The Cleveland Cavaliers moved into second place in the East on Monday after a dispiriting loss to the San Antonio Spurs. LeBron and Co. were run out of the gym pretty quickly by the Spurs, who cruised to a 103–74 win. Cleveland’s putrid defense, feast-or-famine supporting cast and heavy reliance on LeBron truly has me wondering for the first time all season if the Cavs are actually title contenders. So let’s take a look at both sides of the argument.
The Case Against
The Cavs’ questionable contender status starts with their lack of defense. Cleveland is 29th in defensive efficiency since the All-Star break. That’s right, only the flagrantly tanking Los Angeles Lakers have had a worse defense than Cleveland over the last month of the regular season. When the Cavs play small, they have absolutely no protection at the rim. Kevin Love and Irving have not proven themselves to be good defenders, and Cleveland simply lacks other options at this point. There is no intimidating big on this team outside of Tristan Thompson, and Iman Shumpert is really the team’s only consistent defender on the wing. The Spurs routinely found clean lanes to the rim Monday, and any of the offensive juggernauts in the West would likely be happy to see Cleveland’s defense in the Finals. (Remember that no team outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency has won a title since the 2001 Lakers.)
James can be called upon to shut down an opponent’s top scoring option if need be, but he’s already carrying a huge burden on the offensive end. Cleveland’s offensive efficiency drops 13.6 points per 100 possessions with James on the bench. Basically, even with guys like Irving and Love, the Cavs turn from an incredible offensive team into the New York Knicks when Bron takes a seat. (For good measure, Cleveland is also a 2.7 points per 100 possessions worse defensive team when James sits.)
Cleveland’s depth is also too difficult to gauge. Kyle Korver hasn’t really moved the needle, and guys like Williams, Channing Frye and Richard Jefferson all look a step slow in their advanced age. You can argue that J.R. Smith is still rounding himself into form, but he’s also shooting the worst he has from three-point range since 2010.
On some level, you have to wonder if the same hunger is there for everyone on the Cleveland roster. Not every Cavalier is playing for their legacy in the way James is. LeBron has always played for something larger than a single championship—every title is a part of his quest to be considered the greatest player of all time. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine guys like Love, Irving, Smith or Shumpert putting that same kind of pressure on themselves. Is it really unfair to wonder if human nature is playing a part in the Cavaliers’ struggles?
(This is also where I sneak in that the Cavs’ status as defending champs hinges largely on a suspension, an unquantifiable injury and a contested three pointer.)
The Case For
Well, it certainly helps for Cleveland to have the best player in the world on its roster. LeBron James has made many people a lot smarter than me look foolish for questioning his ability to carry a team all the way. James will play heavy minutes in the playoffs, and if he’s willing to lock in on tougher defensive assignments, he could buoy the offense while maybe bringing the defense closer to championship level. An extra dose of James (whose minutes are already quite high) could also theoretically improve the play of his often erratic supporting cast. And while Boston potentially having homecourt advantage in an East Finals matchup is no joke, the East is still very much set up for the Cavs to make it all the way. LeBron has no true individual rival in his conference, and the Celtics—who seem to be peaking at the right time—are still an unproven bunch. Playoff basketball is a whole different animal, and every NBA champion this decade took some pretty tough losses before climbing the mountain top, the kind of losses and games the Celtics haven’t even played in yet. And if James personally takes on the defensive challenge against Isaiah Thomas, Boston could come to regret not adding another one-on-one scoring option at the trade deadline.
All of this is to say the Cavs should have a relatively easy road to the Finals compared to teams out West, and then they only have to find a way to play out-of-their-minds defense for one series. It’s not necessarily a good strategy, but it’s a path that’s not completely unrealistic.
And that’s really it…? A weak conference plus-LeBron has kind of been the formula for James the last three seasons or so, and it’s enough to give the Cavs a chance in a Finals series where they will easily be underdogs. As we all saw last June, sometimes everything can break right for the unexpected to occur. But for a team with a fairly clear path to the Finals, the Cavaliers are just barely clinging to their title hopes.