In case you hadn't heard, the Cleveland Cavaliers got a lot better this summer. After closing out the 2014 season with the 23rd-worst point differential in the NBA, the Cavaliers, led by LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and (presumably) Kevin Love, are widely projected to be the best team in the East, if not the entire NBA, next year.
Washington could run into them at some point in the playoffs. Barring catastrophe, the Wizards are expected to make the playoffs and have a good shot at making the second round or beyond again. From there, they'll either be facing Cleveland or playing them next in the Conference Finals.
The Wizards' success in such a match up will largely be determined by the team's ability to contain the players around LeBron while avoiding being torched by him. James has been largely unstoppable for almost 10 years now, but in the instances that he's lost a series, its usually followed a familiar story: James plays well if not quite at his usual elite standards, while the rest of the team is completely stymied. Think back to Dwyane Wade's poor Finals performance last year or pretty much every Cavaliers team.
LeBron can be an overwhelming force on the court, but if he plays merely like an All-NBA wing instead of a video game character with maxed out stats, it mucks up everything for his supporting cast. Even on a few stacked Heat teams, everyone other than Wade and to a lesser extent Bosh was entirely reliant on the chaos created by James to get open shots.
Washington's biggest weakness at the moment is that the team doesn't have the kind of wing who can stick with James in one on one situations. Trevor Ariza wasn't shutting him down, sure, but if he wound up on an island against LeBron, it wasn't necessarily a guarantee that the possession would end with a made basket and/or trip to the free throw line.
Paul Pierce is still a strong, heady defensive player who's probably spent more time guarding LeBron than anyone on the planet. He'll also be 37 next May, and despite being flanked by Kevin Garnett in all of their playoff meetings, has never been able to do more than make LeBron work a little harder than normal. It's simply too much to expect Pierce to contain him in single coverage.
Paul Pierce and Lebron James, Post-Season Statistics in Head to Head Match Ups
Statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com
The funny thing about the Pierce and James match ups is that despite getting smoked -- averaging 29, eight and five is elite period, especially when you consider the competition -- Pierce was on the winning side of two series. Sure, LeBron's best running mates were Mo Williams and post-Phoenix Shaq, but a win's a win. In both instances, it was a result of the players around LeBron appearing awful.
Some of this awfulness was due to a lack of talent. Even more, though, was due to a lack of open shots. Pierce never stopped LeBron, but he made him appear human enough that Pierce's teammates could stay home on shooters and cutters, preventing the kinds of easy looks that players like Williams and Anderson Varejao were so good at converting.
Washington's other option for guarding James in one-on-one situations, Otto Porter, could be anywhere from a disaster to surprisingly competent. Typically, the guys who give James trouble can match his lateral quickness and strength while possessing the wingspan and height to block his passing lanes. Porter doesn't have the strength at this point but he's a fundamentally-sound player who could improve dramatically as he gains experience. The big problem here though is that Porter's not particularly strong or quick, so he could be prone to foul trouble even if he plays perfect from a fundamentals standpoint.
The rest of the Wizards should actually match up quite well with the Cavaliers. Nene has a knack for battling physical big men and has played well against Love in the past. Per Basketball-Reference, Love's numbers when playing against Nene are in line with his career averages. Nene's also good at boxing out and is as good a player to keep Love off the glass as you could ever hope. Ditto for Marcin Gortat, who will likely be matched up with Love when the Cavaliers go small.
The mobility of Gortat and Nene, the latter in particular, could be Washington's secret weapon in a match up against Cleveland. Both primary big men are good at helping and recovering. With LeBron and Kyrie Irving's ability to get to the basket along with Varejao's cutting ability, Love's ability to space the floor and the bevy of three point shooters that Cleveland has acquired and will likely continue to pursue, opposing defenses will be unable to take possessions off without getting burned by someone. No one other than Chicago and perhaps San Antonio has the required mix of length, mobility and basketball IQ to consistently defend a team like this, but Washington could come close.
The John Wall vs. Irving match up that had made previous meetings between the Wizards and the Cavaliers so interesting will test Wall's defensive chops. With so much attention being drawn by James and Love, Wall is unlikely to have much help guarding the reigning All-Star Game MVP. Both guards have played well against each other in the past, with neither getting a consistent edge. That said, Wall has a number of physical advantages over Irving and could be capable of elevating his defensive game when pushed, even if it's only during crunch time.
Anyone who faces the Cleveland Cavaliers this year is going to have their hands full. Washington is no different, but if Pierce can turn back the clock, Porter steps up and they get a little lucky, they could surprise people. Favorites? No, by no means, but a healthy Washington team may have as good a chance as anyone of dethroning the King.