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  • " If LeBron makes his eighth straight Finals this year, multiple Eastern Conference All-Stars should be forced to return those designations to the league."
By Rohan Nadkarni
January 20, 2018

Every year since LeBron’s homecoming, the Cavaliers flounder for stretches of the regular season, the basketball world raises an eyebrow, but the Cavs cruise to the Finals anyway. (They even managed to win one!) This cycle, however, is speaking less and less to LeBron James’s dominance, and more and more to the Eastern Conference’s incompetence. After another pathetic defensive showing in a 148(!)—124 loss to the Thunder on Saturday, Cleveland is a mess, and the East is out of excuses.

The Cavaliers, as presently constructed, are not a championship team. If Cleveland were to make the Finals, it would be bad for the NBA. The Cavs’ defense entered Saturday as the third-worst in the league, ahead of only the pitiful Suns and Kings. Oklahoma City’s offensive rating against the Cavs was 135.2, or nearly 22 points per 100 possessions better than the league-leading Warriors. The Thunder entered Saturday’s matchup with the Cavs as the 12th-ranked offense in the NBA; Cleveland made OKC look like the Harlem Globetrotters.

How much longer can this farce continue? Last year’s Cavs team was the second worst in the league defensively after the All-Star break, and they still nearly swept the competition en route to the Finals—even though their defensive efficiency was worse in the playoffs than in the regular season. If the Celtics, Raptors, Bucks or Wizards can’t make the Finals this year, it would be the best argument yet for Adam Silver to ditch the conference structure when it comes to making a playoff bracket.

It’s hard to articulate exactly how disappointing this Cleveland team is, but let me try. The Los Angeles Clippers, who are relying on Lou Williams, a bunch of no-name fringe NBAers and a sometimes-healthy Blake Griffin, have a better net rating than the Cavaliers. Cleveland, after Saturday’s dispiriting loss, is now closer to the No. 29 Suns in net rating than the No. 2 Rockets.

LeBron in the Finals is a good thing. A team with a defense this bad, or one showing this blatant of a disregard for the regular season, should not be the team tasked with taking down the Warriors come June. If the Cavs stumble into another championship round, it no longer can be attributed to their ability to flip a switch. No, if Cleveland is playing in the Finals, it will be an indictment on the Eastern Conference general managers who can’t put together a group of players capable of beating a team playing worse defense than the 2011–12, 7–59 Charlotte Bobcats.

Pointing the finger at Ty Lue for the current mess would be easy. What exactly are his defensive principles as a coach, anyway? Then again, what is Lue supposed to do with an old, disinterested roster? Isaiah Thomas is a defensive downgrade from Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love has been an issue on that end his entire career and Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose are hardly answers off the bench. Every lineup this team uses has at least one giant target for opposing offenses, and that’s being generous.

The Cavs just no longer deserve the benefit of the doubt. Their defense is bordering on insulting to watch. If LeBron makes his eighth straight Finals this year, multiple Eastern Conference All-Stars should be forced to return those designations to the league. Cleveland, as presently constructed, is far from a juggernaut. The rest of the East has already caught up—and LeBron is the last and only reason to think otherwise.

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