It’s unclear where it all started but the end of any hope the Cleveland Cavaliers had of winning the title happened with 8:57 to go in their 103-80 loss to the Pistons at home today. With the team down 26 after leading by 15 in the second quarter and walking to their bench for a timeout, the home crowd serenaded them with vociferous boos. The Cavs earned those boos, every last one of them. It was increasingly evident in that moment, down double-digits to a six-win team that the Cavs title hopes were officially done.
The Pistons went on a 73-31 run that ran from the middle of the second quarter to the middle of the fourth to give them their largest lead of the game. The aforementioned 15 point lead for the Cavs was erased with an 18-0 run by the Pistons. A 30-15 run flipped that 15 point deficit around and the Cavs looked like the hapless six-win team while the Pistons and their historic barrage of three-pointers looked like the title hopeful.
Cleveland may win a nice amount of games. They may make a run in the playoffs. And with the right breaks, they might even sneak into the Finals. Those things all could happen but the Cleveland Cavaliers will definitely not be winning an NBA championship this June.
The issues are innumerable for the Cavs. Injuries, defensive ineptness, lack of chemistry, a coach in over his head, a superstar nearing mortality and on and on. The Cavs gave up a Pistons record 17 three-pointers, LeBron James had seven turnovers, Kevin Love was 1-7 from three and another starter, Shawn Marion, went down with an ankle injury.
There have been flashes of offensive brilliance throughout the season but those have been overshadowed by defensive lapses that have allowed opponents to shoot 47% from the field. That’s good for 25th in the league and worse than cellar dwellers like the Magic, Sixers and Celtics. Their best rim protector won’t play another game this season and their best defender is hardly ever engaged on that end anymore so there’s a good chance the defense gets even worse as the season goes on.
Make no mistake, much of this is LeBron’s fault. His rebounds, assists and steals averages are the worst of his career. His 25.5 points per game are his worst since his rookie year and much of the terrible body language from the team has come from James. He’s undermined the coach and watched lackadaisically as his team blew possession after possession without showing any desire to take over or even be involved.
His athleticism has seemingly dissipated, rendering him into a below the rim finisher without the jump off the screen explosion that previously made him maybe the most dynamic player the league has ever seen. If he’s coasting, that might be even worse than losing a slight step since his team so desperately needs him to set the example and push the pedal to the floor as often as possible.
It’s unclear where the Cavs go from here. Their defensive issues require personnel upgrades that simply aren’t possible at the moment. They could get active on the trade market but their assets are sparse. Most likely, they’re going to have to just play this out, take their lumps and regroup for next year. Love and James have the ability to become unrestricted free agents this summer so if things get too bad, there’s the possibility that there won’t even be a next year to regroup for. LeBron knew this would take time, but who knows if he’ll be willing to invest in the team as it currently stands.
Taking the best player in the league out of the Finals chase opens up a window for any number of upstarts looking to steal a ring during his prime. The West will be a gauntlet and the East is as wide open as ever with the Raptors, Hawks, Wizards and Bulls looking like the leaders of the new school. But, for now, don’t include the Cavs in that list of contenders.
Welcome to mediocrity, LeBron.