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Rosen’s Mailbag: Can any team challenge the Cavaliers in the East?

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James, left, and Cleveland Cavaliers' Tristan Thompson, right, from Canada, put pressure on Toronto Raptors' Kyle Lowry in the first half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, Jan. 4, 2016, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Here are my responses to a few questions and comments we’ve received over the last few weeks.

Q: Do you think any Eastern Conference team can potentially beat the Cavaliers and reach the Finals? — Greg

A: Not Boston, because having to rely on a 5’9” guard (Isaiah Thomas) to average anywhere from 25-30 points to have any chance to beat Cleveland in a seven-game series is simply not going to get the job done. Even with the addition of Al Horford, the Celtics will continue to have trouble scoring enough points to beat good defensive teams.

Not Chicago, because the Wade-Butler-Rondo combo will not be a smooth one. Plus, the Bulls still lack a sufficient number of reliable three-point shooters. Also, Fred Hoiberg still has to prove that he’s a capable NBA coach.

Not Detroit, Atlanta, Washington, et al.

Indeed, the only squad with a chance to beat Cleveland in a playoff series is Toronto. That’s because Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are a dynamic duo in the backcourt; DeMarre Carroll is an outstanding defender at small forward who will make LeBron work hard for his shots; Jonas Valanciunas can hurt the Cavs inside with his pivot-work, shooting and rebounding; both Norman Powell and Patrick Patterson are excellent role players; Cory Joseph and Terrence Ross are streaky but potentially explosive scorers off the bench.

In addition, the Raptors are loaded with reliable three-point shooters. Even more significant, Dwane Casey and his staff (especially Nick Nurse, who’s in charge of the offense) are among the league’s best.

So, injuries are always a potentially determining factor (which was the case last year when Valanciunas was hurt in the Cavs series), but all things being equal, and all Raptors being healthy, it’s up to Toronto to usurp Cleveland.

In his comment on my ranking of the all-time best big men, THE HERETIC had two questions.

Q: How could you possibly rate Kevin McHale over Hakeem Olajuwon?

A: Both of these guys were great players who certainly deserve their Hall of Fame status. But, aside from McHale being a much better scorer in the low post, a closer look at some numbers will back my admittedly subjective opinion.

Over the course of his 13-year career, he averaged 31.0 minutes per game. Yes, he did come off the bench in his early seasons with the Celtics, but even then he played starter’s minutes. Olajuwon played 18 seasons, averaging 35.7 minutes per game.

Also, because McHale played with Larry Bird, he never led Boston in shots per game — winding up averaging 12.7 in this department. On the other hand, Olajuwon led the Rockets in total shots during 10 seasons. Indeed, in some seasons, his margin over his nearest teammate was as high as 800-plus shots. For his career, Olajuwon took 17.0 shots per game.

Boston Celtics Kevin McHale takes a pointer from Celtics head coach Bill Fitch during practice Monday afternoon at Boston Garden, May 4, 1981. The Celtics downed the Philadelphia 76ers 91-90. The Celtics will now meet with the Houston Rockets in a best-of-seven series for the National Basketball Association hampionship title. The first games open in Boston Tuesday night. (AP Photo/Benoit).

AP Photo/Benoit

Of course, games, minutes and shots lost to injuries (mostly suffered by McHale) influence all of these statistics. However, although McHale’s lifetime shooting percentage was .554 against Olajuwon’s .512, the difference in minutes played and shots taken largely account for the latter’s edge in per-game career scoring average — 21.8 as opposed to the former’s 17.9.

Also, Olajuwon frequently played like a power forward — facing the basket somewhere on (usually) the left wing, and using his fantastic drop-step and counter-drop-step to create space for jump shots.

So, these numbers, plus my personal witnessing of innumerable games played by both McHale and Olajuwon during their entire careers, give me sufficient reason to be comfortable with this issue.

Q: How could you rate Shaq over Chamberlain?

A: For sure, Wilt was an amazing scorer — averaging 50.4 points in 1961-62, 44.8 the following season and finishing his illustrious career with 30.1 points per game. Shaq’s numbers are not nearly as impressive — a high of 29.7 PPG in 1999-00, and a career average of “only” 23.7.

But a pertinent factor here is that, during Chamberlain’s career, defenses were not permitted to double-team low-post (or any other) players. Had Shaq been likewise allowed to operate one-on-one in the pivot, his scoring numbers would have been much higher.

Moreover, whereas Chamberlain averaged 22.9 rebounds for his career, Shaq’s equivalent was 10.9. For sure, Shaq was never considered to be a top-notch rebounder and was certainly not a challenger to Chamberlain in this department. Still, somewhat of a mitigating factor would be the radical increase in shooting percentages in Shaq’s heyday which meant that Wilt’s contemporaries simply missed more shots and resulted in more chances to grab rebounds.

FILE -- In this May 11, 2001 file photo, Los Angeles Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal, center, Kobe Bryant, left, and Rick Fox celebrate a play late in the second half of game three of the Western Conference semifinals against the Sacramento Kings at Arco Arena in Sacramento. Renamed Sleep Train Arena, the facility has been the home of the Kings since it opened in 1988. The Kings won an NBA-best 61 games in the 2001-02 season behind Chris Webber and Vlade Divac, losing to the eventual champion Lakers in Game 7 of the conference finals. The Kings will play their last game at the aging building, Saturday against the Oklahoma City Thunder and begin play next season at the new Golden One Center built in downtown Sacramento. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, file)

AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, file

Even so, the main reason for my decision goes back to several discussions I was privileged to have with Tex Winter, one of basketball’s most brilliant observers. Chamberlain basically had three ways to score from the field — a fadeaway bank-shot from the left box, a driving arm-pit-to-the-face finger-roll from the right box, plus various dunk-backs.

According to Tex, however, Shaq’s footwork was much better than Wilt’s, and his assortment of shots was much wider. Simply, O’Neal was a better player than Chamberlain.

In sum, I’m only echoing Tex’s assessment here.

My thanks to THE HERETIC for his intriguing questions.


If you have any questions for a future mailbag, please tweet them @TodaysFastbreak or email jason@fanragsports.com

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