The lineup the Wizards will field against the Cavaliers tonight as they open their season in Cleveland features a lot of unfamiliar faces. Due to a combination of injuries to John Wall (knee) and Nene (foot), as well as a few off-season moves, the team that will suit up tonight will feature only one starter that was on the roster for last year's season finale, a 34 point victory over the Miami Heat's bench players.
Cleveland will look largely the same as the last time the Wizards faced them. However, the Cavs are a young team that will be attempting to integrate rookie Dion Waiters, whose raw offensive game and poor jumper may not mesh well with the team's lack of outside shooting. As a result, even though Cleveland is healthier and is (arguably) the more talented squad tonight, Washington might be able to eke out a W based on superior chemistry, at least in the sense that tonight's starting lineup is made up of players who largely complement each other.
Who wins and who loses could very well come down to how well the teams match up with each other. Let's take a look at a few of the key battles we'll see tonight.
A.J. Price vs Kyrie Irving
On paper, the advantage has to go to Cleveland here. Irving doesn't have the quickness or hops of a Wall or Derrick Rose, but was actually far more effective as a rookie than either player. Irving is an excellent outside shooter with one of the league's best handles. The only knocks on him are that he's a weak defender and a mediocre passer. Price lacks the offensive chops to take advantage of Irving on offense, but as a solid defensive player - Indiana was 2.7 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor last year - who rarely fouls, he's as good an option as the Wizards could hope for to keep Irving from dominating tonight.
Winner: Irving (although he should be worse than normal)
Bradley Beal vs Dion Waiters
Bradley Beal? More like Bradley Beast, amiright? The rookie shooting guard makes his official NBA debut after a very promising preseason and Summer League that saw him flash an excellent outside shot and surprisingly advanced ball handling ability. Waiters has largely struggled so far as a scorer and playmaker, but he has the tools to be an elite defensive player. Rookie defenders tend to struggle, though, especially when it comes to off the ball defense, something that will be crucial for Waiters if he's going to slow down the crafty Beal.
Jan Vesely vs Tristan Thompson
Neither player is much of a difference maker right now, yet the long-term success of their respective franchises is very much tied to the development of these talented but raw second-year players. Thompson is more productive than The Airwolf right now, but he might be even less refined than Vesely, hard as it may be for a lot of Wizards fans to believe. Both should provide a lot of deflections, offensive rebounds, and jaw-dropping dunks tonight, but whoever does the best job boxing out and cleaning up on the defensive glass will win this match-up.
Emeka Okafor vs Anderson Varejao
Veteran big men on young teams, both Varejao and Okafor have reputations as excellent complementary pieces who can defend, rebound, and protect the rim. Varejao gets the edge here, though, largely based on superior health - Okafor has struggled with knee problems for about a year now and looked a step slow during the preseason - and his largely underrated offensive game. No one will mistake Anderson Varejao for Kevin McHale, but he's an excellent off-ball cutter who's an underrated passer and pick and roll player. Okafor, on the other hand, is largely limited to garbage buckets and the occasional hook shot.
X-Factors: Boobie Gibson vs Jordan Crawford
It's a bit misleading to say that it's hard to predict what Jordan Crawford will do in any particular game. It doesn't matter if it's game seven of the NBA Finals or a game of 21 at Barry Farms, Crawford is going to do the exact same thing every single night: shoot the ball 10 or 15 times, with most of those shots coming 20 or more feet from the basket and off of the dribble. The only unpredictable thing is whether or not the shots are going to fall. That said, it's a lot easier to shoot over a 6'2 guy like Gibson or a 6'4 guy like Waiters than, say, Joe Johnson. As far as Boobie goes, his ability to rack up points is largely tied to how disciplined his defender is. If Gibson's able to get free, Varejao and Irving should be able to feed him the ball for the spot up three-pointers that he's made a career out of knocking down. However, Gibson's nursing an injury to his finger and post-concussion symptoms, which might limit his effectiveness tonight.
The Big Picture: Cleveland vs Washington
One of the most common refrains in sports is "If Player X was healthy, we'd have won." Expect to hear that a lot tomorrow. In a vacuum, the teams are relatively evenly matched, but without Wall and Nene, Washington isn't going to beat a lot of teams. Washington will do better than expected, probably keeping the game within ten points until the fourth quarter, but unless Jordan Crawford, Beal, or Price get red-hot from behind the arc, the game will be Cleveland's to lose.
Winner: Cleveland, 95 - 85