Adam Lindner | Sports Editor
Ever since LeBron James left Miami in free agency to go back to Cleveland in 2014, one thing in the NBA has been certain: The Cleveland Cavaliers were going to represent the NBA’s Eastern Conference in the Finals.
During LeBron’s first few seasons back in Cleveland, the Cavaliers’ most formidable opposition was the overachieving Atlanta Hawks, led by Al Horford and Paul Millsap.
Toronto has presented a challenge for Cleveland in the past, as well, pushing the Cavaliers to Game 6 in the East Finals in 2016.
Boston never felt like a legitimate threat to Cleveland’s throne prior to this season, as the upstart Celtics’ attack was led by 5-foot-9 guard Isaiah Thomas, who is currently still not fully recovered from a hip injury that held him out of most of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. Cleveland prevailed in five games against Boston.
But now, Thomas is a Cavalier, and former Cleveland guard Kyrie Irving is leading a 39-16 Boston team that boasts a talented young cast alongside him. Once Gordon Hayward returns from injury — presumably next season — Boston should continue to improve.
Toronto, who was swept in last season’s Eastern Conference Semifinals by Cleveland, has enjoyed a resurgence this season, as well. Currently second in the conference at 37-16, the Raptors are playing a rejuvenated brand of basketball, led by scoring wing DeMar DeRozan.
With a veteran roster that includes Kyle Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka, this year may be the only shot that the current incarnation of the Raptors have at an appearing in the NBA Finals.
Without Hayward, Boston has still looked terrific, but may be a year away from contending for a conference title. In the playoffs, the Celtics may struggle without a second dynamic scorer behind Irving — something that a young, inexperienced team may not know how to handle just yet.
Either way, it seems like the only thing that’s certain now is that Cleveland will not be returning to the Finals for a fourth-straight year — not at this rate.
31-22 and 11-15 away from home, Cleveland has been a sight for sore eyes for the majority of the past several months.
Since LeBron James’ otherworldly play tapered down — James shot 39.1 percent from 3-point land from the beginning of the season until Dec. 31, but has been shooting south of 25 percent from downtown since Jan. 1 — the Cavaliers have suffered.
6-8 in January, the Cavaliers lost to Houston, 120-88, on Feb. 3, prompting a frustrated James to suggest to reporters postgame that “they should take us off every nationally televised game for the rest of the season.”
On Feb. 6, Cleveland fell to a new low in Orlando, blowing a 21-point lead to the 17-36 Magic in a demoralizing 116-98 defeat.
Postgame, guard Isaiah Thomas, who has struggled to find his groove since returning from a hip injury in Cleveland, questioned his team’s effort.
“When adversity hits, we go our separate ways,” Thomas said, per ESPN’s Dave McMenamin.
Thomas continued, “I don’t know the last time we got on the floor for a loose ball.”
Thomas is correct, in that Cleveland’s defensive efforts must improve.
However, the chemistry issues that face the team seem unprecedented.
With Kevin Love out for about six weeks with a broken finger, the Cavaliers will have to find their identity sooner than later.
Given the league’s disparity over the past several seasons, it’s understood that players on successful teams don’t always exactly play their hearts out during the regular season.
In fact, Cavs forward Channing Frye acknowledged this exact point on Dec. 3, following a Cleveland victory over the Memphis Grizzlies.
“Well everyone was talking like, ‘Hey, this is not Playoff LeBron.’ Usually LeBron gives you about 60 percent,” Frye told reporters.
Speaking of his teammate’s effort level at the time, Frye continued, “He’s about 80 percent LeBron and it’s looking effortless, so [it’s] pretty scary.”
It’s no secret that NBA stars aren’t huge fans of the 82-game regular season schedule, either. Stars sitting out during late season regular-season contests has become an issue for the league in years past, and the trend is set to continue this season.
Furthermore, the stretch of games between Christmas and the All Star Break is a particularly mundane time in the NBA, as recent Cleveland teams have struggled during the month of January before, too.
But they have never struggled this mightily.
The additions of new general manager Koby Altman and All Star guard Thomas, partnered with Derrick Rose’s leave of absence, Kevin Love’s recent injury drama and ongoing conjecture of LeBron potentially skipping town again this summer in free agency has all contributed to a hostile environment in Cleveland. With no moves having been made yet ahead of the trade deadline (Feb. 8 at 3 p.m.), the Cavaliers have a team full of experienced veterans that may need to figure this out together.
LeBron has proven before (See: 2016 NBA Finals) that counting Cleveland out is never a safe bet, and come playoff time, it shouldn’t come as any surprise if James puts the Cavs on his back for another title run.
In reality, a healthy Cavaliers team should win the East this year.
However, Cleveland needs to be able to spell James much more now in preparation for the postseason.
With little depth, Cleveland will not be able to pull itself out of its current slump without heightened efforts from James.
Point being: Cleveland needs to get it together soon before they start costing themselves come June.