Cavaliers Favorites to Win NBA Finals
by Trevor Whenham - 04/01/2009
A funny thing is happening in the NBA's Eastern Conference. Coming into the season, the Boston Celtics seemed destined for a repeat of what they accomplished last year, and the Cleveland Cavaliers looked like they were en route to another easy playoff bid as a middle seed and another disappointing playoff run. In other words, pretty much the same result as last year. That's not at all what is happening, though. The Cavs have forgotten how to lose and seem to be locked on top of the conference, while Boston is showing mortality and may only end up in third place. The future odds tell the whole story. Coming into the season, the Cavs were just the third choice to win the East at 9/2. Now they sit as the solid favorite at 5/6. They were 25/2 to take down the big hardware before the season while Boston was at 7/2. Now Cleveland is second behind only the Lakers at 7/4, while Boston is well behind at 4/1.
So, the oddsmakers are clearly in the corner of the Cavs, and the public is right there with them. That raises two big questions - is this a legitimate favorite, and how well do they match up with the Celtics? Let's take a look:
Current form - There is a school of thought that you can judge how a team is going to do in the playoffs based on how they have looked in the last quarter of the season. The merits of that are debatable, but if you buy into it then the Cavs are a virtual lock in the postseason. They quite simply couldn't be playing any better. They have won 13 games in a row, they were a gaudy 16-1 in March, and are 25-4 in the last two months. They have lost just once at home all year, and just two of their losses all year have come against non-playoff teams. They've only once lost two games in a row. There are a couple of issues that a look at the schedule raises - most notably that they were swept by the Lakers - but it's impossible to argue that any team is coming into the playoffs in better shape.
LeBron - Coming into the season, some people thought that King James may have just been biding time until he becomes a free agent next year. Instead, he's playing the best ball of his career, and seems destined to take home his first MVP Award. James is simply on a different level than everyone else. He's always been extremely good, but the difference this year is the hunger he's showing. He has always said that he wants to win, and he has shown it, but this year you can see that he just aches for it. He also mostly seems content for the first time in a long time, and he is giving clues that he will do the right thing and sign an extension with the Cavs before his free agency. It would be hard for him not to if he won it all.
The supporting cast - It's amazing what happens when you support a star with players that can help him be a star. It shouldn't be a difficult concept, but it took the Cavs this long to figure it out. There are lots of reasons why this team is so good, but it really comes down to two things - Mike Brown is coaching his butt off, and Mo Williams was born to play with James. Williams' contribution isn't statistically obvious - some of his numbers are down from last year in Milwaukee. His contributions are many, though, and what he does is almost incomprehensible. Brown has managed to keep everyone happy, consistently focused and aggressive, and playing in an optimal style.
No reliance on the bench - Only three teams in the league get fewer points per game from their bench than the Cavaliers. At first glance that lack of depth might be seen as a big problem, but I don't see it that way. Teams that succeed in the playoffs typically shorten their bench and rely on their best players to carry the load. Because the Cavs have been doing that all year, they are more than ready for it, and we all know that they can handle it. They aren't alone in this, either - the Magic and Celtics don't get much help from their benches, either.
Season vs. Boston - This is the first blemish in what has been, up to this point, a pretty rosy account of the team. The two teams have met three times so far this year, and Boston has won two of them. The Celtics are the only team to have beaten the Cavs in March. That last loss was particularly concerning because Kevin Garnett was out of action. The two losses came in Boston, and were notable because James was, for him, relatively ineffective. It's also concerning that Cleveland was held well below their season scoring average in the two losses. In other words, the Celtics were able to set the tone. Cleveland will have the advantage of the home court, and that's particularly significant. Still, what has happened so far really has to make you wonder if the 5/6 price on the Cavs is a bit low.
Garnett's knee - Nothing factors into the playoffs more right now than this one joint. If Garnett comes back healthy after taking four more games off then the Celtics will be in tough. If he isn't right, though, or worse yet if he can't go at all, then the Celtics are basically just another team. That might be a slight exaggeration, but the truth is that this is not nearly the same team without him - they were only 7-6 during Garnett's prolonged absence that ended March 18.