As it currently stands the Cleveland Cavaliers are clearly the best team competing in the East. I mean, it’s obvious right? Although their 27-9 record only places them 4.5 games ahead of Toronto and Atlanta, none of the other top contending teams — including Indiana, Chicago and Miami — pose a serious threat. One of the biggest differences between Cleveland and all of their closest competitors, besides the obvious in LeBron James, is their defensive prowess and depth. This team has the ability to defensively match any lineup thrown in front of them: whether it’s Miami’s big front court (Although Hassan Whiteside seems to be disappearing), Indiana’s stretch small ball or Chicago’s high post/dribble hand-offs. Their biggest defensive asset is their size on the perimeter. With 6’6 or above wings in Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and Lebron they can match most any wing heavy offense. When needed against small ball line-ups Matthew Dellavedova can become a real weapon running athletic point guards off their position, and well, just annoying them constantly.
Although their defensive flexibility can’t be underrated, the single biggest advantage Cleveland has lies in a healthy Kyrie Irving. When Kyrie plays at a high level this team becomes downright dangerous, and it’s clear they all know it. His presence brings a vibe to this team that isn’t necessarily tangible, yet it’s easily visible. He settles the rotation–allowing Delly to come off the bench and face backup point guards as opposed to starters (which is where he is most suited in his career path). He allows LeBron to take possessions off every now and then as Kyrie works in the pick and roll for himself and others. Allowing LeBron to relax on occasion and shoulder less burden can’t be overlooked–the man has nearly 30,000 minutes logged and his arc of minutes during his Miami/Olympics run is well documented.
Yes, those things help the Cavs as a whole, but Kyrie’s biggest asset is off the aforementioned pick and roll. Kyrie is a notorious lay-up wizard, and any simple YouTube search proves such. It’s not only his uncanny ability to finish near the hoop, but also a deadly mid-range pull-up jumper that puts hedging big men on skates as they try to stay off the Sports Center Top 10. Also, it can’t go unmentioned he is a career 40% 3-point shooter… this is where it can become unfair. Kyrie’s ability out of this pick and roll situations (usually focused with either Kevin Love ,Tristan Thompson or Timofey Mozgov) causes headaches for defenses consistently, and just when defenses solve his riddle with rotations he has the ability to find the open man for spot up jumper at ease. No clearer evidence than when J.R. Smith catches his passes for spot up 3’s. J.R. is shooting 28% on 3’s that don’t arrive from Kyrie in spot up situations. The Kyrie evidence is clear that this team will come out of the East, but what happens in the playoffs, especially the finals hinges on his ability to stay healthy. Again, remember when Cleveland has a healthy LeBron, K-Love, and Kyrie playing their winning percentage together is .850. Food for thought as we all crown the Warriors in January.