For so many decades, the sky above the Cleveland Cavaliers fell with great regularity and the national media didn’t pay it any mind. Now the shoe is on the other foot; the national media seems convinced the atmosphere above the shores of Lake Erie is collapsing while the fans aren’t paying it much mind.
It’s amazing how much one title can change things.
There are reasons to worry that the Cavaliers’ march to a third straight NBA Finals appearance will be much more difficult than expected coming into the year. They finished the regular season 51-31, six games off their pace last year. They finished 20-21 on the road and lost 14 of their last 24 games. Lately, they’ve looked like a team with super-pressing problems instead of a superteam.
Defense alone doesn’t win championships, but it certainly helps. The Cavs were 4th in scoring defense last year. They finished 20th this year, and 21st in efficiency. Opposing teams have exploited them on the fast break and on pick-and-rolls.
Reliable scoring has been difficult to find outside of the big three of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Kyle Korver, 36, and Channing Frye, 33, sport the fourth- and fifth-highest PER on the team. That does not seem like a recipe for success during a long and taxing playoff run.
Perhaps most alarmingly, the Cavaliers have struggled with fundamentals and consistency. James, in keeping with tradition, has been passive-aggressive with his displeasure. There’s something different this year. He’s always had that low-grade fever of discontent with his team. This year, though, it feels like he doesn’t have the answers.
There are very reasonable bits of evidence suggesting the sky is falling around James and the Cavs. This hasn’t been a cakewalk, nor will the path through the Eastern Conference. Hell, they couldn’t even manage to get the No. 1 seed in a remarkably unremarkable year atop the standings.
On the other hand, there’s No. 23, LeBron James, the man who has made it to six consecutive NBA Finals. Larry Bird never did that. Magic Johnson never did that.
James has overcome so much and elevated his teams higher than they ever hoped to go. He is still the player with the broadest, strongest shoulders and a willingness to put the world on them. Despite a historic workload, he still managed to lead the league in minutes per game this year.
Most importantly, his performance has not suffered under the weight of his heavy burden.
Bet against him at your own peril. Remember that picking the Cavs to bow out before the Finals means relying on a skilled, but unproven team to knock them out. Toronto, Boston and Washington. Picking James to lose means putting more faith in a John Wall or Isaiah Thomas or Kyle Lowry when it matters most. At a certain point, James’ streak will come to an end.
It won’t be this year.
One of the weirdest thing in all of sports is how James is consistently undervalued. Take the feverish MVP debate that’s consumed the league over the past few months. Both Russell Westbrook and James Harden no doubt had better individual years than LeBron. But I’d posit that no player is as important to his team than the three-time champion — at least no player on a viable championship contender.
Westbrook and Harden each played 81 games. The San Antonio Spurs were 7-1 without Kawhi Leonard. The Golden State Warriors went 16-4 without Kevin Durant.
The Cavs went 0-8 without James. Winless.
Let’s imagine James had played in all 82 games and Cleveland had won six of the eight games missed. They’d have the same record as last year. Would the same type of panic be ascribed to their chances?
As we embark on the NBA Playoffs, we’re also embarking on the data-collecting step of the league’s grand experiment. The regular season has never been so devalued. Stars resting is the norm, not the exception. Dramatically, the fate of the league as an entertainment product is being jeopardized in the interest of doing what’s best for a team’s title chances.
The Cavs all but admitted the regular season didn’t matter by letting Boston take the No. 1 seed. They’re obviously confident they have the playoff mettle to overcome a middling 82-game campaign.
With a motivated James in the fold, it’s tough to bet against them.