LeBron James is currently in a spot that he is used to being in. That spot being at the top of the Eastern Conference. With James and the rest of the Cleveland Cavaliers owning the 1 seed in the East since his return to Cleveland last season it begs the question; can anyone beat LeBron and the Cavs in the Eastern Conference?
The easy answer to this question, and what the “expert” analysts would say, (looking at you ESPN) is “no.” Teams with LeBron James have made the NBA Finals each of the last five years (2011-2014 with the Heat and last season with Cleveland). So why wouldn’t this years Cavaliers team be the beasts of the East once again? Well let’s look at the team currently sitting just two games out of the lead for the Eastern Conference, the Toronto Raptors. Toronto has been a team on the rise for a few seasons now. They won 48 and 49 games in the past two seasons respectively, but came up short in the first round of the playoffs both times. Just a couple weeks after the All-Star break, this years Raptors team already has 40 wins on the season. As the standings sit as they are right now, this would land them the Pacers in the first round of the playoffs. This years Pacers team has been streaky. If led by Paul George, they can catch fire at the right time, causing a potential upset and a third straight first round exit for the Raptors. But let me tell you why I don’t think that will happen…
This years Raptors team has its best roster since the Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady days of the early 2000s. DeMar DeRozan has emerged as a legitimate star in the NBA this season. He averages a little over 23 points per game and along with the other All-Star Raptor, Kyle Lowry, this team has a solid backcourt. Lowry averages 21.6 points a game with 6.4 assists and a league leading 2.2 steals per game. Along with their two stars they have a big man in Jonas Valanciunas who can protect the rim and put up some decent offensive numbers. They also acquired DeMarre Carroll this season. Carroll was a huge piece of last years’ Atlanta Hawks team that went all the way to the Eastern Conference finals before losing to the Cavs in four games. The thing all of these players have in common is their ability to play defense. The Raptors are top 5 in the NBA in points per game allowed letting up just 97.8 PPG. And along with the four players listed above, they have a player in Bismack Biyombo who can protect the paint and who averages 8 rebounds per game while only playing an average of about 22 minutes.
Let’s go back to the Cavs real quick. Sure the Raptors have defense, but how can you stop an offense with LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love? These are three player who average 24.9, 19, and 15.9 points per game respectively. And along with these three super stars, they also have big man Tristan Thompson who has emerged as an elite rim protector and rebounder in the NBA. Also, I know I said the defense of Toronto is good, but the Cavaliers let up an even better average of 97.2 points per game to their opponents, placing them third in the NBA. So you may ask, how can the Raptors possibly beat the Cavaliers in a seven game series? The answer is matchups. I LOVE the way the raptors matchup against the Cavs. Let’s go through the lineups, shall we?
We first have the matchup of Kyle Lowry guarding Kyrie Irving. Lowry can be a lockdown perimeter defender and has a knack for taking the ball away on defense. Let’s then look at Kevin Love. As a stretch big man the Raptors are going to need someone who can guard him on the block and behind the three-point line. Though not great defending on the block, Toronto’s Luis Scola should be able to keep Love at bay beyond the arc while getting help down low from his guards and complimentary big men.
Ok, so we know that the Raptors can guard Irving and Love; the Cavs should be no problem then, right? Oh yeah, I forgot about one other guy. LeBron James. Now in his twelfth year in the league I think we’ve all learned you can’t stop the guy completely. But you can slow him down and the Raptors may just have the perfect arsenal to do just that. With an elite defender and above average sized guard in DeMar DeRozan, Toronto has a body that can match up well against the freak athlete that is LeBron. And when DeRozan needs a break, DeMarre Carroll is another guy who is stronger than a lot of guys in the NBA and may be able to slow James down just a little bit. When you take all this into account, if the Raptors and Cavaliers meet in the Eastern Conference Finals then maybe, just maybe, the Toronto Raptors will represent the East in the 2016 NBA Finals.