It was during the Cleveland Cavaliers’ game with the Memphis Grizzlies on Tuesday night that it hit me.
Just like the Grizzlies are now a team that can beat you on any given night, the Cavaliers are a team that can dominate you on any given night.
However, it doesn’t mean they’re the championship team a lot of people, myself included, thought they were. It just means they can steamroll a team as easily as they can lose to them.
Or is it the other way around?
The Cavaliers tease. They party. They dance. They laugh. They have bombastic pregame introductions that incite the huge crowds that pack one of the NBA’s loudest, most raucous arenas. They sell lots of merchandise, that’s for sure.
Their GM tweaks the roster just enough to fire up the faithful. They win 66 games in a season. They propel their bench leader to Coach of the Year, their superstar to MVP. They roll through their first two playoff opponents. They’re the feel-good story of the year, the consensus team to beat.
And then they lose to a team that, on paper, didn’t have the record or the manpower to beat them in a seven-game series. So the Magic did it in six.
In the offseason, the Cavaliers retool their roster again. They trade for a living legend to beef up the low post, draft a pretty darn good college player, and sign a couple of solid free agents to provide a stronger perimeter presence.
But they start the season as though it’s a surprise they’re playing real games already, and then talk about how it takes time for everyone to learn each other’s tendencies.
Now, with the season in full swing, they typically bounce back from miserable performances with a string of overpowering ones. Just when you start to doubt them, they pull out a practically error-free showing and lull you into a sense of confidence that everything is just fine in Cavs Town.
It makes no sense. They have arguably the best basketball player on the planet turning in Herculean performances on a regular basis. In a preseason poll, NBA general managers said that LeBron James was the one player they would start a franchise with, the one player who forces opposing coaches to make the most adjustments, and the player likely to be MVP this season.
Would somebody please tell the Grizzlies, or the Bobcats?
Or maybe they should just tell Mike Brown. Against Memphis, just days after running and gunning the likes of Phoenix, Chicago, and Milwaukee out of the gym, the Cavaliers slowed everything down in an effort to pound the ball inside to Shaquille O’Neal. Shaq wasn’t bad, but that’s not the point.
Why did they do it? Are they a running team, or a half-court team? What is it that makes them a consistent threat, a scoring machine to be taken seriously?
More to the point, what makes other teams look at them and say, “Wow?” What makes them the team to beat?
The players keep assuring us the team will be fine. But their opponents aren’t waiting around to find out. And so, when the Cavs least expect it, a young team like Memphis shuts them down and walks off the court with a win.
Yes, it’s early. Yes, you don’t want to peak in November and December. But let’s face it; the idea of the offseason personnel moves was to get better. The Cavs are very good, but they don’t appear to be better—at least, not yet.
Judging by the first 20 games of the season, they can lose to teams almost as readily as they can overpower them.
The ability to dominate individual games here and there isn’t enough. The Cavaliers need to establish an identity—soon—that enables them to play consistent, fundamental basketball at a level superior to everyone else.
It’s the only path to an NBA championship that has, thus far, been so elusive.