Why Cleveland Cavaliers Are Miscast as 2015 NBA Title Favorites

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 29, 2014

Have we learned nothing?

Declaring the Cleveland Cavaliers the favorites for the NBA's 2015 title is nothing short of a massive mistake, one you certainly don't want to be guilty of at this stage of the offseason. 

Are the Cavs going to be a dominant entity in the Eastern Conference, pushing toward 60 wins and competing for one of the top spots in the playoff proceedings? Absolutely. They have too much talent to do anything less now that Kevin Love is joining LeBron James and Kyrie Irving in Northeast Ohio. 

Are they capable of winning a title in their first year together? Without question. This club possesses unmatched upside now that there's so much talent in place, and it also helps there's a potentially elite coach on the sidelines in David Blatt. 

There's no denying the strength of Cleveland and the success of the organization during the year's hottest months. All of a sudden, hope—a feeling that didn't pop up too often over the last few years in this beleaguered sports city—is back and for good reason. 

However, that doesn't mean we should jump the proverbial gun. Doing so would be turning a blind eye to everything we've learned over the last few seasons, as well as during NBA history in general. 


Lesson No. 1: Defense Wins Championships

Though it's hard to build a championship-contending team that prides itself on only one side of the ball, it's even more difficult when that side is offense. 

Finding proof isn't particularly tough. Just take a gander at the defensive rating ranks of each title-winning roster since 2000, per Basketball-Reference.com. For good measure, we'll include the runner-ups as well: 

Defense Wins Championships
YearChampionDRtng RankRunner-UpDRtng Rank
2000Los Angeles LakersNo. 1Indiana PacersNo. 13
2001Los Angeles LakersNo. 21*Philadelphia 76ersNo. 5
2002Los Angeles LakersNo. 7New Jersey NetsNo. 1
2003San Antonio SpursNo. 3New Jersey NetsNo. 1
2004Detroit PistonsNo. 2Los Angeles LakersNo. 8
2005San Antonio SpursNo. 1Detroit PistonsNo. 3
2006Miami HeatNo. 10Dallas MavericksNo. 12
2007San Antonio SpursNo. 2Cleveland CavaliersNo. 4
2008Boston CelticsNo. 1Los Angeles LakersNo. 6
2009Los Angeles LakersNo. 6Orlando MagicNo. 1
2010Los Angeles LakersNo. 4Boston CelticsNo. 5
2011Dallas MavericksNo. 8Miami HeatNo. 5
2012Miami HeatNo. 4Oklahoma City ThunderNo. 10
2013Miami HeatNo. 9San Antonio SpursNo. 3
2014San Antonio SpursNo. 3Miami HeatNo. 11
*The 2000-01 Lakers finished No. 1 in postseason defensive rating.

It is exceedingly rare to find a team outside the top third in defensive rating that can advance all the way to the NBA Finals, much less win a championship. Of the 30 squads that have gone to the final round in the last 15 years, only four have failed to make the top 10.

And of the 15 champions, well, only the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers serve as an exception, and they put all the pieces together during the playoffs, plus they're bookended by defensively dominant squads with largely similar pieces. 

Before the Lakers, the 1995 Houston Rockets did the trick. 

Think about that. Since Michael Jordan's first retirement, only two teams have managed to hold up the Larry O'Brien Trophy without boasting a top-10 defense, and one of them shouldn't really count. 

Are the Cavaliers really going to break that trend? 

Even if they have the best offense in league history, that still might be tough to do. And—as Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes broke down quite well—that's not even a guarantee right off the bat. 

"Cleveland is basically starting from scratch. The Cavs will have to work a little harder to integrate so many new pieces," he wrote. "So we'll close with this: The Cavaliers will have one of the best offenses in NBA history—eventually. Just don't expect it this season."

Well, we certainly can't expect a good defense. 

That's especially true with a rookie signal-caller pacing the sidelines, a liability at point guard and a host of big men who aren't exactly capable of protecting the rim on any given night. Sure, Irving could very well become a solid stopper with James in his ear throughout the season, as he has the physical tools necessary for that to happen. However, that's still not an overnight process. 

Meanwhile, there isn't much hope in the frontcourt, barring a new addition to the roster. That, as Kurt Helin explains for Pro Basketball Talk, is going to be the biggest issue of all:

Rim protection is going to be an issue against the elite teams. Chicago has it and the Cavaliers are going to need it against them in the East if Derrick Rose and his slashing game return to form.

They are certainly going to need it against the ball movement in San Antonio, or the slashing of Russell Westbrook and how the Thunder get to the rim, or the lob-city attack of the Clippers with Chris Paul.

Elite teams get easy buckets, getting them at the rim and generation open looks from the perimeter (ideally three). Then they knock them down. If you can’t defend that, you can’t win a ring.

Anderson Varejao, Love and Tristan Thompson just don't make for an imposing trio around the hoop, and nothing will change that in 2014-15. Even with James helping improve the defense as a whole, he's not going to single-handedly move them up the leaderboard into the top 10, much less the top five. 

Lest we forget, Cleveland finished the 2013-14 campaign allowing 107.7 points per 100 possessions, good for the No. 19 spot in the Association, per Basketball-Reference.com

A year of development for Irving, a year of comfort under Blatt's teachings and a year of complementary additions should change this, but the defense isn't ready to justify this team's title-favorite claims. 


Lesson No. 2: The West Is Really Good

At this point, why should any team in the Eastern Conference be considered the favorites? 

There's a massive disparity between the two conferences, one that might have grown even larger at the top when the Miami Heat disbanded. After all, while the East as a whole is starting to narrow the margin and complete what's typically a cyclical process, there's no longer a prohibitive favorite to match up against the Western powers.

The San Antonio Spurs, fresh off yet another title, are still there, and the roster looks frighteningly similar to the one that put on a basketball exhibition during the 2014 NBA Finals.

How many teams can do this?  

The 2013-14 Spurs could, and the 2014-15 Spurs can. After all, they're bringing back all their prominent pieces, and the expected improvement of young players such as Kawhi Leonard should cancel out any age-related declines from Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan. 

Plus, we can't sleep on the Oklahoma City Thunder, who still have their superstar nucleus in place—Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. That's a young team, and the reliance on internal development should continue paying off, maybe to an even greater extent this season. 

And how about the Los Angeles Clippers, who continue to boast the services of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Doc Rivers? 

At the moment, the Cavaliers are not the clear-cut favorites in their own conference, which just so happens to be the inferior one. To put that inferiority in perspective, Basketball-Reference.com uses what it calls a simple rating system to provide a one-number encapsulation of a team's success, based solely on point differential and strength of schedule. 

Of the 15 teams in the NBA that finished above the average of 0.0 last season, 10 were in the West, including each of the top six. In fact, let's look at the average simple-rating-system score for each conference—2.05 for the West and minus-2.04 for the East. 

You tell me which conference is tougher, remembering that positive numbers are better. 

Granted, that might play into the Cavs' favor. If the Western gauntlet exhausts the conference's eventual representative, the East can have a distinct advantage. 

However, it's usually difficult enough to make it past the Eastern Conference Finals in the first place, and the aged Spurs didn't seem too deterred by the difficulty of their conference last season. 

Thus, with no dominant team emerging in the East—sorry, Cleveland, but the Chicago Bulls still need respect—there's no reason to put forth anyone in the conference as a title favorite at the expense of a representative from the league's tougher half. 


Lesson No. 3: Year One Is Hard for Super-Teams

It's hard to put everything together quickly with this much novelty on the roster. 

Not only have so many of the young contributors never played meaningful games, but two of the superstars forming the new-look Big Three have yet to experience postseason basketball. Irving and Love are expected to be leaders on this team, but neither of them has ever advanced past the regular season, and playoff basketball is a totally different beast from the regular-season variety. 

But, let's inaccurately pretend experience is irrelevant. 

Even still, there's a problem. 

The Cavaliers have no established chemistry, as they're putting together three stars who have never played together before and attempting to do so while under the tutelage of a first-year general manager (David Griffin was only the interim GM for part of last season) and a coach whose experience comes in international leagues. 

Here's a fun trivia question: How many head coaches have won a title during their first season at the helm of an NBA roster? 

  • Edward Gottlieb (1947 with the Philadelphia Warriors)
  • Buddy Jeannette (1948 with the Baltimore Bullets)
  • John Kundla (1949 with the Minneapolis Lakers)
  • George Senesky (1956 with the Philadelphia Warriors)
  • Alex Hannum (1958 with the St. Louis Hawks)
  • Paul Westhead (1980 with the Los Angeles Lakers)
  • Pat Riley (1982 with the Los Angeles Lakers)

That's it. 

Seven men in NBA history have achieved such a feat, and only two since the ABA-NBA merger in the mid-'70s. Riley is the most recent coach to join the list, and he did so over three decades ago. 

No offense to Riley, but he looks a bit different now. Some serious time has elapsed between then and now.

Do we really want to bet on Blatt joining the exclusive club, especially when he's being handed an inexperienced roster filled with new prominent pieces? 

Doing so not only overlooks coaching history but also the recent successes—or lack thereof—of newly assembled super-teams. It's ignoring the initial struggles of the Heat in 2010-11, though the team managed to rebound and advance to the NBA Finals before losing to the Dallas Mavericks. It's looking past the complete and utter failure of the Lakers once Dwight Howard and Steve Nash came to town. 

The Boston Celtics pulled off the feat in their first year of the Big Three era, but they also had Doc Rivers at the helm and assembled a core comprised of players with plenty of big-game experience.

These Cavaliers are the newest super-team in so many senses of the adjective. 

Again, Cleveland will be a great squad—an enjoyable one sure to pile up the wins. But for the time being, at least, let's hold tight on calling the new Eastern power the championship favorite.


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