"We can't play basketball like this going down the stretch. There's 24, 25 games left in the year and you talk about contending, being a championship contender and get blown out by a team. ... After losing a game to the No. 2 team in the East then you come out and get thrashed and make it look good at the end. We can't do that. If we're serious about who we're supposed to be, then we can't do this." - J.R. Smith
That quote, pulled from Dave McMenamin's postgame story after yesterday's 113-99 loss to the Wizards, is incredibly poignant. The final line is both concise and incisive - it's the perfect summary of this week, an apt "state of the team" address coming from one of the most unlikely sources inside the locker room.
To be fair, the absence of LeBron James, plus a Sunday matinee start in D.C. following a tough Friday night loss in Toronto, isn't exactly a recipe for success. Most teams struggle without their best player on the floor, especially on the road. But the Cavs aren't most teams - they're title contenders, right? Even without LeBron, Cleveland can still roll Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, and a collection of perfectly capable role players (Smith, Shumpert, Thompson, Frye, Dellavedova) out there together. That team should be able to compete with the Washington Wizards. That team should not trail the Washington Wizards by 30 points with 5:29 to go in the 4th quarter, which is exactly where the Cavaliers found themselves yesterday afternoon.
I'm convinced some teams use star-less games as a way to test the rest of the guys in their rotation, or to see how well different weird combinations fit together. The Spurs, for instance, were without Kawhi Leonard for a three game stretch recently, so they put Kyle Anderson in the starting lineup and tried to find out if Rasual Butler and Jonathon Simmons can play meaningful rotation minutes. Blake Griffin has been out for two months, yet the Clippers are 21-7 over that stretch, and doing all sorts of weird things at the power forward spot (Luc Richard Mbah a Moute? Sure! Trade for Jeff Green? Yeah, okay! Wesley Johnson? Why the f--- not?!?). Even the Grizzlies have managed to keep it together by going 4-2 since Marc Gasol broke his foot and they had to replace his spot in the lineup with the likes of JaMychal Green, Brandan Wright, and the Birdman.
For whatever reason, the Cavs have no such cohesion or consistency. When LeBron comes off the floor, Cleveland is outscored by 7.4 points per 100 possessions. When he's in, they're plus-10.9 points per 100. Including the playoffs, the Cavs are 105-40 with James since he returned, a .724 winning percentage. Without him, 3-12, a .200 winning percentage. It's almost as if something happens when the team finds out LeBron is sitting, either due to a small injury or proactive rest. They just don't seem to have the kind of resilience other good teams do. "Quitting," isn't the right word; "resignation" is more like it.
Especially troubling is that for 11 of those 15 LeBron absences, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving have been available, and their record in those games is 3-8. It's a really small sample size, but how quickly yesterday's game got out of hand is worrisome all the same, and really indicative of a larger trend. And it's especially unfortunate given the timing - flat performances against the Pistons and Raptors sandwiched around a home win against the Hornets, and then a shellacking at the hands of a sub-.500 ballclub.
If the Cavs really are "serious about who (they) are supposed to be," which is one of the best teams in basketball, and building a perennial contender, J.R. is right. They "can't do" whatever the hell they did yesterday. They have 24 games to figure it out before they really start to matter - is that enough time? Was that the final dud of the season? Is it time to get serious now?