Why The Washington Wizards Can Compete With The Cleveland Cavaliers


When it comes to Washington sports rivalries, Redskins – Cowboys has dominated the scene for decades. Chants of “WE WANT DALLAS” echoing throughout RFK Stadium and now FedEx Field have resonated within the hearts of Washingtonians, Marylanders, and Virginians. However, with the return of LeBron James to Cleveland and thus a return to relevancy for Cavaliers basketball, the Wizards-Cavs rivalry is reborn. As the Washington Wizards look to build upon their postseason season success from last year, it’s almost inevitable that they will have to go through Cleveland if they want to be the championship contenders they believe they are destined to become.

Looking at the Washington Wizards and the Cleveland Cavaliers, there are a couple of clear advantages. Despite even the most optimistic hope for Paul Pierce’s fit with the Wizards, LeBron James will surely outplay him, simply because he’s LeBron James. If Tristan Thompson is the Cavaliers starter from day 1, Marcin Gortat should be able to exploit that matchup regularly. However, point guard, shooting guard, and power forward will be battles from the get go.

I wrote about the budding rivalry between John Wall and Kyrie Irving last season as All-Star Break approached, and they have gone back and forth in their young careers. Point guards drafted number 1 overall in consecutive years, it is inevitable that they would be compared. In his second season, Irving was named to the Eastern All-Star team, as his scoring average jumped up to 22.5 PPG after a Rookie of the Year campaign where he averaged 18.5 PPG. Combined with his Uncle Drew commercials and quick handles, he immediately became a media darling. Meanwhile, Wall became a forgotten man. He missed out on Rookie of the Year honors as Blake Griffin’s thunderous dunks took the NBA by storm, and after a couple of losing seasons, the media was just about ready to cast him aside.

This past season, Irving was placed firmly in the national spotlight. Many predicted that his next season would be a turning point in his career, where he would ascend from stardom to superstardom. The Cavaliers acquired Andrew Bynum, and together, Irving and Dion Waiters were supposed to lead one of the most feared backcourts in the league.

On the other hand, the Wizards had modest expectations, especially after Emeka Okafor’s injury. The Washington Wizards made a seemingly panicked move, trading their next first round pick for Marcin Gortat. Almost everyone rued this move, as it could have been the perfect opportunity to add a third young future star in a loaded draft class, but the Wizards went all in.

The Cavaliers proceeded to unfold in disarray, as first Bynum clashed with the coaches and then Irving and Waiters had their own mini-feud. The Cavaliers made a mid-season trade for Luol Deng, who was reportedly “shocked” at the lack of organization within the team. And Wall? He made his first All-Star team, led the league in total assists, and led the Washington Wizards to their first playoff series victory since 2005.

– via Basketball Reference

Head to head, a few things stand out. In 6 career games Irving has been the more efficient scorer, with 22 PPG on 50% shooting compared to Wall’s 20.3 PPG on 42.4% shooting. However, Wall excels in two crucial areas. As a passer, he averages just under 10 APG, compared to under 6 APG for Irving. Defensively, Wall has shown his prowess, averaging just under 3 steals per game compared to just 1 for Irving. And Wall leads Irving in the most important category of all – wins, something Irving is still learning how to achieve. Teaming up with LeBron James and Kevin Love should certainly help in that regard.

Bradley Beal and Dion Waiters were drafted with consecutive picks, third and fourth in the 2012 NBA Draft. They were both highly touted shooting guards, Beal a one and done college player and Waiters staying in school for an additional year. Recently, Waiters disputed the claim that Beal made on Media Day about who the best backcourt in basketball is, only for Wall to shoot him down saying that Waiters can’t talk because he hasn’t played playoff basketball, and isn’t even a starter on his team. I took a look at their head to head numbers:

– via Basketball Reference

They’ve played just four games, with Waiters holding a clear advantage. 3 wins and only 1 loss, while averaging over 15 PPG on 39.3% shooting. Beal has passed the ball well against Cleveland, averaging almost 5 APG, and shot lights out from three at 64.3%. Looking at their numbers from last season, Beal averaged just over 17 PPG and shot 40.2% from deep, and is seen as one of the most promising young players in the league. Waiters averaged a shade under 16 PPG but shot under 37% from three. However, there is one critical difference between the two. Beal played in 73 games and started all 73 of them. Waiters played in 70 games…and started just 24 of them. Until Waiters becomes a full time starter, it will be hard to take his comments seriously.

For example, Waiters tweeted this video after news was spreading of the trash talk. However, he failed to read the description written for the video:

“If you want to understand why Dion Waiters isn’t a good player, this would be a good video to watch. He is just so confident in his jumper that he will take it no matter what the situation is, with no effort to get a better shot for himself or his teammates. “

LeBron James vs. Paul Pierce. One of the greatest rivalries in the league…in 2008. 6 years ago, Pierce dropped 41 points on LeBron in the playoffs. Now, things are a little different. Pierce is still a savvy veteran capable of filling up the stat sheet and defending LeBron as well as anyone, however LeBron James is still LeBron James. Moving on…

Nene vs. Kevin Love presents an intriguing matchup in the frontcourt. On one side you have the bruising Nene, capable of putting up efficient scoring and passing numbers on just about anyone in the league, and on the other end there is Kevin Love, the ideal stretch four who is also possible the best rebounder in the entire league.

– via Basketball Reference

Looking at their head to head numbers, a couple of things stand out. Love has the higher scoring and rebounding averages as expected. However, he has shot just 47.5% against Nene, although that number is slightly influenced by his propensity to take three pointers. Nene has shot 54.5% against Love, a strong sign that Nene is capable of taking it to the 6 year veteran.

Also, Nene has posted an astonishing 8 wins to just 1 loss against Love. While there are obviously many other factors that go into victories, it is difficult to say that Love has outplayed or will thoroughly outplay Nene when they go head to head. Love has all the accolades, with multiple All-Star appearances, but Nene has proven that he is able to bang with the best of them, at least when healthy.

I briefly touched upon the Gortat and Thompson matchup at center earlier in this article, and Gortat should be able to exploit this matchup early and often. Gortat has developed into a viable rim protector and has always been a strong offensive player, and Thompson should have his hands full trying to contain him.

After a game in which Thompson matched up against Gortat when he was on Phoenix, Byron Scott made this remark regarding Thompson’s play in the game. Needless to say, Thompson will definitely be well aware of who Marcin Gortat is now.

"“[Gortat] ate us alive,” Scott said. “I don’t know if Tristan didn’t know that much about him or if he didn’t realize that the guy is a pretty good player. Gortat has been playing well all season long.”"

-quote via The Basketball Jones

The bench is another place the Wizards can really separate themselves. The Cavaliers will have a bench unit anchored by Shawn Marion, Anderson Varejao, and Mike Miller, who are certainly solid NBA players. The Washington Wizards however reloaded their bench unit this past offseason, and will have a revamped second unit that should be tough on most opposing teams. With the likes of the intelligent Andre Miller, sharpshooting Martell Webster, unstoppable mid-range game of Drew Gooden, reigning Summer League MVP Glen Rice Jr., the ever improving Otto Porter Jr., and finally the new acquisitions in Kris Humphries and DeJuan Blair, this will be an extremely formidable unit.

The series should be a tight one, and regardless of the result, one thing is for certain; the Washington Wizards will not be intimidated by anyone. Paul Pierce has set the tone early on for this team, and the Big Three of the Cavaliers should find the Washington Wizards to be their most threatening competition in the East.