Tonight's game features the Los Angeles Lakers who, while not dominant, have been solid of late and are nursing a four-game winning streak taking on the Cleveland Cavaliers who have surprisingly been alright this season The Cavs are currently placed 8th in the Eastern Conference-- a far cry from their near-historical levels of suck last year.
The Cavaliers have done this by being, well, the definition of average. Their offensive and defensive efficiency ratings as per hoopdata.com are both ranked 15th in the League, both being 99.5 compared to League averages of 99.6 and 99.8 respectively. In terms of Four Factors, as officially introduced to SSR by Actuarially Sound, they're also right around the average. Their effective field goal percentage is right at the League Average, though they allow their opposition slightly better than this; and their Turnover rate is a tiny bit higher than the League Average whilst they allow their opponents pretty much on League Average. Their offensive rebound rate is slightly better than League Average whilst their opposition is held slightly lower, and their free throw rate is above League Average by a decent margin whilst their opposition is kept slightly below. As such, overall I don't think it's possible to get more average, which can only be viewed as a good thing in light of their catastrophic season last year.
The Cavaliers have achieved this improvement with balance, with none of their players scoring above 18 points per game, whilst 10 average at least 5. What's strange is, statistically, none of their players seem to have noticeably improved from last season, which may perhaps suggest that the presence of Kyrie Irving alone has catapulted the Cavaliers out of the filthiest League gutter to mediocrity.
Kyrie Irving has undoubtedly been extremely good (now seems as good a time as ever to mention that he's from my hometown, though even I didn't know the fact until about an hour ago), but one would think he simply doesn't play enough minutes to have such a large impact on the Cavaliers' on-court product, at only 26.9 minutes per game. Why his minutes are so low considering his production, I don't know. He's scoring well, at 16.6 points per game in such limited minutes, and at an efficient clip with 55.8%TS. His turnovers are pretty high, a bit over 3 a game in low minutes, but it's to be expected when giving a rookie keys to the offense; nonetheless his assist-to-turnover ratio is a solid 1.67. Considering such limited practise time in this shortened season, if I were on the Cavs' coaching staff, I'd see no harm in giving Irving a larger role and letting him grow through his mistakes - it's not like they have any major prospects this year he could endanger. The situation is made a bit sticky by having Ramon Sessions on the roster, but at this point he's an established commodity who's unlikely to improve given a larger role, and despite solid overall numbers is horrible from the field and deep this season. I'd almost consider trading him to open up minutes for Irving if I was in the position to do so.
Nonetheless, the Cavaliers' limiting Irving's minutes and playing Sessions works in the Lakers' favour, as Sessions is an extremely inefficient scorer who still manages to put up the third-most shots on the team (due to lack of other options, to be fair). Whilst Sessions has historically been a more efficient scorer than he is now, he's still not a major threat to the Lakers compared to players of his position the Lakers often come up against. Irving could be scary, simply on account of his youth. Doubtless, Fisher will try to show the rookie up due to veteran pride, but whether or not that'll work out well is highly debatable. Irving will have no problem driving on the Lakers guards and is solid from deep, so he may prove to be a tough cover, though I doubt he's ever come up against a front line quite like the Lakers' before. Also, expect Kobe to take him to school at least once, for the hell of it--he seems to revel in his role of cranky old bastard, and I must say it suits him perfectly.
Other than Kyrie, there's not really much new to say about this Cavs team: roster turnover hasn't been too major, so on offense the Lakers need to watch the Cavs' shooters, same as last year. Daniel Gibson's on fire right now, making nearly two 3's a game at an over 50% rate. Newcomer Luke Harangody is at 50%, although on far fewer attempts, which somewhat makes up for Anthony Parker seemingly being in a shooting slump. Other than that, the Cavs don't really have any spot-up threats. On offense, they'll probably rely mainly on Irving or Sessions in a PnR with Jamison or Varejao and thus look for options, have Jamison post up on the block, or have Irving toy with whichever Lakers PG is charged with guarding him.
Defensively, Varejao's a pest as always, having been known to give Pau trouble. It'll be interesting to see how Andrew Bynum handles him; while the Cavs don't really have the personnel to aggressively double Bynum like some other teams have tried, Varejao is irritating as hell and a solid position defender. In terms of true seven-footers, the Cavaliers feature the somewhat competent Ryan Hollins and the ridiculously foul-prone Semih Erdin, so hopefully Bynum makes his free throws. It'll likely be a combination of Anthony Parker and Alonzo Gee on Kobe Bryant, hardly a problem for him, though they might throw some of their small forwards at him for the extra length; their lack of experience hardly renders that a daunting prospect. Omri Casspi is probably their best defender on the wing, and while he's solid, he's nothing special.
Overall, the Lakers' winning streak has to end sometime soon, but nothing about the Cavs leads me to believe they have any potential to win this game. They simply don't have the type of personnel which can exploit the Lakers' weaknesses enough to steal victory, and Byron Scott is not a good enough coach to come up with the offensive and defensive schemes to truly outplay the Lakers. By the end of tonight, the Lakers should have cruised to extend their winning streak to 5 games.