Let’s talk about something that has become a yearly tradition. Every year, LeBron James’ team has a regular season stretch where they struggle and questions are asked about the team’s chances to make a deep postseason run. James himself is forced to deflect a host of media inquiries and occasionally makes headlines for calling out teammates.
Then we reach the postseason, the team romps through the Eastern Conference and we’re all reminded that James can easily “flip the switch” whenever he chooses and elevate his game to another level. Each flip of the switch is then deposited into our collective memory bank to refer back to when James’ team has trouble during the next season.
For years, this rinse and repeat process has continued without failure but recently the performance of James’ Cleveland Cavaliers has spawned cause for real concern. Coasting may not be a valid excuse this time.
The playoffs begin this weekend and the alarm bells must be rung.
Cleveland entered March with a 41-18 record, right in line with their championship season in 2015-16, and unleashed a month of uninspiring basketball that put them in real danger of losing the No. 1 seed to the Boston Celtics. Their 7-9 mark in the month included losses to Boston, Miami, Washington and Chicago, all of whom could run into Cleveland in the East bracket.
The Cavaliers won their first two games in April before a 114-91 drubbing in Boston on April 5 that put them in prime position to lock up the No. 1 seed over the season’s final week. James ripped up the parquet floor for 36 points on 14-for-22 shooting, along with 10 rebounds and eight assists.
All is fine after an easy win in the den of (perhaps) your greatest conference challenger right? Nope.
The Hawks, resting four starters, handled the Cavs easily in Cleveland before coming back from a 26-point fourth quarter deficit to stun James’ bedraggled bunch in Atlanta two days later.
At the time of writing, Boston and Cleveland are tied again atop the East with two games remaining. Boston was set to play Brooklyn Monday, while Cleveland was set to meet Miami.
Securing the No. 1 seed is important, certainly, but failing to do so does not signal the end of the world. James has been the No. 1 seed just two of the last six seasons and made it to the finals in all six.
No, the real problem is the play of the Cleveland Cavaliers, which for weeks has not been up to the standards of an NBA champion. When these rocky patches come for James and company, they usually don’t come this late. In 2014-15, James’ first season after returning to Cleveland, the Cavs sat below .500 for a brief moment in January before he roared to life and carried them all the way to a sixth game in the NBA Finals.
The playoffs sit just over the horizon right now with Cleveland continuing to wade through mud. All three of the team’s stars (James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love) were on the court for both of those Atlanta losses and it didn’t matter. The stars aren’t delivering.
The reserves, considered one of the team’s strengths after adding Kyle Korver, Andrew Bogut and Deron Williams during the season, have done very little to pick up the slack. Williams has looked horrendous recently and Bogut suffered a season-ending injury right after taking the court for the first time on March 7.
And the defense? Oh man, the defense. They say it typically wins championships, but the Cavaliers’ defense has been a dumpster fire for weeks. Cleveland had the NBA’s second-worst defensive rating in March and while it has improved to 17th through five games in April, that’s a small sample size we shouldn’t take for granted.
Of course, the Eastern Conference remains a much easier gauntlet to navigate through than the West. It’s not a joke, though. Toronto and Washington have legitimate shots to bring down a Cleveland team playing like this or even a Cleveland team playing a level above this. Boston too, but their defensive liabilities were exposed in that April 5 drubbing, and Irving can match the Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas point for point.
All impressive streaks must come to an end and James’ streak of six straight finals appearance may be teetering on the edge. Maybe the threat of the game’s final boss, the Golden State Warriors, growing in power on the other side of the country has been disheartening and James realized how much it would take to slay the beast.
It wouldn’t be wise to panic, but the chances of a deep, furious postseason run seem shaky. The possibility of Cleveland repeating as NBA champions seems impossible right about now. James will tell you everything is fine, but that’s not how it looks.