man spark plugs off the bench.

1.0 / Play Maker / The fulcrum of their teams’ offense regardless of traditional size (Giannis, LeBron, Kyrie. Curry, Harden, Durant)

(You could further Classify this like 1.1 = Curry, 1.2 = Harden, 1.3 = Durant/LeBron, 1.4 = Giannis)

1.5 / Unicorn Big / Anthony Davis types. Play Makers who need someone else to initiate the offense but often finish it.

1.75 / Combo Wing / Eric Gordon types who can take over backup Play Maker duties for short stretches while the real play maker rests. Potential to become a 1.1 or 1.2

2.0 / Shooting Wing / Bradley Beal, Klay Thompson types who primarily stretch the floor with their shooting but are big enough to defend traditional guards

2.25 / 3 & 0 Wing / Tim Hardaway Jr, Andrew Wiggins types known for their offense with no accompanying defense

2.5 / 3 & D Wing / Avery Bradley, Robert Covington types known more for their defense but can still stretch the floor on offense

2.75 / 0 & D Wing / Andre Roberson, Michael Kidd-Gilcrest types known for their defense with no accompanying offense

3.0 / Big Wing / Jayson Tatum, Otto Porter types who fill in all current small forward duties, more perimeter oriented. Potential to become a 1.3

3.5 / Power Wing / Name your small ball 4 (Justise Winslow, Jae Crowder types), basically Big Wings who can’t stretch the floor.

4.0 / Power Big / Traditional Power Forward types who score buckets inside, grab rebounds. What they lack is they can’t protect the paint, dive the lane or stretch the floor and are not quick enough to keep up with wings on defense (Karl Malone, Carlos Boozer types)

4.15 / Combo Big / Karl Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis types who protect the paint, dive the lane or stretch the floor and are quick enough to keep up with wings on defense. What they lack is girth of a 4.5 of 5.0 and the consistency of a 1.4 or 1.5. Potential to become a 1.4 or 1.5

4.5 / Dive Big / Rudy Gobert, Clint Capella types who protect the paint, dive the lane and are quick enough to keep up with wings on defense. What they lack is the ability to stretch the floor.

4.75 / Shooting Big / Kevin Love, Ryan Anderson types can stretch the floor. What they lack is they can’t protect the paint, dive the lane or are not quick enough to keep up with wings on defense.

5.0 / B2B Big / Jonas Valanciunas or Al Jefferson types who can’t protect the paint, dive the lane or stretch the floor and are not quick enough to keep up with wings on defense. They play with their back to the basket and are ground bound

God bless the man who sees people complaining about too much math being used in the NBA and comes up with this.

I think we are missing some key positions left out here. I don’t know how you want to number them, but I think it goes like this:

2.375 / Wings who can sort of dribble but that’s it: Your Evan Turners, your Jeff Greens, your Playoff JR Smiths. What do these guys bring to your team? I don’t know, but a 55-year-old pro scout in your favorite organization loves their HEART.

2.6175 / Every wing player on the current iteration of the Sacramento Kings: No role, and all of them could end up playing as a backup shooting guard or as a small ball four in a couple of years. The only guarantee is it won’t be for the Kings.

3.29 / Young wings on your favorite team that could put it together if they just knew how to play basketball: You know the type. Your Travis Outlaws, your Jordan Clarksons. These guys show flashes of brilliance, athleticism, and top flight basketball IQ for literally minutes at a time. Then it’s right back to the tank, followed by several passes directly at the guy holding nachos courtside. Will they ever figure it out? Maybe your GM should roll the dice and give them another $10 million a year to find out. I bet they will.

4.99 / Bigs who are athletic and who can rebound but don’t have any appreciable NBA-ready skill: JJ Hickson or Thomas Robinson type of guys who don’t seem to know exactly what it is they’re doing but, boy, do they do a lot of it. They’ll get rebounds, mostly over guys exactly like them and stretch fours who would have been backup small forwards a decade ago. Local fans always overestimate how much they should be paid by at least 60%.

Submit your questions to the mailbag for next week by e-mailing pbtmailbag@gmail.com.

Report: Raptors explored DeMar DeRozan trade options last summer

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How far are the Toronto Raptors going to go with their shakeup?

They have already fired coach Dwane Casey after a 59-win season, bringing in a new voice to a good lineup. Is a new voice and some new sets enough? Or is it time for a big roster move — trading DeMar DeRozan?

The Raptors considered that a year ago and may well consider it again, according to Marc Stein of the New York Times, in his weekly newsletter.

Word is that the Raptors quietly explored their DeMar DeRozan trade options last summer —  before they had any inkling that a breakout season was looming — and I’d fully expect Toronto to explore those possibilities again. Not just with DeRozan but with anyone and everyone on the roster.

Teams test the market for their best players more than most fans think, not because they want to make a trade but because they want to know the market value of a player. Does the team value its star more than other teams? Undervalue? It’s information a GM wants, even if he has zero intention of pulling the trigger on a trade.

We don’t know how far the Raptors went down that road. We don’t know yet how far they would drive down it now. If the Raptors want to shake up the roster, a DeRozan trade is the most likely way. (Nobody is taking on Serge Ibaka‘s anchor of a contract, and while Jonas Valanciunas provides value on the court, the Raptors would have to throw in the sweetener of a quality young player to get another team to bite.

DeRozan is their most valuable trade asset if they want to go that way, an All-Star wing who can fill up the scoreboard — 23 points and 5.2 assists per game last season. He can get his shot, a lot of teams need that. He’s also owed $55.5 million guaranteed over the next two seasons with a player option at $27.7 million the year after that. Not many teams can or would take that on, and the Raptors are not looking to rebuild so they will want players back who can help them now.

A deal is not impossible with another team frustrated with their standing and roster, looking to shake things up (there are a number of those around the league right now). Maybe they can get in on a blockbuster deal if Kawhi Leonard becomes available (he’s not now, and could the Raptors re-sign him after his contract ends in 2019?), or some other superstar.

More than likely, the Raptors will run it back with mostly the same roster. Masai Ujiri will explore his options, but outside of changing the coach they are limited.

Boston Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers preview: Three things to watch

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Before the season tipped off, this is the Eastern Conference Finals we expected. However, the path to get here was nothing like we envisioned. Gordon Hayward out. Kyrie Irving out. Cleveland radically shaking up its roster at the trade deadline.

Yet in the end, here we are — a repeat of last year’s conference finals that the Cavaliers won. They are the favorites again, but this series is not going to be a sweep like the round before, the Celtics are disciplined and playing at a higher level than anyone the Cavs have seen this postseason. Boston has a shot to win this.

Here are three things to watch in this series.

1) Can the Celtics wear down LeBron James with multiple fresh defenders? The question isn’t “who is guarding LeBron?” but rather “how many guys will be guarding LeBron?” The Celtics have a wealth of defenders who will get their turn on The King: Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris, Jayson Tatum (in very limited stints), Semi Ojeleye (off the bench), heck I wouldn’t be surprised to see Brad Stevens ask Dave Cowens if he can still give them 10 good minutes. The idea is to keep fresh bodies on LeBron and hope that he wears down just a little having to work harder to get his shots.

The bigger question is how will the Celtics choose to defend LeBron? In the last two series, Boston was willing to largely single cover the opposing team’s star and let him rack up points — Giannis Antetokounmpo then Joel Embiid — but then stay home on the shooters and the rest of the players. It’s a good plan, one the Raptors tried to employ last round — rookie OG Anunoby did a respectable job on LeBron (as much as can be expected) but the Raptors did not silence Kevin Love, Kyle Korver, or J.R. Smith. If Boston goes with this system they will face a serious challenge because LeBron is both a high IQ player and a gifted passer. However, Boston is a far more disciplined defense that is far more switchable, has far more mobile big men, and doesn’t make the mistakes that Toronto (and before them Indiana did). Boston is going to follow the standard book to a degree and try to turn LeBron into a jumpshooter. LeBron is going to have to carry an even bigger load this series. He’s also fully capable of that.

2) Will a season of bad defensive habits from the Cavaliers catch up with them? No need to rehash how the Celtics were 29th in the NBA in defense during the regular season, but if you think they have been much better in the playoffs, think again: Cleveland allowed 109.5 points per 100 possessions during the regular season, it has been 108.4 per 100 in the playoffs (10th out of the 16 teams). Cleveland’s defensive effort has been better, as it will be in this series, but their communication and recognition have not been sharp.

That’s something Boston can exploit because this is not a team where the defense can just target one guy (Victor Oladipo) or even two (Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan). The Celtics get their buckets out of their system and trust all five guys on the floor to make the right pass, the right cut, and when the time comes take the shot.

Boston makes a defense work for the entire 24 seconds, Cleveland has not been good at second and third defensive efforts. Cavaliers’ defenders can get twisted around on pick-and-rolls, and particularly dribble handoffs (which the Celtics run a lot of). All of which is to say Boston is going to rack up points in this series. The challenge will be getting stops against that Cavalier offense on the other end.

3) How will Cleveland primarily defend Al Horford, with Kevin Love or Tristan Thompson? The answer to this question is less about Horford and more about Tyronn Lue’s philosophy for the series, is he thinking offensively or defensively? We’ll find out quickly with how he chooses to start the game against Boston. In the previous series against Toronto, Kevin Love started at the five and it was a huge advantage for Cleveland on offense because it pulled Jonas Valanciunas away from the basket and forced him to defend in space, something he struggled with (and JV couldn’t make Love pay on defense). However, in the first round against the Pacers, Thompson and his defensive presence in the paint — and on the offensive glass — proved to be important for Cleveland.

Boston brings Horford to the table — he is comfortable protecting the rim and playing inside, plus he can step out and defend on the perimeter. Love and Korver’s corner action is not going to flummox Horford like it did JV and the Raptors, he will sniff it out and make plays.

On the other end, something to watch: Boston may try to run a lot of pick-and-rolls with Horford setting the screen for LeBron’s man (or, if LeBron is on Jaylen Brown as he was often during the season, Brown sets the screen) just to force LeBron to switch and be active on defense. Yes that means pulling Cleveland’s best defender into the play, but it also makes LeBron work on defense, where mostly the Cavs try to hide him and let him rest until key moments of the game. This is part of the “wear him ou”t strategy from above.

Raptors fire Dwane Casey

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Two days after Raptors president Masai Ujiri declared “I believe in Dwane Casey,” Toronto did what it had been building toward.

Raptors release:

Toronto Raptors President Masai Ujiri announced Friday that Dwane Casey has been relieved of his duties as the team’s head coach.

“After careful consideration, I have decided this is a very difficult but necessary step the franchise must take. As a team, we are constantly trying to grow and improve in order to get to the next level,” Ujiri said. “We celebrate everything Dwane has done for the organization, we thank him, and we wish him nothing but the best in future. He was instrumental in creating the identity and culture of who we are as a team, and we are so proud of that.”

Casey guided the best run in Raptors history. After a couple losing seasons to begin his tenure, Toronto has won at least 48 games and made the playoffs each of the last five years – including a franchise-best 59 wins this season.

But the Raptors underwhelmed in the playoffs annually – including this year, which they tried so hard to make different.

Toronto implemented a “culture reset,” overhauling the offense and empowering the bench. Everything was designed to improve the teams postseason fortunes.

The result: Getting swept by LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the second round, same as last year.

Ujiri said he won’t blow up this team – nor could he easily. Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka have hefty salaries guaranteed for the next couple years. Keeping this core intact guarantees a high floor.

Firing Casey could raise the ceiling.

Casey is a good coach, and I don’t think he was Toronto’s problem. But maybe he was. He did himself no favors this postseason. At this point, it might be worthwhile to try someone else. Changing coaches is far easier than changing players.

This will be Ujiri’s first coaching search. He inherited George Karl with the Nuggets and Casey in Toronto. That Casey made it this long with an executive who didn’t hire him is somewhat surprising, though Casey’s run wasn’t without multiple potential firings previously.

The Raptors have a few strong internal candidates – assistants Nick Nurse and Rex Kalamian and minor-league coach Jerry Stackhouse. Toronto also has a strong veteran roster that could attract top available outside coaches.

Casey was already named Coach of the Year by his peers. He could win the more prestigious Coach of the Year award, as voted by media. He would’ve had my vote if I had one.

The NBA won’t announce the winner until its June 25 award show. By that time, Casey might even be working for another team. Whether he’s employed elsewhere or unemployed, this sets up an awkward moment if he walks across the stage to accept an award for the quality work he did with the Raptors.

Meet the New Cavaliers, not the same as the old Cavaliers

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The Cleveland Cavaliers that won 50 games and were the four seed in the East were not that impressive, despite LeBron James‘ MVP season. They had the 29th ranked defense in the league, and while the offense was still elite (fifth in the NBA) the Cavaliers had the point differential of a 43-39 team — Cleveland was the “luckiest” team in the NBA, out-performing their point differential by seven games (a lot of that came down to LeBron being dominant late in close games).

The playoff Cavaliers that just swept the Raptors out of the second round are different. Their defense hasn’t improved much (it is the exact same net rating of 112 points allowed per 100 possessions as they had in the regular season, stats via Cleaning the Glass). The difference is their offense has taken another step forward.

LeBron is part of that. But more than just him, they have found a role for Kevin Love and Kyle Korver, and found a lineup that works for them — one that Tyronn Lue never broke out in the regular season. From Owen Phillips at fivethirtyeight.com.

In the team’s series against the Pacers and Raptors, Cleveland’s most-used lineup has been George Hill, J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver, LeBron James and Kevin Love. So far this postseason, they’ve logged 110 minutes together. That’s 110 more than they played together in the regular season. Compared to the Toronto Raptors, whose most-used lineup in the playoffs1 logged 801 minutes together in the regular season, Cleveland looks like it’s experimenting on the fly. But it’s working. Cleveland’s most-used postseason lineup is outscoring opponents by 41 points, good for third-best in the playoffs.

That lineup flummoxed the Raptors, who want to play big — Dwane Casey’s biggest mistake was keeping Jonas Valanciunas on Love until Game 4 — and did it with a simple action out of the corner that the Raptors could not solve. Zach Lowe at ESPN got into that with a brilliant breakdown of what those two are doing — and how they are improvising depending on the situation and defenders involved (check out the link, which has video breakdowns).

The play is this: Love jogging over as if to set a pick for LeBron, only to veer suddenly toward the corner and hammer Korver’s man with a pindown screen…

Korver and Love would smile hearing (Pacers’ coach Nate) McMillan describe what they do as “random.” Aside from that set pindown play, they react in the moment to how the defense approaches them — and which two defenders are involved. It mostly starts with Korver positioning himself to run around a Love screen. That is dangerous enough. Staying attached to Korver at all costs is on the first page of any opponent scouting report.

The pair has countless options from there — Korver backdoor cuts, Love postups on the switch, or if two men go with Korver on his cut then Love gets an open three, and that’s just the start — and the Cavaliers unleashed all of them on the Raptors.

Traditionally, coaches and teams find what works and a comfort level during the regular season, then build on those lineups — and use them to exploit specific matchups — in the playoffs. Cleveland’s season before the trade deadline was a write-off. Of the guys who came in after the flurry of moves, George Hill has been important as a starter, solid defender, and stabilizing influence at the point guard spot. After that, guys they snapped up at the deadline like Jordan Clarkson (playing in the low teens in minutes unless it’s a blowout) or Larry Nance Jr. (out of the rotation, playing only garbage time) are not making a difference. It’s the veterans, guys who were largely already there, guys with a high hoops IQ who know how to play the game.

They have changed these Cavaliers into the team to beat in the East.

Cleveland has found the groove it was in last season that led it to the finals — the defense wasn’t good, but it was good enough with an unstoppable offense. And an unstoppable force leading it.

That may well be enough to get them back to the Finals this season.