The Cleveland Cavaliers have been one of the biggest names in sports since acquiring the one and only LeBron James with the first overall pick in the 2003 NBA draft. The Cavs have only further etched their name into sports history since LeBron’s return in 2014. The defending NBA champions averaged 38.7 FG per game last season, jacking up 10.7 3-pointers-made per game. This offensively dynamic team is led by a stacked starting lineup including James, who now has three championships under his belt, and 4x All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Together, this triumvirate brought an end to Cleveland’s 52-year professional sports title drought. Times have changed since their dramatic championship run. Before Cleveland’s win against the Celtics on April 6, the Cavs had dropped to second in the East. After four straight wins, they resumed their status at the top of the East. With continuous fluctuations at the top of the standings the Cavs have found themselves in uncharted territory, trailing Boston in the standings with no games left to be played in the regular season. The Eastern Conference is arguably in the worst state that it has been in years. Despite the Cavaliers’ placement in a weaker conference and talented roster, their record is the only good for fifth best in the league, tied with four other teams and trailing the Warriors, Spurs, Rockets and Celtics. Many believe that the Cavs aren’t the super team they were once made out to be.
One of the reasons behind this new viewpoint is because the Cavaliers stopped playing to win towards the end of the regular season. The Cavs were characterized by their fire and physical dominance in the 2015-2016 season have lost their motivation to perform in the regular season, and if I were a Cavs fan, I would be worried about how that would translate in the playoffs. They have shifted their focus to outside of the perimeter, relying on sharpshooters like Irving and Kyle Korver to win games by close margins. They have attempted the second most 3-pointers per game in the NBA at 33.7, up by four from last year, and their win percentage is down 6% from last year.
Because of this outlook that regular season games don’t matter in the broad spectrum, the Cavaliers have been resting LeBron, sparking an intense debate regarding its ethical implications. LeBron has missed six games this season due to rest and the Cavaliers are 0-6 without him. King James himself has shrugged off questions about regular season games, citing his immaculate record and saying, “I’m not one to get caught up in the regular season. I’m sorry. I’ve been to six straight finals, man. I’m the last person to ask about a regular-season game.”
Hall of Famers have begun speaking out against the Cavs’ resting tactics. Former Utah Jazz great and second all time NBA leading scorer Karl Malone spoke about the Cavs’ loss to the Clippers on March 19, saying, “If you don’t have at least ten years’ experience, get your ass playing.” Malone himself was one of the hardest workers to ever play in the NBA, missing only ten games in his first 17 years in the league, compared to LeBron’s six missed games in this season alone.
Dennis Rodman also spoke out against LeBron’s actions. “You know what, LeBron’s doing one thing that I always said that Michael Jordan never did,” Rodman said. “He never rested. He played every game. He played every game.”
Another reason behind their decreasing productivity is the Cavaliers’ team chemistry. When there is so much talent on a single team, tensions tend to fly high as players fight for individual statistics and personal acclaim rather than doing what is necessary to procure a win. After the Cavs’ last season, players expect to win and a lack of results leads to players blaming one another. This culminated in the heated exchange between LeBron and Tristan Thompson. After a made three-pointer by Pacers All Star Paul George, LeBron publicly blamed Thompson for leaving him completely unguarded. Even though James and Thompson both apologized during their respective post-game interviews, sources from inside the Cavs locker room stated that there was still an air of tension.
The Cavaliers’ defense has also been disappointing, especially in the second half of the season. Since the All-Star break, the Cavs have been 28th in the NBA in defensive rating. This season, Cleveland has the least amount of steals per game in the league. They’re in the bottom half of the league in defensive rebound percentage, blocks per game, and opponents’ points per game. The fact of the matter is that there is no defensive powerhouse on the Cavaliers outside of LeBron, and it could come back to haunt them at the end of the day.
I’m not going to go so far as to say that the Cavs don’t have a chance of back-to-back titles, being that they demolished the first place Celtics 114-91 on April 6, but they are in no way the same team as last year. Despite playing less games, James continues to break records this season as he is now the 7th leading scorer of all time after starting the season as the 10th leading scorer. James is also the first player in NBA history to average more than 25 points per game in 13 consecutive seasons, previously being tied with Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Karl Malone for a streak of 12. It is quite possible that we will see a paradigm switch as the Cavs enter the postseason, because as the Cavs showed during their comeback in the 2016 NBA finals, it is never too late to count them out.