It’s a bit early in the season for statement games, but to the extent that Friday’s matchup between the Cavaliers and Wizards bore any message, it was this: So long as Cleveland struggles, the East is up for grabs.
Washington played well to win, 91-78, though not so well as to remove doubt concerning its own contention within the Eastern Conference. In the fourth quarter the Wizards managed just 11 points against one of the sloppier pick-and-roll defenses in the league, giving the Cavaliers every opportunity to mount a comeback on superstar heroics. Cleveland, though, had its own late-game problems in its third straight loss. Crummy shot selection and sloppy execution led to a 13-point frame on 17 percent shooting, in which LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving went a combined 2-for-10.
“I’m concerned with everything right now,” Cavaliers coach David Blatt said, per Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com. “We’re playing in the dark.”
When the Cavaliers put together that kind of performance, not only disordered on defense but in nearly equal chaos on offense, they’re vulnerable to opponents of mere competence. Washington easily meets that low standard, and in effect it took only three quarters of solid basketball for the Wizards to seal up the marquee game of Friday’s slate.
Credit John Wall for his blend of aggressive driving, opportunistic defense and impressively sharp shooting. Kudos go to Wizards reserve Kevin Seraphin, who dropped in hook shots and turned away Cavalier layups with a frequency that would suggest him some kind of star. Washington is a good, balanced team, and there’s enough collective defensive ability in its ranks to even slow down Cleveland on its better days.
Though to be frank, this was not one of them. No NBA offense that allocates a scorer like Love just eight field goal attempts under relatively normal circumstances could be deemed healthy. Ditto for one that still makes such simple use of the talents of James and Irving, who are better than the 15-for-37 that they shot from the field on Friday.
Cavaliers fans may already grow tired of pleas for patience, but they emanate from all Cleveland does at this point. On most nights, offensive firepower alone should get the Cavaliers by. Coming into Friday’s game, after all, they boasted the fifth-best offense in the league and a positive point differential. Yet the one-sided nature of this roster does leave Cleveland eminently vulnerable to games like this one, in which there is no recourse for its out-of-sorts offense.
With that comes a potential opportunity for the Wizards and teams like them. Even a fully explosive Cavaliers offense is beatable because of what it surrenders on the other end, and it’s there Washington nurtures an uncommon advantage. This is not a particularly successful offensive team in most contexts. All too often the Wizards work hard to create shots of only middling value; elaborate sequences of cutting and passing that yield an Nene 18-footer or some slightly contested runner for Bradley Beal. That and defense gives Washington enough to get by, which in the context of the East might well be enough.
A healthy Chicago team looms for its potential on both sides of the ball. Toronto has played well enough to date (including a 41-point evisceration of the Bucks on Friday) to earn the benefit of the doubt. Yet the East is nonetheless a forgiving, negotiable conference from top to bottom, free for claim to whichever team makes the most compelling case over the next six months.
By personnel alone, the Cavaliers have an inherent advantage to that particular end. James has been clear in his framing of a greater process, in that Cleveland has only yet broached its introduction. Along the way there will be annoyance and irritation, as befits a team playing with these bad habits.
I’ll be OK. It’s part of the competitive nature of who I am.”
In time James will better understand his teammates and they will inevitably better grasp how to play off of him. Blatt will adjust his strategy and rotation to get more from this group than disparate, individual contributions. The team's overall energy level will have to improve and its brand of basketball will need be more intelligent. Getting there is largely a matter of time. That kind of patience is healthy for the Cavaliers, from the players to the coaching staff to the front office.
Those other quality teams in the conference, however, won’t be so accommodating. Cleveland will get only the full focus and attention of every team on its schedule, especially those capable of preying on the Cavaliers’ more immediate frustrations. Open season is in full swing and every passing week of Cleveland’s miscues brings more hope to the East’s middle class.