The Cavaliers’ loss to the Pacers on Wednesday—their fourth defeat and third by at least 17 points—wasn’t even surprising. The usual hallmarks of Cavs losses were all there. Laughable effort on defense. A rotation that looks like its aging in dog years. LeBron James eventually growing frustrated with his teammates. Cleveland (3–5) has been undeniably awful to start this season, and it’s fair to wonder if this slump is more revealing than slumps of years past.
Everyone was worried about the Cavs' defense headed into this season, and those concerns have been proved right. No one seems to care—including LeBron, for the most part—and Ty Lue doesn’t exactly have defensive stalwarts he can turn to on the bench. Even with James putting up gaudy offensive numbers (25.6 PPG, 8.9 APG, 7.0 RPG) on uber-efficient shooting (59.4 FG%), Cleveland looks overmatched on most nights. The culprit is the second-worst defense in the league, better only than the 1–8 Mavericks. If the Cavs come anywhere near the Finals with this pitiful defense, the Warriors will score 150 a night.
Of course, Cleveland will eventually start to care. The early start to the season plus a healthy dose of Finals fatigue explains at least a tiny bit of the Cavs’ nonchalant attitude. It’s no secret the team put way more effort into its Halloween party than they have any of their recent games, and that’s both a consequence and a perk of having the player who has led his teams to seven straight Finals appearances.
What’s really troubling right now is not whether or not the Cavs are still favored to make the Finals out of the East, or even how they’ll perform in the playoffs. What’s worrisome after watching Cleveland drunkenly stumble out of the gate is seeing the potential of a completely wasted year for LeBron.
As much as James has avoided decline, there are only so many elite NBA seasons left in his body. Unless he steals some magic water from Tom Brady, it’s (probably) safe to say in about five years (at the very most), James won’t be able to drag a team to the Finals all by himself. Simply put: James can’t afford to be playing for teams this bad this late in his career.
This isn’t even about the chances the Cavs stand against the Warriors in a potential Finals fourmatch. At the very least, at a baseline level, James should be playing for a great team. LeBron has more top shelf years behind him than ahead of him—who wants to watch him slog through miserable regular seasons for the rest of his career?
Part of this, of course, is LeBron’s own doing. He wanted guys like Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith to get paid. He likes playing with veterans. He hasn’t exactly been his best self defensively this season. But it’s becoming increasingly depressing to watch James throw up near-triple doubles every night only for his team to lose by 15 to middling Eastern Conference foe.
The Cavs are worse than bad, they’re sad. Maybe they’ll turn it around, sure. But if they’re so confident they’ll make the Finals that the result is them taking the regular season less seriously every year, perhaps the NBA as a whole would be better off if they felt even the slightest bit threatened.
There’s no joy to be had watching one of the greatest players of all time play for a team that can’t stop the Darren Collison-Victor Oladipo-Thaddeus Young three-headed monster. If the Cavs are always going to be inferior to the Warriors, it should at least be fun watching them steamroll everybody else.
Cleveland needs a reset. The regular season still matters. Look at teams like the Magic and Grizzlies, who are providing entertainment through solid play on most nights despite zero expectations to do so. It’s one thing for the Cavs not to see themselves as championship material in a Durant-on-the-Warriors world. It’s another to expect them to lose simply because the other team is actually trying.
LeBron is not blameless, but he deserves better than this. As long as the Cavs continue to disregard defense and the regular season, we’ll all be robbed of enjoying James’s talents.