Are the Cleveland Cavaliers Still Championship Contenders?
The Cleveland Cavaliers have been the Eastern Conference's representative in the NBA Finals for three years running, including one title win in 2016.
Even with the Cavs trading Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics this past summer, you would've been hard pressed to find a pundit willing to pick anyone other than Cleveland to come out of the East this year for the fourth time in a row with anything resembling a hint of certainty. Having LeBron James on your roster gives you that kind of benefit of the doubt.
But things done changed.
With the halfway point of the 2017-18 season come and gone, it's not only reasonable to say that the Cavaliers aren't playing like a championship contender, but we've also reached the point where they're barely playing like a playoff team.
Yes, according to the standings, they are the thrid-best team in the Eastern Conference and seventh in the Association with a record of 26-17. Dig a little deeper than simple wins and losses, however, and the Cavaliers look like a middle-tier team at best.
If you're not familiar with our proprietary metric, Team nERD is a ranking on a scale from 0 to 100 (with 50 as the league average) and is predictive of a team's ultimate winning percentage based on its efficiency.
In other words, the Cavaliers are playing like a team that would ultimately finish an 82-game season with a win-loss percentage of .488, or a record of 40-42. For a bit of perspective, that wouldn't have been enough wins to make the postseason in either conference last year.
While their offensive efficiency is just fine -- they rank third in the Association with an offensive rating of 113.6, according to Basketball-Reference.com -- their defense is downright awful. They currently rank 28th in the NBA in defensive rating at 111.6, beating out only the 13-30 Sacramento Kings (111.8) and the 16-29 Phoenix Suns (112.2).
And yes, they really are playing like a lottery-bound team on the defensive end. Just look at where they rank in Dean Oliver's "Four Factors of Basketball Success" on that side of the ball:
|Defensive Four Factors||Score||NBA Rank|
|Opponent Effective Field Goal Percentage||54.0%||29th|
|Opponent Turnover Percentage||12.6%||26th|
|Defensive Rebounding Percentage||76.1%||27th|
|Opponent Free Throws Per Field Goal Attempt||.161||1st|
Ok, they don't put opponents on the line a lot, but still: the fact that they're playing about as hard on defense as the NBA's worst team in the Sacramento Kings (per our Power Rankings) is hard to ignore.
And you can talk about the proverbial "swtich" that they can flip in the playoffs all you want, they've simply never been this bad on that end.
The Cavs' current 111.6 defensive rating is the worst of any LeBron James-led team over his 15-year career, including his stint with the Miami Heat. It's actually darn close to Cleveland's franchise-worst mark of 111.8 that they put up twice: a 15-67 season in 1981-82 and the first year they were without LeBron in 2010-11, when they went an equally unimpressive 19-63.
Besides, said "switch" is practically a myth anyway. They may have made it to the Finals last year, but they followed up a regular season in which they ranked 21st in the NBA with a defensive rating of 110.3 by posting a 112.1 over 18 postseason games. They don't suddenly become better on defense; they just have a history of being world-beaters on offense when it matters.
Reports are surfacing that the players "expressed doubt that the problems -- an aging roster, defensively challenged personnel and a glut of redundant role players -- could simply be worked out through patience and a chance to coalesce when fully healthy." To wit, the Cavs do actually have the league's oldest roster (average age of 31.4), are posting the worst defense of the LeBron era, and only have one player outside of LeBron with a player efficiency rating (PER) above league average (Kevin Love at 23.8).
Simply put, this team might be past its expiration date as currently constructed.
Even after losing 9 of their last 12 games, the Cavaliers still have a 97.0% chance of making the playoffs, according to our algorithms, but their title chances now stand at an underwhelming 2.2%, trailing the Golden State Warriors (36.8%), Toronto Raptors (15.8%), Boston Celtics (14.2%), Houston Rockets (11.3%), Minnesota Timberwolves (5.0%), and San Antonio Spurs (4.3%). That's right, the Timberwolves -- who have not made the postseason in 13 years -- are playing like a team with a better shot at the title than the Cavaliers at the moment.
LeBron James might actually be having the best year of his career, but it might be for nothing if the Cavaliers can't right the ship soon. With his unrestricted free agency looming this summer, things are starting to get mighty dark in Cleveland.