Contender Or Pretender: Do The Cavs Stand A Chance Against The Warriors In A Finals Rematch?

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As the name suggests, this column is normally reserved for teams whose championship-contender status is debatable at best. Basically, teams hovering around the fringes of their respective conference’s top three or four seeds, but nonetheless boast the personnel and potential to make some noise come playoff time if a few pieces fall into place.

DIME Contender or Pretender

Up to this point, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been mostly inoculated against any doubt concerning their status as a contender, especially given the fact that two-thirds of their superstar triumvirate wasn’t even available in last year’s Finals, where they came within two games of winning the title anyway.

For the majority of the season, the Cavaliers have maintained their stranglehold on the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference (six full games ahead of the second-place Raptors) and have positioned themselves as the prohibitive favorites to return to the Finals in June, even with the vastly improved field in the East. Going into their MLK showdown, they’d won nine out of their last 10 games.

But that stunning blowout loss to the Warriors Monday night is threatening to call everything into question. It was their second-straight loss to Golden State this season after their 89-83 defeat at Oracle Arena on Christmas day, and dating back to last year’s Finals, the Cavs have now lost five-straight to the Warriors. It’s safe to say that the Dubs have their number.

Even a baffling performance against the Detroit Pistons a few nights prior couldn’t rattle Golden State’s confidence against Cleveland. The Warriors came into the Q perfectly secure in the knowledge that they could humiliate the Cavs on their home court, as exemplified by Steph Curry, who indulged in a rare moment of inadvertent sh*t-talk in the lead-up to the game.

It bears mentioning, however, that regular-season performance isn’t necessarily a good indicator of what will happen in the postseason. A few years back, the Brooklyn Nets swept their regular-season series against the Big 3 era Heat, then proceeded to lose to Miami in five games in the Eastern Conference semifinals. But the Warriors are emphatically not the 2014 Brooklyn Nets.

So, is there legitimate cause for concern? That would be an understatement.

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But making wild proclamations like LeBron James being “irrelevant” now, as Bleacher Report tried to argue yesterday, is a bridge too far. It was inevitable that Monday’s loss would kick the meme generator’s gears into maximum overdrive and inspire the hottest of hot takes from overzealous writers who want to prematurely put LeBron and the Cavs out to pasture. But this calls for some sorely-needed levelheadedness.

So what exactly is going on in Cleveland? First, let’s talk about what’s going right. They have the fifth-best offense in the league (105.4 offensive rating), the seventh-best defense (100), and a top four net rating (5.4). They’re also top four in rebounding percentage and top 10 in both true shooting and effective field goal percentage.

All of this starts with James, who is anything but irrelevant. The four-time MVP has been hovering near the top of our rankings for that award all season long, and that’s because a) his numbers so far have been right on par with his four previous MVP campaigns (for anyone who thinks he’s on the decline) and b) the Cavs are by far the best team in the East, despite an unexpectedly improved field in a normally inferior conference.

But LeBron can’t do it all by himself. We found that out last June when we watched him heroically drag an injury-depleted Cavs roster to six grueling games against the Warriors but inevitably come up short. When LeBron, in his exasperation, told reporters at the time that the Cavs had “run out of talent,” it probably wasn’t the most eloquent way to describe what happened, but it was accurate in a cold and clinical sort of way.

It also had the residual effect of letting Cleveland off the hook. During the offseason, there were several attempts to de-legitimize Golden State’s title run, first for not having to face the Spurs or Clippers in their run through the Western Conference, and second for beating up on an undermanned Cavs team in the Finals.

And it’s almost as if the Cavs bought into this line of thinking. On several occasions, LeBron has bemoaned his team’s lack of urgency, criticizing them for playing as if they’d won the championship, while Golden State somehow managed to crank up their already phenomenal intensity to a supernatural level this season. That lethargy was on full display Monday night as Cleveland came out flat and disinterested — on their home court, no less, and after Curry’s unintentional jab about the champagne.

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Part of that has to do with the ongoing chemistry issues involved in trying to work Irving back into the mix after missing a big chunk of the season. He’s had some nice games since returning to the lineup on Dec. 20, but he’s had some rather erratic performances sprinkled in as he struggles to find his sea legs. After 13 games back, Irving has to find some consistency as they move into the second half of the season. An eight-point outing on 27 percent shooting and a minus-21 rating against the Warriors isn’t going to cut it.

The other question is whether he can defend well enough to even begin to challenge GSW’s devastating backcourt tandem of Curry and Klay Thompson. Monday’s returns didn’t look promising. The same goes for Love, who is bearing the brunt of the ridicule for his categorical cluelessness on that end the other night. Surely by now you’ve seen SB Nation’s Anatomy of a Defensive Breakdown regarding this mystifying sequence from Love on Monday:

For whatever reason, the former All-Star rebounding machine remains an enigma in Cleveland. He’s never been a lock-down defender, and it seems increasingly unlikely that he’ll ever evolve into even a solid one. But if the Cavs are going to pose any real threat to the Warriors in a hypothetical Finals rematch, they desperately need him to be able to grasp basic concepts like resisting the urge to lazily go underneath screens, and hastily jump out to contend shooters without steadying himself for the inevitable pump fake.

In theory, he should be able to offset some of his defensive woes with his scoring prowess, especially after LeBron (however insincerely) proclaimed that Love would be the focal point of Cleveland’s offense this season. But Love remains as uncomfortable as ever within their system. He’s averaging nearly a point less per game than last season (which itself marked a significant regression in his production) and is shooting just a hair over 41 percent from the field. In short, he still hasn’t come close to resembling the player he once was in Minnesota.

To be fair, Love played well earlier in the season during Irving’s absence, but his numbers and productivity have nosedived since Kyrie’s return. Therein lies the Cavaliers’ conundrum. At what point is the organization finally forced to admit that maybe Love just isn’t a good fit on this team? After another Finals loss this June?

Love is understandably frustrated with it all, but it didn’t help matters that he appeared to deflect blame for the Cavs’ lackluster effort onto LeBron when he offered up this suspiciously-worded statement to reporters after the game Monday. Via Chris Fedor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

“We have a lot of things to get better at,” Love said. “That’s going to take a lot of guys looking themselves in the mirror and it all starts with our leader (James) over there and dwindles on down.”

There are other issues as well.

J.R. Smith, who was basically a no show in the Finals last spring, got himself ejected Monday without making much of an impact, which was particularly frustrating for the Cavs given that he’s been giving a concerted effort on the defensive end this season and shooting the ball relatively well from downtown. But his in-game meltdown – along with arriving to the arena late prior to the game – once again raised the very real question about whether they can depend on him when it matters most. The answer so far has been a resounding no.

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Another giant question mark is what to do with Timofey Mozgov, whose name has suddenly (and coincidentally) materialized in trade rumors. When they acquired him at the February deadline last season, the hulking Russian altered the course of the Cavs’ entire season with his formidable frontcourt presence. But in the Finals last spring, the Warriors shined a giant spotlight on the singular flaw in that plan: smaller lineups can rather easily neutralize his effectiveness.

There’s an even more troubling trend this season. Lineups with Mozgov that have logged any significant minutes are regularly in the red in terms of their net rating. For instance, when Cleveland subs him in for Tristan Thompson with the regular starters, their net rating plummets to minus-11.7. With Matthew Dellavedova filling in for Irving in the starting lineup, those units skyrocketed from minus-4.3 to plus-19.2 when Thompson took Mozgov’s place.

Those numbers don’t bode well for Mozgov’s efficacy or his long-term future with the franchise. Hence, the recent whispers that the Cavs are looking for a better 3-and-D type player to fill that role. Who they have in mind is anybody’s guess.

Like Irving, Iman Shumpert has also been extraordinarily inconsistent since his return in mid-December, but perhaps a little tinkering with the lineups can help mitigate some of this. Moving Smith into a sixth man role in favor of Shumpert might open up more opportunities for Love by default. This is where David Blatt enters the picture.

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For starters, he has to find a way to maximize Love’s strengths and minimize his weaknesses. Just look at how Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs have re-structured their offense to spotlight LaMarcus Aldridge. Granted, Aldridge’s numbers are down a bit from last season, but he’s been exponentially more effective in his brief time with the Spurs than Love has been in Cleveland over a season and half. The onus is on Blatt to a figure out a scheme to get the most out of Love, but LeBron and — perhaps most importantly, Irving — have to buy into it and help make it happen.

That, of course, would require Irving to become a better and/or more willing facilitator rather than primarily looking for his own shot. Curry is actually a good corollary here. In addition to leading the league in scoring, the reigning MVP averages 6.5 assists per game, which is nearly double what Irving currently dishes. Other offensive-minded point guards like Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard have managed to strike this critical balance as well.

With everyone finally healthy and half a season of basketball left to play, there’s still plenty of time to figure some of this stuff out. But as LeBron pointed out after Monday’s demoralizing loss, there’s no substitute for experience, and that’s an area in which two of the Cavs’ key players are sorely lacking when it comes to pressure-cooker showdowns against legit contenders. Via Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

“We’ve got some inexperienced guys that haven’t played enough meaningful basketball games where they can fall back on,” James said. “When it gets a little tough sometimes, it’s not like they can kind of fall back on previous experiences to try and help them get through it.”

He was clearly referring to Irving and Love, who both played poorly in losses to the Warriors and Spurs over the past week and who both missed significant portions of their inaugural postseason appearances last spring. Because the Cavs are a good team, and because they have LeBron James, they might very well coast through the Eastern Conference and make a return trip to the NBA Finals. But they are quite clearly not on the same level as the Warriors or Spurs, and unless they improve dramatically in some of these areas, fans in Cleveland might be in for more disappointment this spring.

*Statistical data for this column courtesy of NBA.com/stats