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LeBron's Desire Will Determine Cavs' Fate More Than Any Challenger in the East

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterMarch 30, 2017

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) catches his breath after being hit in the groin during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Washington Wizards in Cleveland, Saturday, March 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Phil Long)
Phil Long/Associated Press

Plenty of questions can be asked about the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers this season, especially in light of their 6-9 record in March and all-but-nonexistent defense. But we can boil it down to only one:

Are you more confident in LeBron James now that he won again last season or less confident because there's no possible way he wants it quite as much now?

The vast majority of the public sides with the former. Gambling odds (per OddsShark.com) have moved from the start of the season, and Cleveland is now more of a favorite to win the Eastern Conference, no matter that the Cavs have had all the continuity of a spring training lineup and the Boston Celtics stand in a virtual tie for the East's best record.

In psychology, the "mere exposure effect" shows we develop a simplistic, accepting thought process the more we are exposed to the same thing. You see a dollar bill often enough in life, you think money—not green paper.

We have reached a point after six consecutive NBA Finals for James' teams that we are conditioned to believe it simply shall be that way. It takes real effort to imagine otherwise.

The last time we had an NBA Finals without James was when the Celtics met the Los Angeles Lakers in 2010. At this point, it feels so long ago that it might've been Bird and Magic.

Those inside the NBA should know better than just to assume the obvious, though, and as the playoffs approach, it's impossible to ignore the fact the Cavaliers have the second-worst defensive efficiency in the league since the All-Star break, per NBA.com. And they aren't much better for the season, ranking 23rd in defensive rating.

That brings us right back to the aforementioned central question: How bad does James want it?

For as much as the Cleveland roster is not filled with defensive stalwarts, the real reason the Cavs defense has been so bad is because James hasn't been giving his best at that end.

Nick Wass/Associated Press

In his ongoing and admirable commitment to his legacy, James has put up a season worthy of being on the MVP ballot—but he has done that mostly by maintaining his epic standards on offense. A guy who is No. 27 in NBA history in defensive win shares, per Basketball Reference, is No. 91 in the league in that category this season. That's one spot ahead of Seth Curry and two ahead of Ryan Anderson.

His teammates have followed his lead, saving their best for the offensive end of the court. Cleveland is 18-1 this season when scoring 120 or more points, according to B/R Insights.

The obvious explanation is that James is saving himself for the playoffs when it comes to defense. A Cleveland team without much natural proclivity for excellence on that end—perhaps only Tristan Thompson and Iman Shumpert are inclined to play more than adequate defense—very much misses what James brings there. (And while JR Smith was actually touted by Tyronn Lue as the team's best defensive player last season, his late signing and thumb injury have him struggling to regain that rhythm.)

The assumption is that James will flip the proverbial switch and spark the team on defense for a playoff run. But if his drive to win has slipped after his victory last season validated everything about his return to Cleveland, then the truth is that maybe he can't flip it.

Should we take him at his word—he tearfully said "I gave everything that I had" at the close of last season—and wonder if he can possibly have that much this time? 

If James doesn't, then the Cavs don't need to worry about beating the Golden State Warriors; they won't even get out of the East.

And that's with the belief, albeit arguable, that Kyrie Irving is almost the best player among all the top guys on the other East contenders. (John Wall deserves credit for all he is doing at both ends, but give me Irving over Bradley Beal, Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Isaiah Thomas or Al Horford.) On paper, the Washington Wizards, Toronto Raptors and Celtics just don't inspire enough faith for anyone to assume the Cavaliers won't make another Finals.

But as great as Irving is, Cleveland's hopes of repeating still boil down more to how dominant James is going to be. If he doesn't fall short of his best effort, the Cavs will indeed be a lot better after the regular season ends.

BOSTON, MA - MARCH 1: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers drives against Amir Johnson #90 of the Boston Celtics during the first quarter at TD Garden on March 1, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees t
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

That next gear is not a sure thing for the Wizards or Celtics or Raptors.

The Raptors—whom an NBA insider described at the start of January as "one-and-a-half players away" from contending—are closest to finding out if they have that gear because they were shrewdly aggressive in trading for Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker in February. Those additions give Toronto a chance to be better, although Lowry's surgery on the wrist of his shooting arm complicates matters.

Lowry at less than optimum efficiency makes for a scary predicament considering the Toronto offense is already far too dependent on what longtime low-efficiency guys Lowry and DeRozan can create on their own. DeRozan was flat-out bad in the East Finals last year.

But of the three teams challenging the Cavs in the East, the Raptors have something even more important than the improved field-goal percentages of Lowry and DeRozan this season: Toronto at least can think it challenged the Cavs last spring in stretching the series to six games, and that was before the gold-medal experience in the Olympics further solidified their backcourt's confidence. That should foster a belief (even though they went 0-3 against Cleveland this season) that they can vanquish the Cavs when it counts, and any team that is going to take advantage of James' and his teammates' complacency has to be feeling like it should beat them.

The Wizards fared slightly better against LeBron and Co. this season in going 1-2 against the defending champs, but they have an even bigger mental hurdle in getting reacquainted with the playoffs. Jumping all the way up to the NBA Finals after missing out on the postseason last year would be stunning. No team enters a season truly expecting to go the distance after being so disappointing the previous year. If you don't truly expect to go deep in the playoffs, you're not likely to do so.

The 2007-08 Boston Celtics made a run from lottery team to winning it all, but they had a couple of half-decent offseason additions in the likes of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.

The Wizards improved dramatically with Otto Porter's emergence, a healthier Beal, a full season of Markieff Morris and Scott Brooks' steady leadership. They even just rolled the Cavs in Cleveland on Saturday, furthering the intrigue, and there's no disputing just how talented Wall and Beal are.

But it's also true that the Cavaliers laugh internally about how much more other teams want regular-season games than they do. And there are those around the league who continue to harbor doubts about the ability of Wall and Beal to deliver precise execution in the playoffs, when effort and athleticism simply aren't enough to get it done. Brooks' arrival improved that effort and the chemistry for sure, as often happens after a coaching change, but a coach who lacks prior familiarity with his players rarely is able to get peak execution out of them in the playoffs. Washington has played its starters so much together this season that it will have to hope that knowledge of one another is enough.

The Celtics, meanwhile, have a different sort of concern—their undeniable dependence on Thomas for so much of their offense. It is not all that difficult in a playoff series for an opposing defense to force the ball out of a small guard's hands with traps or just intense attention on him.

Thomas thrives on such doubts, but so have Chris Paul and Allen Iverson in remarkable careers that haven't featured as much playoff magic as we might've hoped for them as the main men. Put a Kevin Durant on this team with Thomas, and it'd be terrifying.

There's a reason Danny Ainge has been seeking a proven centerpiece for so long; he knows the Celtics might need one to keep up in the playoffs.

As much as rival teams in the East need to step forward to dethrone James, he also has to become unable to step forward.

Erosion of James' mountain will happen at some point. And a look at all he has done suggests James' significant decline might come sooner than people expect.

Entering Thursday's game against the Chicago Bulls, James had played 49,371 regular-season and playoff minutes in his career, already eclipsing Michael Jordan's 48,485. James has already played more regular-season minutes (40,988) than fellow legend Bill Russell (40,726), and obviously, they've been tremendously high-usage minutes for James.

Yet it was just last spring when James made that chase-down block of Andre Iguodala in Game 7 of a Finals in which he averaged 2.3 blocks and 2.6 steals per game to go with 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds and 8.9 assists.

James averaged 2.3 steals per game for the duration of his 21-game playoff run last season—after he'd never even reached two steals per game in any of his previous 10 playoff runs.

Assume at your own peril he won't have the legs or the will to get there this spring.

The rest of the Eastern Conference has no choice but to hope he won't.

    

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @KevinDing.

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