What a difference a few months makes.
Heading towards the turn of the year in 2017, the Cleveland Cavaliers were riding high on form and confidence to dominate all before them in the Eastern Conference.
Star man LeBron James was in MVP contention once more as the supporting cast in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love offered plenty of service in the scoring department.
They had that swagger only a championship ring can provide, palming off their competition with ease and sitting pretty aloft the conference table before launching another assault on the trophy.
Fast forward to the beginning of April and with the playoffs just around the corner, the franchise is facing a myriad of problems from injury to form and dressing room unrest.
Boomer Andrew Bogut’s freak accident and immediate cut from the roster personified Cleveland’s luck when it comes to their title defence, seeing a key acquisition and potential weapon depart almost as quickly as he arrived.
Far from a crisis for most clubs at this stage of the campaign, the heavyweights are sitting fairly precariously in 2nd in the East behind a resurgent Boston Celtics.
A 135-130 O/T win over the Indiana Pacers this week was just what the doctor ordered, following a sequence of fixtures that resulted in defeat to the Denver Nuggets (126-113), Washington Wizards (127-115), San Antonio Spurs (103-74) and Chicago Bulls (99-93).
In particular that beating on the road to the Spurs in Texas left many to ponder how a 2017 championship was possible, being obliterated by the second best in the West.
Cavaliers beat writer Joe Vardon from Cleveland.com kept himself from venturing into panic mode by looking at the facts from a distance.
“The Cavs look terrible right now, or as Kyrie Irving called it, ‘really, really ugly,'” he started. “But, you know, Kyle Korver told me this is by far the worst travel month of his 14-year career. The Cavs will have played 12 of 17 on the road when March is over. I also think there is ample time to get right.”
Citing a mixture of experience and an upturn in health and fitness, Vardon sees a roster that will be equipped for a fight when it comes to the serious showdowns in May.
“LeBron James and Irving are good enough to carry this team through multiple playoff series. Korver comes back healthy, and now there’s a viable, game-changing threat coming off the bench. Those three were enough to push the Cavs through February with a 9-2 record. At some point, the other talented pieces on this roster (read Kevin Love and J.R. Smith) could come together almost by accident. So am I worried about the Cavs’ playoff future? Not yet.”
But perhaps there is something a little deeper to the malaise than just sheer luck or a lack thereof in Cleveland’s case.
Chicago Tribune reporter David Haugh noted the body language of James in the wake of the Bulls loss and while he had his head sunk for the full 10-minute talk to the press, the icon offered an explanation as to the new found pressure carried on their shoulders for 2016/17.
“I know what it takes,” James remarked. “I know how taxing it can be. … The competition gets motivated to play you every single night but also you can’t short-cut it. You have that feeling of what it felt like to win a championship (and) understand you have to get back to the point of thinking how far it would take for us to get there.”
Head coach Tyronn Lue echoed those sentiments, arguing that the franchise has a target on their back every night they take to the court.
“You win a championship, you’re going to get your opponents’ best every single night — there are no nights off,” said Lue. “We play great one night and then can’t make a shot. If you’re going to be champs, you have to expect that and be willing to play through that.”
With James admitting the side is in a “bad spot” following the unexpected result in Chicago, the Cavaliers are left to search for answers.
Whether it be the more tangible elements of their game like rebounding efforts or defensive pressure, or the intangible factors like mental fragility, Lue and the team need to find a solution before it’s too late.
Bleacher Report outlined some key contributors to their downturn, overlooking the fact they are setting an incredible pace for the 3-pointer statistic in the NBA.
The Cavs are not a side that built their championship off defence, sitting 10th last season before taking all before them against the Golden State Warriors in the Finals.
Yet they are now sitting in 22nd without ball in hand, a damning result for a group that has ambitions of going back-to-back.
To add insult to injury, Lue is squeezing every ounce of effort out of their captain to play LeBron the 2nd most minutes in the league.
At 32-years of age and with a number of niggling ailments he battles each week, James is only behind Kyle Lowry of the Raptors for minutes per game.
No one is taking the heat off the leader of the team as every key individual statistic in the NBA for 2016/17 is led by a player not in Cleveland.
Whether it be Russell Westbrook, DeAndre Jordan, Steph Curry, James Harden or Draymond Green, the Cavs are getting outworked, outmuscled and out-thought for performance.
The early form that gave them a buffer is acting as a saving grace for Cleveland as they maintain a 2-win advantage over third placed Toronto.
But given the quality of basketball played by the Raptors alongside the Celtics, Bucks and Wizards – the Cavs will do incredibly well to emerge from their conference unscathed an in a position to challenge the West again.
Lue needs more contributors across the court and a a group who are willing to stare down the challenge they face.
Can the Cavaliers turn it around and win another Finals? Tweet us @NBAnewsAus