The Cleveland Cavaliers just had their worst week in over 13 years.
That’s obviously a subjective statement, but the past few days have not been kind to the Cavaliers. It’s certainly bad timing coming right before the start of the season, even if the team is putting a good face on it.
The Cavaliers want to contend for a championship. They won 51 games a season ago, retained their top eight players from a season ago, and added three rotation players to that group. Donovan Mitchell was a second-team All-NBA selection and ready for more, Evan Mobley was a Defensive Player of the Year finalist, and Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen are young, recent All-Stars to round out their core.
This is a group ready to win now, and to prove to Donovan Mitchell that he can compete for championships in a town like Cleveland. That goal got significantly harder this week, as the mountain ahead of them transformed into Mount Everest.
First, the Milwaukee Bucks traded for Damian Lillard, one of the league’s best offensive players and a perfect fit with Giannis Antetokounmpo, establishing themselves as the title favorites. Then just days later the Boston Celtics traded for All-Star guard Jrue Holiday, one of the league’s best defensive players on the perimeter and a perfect fit with the Celtics’ core, snatching the distinction of “championship favorites” out of the Bucks’ hands while the ink was still drying.
This was supposed to be the year for the Cavaliers. They reloaded with shooting at multiple positions, their team was healthy heading into the season, and the path ahead was opening up. The Boston Celtics were in flux after trading for an injury-prone big man in Kristaps Porzingis, the Milwaukee Bucks were aging outside of the top tier of contention, and the Philadelphia 76ers were in chaos.
In just one week that door was slammed shut in the Cavaliers’ face. The Sixers may still be a dumpster fire but the Celtics and Bucks look lethal. Beating not one but both of them to reach the NBA Finals seems like a hopeless cause for anyone else in the East.
Together, Damian Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo look like the most perfect pairing in the league, and superstar pairings drive championships. Defending Lillard involves stretching a defense out well past the 3-point line, which historically has created 4-on-3 opportunities going downhill to the rim.
Instead of Jusuf Nurkic or Mason Plumlee having the ball, however, the Bucks can have a two-time MVP and modern-Shaq-2.0 Giannis Antetokounmpo handling the ball. The way to stop Giannis is to “build a wall” in front of him, packing the paint and recovering to shooters. It’s impossible to both build a wall and blitz Lillard 30 feet away from the rim, so someone is going to have an advantage. Sell out completely to that action, and it’s Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and Pat Connaughton or Malik Beasley raining down open 3-pointers.
Milwaukee is making a similar bet to the Cavaliers on defense, that a pair of elite rim protectors can balance out a vulnerable backcourt. The problem is that they have a better offense on the other end.
The Boston Celtics don’t look to be far behind them, if at all. They can realistically start games with five excellent defenders, from Derrick White and Jrue Holiday in the backcourt down to Kristaps Porzingis and Al Horford at center. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are solid and can switch seamlessly with one another and both guards.
On offense, the Celtics have a true point guard in Holiday to set things up, with three other players who can handle, shoot and drive. Tatum may be the top option, but teams will have to make a sacrifice somewhere, and that player will be fully capable of taking advantage of a weak link defensively. They have six two-way players and four at an All-Star level; their Top 6 is the best in the entire NBA.
What’s worse is that neither core looks to be in danger of breaking up for at least the next couple of seasons. Winning the Eastern Conference will take either a herculean effort or waiting two or three seasons until these teams drop off. That’s a heavy task, and one suddenly and unexpectedly dropped onto the Cavaliers’ shoulders.
In terms of bad weeks, this one is a doozy. It’s certainly the Cavaliers’ worst week in years. The week they were swept by the Golden State Warriors in the 2018 NBA Finals was rough, as were the losing streaks during the dark years from 2011-2014.
Still, to find a truly worse week, you need to go back to the 2010 playoffs. The Cleveland Cavaliers won in Boston to take a 2-1 series lead on the Celtics, and from there things fell apart. The Celtics won three straight to upset the Cavaliers, LeBron James seemed to emotionally disconnect, and fans knew that something terrible was going to happen when LeBron hit free agency in a couple of months. The feeling of dread settled in just like it did this week.
There is still plenty to be excited about for the Cavaliers. They have a good, young team and can build on last year’s success. Still, if the goal is winning the Eastern Conference and competing for a championship, that task just became nearly impossible. That’s one lousy week.