By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
(CBS) With half of the season over, the next purported super-team is underwater.
The Cleveland Cavaliers of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are now 19-20, sitting third in the Central Division. That they currently hold playoff position speaks more to the failings of the flaccid Eastern Conference, and the need to even point out that status is scary enough when considering the expectations.
James returned Tuesday night from an eight-game absence due to a sore knee and back, and he was more like his spry self. His 33 points, seven rebounds and five assists recalled his MVP form, but team defense again did Cleveland in. The Suns shot 53 percent from the floor and won by seven. Irving had nine points, as did Love, who was benched for the fourth quarter.
It wan’t supposed to be like this when a title contender seemed to coalesce over the summer, but the Cavs right now are a losing team, and an increasingly desperate one. Knee-jerk trades for a marginally effective center in Timofey Mozgov and knuckleheaded chucker JR Smith only underscored the concern that this is already in crisis mode, becoming a late-stage reclamation project.
There’s already much to learn from this.
Importantly, the NBA isn’t fantasy basketball, merely piecing together a roster of individual statistics and adding them up into an aggregated projection of team performance. The parts have to be made to fit on both ends of the floor to make all the talent work. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau likes to say, “When you skip steps in this league, it’s not going to be good.” The Cavs have the look of skipped steps.
Hiring coach David Blatt was a mistake, with an eerie resemblance to the Chicago Bears’ failed experiment with Marc Trestman. Both were respected tactical intellects coaching lesser pros outside the country, and both have been overwhelmed by the size of the job at the top level. Neither commanded respect from players, either, with James even literally shoving Blatt aside Tuesday to continue a discussion with an official. The Cavs could and should have fixed the Blatt problem already, but they’ve probably have missed their window. A representative NBA coach – say George Karl or Scott Skiles – would have had this at least tightened up, but it may be too late.
Another cautionary note may be that players who put up big numbers on bad teams deserve special scrutiny before counting on them as championship ingredients. Love and Irving were never before associated with winning as professionals. Love’s Minnesota teams were a combined 153-323 (a .321 win percentage), and Irving’s squads in Cleveland were 78-152 (.339). It’s not to blame them entirely, but to better appreciate the importance of environment and context in evaluating previous performance.
Contrast them with James’ Miami teammates. Dwyane Wade was already once the best player on an NBA champion, Ray Allen a decorated star with a well-earned ring of his own, and even Chris Bosh had a pair of playoff appearances and a division title in Toronto.
In hindsight, we can also better appreciate the respective jobs done by coach Erik Spoelstra and top executive Pat Riley to make such a project look easier than we know it can be. That Miami’s record at 16-21 so closely resembles that of the Cavaliers with that current Heat roster is a testament to a largely underappreciated coach.
Lastly, we must be mindful that all players are mortal, even the all-time greats seemingly at the height of their powers. James just turned 30, and his receding hairline reminds us of just how quickly the high-school kid has run up the miles. Including his 158 postseason games, James has now logged a punishing total of 41,118 minutes of NBA action, so it’s no wonder he’s sore, and it would be naïve to not expect that he will require more careful maintenance over time. The truth is that he may have peaked, even if he certainly remains talented enough to lead a team to another title.
The clock is ticking on all of it for the Cavaliers, particularly for this season that now has only 43 games left in which to figure it out. They have the benefit of weak competition and one of the best players to ever walk the planet, but even that may now not be enough.