With the NBA season now in the month of March, it’s become clear who the top two title contenders are – the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors. Due to their recent play and shrewd additions in the free agent market, the Cavaliers have the upper hand in the title race.
Reloaded Cleveland Cavaliers Have Upper Hand in The Title Race
The Cavaliers are currently 42-19 this season, maintaining the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Led by LeBron James – the NBA’s best player – and point guard Kyrie Irving, the Cavs are yet again the team to beat in the East. However, their other star, forward Kevin Love, has been dealing with injuries.
Just a few weeks ago, Love was diagnosed with a left knee injury. Love’s knee woes were expected to keep him out for roughly six weeks. He is now about halfway through that time frame. His injury is and has been a big loss for the Cavs, given his skill set and role with the team.
Love’s offensive game helps spread the floor and open things up for James, Irving, and shooting guard Kyle Korver (who the Cavaliers acquired from the Atlanta Hawks back in January). Averaging 20.0 points and 11.1 rebounds while shooting 38.4 percent from beyond the arc, Love has been crucial to Cleveland’s success this season.
Love’s absence led the Cavs to pursue a number of key role players, though. These additions have helped make Cleveland’s bench the best in the NBA.
Shortly after the news on Love came out, the Cavs signed forward Derrick Williams. Williams was released by the Miami Heat prior to signing with the Cavs. Despite that, his play is electric.
Williams is an explosive and versatile forward. He is a spark plug off the bench, who can play above the rim, go coast to coast, and hit mid-range jumpers when he has to. Williams also has the ability to play both small and power forward. In the nine games he’s played with the Cavs, Williams is averaging 10.3 points and shooting 56.1 percent from the field. That’s the best Williams has shot in his six-year NBA career.
In addition to Derrick Williams, the Cavs were also able to sign former Dallas Mavericks point guard Deron Williams.
The Mavericks released Williams just a week ago, and the Cavs pounced on the veteran guard. While not the star guard he once was, Williams is still a scorer and solid distributor.
Williams has averaged more than 12 points and five assists per game every season since 2006-07. He’ll now be in a smaller role with less pressure, coming off the bench for Cleveland. That will benefit the Cavs tremendously.
Williams will serve as Kyrie Irving‘s backup for the remainder of the year. His offensive punch coming off the bench essentially gives Cleveland a starter in a backup’s role. Williams can come in for Irving and be the team’s go-to option. Additionally, Williams has numerous options to dish the ball to, including the sharpshooting Korver and the high-flying Derrick Williams. Cleveland’s bench also has a defensive presence alongside these players, with recently acquired center Andrew Bogut.
In yet another buyout, the Philadelphia 76ers released Bogut after acquiring him in a deal with the Dallas Mavericks. The Cavs yet again played the free agent market and signed the veteran center. Bogut gives the Cavs a much-needed rim protector off the bench.
While not a scorer or go-to guy in the paint, Bogut is a defensive presence who crashes the boards. Over the course of his career, Bogut has averaged 8.9 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game. Also, while not the star big man he once was, Bogut was still impactful for the Mavericks this year. Though he averaged just three points per game, Bogut was able to rack up 8.3 rebounds and one block per game. He will only add to what has become a very deep team.
The Cavs’ depth makes them even more dangerous come playoff time than they were previously. However, the injury to Warriors forward Kevin Durant also means that Golden State is undermanned. That’s another factor that works in Cleveland’s favor.
Kevin Durant’s Injury
Just a few days ago, Durant suffered an MCL sprain. The sprain will keep the superstar forward sidelined for at least four weeks. It’s no secret that Durant is a force to be reckoned with in this league, as he’s a two-way star. He can score from the outside, attack the paint, and hit the boards, and defend multiple positions at a high level. Averaging 25.3 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists, and 1.6 blocks per game, Durant has been his superstar self, and his absence will be difficult for the Warriors to overcome.
Some will argue that Durant’s absence won’t end Golden State’s title hopes, given that the team made it to the NBA Finals without him in each of the last two years. However, those Warriors teams had more depth than this group.
In order to sign Durant, the Warriors had to sacrifice a number of key roles players. Those players include guard Leonardo Barbosa, forward Harrison Barnes, and centers Andrew Bogut, Marreese Speights, and Fetsus Ezeli. All five of them were more than serviceable role players for the Warriors and contributed to an elite bench unit.
With their roster deprived of depth and Durant hurt, the Warriors are in quite a bit of trouble. That gives the Cavs the upper hand in the title race.
Cavaliers Have Edge on the Warriors
Cleveland’s new-look bench is stacked, especially once Love returns from injury. With guards Deron Williams and Kyle Korver, as well as frontline players such as Richard Jefferson, Channing Frye, Derrick Williams, and Andrew Bogut, the Cavs possess the best bench in the NBA. They also have the uncertainty of the Warriors woking in their favor.
While Durant is only out four weeks at the moment, he’ll be reevaluated once that time is up. No one knows whether Durant’s next check-up will spell good or bad news for him and the Warriors. More importantly, though, Golden State’s lack of depth makes the team vulnerable, giving the Cavs the upper hand in the 2016-17 title race.