It goes without saying, but the Cavaliers have hit a rough patch lately. After starting the season with a respectable 28-8 record, they’ve fallen into mediocracy since, winning only 19 of their last 37 games. The skid has raised some eyebrows across the league, and has even led some to predict this year as the year that the king gets dethroned.
Not so fast.
The Cavaliers will still wipe the floor with the rest of the East come playoff time. I’m not guaranteeing a 12-0 sweep to the Finals, but it’ll be something close.
The competition has improved, but it’s still just short of challenging Cleveland. Boston is young and inexperienced. They’d only face Cleveland if both made it to the Eastern Conference Finals, a round where the Cavs have obliterated their opposition two years running.
The most interesting potential matchup is the Wizards. With John Wall and Bradley Beal both having career years, they may snatch a game or two from Cleveland. But they don’t yet have the depth to dethrone the champs.
But back of the subject of Cleveland. During the dry spell, the problem certainly hasn’t been offense. LeBron and Kyrie are both having career years. Kevin Love is having his best offensive season since the trade from Minnesota. JR Smith is just getting back into the swing of things, and Deron Williams and Kyle Korver are still perfecting their roles. The O will be fine come playoff time.
The chief concern right now is defense. During these last 37 games, Cleveland ranks as the second worst defense in all of the NBA. You read that right. But the stat isn’t as alarming as it first appears.
While such a low defensive rank is appalling, especially for a defending champ, it isn’t the be all end all in the regular season. As cliché as it sounds, complacency is the likely cause behind the defensive woes.
We saw at the latter end of last season how well each Cavalier can defend individually. We knew LeBron was an all-world defender when he tried. That was reassured in last year’s finals. We thought that Kyrie was a liability on defense. That was proven wrong in last year’s Finals. It was a defensive masterclass in the last three games. Hell, even Kevin Love got in on the act.
Individually we know what these guys can do. But whether or not they choose to do it during the regular season is up for debate. But it’s worth asking: why would they? Why would they give maximum defensive effort during the regular season? They’re guaranteed at least and top two seed regardless. And defense, unlike offense, is much more individualistic. It’s much easier to flip the switch to ON on defense than it is on offense.
After all, LeBron’s been doing this for years. He’s perfected the art of coasting. Play the regular season at 70%, and go full throttle come playoff time. It’s reasonable to assume that he’s encouraged Kyrie and co. to implement this same strategy, for the sake of body preservation, both in the long and short term.
So the Cavs should have no trouble in the east, just as everyone predicted in the preseason. A little midseason complaisance shouldn’t change that. Now it’s a matter of beating whoever comes out of the west, which is looking like a much taller task than first thought.