It is not news that the Cleveland Cavaliers have been bad since the All-Star break. It bears repeating, however, quite the extent to which this is true.
39-16 at the time of the break, Cleveland has lost 14 games since, while winning only twelve. They have lost their grip on the Eastern Conference both figuratively and literally - although the Cavaliers beat them as recently as last week, at the start of an insanely contrasting five day stretch of games, the Boston Celtics have taken the top spot in the East with one game to go. Going 12-14 is, for the relative standards of a title defender and assumed contender, a very bad stretch, and one coming at the worst time, a time when a contender should be crescendoing.
To get the top spot back, Cleveland needs to beat the Toronto Raptors tonight in their final game, while hoping that Boston loses at home to the Milwaukee Bucks. This is a tough ask. It will be one made tougher by the fact that LeBron James will miss the game, getting some much-needed rest before a gruelling upcoming playoff schedule in which he will once again have to largely carry his team.
Both the fact that LeBron needs rest, and the fact that he will largely have to carry his team single handedly, are sad facts that speak to the troubling recent fortunes and immediate projections of a #1 or #2 seed. Things should be good for a #1 or #2 seed, just as they are right now for Boston. But because of those two things, the Cavaliers arrive at the playoffs with absolutely no momentum and legitimate concerns.
Worse still, both of those things were completely avoidable.
One thing that is unavoidable is that LeBron will have to come in rested and put in a herculean effort if the Cavaliers are to repeat as champions. Short of a Golden State Warriors-calibre supporting cast, this would always be the case. LeBron is by far and away the best player on his team, and has been the NBA's best player for a decade - even if he has not been the best player in the NBA this season, he is right in amongst the other contenders for that award, and with his historic individual performance in last year's NBA Finals, he proved he really can do it single handedly for short periods if needs be.
However, in the time since, Cleveland has had a full year to prepare for this. They had time and sufficient resources to retool a team, to find the pieces to compliment what they had, to shore up weaknesses and over-reliances across the roster. They have not done that. They did not seem to try too hard to do so.
Instead, they got more shooters. They gave more roster spots to LeBron’s friends, heaped up on wings, left themselves without a tertiary playmaker, trusted Chris Andersen’s knees would suddenly lose ten years of wear and tear, and brought back pretty much the same already-aging unit as last year, except this time without any backup point guards or centres. They entered the season with little rim protection, with Channing Frye at backup centre, with no backup point guard except a young Kay Felder who they promptly did not trust with rotation minutes, and ultimately put themselves in a situation where Kyle Korver, Richard Jefferson and James Jones took up three roster spots to do pretty much the same thing.
Going into the playoffs, they still have these problems. Deron Williams has joined as a backup point, yet his handle and ball security seems to have disappeared along with his speed, and his name far outweighs his talent at this point. Similarly, up front, the injury to the foreseeably-available Andrew Bogut was unfortunate, but the fact that that even really matters speaks to the recklessness of entering a season with a wobbly roster hopeful that deadline-time buyouts will be enough to plug up the gaps. The holes in their roster, the over-reliance on Tristan Thompson for interior defense, on LeBron for passing and on Kevin Love for rebounding, were all avoidable.
Assembling a roster full of shooters works great when the Cavaliers are zipping it around, fresh legged, committed to a team concept, utilising the spacing afforded by having so many options and such a ridiculously good talent capable of finding them. In Sunday night’s game versus the Atlanta Hawks, they built up a 26-point lead in this way - their extremely efficient three-point shooting through three quarters was borne out of endless open looks, borne out of a moving basketball and some dazzling extra passes. Playing four out when all four are shooters with decent IQ and discipline is fairly impossible to defend. It works against anyone.
But then they stopped doing this. Indeed, they often seem to stop doing this. The staggering implosion in that game versus Atlanta was the most obvious and painful example of this, but certainly not the only one - they also did it the following game in a rematch against the Hawks, and many times prior. For whatever reason, whatever talent they have, Cleveland cannot put together four quarters of team basketball. And when combined with their weaknesses on the interior and their over-reliance on star power, they have made themselves extremely vulnerable.
It is theoretically fine to load a team with shooters. With sufficient playmaking, sharing and defense, threes can be a title winning formula, as the 2014 San Antonio Spurs proved. When they put together big leads such as that one, playing to their strengths and with a focused team effort, Cleveland look menacing again. But with increasing frequency, they undermine it with selfish, lazy, disjointed, fire-less basketball.
LeBron will have to put in a historic individual effort to top these Warriors, that much was known before the season began. Yet so questionable is the team around him at this point that he might have to put in even more just to get that far. James can flip a switch, that much is proven. But the team around him can also flip their own switch off.
Making it worse, far worse, is that he is already tired. James needs rest tonight because he is absolutely gassed. At a time when he absolutely should have been resting, James played 48 minutes against the Hawks and fouled out in a loss. It was known going in that LeBron, with last year’s Finals and what it took from him to win them still fresh in the mind, would benefit from the rest days that are so en vogue in the NBA today. Yet head coach Tyronn Lue, feeling he needed to win the game given the vulnerability of their seeding and feeling the rot needing to be stopped, flogged him still further. This, too, was thoroughly avoidable.
(James is also not above criticism here. Many of the sloppy plays down the stretch of that Hawks implosion were his, including fouls, bad passes, and a lack of hustle. How much of that can be cited to his fatigue, we will never know. But it looked like a lot. Having been so good in the three quarters prior, recording a fairly effortless triple double and controlling the ball on a string, LeBron suddenly looked dead on his feet. This is not from a man known for ever giving up. He therefore gets a pass from this author. This is not about him nearly as much as it is about everyone and everything else.)
The Cavaliers blew that Hawks game for a lot of reasons. LeBron's tiredness was one, their lack of depth another. Ultimately, though, the breakdown of their team dynamic was the key factor in how they gave up 59 points in 17 minutes and imploded on international television. And to that end, Kyrie Irving must take a lot of responsibility.
During the fourth quarter and overtime, Irving took a lot of bad shots. This is something he has started to do with increasing regularity, particularly at the end of games. Seemingly buoyed by the ridiculous, headlining shots that he made to win last year’s Finals, Irving now treats every close game as such. It is hard to remember a single pass he made in the fourth quarter and overtime of the Hawks game, aside from a couple of bad ones that led to turnovers. He wanted all the glory. Which means he must shoulder the burden of blame.
Taking bad shots in the fourth quarter relies on some luck, even with two great shot-making talents. Clamming up down the stretch of games is normal – a folly of the human condition, albeit a somewhat baffling one given that all our lessons in efficiency and team play do not suddenly stop being effective just because the clock got low – yet clamming up that badly is not. Kyrie’s continued desire to Heroball his way out of the clammy patches does more harm than good. Those shots, as good as he is, required a lot of luck. And why rely on luck? Making a few does not justify it. If it was the right way to play, why did the Cavaliers not do it for the first 36 minutes?
Although they spend most of their assets before and during the season on marginal shooting improvements, Cleveland did nonetheless obtain a top three shooter in the world in the form of Kyle Korver. It was the ridiculousness of Korver that looked as though it had bailed the Cavaliers out, his three-pointer putting them up 119-118 on an after-timeout play that briefly stopped a nasty rot. That option is always there. Korver is always there. He needs only one screen and half a second. A shooting team has an elite shooter. Why, therefore, did they only once use him while Rome burned around him, and never once in open play?
Elsewhere, the Cavaliers’s defense was always playing catch up, and it doesn't play catch-up well. It is a somewhat slow-footed roster that has not the limb length nor recovery speed to cover for a lack of communication, awareness or hustle. Atlanta got back into the game by doing what Cleveland had done to blow it open – space the floor, take good shots, compete on defense. They never quit. Cleveland did. Cleveland does this quite often now, it seems. The cause of it is probably impossible to diagnose from the outside. Yet the results of it are so painfully obvious.
The regularity of these blips runs the risk, if it has not done so already, of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. When it happens on the regular, “whoops, what are we doing?” becomes “here we go again”. Negativity, inevitability and a sense of foreboding can set it. After all, if it keeps happening, why not resign yourself to it?
With one game to go, then, Cleveland is staring at a playoff run with nothing going. It increasingly feels as though they cannot win as currently constructed. But the time to reconstruct has long since run out. A championship-winning team must continue to learn if they are to stay ahead, just as all the other teams must learn how to keep pace with and surpass them. The Cavaliers, however, look like they haven’t learned anything. They have positioned themselves in such a way that LeBron will have to do it himself, and made him tired to the point that this is looking frighteningly unlikely.
Still, they have just signed Dahntay Jones and Edy Tavares. So that’ll sort it.