In an NBA season marked by unprecedented dominance, has the bar measuring success been raised too high?
Are we too quick to criticize teams that are not playing at the level of the Golden State Warriors? Have we forgotten where the Cleveland Cavaliers were a year ago?
Sure seems that way sometimes, and never more so than it has since Christmas as the Cavaliers followed up their NBA Finals rematch with a ghastly loss to the reeling Portland Trail Blazers, then struggled to beat a Phoenix Suns team that is in utter disarray before defeating Denver last night to finish their four-game Western swing at 2-2.
David Blatt is juggling his starting lineup and his rotations, Kyrie Irving is still getting his legs back and is not yet playing in back-to-backs, Kevin Love’s scoring average has dropped 7.2 points from November to December and LeBron James is playing at a pedestrian level. Prior to his 34-point outburst against the Nuggets, James had a four-game stretch where he was shooting 38 percent from the field with averages of 18.8 points, 6.5 boards, 4.8 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.8 blocks and 0.5 treys. It all adds up to the Cavs being something other than otherworldly.
But is it really that bad?
As the calendar strikes James’ 31st birthday, perhaps a brief history lesson is in order. It was exactly one year ago that James took what amounted to a quietly team-sanctioned two-week vacation as the Cavs were struggling out of the gate. At this time a year ago, they were muddling their way to a 19-20 start, they had a head case on their hands in Dion Waiters, they had no center (Timofey Mozgov had not yet been acquired) and they had not yet fleeced Phil Jackson of J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert.
Their lineup last Dec. 30 against Atlanta – when James’ two-week vacation began – included Mike Miller in the starting lineup, with the key reserves being Joe Harris (27 minutes), James Jones (26 minutes) and Waiters (25 minutes). Alex Kirk, Kendrick Perkins and Shawn Marion were DNPs. Cleveland lost, 109-101, to start a precipitous slide of eight losses in nine games.
That, by comparison, was really, really bad.
And as bad as the Cavs have looked for the past couple of weeks, they have still won more than two-thirds of their games, they are still the deepest and most talented team in the East, and they still know — as we all do — that barring a season-ending injury to James, they are likely going to be the team that comes out of the East and plays in the NBA Finals in June. As improved as the East is as a whole (10 teams are over .500, compared to six in the West), does anyone really believe there is a team out there that can knock them out in a best-of-seven series?
Chicago has looked great at times and putrid at times. The Bulls beat good teams but lose to bad teams, they are getting nothing out of Derrick Rose and even less out of Joakim Noah, and their best player, Jimmy Butler, is calling out coach Fred Hoiberg for being too laid-back – dynamics that are pointed out in much greater detail in Chris Bernucca’s most recent column.
The Heat are too old, the Celtics are too young, the Magic are too much of an unknown, and the Hawks, Raptors and Pacers are too undermanned from a personnel standpoint when compared to the Cavs to be taken all that seriously.
So I guess we have to pick on someone, right?
Which brings us to today’s video report.
CineSport host Noah Coslov does not like what he has been seeing and hearing from Cleveland, and he is not alone. And while I am somewhat alarmed by the productivity dropoff from James, I have two words that I repeat a few times in this interview that I hope puts it all in perspective: “It’s December.”
If we are seeing the same problems in March, or April, or May, then I will join the chorus. But for now?
Look, Mo Williams deserved his demotion. Before scoring seven points in 19 bench minutes at Denver as the backup to Matthew Dellavedova, he had a grand total of seven points and three assists in his three previous games. His scoring average dropped from 15.6 points to 6.7 points from November to December.
Mozgov lost his job to Tristan Thompson for good reason. Once expected to be a candidate for max money when his contract expires after this season, he has reached double figures in scoring just five times all season — and only once since Nov. 17. His total number of games with double figure rebounds? One. He has 23 blocks, or the same number as Jeremy Lin. The guy is losing earning power like he is some kind of Russian Rondo.
And people are criticizing Blatt for demoting those two players? C’mon, folks. The Cavs are first in the East, four games up on the Hawks in the loss column, 13-1 at home and have the conference’s best scoring defense (95.1 ppg) and point differential (4.6). A year ago, they were a mess. Right now, the worst you can say about them is that they have been consistently underwhelming, particularly in comparison to the team they faced in the finals last June.
The borderline panic we are witnessing? It is misplaced, especially when we go into our short-term memory banks and remember what things were like the day James turned 30.
Chris Sheridan is publisher and editor-in-chief of SheridanHoops.com. Follow him on Twitter.