Cavaliers not resembling a title contender

Michael Lee of The Vertical
Yahoo Sports

WASHINGTON – LeBron James emerged from the visitors’ locker room at Verizon Center smothered in an oversized, black-and-gray camouflage Canada Goose coat, face half-guarded by a puffy hood, and sought the quickest, most discreet exit from the arena. Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue gave James a rest day against the Washington Wizards on Sunday but didn’t realize the rest of his players would take the afternoon off as well.

The Cavaliers have way too much talent, experience and shared success to use James' absence as even a partial excuse for a 113-99 loss to the Wizards – a team that is currently on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff race looking in. Even if their best player – and apparently lone playmaker – decided his mind and body needed a break, the Cavaliers still had three times as many players on maximum contracts than their opponent, but none of them, Lue said, gave maximum effort.

The loss was more alarming and disturbing because it came two days after a loss to the steady-charging Toronto Raptors that led James to say, “We lack mental [strength] right now.” J.R. Smith took the critique to another level after Sunday's loss with a very nonchalant slam of his team’s performance.

LeBron James took a rest day on Sunday. (NBAE/Getty Images)
LeBron James took a rest day on Sunday. (NBAE/Getty Images)

"If we lose a game like the other night to a team like Toronto and to come out here and play the way we did – you have a lack of energy – maybe we shouldn’t be in this position," Smith said, voice barely rising above a purr. "We shouldn’t be who we are and be in these uniforms."

The Cavaliers haven’t reached the point where they should panic but they can’t be extremely comfortable about where they stand. They were supposed to have a much easier run through the East than defending champion Golden State in the West, but they only have a two-game lead over the Raptors for the top spot in the conference while the Warriors’ lead over the 50-win San Antonio Spurs feels more vast than Steph Curry’s limitless range.

No other team in the East made the kind of offseason or midseason upgrades to pose much of a threat to James’ reign over the conference but the struggle has been real. The Cavaliers are easily the most talented team in the East, but they are among the least content. James once blamed complacency as the culprit for the team coasting at times, but the Cavaliers have been involved with a considerable amount of chaos for a team that was only two wins from an NBA championship last June despite missing two of its best players. There has been an intense pursuit of perfection that has robbed this season of the kind of fun that Cleveland’s record (41-17) should otherwise suggest.

“It’s the same thing we’ve been searching for, consistency and efficiency,” veteran forward James Jones told The Vertical. “We’re good enough, talented enough, to do things the majority of the time, to win games against the mid-tier teams. Against the good teams, we can piece together a game or two of really good basketball and look exceptional, but deep down inside we know that we aren’t hitting on all cylinders defensively, offensively. We still have some of the same issues of isolation and ball stopping and not moving bodies. For us, even though we’re having success, it’s not the fact we were winning but the way we were winning that gave us concern and you really can’t enjoy it as much when you know you’re not doing what you’re supposed to do.”

Since returning to Cleveland, James has had alternating moments of annoyance and affection with All-Star teammates Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. James has wanted them to sacrifice at times and step up at others – not just offensively – to relieve him of his insurmountable burden as he settles into NBA middle age. Irving and Love have had to walk an uneasy line at times, but James' day off should've presented an opportunity for someone, preferably the two other stars, to step up and compete.

The Wizards' John Wall goes up for a layup Sunday. (NBAE/Getty Images)
The Wizards' John Wall goes up for a layup Sunday. (NBAE/Getty Images)

"You would think so," Lue said.

The Cavaliers have been forced to meet two goals this season: win games and please James. The latter has created the kind of drama to keep the team stimulated, but lately it seems stifled. Cleveland removed the coach who was supposedly holding it back, inserted the guy the players liked and, most importantly, respected, but the change hasn’t exactly resulted in a stampede. Lue is just 11-6 since taking over, and the Cavaliers have lost three of their past four games, all of the losses against East teams. But Lue didn’t feel concerned about the Raptors overtaking them for the top spot in the conference.

“I don’t think they feel that way,” Lue said. “I know our team is confident.”

Betting against the Cavaliers to make consecutive trips to the NBA Finals is not smart, but betting on them to have a different result once they get there is sketchy. James took a two-week hiatus and general manager David Griffin made two in-season trades – for Smith and Iman Shumpert, and later Timofey Mozgov – for the Cavaliers to make their Finals run last season. But even with most of the same cast together and more familiarity with one another, they are still waiting for that moment when it all clicks again. The changes this season have rarely been followed by satisfaction. Love found his name in trade rumors around the deadline for the second year in a row, and Anderson Varejao was dealt away so that the team could acquire Channing Frye. They seemed to be so interested in tinkering and distracted by what’s going on outside – specifically the Warriors’ historic and joyful ride – they haven’t found a way to utilize and flourish with what’s going on within.

“We’re not that far off but … we’re far off,” Jones told The Vertical. “It’s a habit, you stay with it and then one day it clicks. We’re starting to see that incremental change but to have that lasting change we need, we’re going to need the rest of the season to get that done.”

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