With a 41-16 record at the break and a comfortable 6.5 game lead over the third-place Cavs, the Raptors look primed to have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. But can they really be the first non-LeBron James team to win the East since 2011?
Despite his eight Eastern Conference titles, LeBron’s all-time record in the NBA Finals is just 3-5. In other words, while he may be dominant, he’s not infallible. But since The Decision came down in July of 2010, no team in the Eastern Conference has beaten LeBron when it matters. Since the 2010-11 season, LeBron has finished first in the conference twice and second five times. In the last seven years, the non-LeBron teams leading the East at midpoint (Feb. 15, arbitrarily, here, because the All-Star Game usually happens around Valentine’s Day) were the 2010-11 Celtics, the 2011-12 Bulls, the 2013-14 Pacers and the 2014-15 Hawks, and the teams that won their conferences were the 2010-11 Bulls, the ‘11-’12 Bulls, those Pacers, those Hawks, and last year’s Celtics.
What’s notable here is that while LeBron won the East every single year in that span, in the seasons in which he didn’t finish as the 1-seed, his teams went 1-4 in the Finals; in the seasons in which he did, they went 2-0. While some of that may be random noise, it lends credence to the idea that LeBron teams that don’t finish number one are more vulnerable in the playoffs. While the one-seeds may not have been able to unseat LeBron in the Eastern Conference Finals, by overtaking LeBron in the regular season, they did expose some weaknesses. But why couldn’t they beat LeBron in the playoffs?
The 2010-11 Celtics (Midpoint) and Bulls (End-of-Season)
The 2010-11 Celtics were basically the same team that had beat LeBron’s Cavs in the 2010 ECF the year before — still the last time another East team has beaten LeBron. In a lot of ways, losing to the Celtics may have prompted The Decision, since LeBron still hadn’t won his title at that point and felt he needed to do something drastic to compete with Michael Jordan. The following year’s Celtics were even better in the regular season, but most of their damage came before the All-Star break. On Feb. 15, they sat 39-14, a half game up on the Heat for first-place with a 6.6 point differential. They finished 17-12 and slipped to the third seed, ceding home court in the playoffs and ultimately getting run over by the Heat in the second round. This team was 2nd in DRtg but just 18th in ORtg and had a composite Elo of 1671.
The 2010-11 Bulls only had a 5.7 pt differential at the break but finished the regular season on a 26-4 tear and handled the first two rounds of the playoffs with ease. The Bulls had a composite Elo of 1679 for the season, which ranks 91st all-time, and were 1st in DRtg and 11th in ORtg in the NBA that season. This was peak Tom Thibodeau Bulls, built around Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, defense and rebounding.
In the Eastern Conference Finals, Chicago won Game 1 in a blowout at home, but Miami took control after that, reeling off four straight wins. The Heat team they faced was the very first iteration of the Big 3 after The Decision, and all three stars played huge in this series. LeBron averaged 25.8, Bosh 23.2 and Wade 18.8 over the five games. Chicago’s defense was no match for the Heat’s star power.
The 2011-12 Chicago Bulls
The 2011-12 season was lockout-shortened and the Bulls continued their dominance in the regular season, finishing 5th in ORtg and 2nd in DRtg. But Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah got hurt in the first round and Chicago lost to the 8th-seeded 76ers. As the top remaining East seed, Miami went on to win the title.
The 2013-14 Indiana Pacers
Like the 2010-11 Bulls, the 2013-14 Pacers led the league in DRtg, though their offense lagged far behind (just 23rd). They featured Paul George and whole lot of just-a-guy type players. With an 8.2 point differential at the break, the Pacers on paper look superficially to be the most similar team to these Raptors for sheer dominance, but they finished the year a pedestrian 16-14 to wind up with just a 4.4 differential, and never scored at anywhere near the same rate as Toronto does.
Looking up and down the roster, the Pacers featured a ton of guys who did not age well. Their top bench unit featured four guys who were soon out of the league (C.J. Watson, old friend Luis Scola, RIP Rasual Butler, and Chris Copeland) and one guy who is now hugely overpaid (Ian Mahinmi). The starters didn’t do all that much better post-Pacers — Roy Hibbert was out of the league at 30, Lance Stephenson had his struggles, and George Hill somehow found his way to being LeBron’s new point guard this year after a disappointing half-season in Sacramento. On one semi-interesting side note, this is the third straight team on this list that had C.J. Watson on the bench, and all three teams finished in the top two in defensive rating. Indiana’s composite Elo rating for the season was 1616, just 265th all-time (basically Elo sees them as a slightly above-average playoff team). Essentially, these Pacers were built on defense, decent rebounding, and Paul George the saviour.
Despite their second half swoon, the Pacers advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals and took Game 1 at home. But Miami took Game 2 and didn’t lose any home games on their way to winning the series in six. This was the final Bosh-Wade-LeBron team, and all three stars got their numbers during the series. Bosh averaged 16, Wade 19.8, LeBron 22.8 (almost exactly in line with their regular season numbers, except for LeBron who took a slight dip). Having Paul George on their side may have won them a game, but Indy’s top-notch regular season defense was no match for the Big 3 in the playoffs.
The 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks
The 2014-15 Hawks — the famous 60-win team — were better than those Pacers. They finished 6th in ORtg and 6th in DRtg and received a 1638 composite Elo rating. They were a terrible rebounding team but made up for that by emphasizing ball movement and making open shots — they finished 2nd in assists and 4th in FG%, including a very good percentage from beyond the arc. This Hawks team featured old friend DeMarre Carroll, as well as familiar names like Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap and Al Horford. No single player averaged more than 17 points — they really were a collection of secondary players who made it work by scoring efficiently and playing stout defense. The team-first approach got them through two rounds of the playoffs, but things did not go as well against LeBron and the new-look Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals. They got swept in four games.
The 2014-15 Cavs that beat them were the first iteration of the LeBron-Kyrie-Love team that made the Finals in each of the last three years. Despite some struggles to make it all come together in year one, during the regular season LeBron averaged 25.3, Kyrie 21.7 and Love 16.4, and J.R. Smith shot 39% from 3. Love was out against the Hawks and Kyrie didn’t have a good series, but LeBron went beast mode and beat Atlanta almost by himself. He averaged 30+ in the sweep and the Cavs owned the boards, as a team decidedly lacking in star power was no match for them.
The 2016-17 Boston Celtics
Last year’s Celtics featuring Isaiah Thomas finished 8th in ORtg and 13th in DRtg and had a peak Elo of just 1624 (note that peak Elo is a team’s best rating, while composite Elo is an average rating, so by comparison these Celtics were worse than every other team on this list). On February 15th, they were 2.5 games back of the Cavs and had just a 2.7 point differential, but they passed the Cavs down the stretch due more to the Cavs’ lack of trying than any superior play.
By all advanced metrics, this was a number one seed that didn’t deserve to be, but they did manage to steal Game 3 on the road in the Eastern Conference Final en route to the gentleman’s sweep — and subsequently turned over most of their roster. LeBron, Kyrie and Love all averaged over 20 points in the series and Boston’s 3-point victory was the only close game.
So what does all this mean for the 2017-18 Raptors sitting on a 1-seed and an 8.5 point differential at the break? Well, it certainly means that they can’t expect a good defense alone to beat LeBron in the playoffs. Two of these teams ranked first in the NBA in DRtg, the 2010-11 Celtics were 2nd, and the Hawks were a respectable 6th. This jibes with the general consensus that playoff LeBron is essentially unstoppable and will always figure out how to score even against a top defense, and the way to beat him is by outscoring him (a la the Warriors).
While the Raptors have improved their points-per-game scoring this year, much of that extra offense has come from increasing their pace, and the real reason for Toronto’s improvement over last year’s team has been an improved defense. The Raptors have been excellent on both sides of the ball this year and are better offensively than any of these other no. 1 seeds were. But can their improved defense control the game enough to allow them to run up the score against a questionable-at-best Cavs defense?
It’s notable that at least by Elo rating, none of those previous no. 1 seeds were a better team than the LeBron team that ultimately beat them in the playoffs. There’s some level of chicken-and-egg going on here — because playoff performance affects those ratings — but current Elo ratings over at 538 give Toronto a significant edge on the Cavs, with a 1692 rating to Cleveland’s pedestrian 1561 mark. Of course, one thing Elo doesn’t measure is effort, and with just a couple of games under their belt, that 1561 rating probably isn’t a reflection of the reconstituted Cavs. But to this point in the season, Toronto’s Elo is significantly better than ’13-’14 Indiana, ’14-’15 Atlanta and ‘16-’17 Boston, and a hair above the ’10-’11 Bulls and Celtics.
Even after all of their deadline moves, this is probably the worst surrounding cast around LeBron since at least ‘09-’10 Cavs (if not earlier). Looking at the roster construction of this year’s team, LeBron will always be LeBron, and once Kevin Love comes back he’ll have his 16 points-per-game stretch four back (i.e. Bosh’s old role). The question is whether some combination of George Hill, Rodney Hood and J.R. Smith can approximate the ~20 PPG he’s used to getting out of an All-Star guard in the regular season. But the rub of it is that those numbers don’t necessarily even matter in the playoffs. In the Atlanta series LeBron proved that he doesn’t need two other stars on the court to trounce a team. With Irving (and now Thomas) gone, he no longer has two other stars even at the best of times, so he’ll have to go through the whole playoffs leaning heavily on role players.
But while the Raptors are better than last year’s team and the Cavs are worse than last year’s team, there are no guarantees that any of this will hold up in the playoffs. Toronto feels like a dominant team when they pound bottom-feeders, but playoff LeBron is a different animal. And as Raptors fans we know all too well what can happen when we underestimate LeBron. As they say in The Wire, “you come at the King, you best not miss.”
(But while LeBron may be scary no matter who surrounds him, you know who isn’t even in this conversation? The Celtics.)