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Is This the End of the Cavs As We Know Them?

You could always count on LeBron James and a history of success. … Until now.

LeBron James Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“I just think the Cavaliers defense has to wake up,” announcer Austin Carr said during the Cavs’ stunning third-quarter meltdown against the Magic on Tuesday. “That’s where the problem is.” It’s Groundhog Day in Cleveland, and has been for damn near two months. It’s the same recurring nightmare: a Cavs team in sleep paralysis, a helpless bystander to its own decay while a nation patiently waits for everything to return to normal. It’s long since blurred with reality; the nightmare is that this is normal.

The Cavaliers allowed 70 points in the paint in Tuesday’s 116-98 loss, a season high. Teams don’t give up that many points around the basket unless they (a) think they can get away with it, the way the Rockets did when they allowed the Lakers to score 82 points in the paint in a 148-142 double-overtime shootout earlier this season, or (b) stop trying. It would be convenient to label the Cavaliers defense a house of cards, blown asunder by even the tiniest bit of penetration, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But Cleveland’s defensive missteps are symphonic in structure—there is a diversity of error that conveys in layers and gradations. Their guards can’t stay in front of anyone at the initial point of attack, and not one of their bigs has either the size or the recovery speed to protect the rim as a last line of defense. Iman Shumpert’s solid perimeter defense would help, but he has played only five minutes since late November, and has logged DNPs in the past six games, presumably as the Cavs try to trade him; Kevin Love’s more recent hand injury hurts the team from a talent standpoint, but he wasn’t exactly a plus on defense, either.

This team, more than past iterations, is a strange collection of players who have all seemingly reached the same point in their careers where nothing is as easy to execute as it used to be. The team is full of big-name mercenaries (Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose) who are all in the throes of discovering what’s left of their skills from a physical standpoint. In that sense, each of them serves as a separate microcosm of Cleveland’s grand existential quandary: In trying to live up to a past standard, they’ve lost sight of the unique challenges that they face in the present, to which there are few precedents.

It really doesn’t get much bleaker than this:

The issue isn’t novel; the Cavs have struggled with it for the entirety of James’s second run in Cleveland—they’ve been a top-10 defense only once in the past four seasons. But it’d be a mistake to conflate this season’s struggles with any of the others. The team’s current roster construction is fatally flawed in a way it wasn’t before. And while we all hate to make the Little Guy the scapegoat, the more data we have on Thomas’s performance this season, the more it becomes clear just how apocalyptic he is to the Cavs defense. The best defense IT has played all season has come during off-court interviews when he has aggressively justified his play. The losing is not his fault entirely, and it never will be. But the Cavs simply aren’t built to compensate for the worst defensive player in the NBA. Fifty of those 70 points in the paint were scored while Thomas was in the game. Teams outscore the Cavaliers by 15.1 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court. His defensive presence turns even average NBA teams into the greatest offenses in NBA history.

And maybe not even just average teams. The Magic, who were without their best player in Aaron Gordon and are currently a half game ahead of the Mavericks and Hawks for the worst record in the league, scored 116 points in just a tick above 99 possessions; Thomas’s defensive rating on the season is 116.5.

Jonathon Simmons was questionable to play heading into the game with a sprained ankle. He had a subtle but noticeable hitch in his step every time he walked back to team huddles. The Cavs turned him into prime Tracy McGrady. He rained hellfire on Cleveland, scoring 22 of his 34 points in the third quarter. His third quarter ended like this:

The Magic started off that third quarter hitting their first 10 field goal attempts. The combo breaker occurred in extremely Orlando Magic fashion: Bismack Biyombo was blocked by the rim on his own layup attempt. It was the only time in the second half the Magic looked anything remotely close to the Magic. D.J. Augustin danced around Tristan Thompson on two separate occasions. Simmons spent the entire second half dancing on the Cavaliers’ mass grave. The Magic scored 41 points in the third quarter, coming all the way back from a 21-point deficit.

“A 41-point quarter is hard to come back from,” LeBron James said after the game. In any other game, it might’ve been easier to take that seriously. But the Cavaliers dropped 43 points in the first quarter, tying a single-quarter season high, then scored nine points in the fourth. A 41-point quarter is hard to come back from, unless you’re playing the Cavs.

In a way, Tuesday’s game was the direct inverse of their immaculate, series-saving Game 4 effort against the Warriors during last season’s NBA Finals. It was a primal scream in the face of extinction, a perfect encapsulation of what the Cavs look like when every single player is on the same page and ready to perform. They made 24 3-pointers in that game, setting an NBA Finals record. It was disconcerting, then, to see the Cavaliers founder in the fourth against the Magic, who aren’t exactly defensive mavens. Cleveland took 18 shots in the fourth, 13 of them from behind the arc. All but two clanked off the rim, and even then, Wade’s make was a lucky bank and Channing Frye’s make came when the game was far out of reach. LeBron’s Second Wave Cavaliers have never been defensive stalwarts, but you could rely on them to shoot their way back into games. The ball movement that created those easy perimeter looks has now disappeared. LeBron stalls more often, holding the ball, waiting for something to happen. Thomas talks about the players not trusting one another, and it’s all too evident on the court. If the Cavs can no longer win games the way they’re built to win them, what’s left?

It’s a tribute to James’s hegemony over the East that, even now, it’s easier to give his Cavs the benefit of the doubt than to consign them to the cluster of teams below the Eastern elite jostling for position in mediocrity. After seven straight NBA Finals appearances, LeBron is Occam’s razor—the inevitability of his team finding its way to the Finals is simply the way things are. His dominance has been an ambient fixture in the modern landscape of the league for so long; we’ve seen just about every conceivable inconvenience to their narrative, only to have the ship righted in the end. There are parallels to last season, wherein the Cavs had a dismal 18-game stretch from February 25 to March 30 in which they allowed opponents to score 113.5 points per 100 possessions, which is actually worse than what the Cavs are giving up in the dreary lull they’re in now. What’s worrisome is just how long this complete and utter lack of defense has persisted. Last season’s team went a month without stringing together more than two consecutive wins; this season’s team is edging closer to two months without a proper win streak—and they’re scheduled for bouts against the Timberwolves, Celtics, and Thunder in the next four games.

The Cavs are a championship contender on reputation alone; Miami is the only team currently in the playoff picture with a worse net rating than Cleveland. It’s one of the most well-earned reputations in modern NBA history. But the safeguard that LeBron’s mere presence drapes over his team has obscured the structural and systemic faults at the root of this unprecedented collapse. Now—after exploring the entire spectrum of misery in the past two games, losing badly to one of the two best teams in the league, followed by a humiliating loss to one of the worst—that veneer is in tatters.