Chasing The Cavs: How East Contenders Matchup With Cleveland

Constructing a counter lineup to the Warriors has become one of the NBA’s favorite parlor games. Even with price as no object, the very idea of matching up with that much size, speed, and shooting range is daunting, all but requiring a collection of hand-picked All-NBA talent in response.

The Cavs, to their credit, present many of the same problems—even on hypothetical grounds. For all of Cleveland’s apparent vulnerability, the reality is that there aren’t many teams or lineups that have fared consistently well against the Cavs this season. Only a handful of players can respectably guard LeBron James. Only a select group of others do much of any good in challenging Kyrie Irving. That Cleveland’s style of play, when healthy, also demands stout coverage of the three-point line, a workable answer for Kevin Love, and reliable rim protection stretches most opponents well beyond their means.

This is what contending hopefuls in the East are left to deal with. So let’s measure up their best shot—the most sensible five-man lineups that the top challengers in the East can muster. Any chance of beating Cleveland relies on groupings like these sorting out their deficiencies and foiling what the Cavs do best. Godspeed.

Washington: John Wall, Bradley Beal, Marcin Gortat, Otto Porter, Markieff Morris

No five-man combination in the league has logged more minutes this season than Washington’s starters. It shows. Wall has an easy pick-and-roll chemistry with Gortat refined over a half-decade of refinement. Beal is at his most comfortable when allowed to hunt offense without being solely responsible for it. Porter has developed into a perfect spacer (with ridiculous 71.1% true shooting in this lineup, specifically) and Morris, for the most part, has stuck to the script and contributed in the flex role Washington needs.

That familiarity—the better-than-the-sum-of-its-parts boost that comes with it—will be crucial in helping reconcile some suboptimal matchups. Scott Brooks essentially tethered Wall to Irving this season, leaving no opportunity for one of the craftiest shot creators in the game to abuse Washington’s overmatched backcourt. Wall does fine here. He has the length to bother Irving’s shot and the quickness to close the gap in time, though on some nights Wall invests too much energy in running the offense to play airtight defense. That kind of tradeoff is inevitable, if particularly tricky to manage against an opponent like the Cavs.

To compound the problem, neither Porter nor Morris can do much against LeBron. Both are fine defenders; Porter’s length allows him to control space and angles while Morris has the physicality to throw most opponents off their center. James just isn’t bothered much by either, as evidenced by the 29.5 points (second-highest among all Cavs opponents) on 58.3% shooting, 11 assists, and 8.5 rebounds he’s averaged in the season series to date. Washington’s collective defense was able to tease out some turnovers from LeBron, though ultimately Washington is left with merely solid defenders to withstand the best player in the world.

Their odds aren’t great. This is the best the Wizards have to offer—a nice blend of offense and defense, synergized through experience—and yet the Cavs have blown this lineup out in their two meetings this season. Cleveland tends to do that. It can be so difficult to withstand the Cavs’ starting and closing lineups that so much of beating them comes down to minimizing damage and making up ground elsewhere. These starters have the ability…