By Alexander Gordon
The last three years that the Cavaliers have made the finals their regular season records were 53-29, 57-25 and 51-31. The argument has always been that the record, and more specifically the regular season defense, doesn’t matter. They’ll always have Lebron come playoff time and that will be enough for any opponent they face in the East. In fact the year they actually won the title they had a negative overall defensive rating, but they could get the hypothetical stop when it mattered. An average defense was all they needed in order to prop up their traditionally impressive offense.
Much has changed since then however, most significantly the departure of Kyrie Irving. He was one of the reasons that the Cavs offense could reach another level of deadly. He is a brilliant offensive player, deserving of adjectives that go beyond the general praise lavished on most all-stars in this league. In a recent Bill Simmons podcast with Jalen Rose (two of the most insightful analysts in NBA media) Simmons made the point that once you get to a certain level of playoff competition there are only nine or so players in the entire league that really move the needle for you one way or the other. We have seen, with his dazzling performances in the last three finals that Irving is undoubtedly one of those players.
So the Cavaliers traded away one of these nine players without getting one in return. Isiah Thomas, to his credit, has shown that he is capable of making a significant difference for a team as well. The issue is that Thomas is still nowhere near this level of performance. He has looked tentative and significantly out of sorts since his return on Jan. 2. This is understandable, considering the gravity of his injury, but then you begin to hear the dysfunction rumors. For the last few years, the Cavs have always been the subject of some kind of inner turmoil, and almost always it has blown over or at least not affected the on-court product when it mattered most.
This year however, there seems to be much more cause for legitimate concern. A few weeks ago three prominent Cavs players anonymously pulled reports behind the curtain and revealed that they thought that they weren’t going to be able to pull things together come playoff time. Kevin Love was called out in a recent players only meeting for exaggerating the extent of his illness, and is now out for 6-8 weeks with a broken hand. Trade rumors continue to swirl, but when you look hard at them, most seem like they wouldn’t really be all that impactful. Especially with Demarcus Cousins’ incredibly disappointing recent injury, names like Deandre Jordan and George Hill don’t really inspire salvation. With the improvement of the East the Cavaliers currently sit only two games outside of the sixth seed in the conference. The pieces might still be there for a fourth consecutive finals run, but the odds of them finding that switch seem smaller than ever.