Unlike his previous three years in a Cavaliers uniform, LeBron James may have his work cut out for him as the 2018 postseason arrives. Simply put, this particular team does not possess the same flavor of dominance. The Cavs were victorious in 19 of 21 games earlier this season in a span starting mid-November and ending in a Christmas day matchup with a familiar foe, the Golden State Warriors. Despite finding a rhythm, however, 15 of the 19 wins came over sub-par teams.
Currently sitting at 38-28, the Cavs will likely not finish any better than third in the East. However, in reality, they could finish the season with any seed beside the top two (which will belong to Toronto and Boston). As shocking as it sounds, ending the year with a losing margin is entirely possible due to their lackluster play as of late. The last time that happened with a James-led team was in the 2007-08 season. That Cavaliers team included the likes of Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Unlike this year, however, that team’s defense was superior to its offense.
Consistency is not an ideal word to describe the state of the Cavs so far this season. Their on-court stability has been an apparent concern. However, even the makeup of their roster along with lineup rotations have changed notably throughout the course of the year. Everything started with Kyrie Irving’s trade request over the summer. Isaiah Thomas was not expected to fill in his shoes. However, many did anticipate he and Jae Crowder would help the organization maintain elite status. That experiment failed though as both players disappointed in their brief tenure with the franchise and got shipped off to the Western Conference.
General Manager Koby Altman did not give up much to receive a solid package of players (George Hill, Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood and Larry Nance Jr.) in return because he sought out teams looking to shed salary rather than add talent. On another note, Cleveland’s financial situation was already unfavorable before making these moves, which likely only worsened the scenario. It is well-known that LeBron has significant say in front office decisions. He seemed to be a primary factor in J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson, who are both having a down year, earning questionably sizable contracts the past few summers.
The team lost an oft-injured Kevin Love due to a hand injury at the tail end of January. Fortunately enough for Cleveland, he did not require surgery and is presumably able to return just before the playoffs. That is not much of an excuse though, as the Cavs were already struggling mightily with his presence. Love remains a highly productive power forward, but not to the extent he did earlier in his career with Minnesota. That is largely because he is more of a piece to the puzzle rather than somebody the offense is run through.
Cleveland’s one glaring issue is undoubtedly its severely troubled team defense. Usually LeBron is able to overcome weaknesses that may plague his team. However, this may be too tall an order for any player to handle. James’ body language at times seems to indicate his hopelessness in the team’s defensive efforts. Its rotations are weak and there are no signs of circumstances improving on that end of the floor. The fact that Cleveland is the third worst offensive rebounding team in the league, an area it excelled in before, means it is only tougher to stop opponents in transition.
The Cavs are certainly capable of turning it around and fighting their way through the Eastern Conference playoffs. However, it would be difficult to consider them favorites with teams like the Raptors and Celtics having a more potent two-way attack. Cleveland’s positioning in the conference has not carried much weight the last couple years, but there is valid reasoning to believe this postseason could be different. Boston and Toronto, respectively, are the league’s top two teams in defensive efficiency and also have the weapons to keep up offensively.
Although it may be unlikely its knocked out this early, Cleveland’s potential first-round matchup (with a team such as Indiana, Washington, Philadelphia, etc.) cannot be overlooked or taken for granted by any means. Those three teams, for example, all have proven standout players (Victor Oladipo, Bradley Beal, Joel Embiid, etc.) who can hold their own. James may become more and more winded as the team gets deeper into the playoffs and that may also take a toll on the following rounds.
Barring a suddenly drastic turnaround in the near future, the Cavaliers organization is in jeopardy of trending downward and losing James in free agency for the second time. However, if and when Cleveland gets eliminated, much of the focus should lie on the fashion it occurs in. James and the Cavs could give in to the excruciating pressure and go down easy or they could battle relentlessly, win or lose, and put their uplifted spirits on display.