LeBron James is acutely knowledgeable of the components needed to compose a championship team. He has faced several great teams during his illustrious 14-year NBA career and been the centerpiece of title teams with the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers. Thus, the three-time Finals MVP is patently aware that his 2016-17 Cavaliers enter the playoffs as the defending league champion with a tenuous hold on their crown.
After going 57-25 last season and earning the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, the Cavaliers entered their final game of the regular season last night in Cleveland against the Toronto Raptors 51-30 and ready to accept the No. 2 in the conference behind the Celtics, who were 52-29 and faced the Milwaukee Bucks last night at home in Boston.
James has sounded the warning signals for the better part of the second half of this season, unabashedly publicly articulating the Cavaliers’ defects and questioning their collective commitment. “First of all,” James said in late March, “you have to take every shoot-around and film session, and every opportunity to be together, very seriously.
“If that’s what we want to do, win a championship, we have to have that mindset every single day, on the floor or off the floor. You have to carry that with you every day.”
The four-time league MVP and ten-time All-NBA First Team selection emphasized, “If it’s making sacrifices for yourself, or for the benefit of the team, taking away things that you love to do but feel like you have to be committed more to the team, so be it.”
James’ missive didn’t identify specific players or actions by his teammates, but the message was clear: Collectively, the Cavaliers haven’t been all in. They have become metaphorically fat and demonstrably complacent after becoming the first team in NBA history to come back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals to win a title, overtaking the Warriors last June.
The Cavaliers went 6-10 in March, James’ worst record in any month as a pro, and when they tipped off against the Raptors last night, the Cavs were 3-3 in April and had lost their three previous games.
Their primary issue on the court has been ineffective defense. When Wednesday’s schedule began the Cavaliers were allowing opponents an average of 107.3 points per game, 20th in the league. Conversely, this time last season the Cavaliers, hungry to avenge their 2015 Finals lost to the Warriors, were fourth in the NBA in opponent’s points allowed at 98.3 and holding the opposition to a .448 field goal percentage. This season, teams are shooting nearly 46 percent versus the Cavaliers’ porous defense.
James is still the best player in the world but no longer a superhero. He cannot constantly provide cover for his teammates’ defensive flaws as he has done in past seasons. At 32, his athleticism and ability to sustain a high level of energy over the course of four rounds, from the opening round of the playoffs to the Finals, has conclusively decreased.
The Cavaliers remain the class of the East solely on the strength of James’ brilliance, though they are no longer dominant and are unmistakably vulnerable.