5 Problems the Cleveland Cavaliers Must Solve Before Playoff Time
Only two months stand between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the start of their championship defense.
With the playoffs slowly coming into focus, the Cavs remain unchallenged atop the Eastern Conference. This doesn't mean the team isn't facing some major potential problems, of course.
Injuries have begun to take their toll on Cleveland, a team that mostly cruised through the 2016 calendar year with surprisingly good health. The wear and tear on the team's superstars is far too high, with an unsettled bench rotation providing inconsistent help.
As LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love make their way to New Orleans for All-Star weekend, Cleveland's front office will no doubt be working every available outlet in preparation for next Thursday's trade deadline.
With only 29 games left in the regular season, the Cavs must resolve the five following (potential) problems.
Injuries Racking Up
As J.R. Smith nears his return to the court, the Cavs could be without Kevin Love for an extended period of time.
When Smith underwent right thumb surgery on Dec. 23, the original timetable had him out until late March or early April. According to ESPN.com's Chris Haynes and Dave McMenamin, Smith could now return in as little as three weeks.
Smith's thumb will be reimaged during the All-Star break, providing a more precise estimate on his return to the Cavaliers' starting lineup. He has begun shooting with his right hand and is ramping up conditioning workouts.
While Cleveland has patiently waited for Smith, Love's knee is now a major concern.
Love noted pain in his left knee following the Cavs' 125-109 win over the Denver Nuggets on Feb. 11. He underwent an MRI the following day, which the Cavaliers declined to announce the results of. Love is set to receive a second opinion on Tuesday.
"I would love to be able to tell you that he'll miss three games and be back, but I can't right now because we don't know," general manager David Griffin said, per Cleveland.com's Joe Vardon.
The Cavs have already ruled Love out for their game on Tuesday at the Minnesota Timberwolves, the 28-year-old's former employer. It's expected he'll miss Wednesday's home meeting with the Indiana Pacers and be held out of Sunday's All-Star Game as well.
Now without 40 percent of its starting lineup, Cleveland needs to be smart and not rush anyone back before playoff time.
Peaking Too Early
The Cavaliers easily played their best basketball during the postseason each of the past two years.
Three in a row would be nice as well.
There is a real danger of "peaking" too early during an 82-game season, something former Atlanta Hawk Kyle Korver knows all too well.
"We haven't hit our peak yet this year, which is fine. I actually think it's good," Korver said, per Cavs.com. "I've been on teams that peaked in February. It's not good."
Korver is referring to the 2014-15 season, where the Hawks blitzed through the winter part of their schedule before getting swept by the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Atlanta led the East with a 60-22 record, finishing a spot above the Cavs' 53-29 mark. From Dec. 27 to Feb. 1, the Hawks went a perfect 19-0 and sent four players (including Korver) to the All-Star game.
Unfortunately, all of this meant nothing in May.
With Smith (and now Love) out, it's been tough for the Cavs to establish any consistent rhythm or winning streak thus far—and that may not be a bad thing.
Just ask Korver.
LeBron James' body may have begun its NBA life as a brand new Ferrari, but he's racked up plenty of mileage over the past 14 years.
It's time to increase the maintenance.
At 32, James is tied with Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry with 37.6 minutes played per game to lead the NBA. Of the top 15 overall minutes leaders, only James and Lowry are in their 30s.
What's worse, James' playing time is spiking during a time he should be enjoying prolonged periods of rest. He spent a whopping 38.4 minutes on the court while the Cavaliers stumbled to a 7-8 record in January.
"We've been talking about it," head coach Tyronn Lue said, per ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin. "He's being bull-headed about it. He doesn't want to back down because he says he's in a good rhythm right now. We just have to play it by ear. If we've got the chance to get him rest, we've got to get him rest."
There's been a noticeable difference in James' production when he gets time off, too.
In games where he plays 40 or more minutes, James is a plus-0.7 with a net rating of plus-6.0. When he's between 30-39 minutes, these figures jump to plus-8.8 with a net of plus-11.0.
One possible solution? Reduce James' court time in the first half of games.
Only the 21-year-old Zach LaVine was playing more than the four-time MVP before the half, as James is logging 19 of a possible 24 minutes. With Kevin Love becoming one of the NBA's best first-quarter scorers, featuring he and Irving while getting role players involved early could save James for the second half and reduce his overall playing time.
If James plans to spend the rest of his career in Cleveland, Lue has to reduce wear and tear on his star as soon as possible to ensure it's a lengthy stay.
While Tyronn Lue is forced to shuffle his rotation on a near nightly basis because of injuries, more adjustments will follow this month.
The trade deadline is Feb. 23. Waived players wishing to appear on playoff rosters must sign with teams by March 1. By this latter date, the Cavs are almost guaranteed to have made an addition to the roster.
Former Miami Heat and 2011 No. 2 overall pick Derrick Williams is still on his first 10-day contract and will likely be retained for the remainder of the year.
"We hope that this is a long-term thing," LeBron James said of Williams, per ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin. "Obviously, we know that he's on a 10-day contract, but we believe it's going to be long term."
Cleveland likes his ability to play and defend multiple positions, key when matching up with a team like the Golden State Warriors. With a bench mostly full of aging veterans, the 25-year-old brings energy and athleticism to the second unit. Williams is averaging 9.5 points on 83.3 percent shooting in 21.0 minutes over his first two games with the Cavs.
Veteran center Chris "Birdman" Andersen was traded to the Charlotte Hornets for a protected future second-round pick on Feb. 13, the team announced. Moving Andersen, out for the season for a torn ACL, was all about freeing up a roster spot in time for the trade deadline and buyout market.
Still on the lookout for an additional playmaker, this is a roster that won't be settled until March. By that time, Lue will hopefully be getting J.R. Smith back from thumb surgery and Love's knee will be healed—if not sooner.
Getting Williams and losing Andersen is just the beginning of a minor roster shakeup in Cleveland. While no major moves will be made, solidifying the best 15 players possible heading into the playoffs is a must.
With no more games scheduled against the Golden State Warriors, where does Cleveland draw its motivation from over the next two months?
Yes, this is the NBA's highest payroll and a team full of professionals, but there appears to be a clear lack of focus and inspiration on some nights.
Perhaps it's part of a championship hangover. Maybe it's the knowing a spot in the playoffs is already a guarantee.
The Cavaliers only lead the Eastern Conference by 2.5 games over the Boston Celtics, although the gap feels far greater. Cleveland has yet to be challenged by any team in the East the past two years, and it is a perfect 7-0 against the conference's Nos. 2, 3 and 4 seeds (Boston, Washington Wizards, Toronto Raptors).
The Celtics are a fine team, but one that doesn't carry the personnel to seriously challenge the Cavs for a spot in the NBA Finals. If Cleveland played in the West, their 37-16 record would only be good enough for fourth place behind the Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets.
In the East, however, there's really no motivation to worry about seeding.
This is where it's important not to pick up poor habits.
Defensive effort needs to be instilled at all times, no matter the opponent or calendar date. Ball movement should always be encouraged, especially on a team constantly working with new parts.
The Cavs aren't a guarantee to win the East or go to the Finals, of course, but who's going to stop them? Over these final 29 games, some form of motivation must be discovered to keep LeBron James and company playing at a high level.
Greg Swartz is the Cleveland Cavaliers Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @CavsGregBR.