When LeBron James decided to return to the Cavaliers prior to last season, most thought it was just a matter of time before he brought the city of Cleveland a long-awaited championship. Flash forward two seasons, and there are now some serious reservations about whether James will ever actually deliver a title to his hometown.
The rapid ascension of Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors, who have dazzled with their transcendent three-point shooting and graceful ball movement, has forced a major wedge between Cleveland and its long-awaited Larry O’Brien Trophy. The continued excellence of the San Antonio Spurs also has drastically hampered the Cavaliers’ chances of winning a championship for both this season and the foreseeable future.
In the summer of 2014, when James decided to depart from Miami and return to The Land, it appeared to many pundits as if the Spurs were on the decline. Although they had just defeated James and the Heat in the NBA Finals, their nucleus was aging and a drop-off in productivity seemed imminent. But with the emergence of star forward Kawhi Leonard and the addition of LaMarcus Aldridge this past off-season, the Spurs did not simply retool but somehow managed to elevate their game to previously unreached heights. They have yet to lose a home game on their way to the NBA’s second best record, 65-14. If they win each of their two remaining home games, they will become the first team in NBA history to go an entire regular season without losing a contest on their home court.
Similarly, when James jumped ship in Miami, very few could foresee the Warriors, led by the sharp-shooting Curry, turning into the unbeatable juggernaut that they have become. On April 7, the Warriors defeated the Spurs to become the second team in NBA history to win 70 games in a regular season. Truly, the Warriors and Spurs are not just two surprisingly elite sides, but also two of the greatest teams that the Association has ever witnessed. Back when James announced that he would be returning home, the Cavaliers seemed destined for immediate success. Attaining that desired championship status will be more challenging than originally thought with the rise of the Western Conference. The path to a title will be difficult for the Cavaliers, but with their talent, anything is possible.
Recently, Cavaliers’ star point guard Kyrie Irving emphatically deemed the Cavaliers as “the team to beat.” That is a brash statement from the three-time All-Star who is on a squad that, despite being in first place, fired its coach halfway through the season. The Cavaliers still seem to be dealing with internal issues such as the recent James Twitter saga and the chatter of a potential second James-led super team.
The controversy surrounding this team all season has been petty, and observing from afar it appears that the Cavaliers are bored. Nothing that would allow their season to be deemed a success can be achieved until the playoffs begin, so the regular season is simply a means to an end. In their minds, their season officially starts when the playoffs begin on April 16. This 2015-16 Cavaliers’ side might be the team to beat in the woeful Eastern Conference, but if they reach the NBA Finals, they will be significant underdogs whether they play Golden State or San Antonio, and perhaps even the Oklahoma City Thunder.
One factor is fairly certain in regards to this Cavaliers’ team: James will not be as dominant going forward as he has been historically. He will turn 32 years old in December, and the wear and tear is becoming apparent in his performance. As the saying goes, Father Time is undefeated. For evidence of this, look no further than Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant. He was a premier player in this league three years ago, and now is set to retire, as he is barely hanging on to his physical ability by his shoelaces. There is certainly a finite timeframe for which James can sustain his current level of play. This is why there is such a sense of urgency surrounding the Cavaliers this year.
Although the Cavaliers sit atop the Eastern Conference standings as the playoffs approach, there is growing concern that the Cavaliers may not have what it takes to get it done in the playoffs. The window to win a championship with James as a franchise cornerstone is closing, so it is vital that they are playing their best basketball as the playoffs approach.
If the Cavaliers do fail to win the NBA championship this June, there will likely be some major changes in the off-season. Rumors were swirling that the Cavaliers were shopping Kevin Love at the trade deadline in February, so shipping him away in the off-season for a player more suited to being James’ sidekick seems plausible. Also, the possibility of James leaving Cleveland via free agency this summer is a very real scenario as well, unless the Cavs run the table in the playoffs. A complete team makeover or possibly even a mass exodus may be in the cards if the Cavaliers do not deliver Cleveland its first championship since 1964.
With all of this being said, I predict that the Cavaliers will steamroll through the Eastern Conference playoffs. They are just too talented, and when LeBron James is locked in and focused, there is not a single team in the East who has the ability to compete with the Cavs. In the Finals, I expect them to face the Golden State Warriors in a rematch of last years’ contest. The difference this year will be that the Cavaliers’ roster is set to be at full strength. Even with all of their stars on the court, the Cavaliers will need to play perfect basketball to dethrone the Warriors. This is not to say that they face an impossible task, but it will be daunting. The aspirations of this Cleveland team lie almost solely on the shoulders of James. Hopefully, he can shoulder that burden and carry the city of Cleveland to a championship, because if he cannot, this team might disband and James may be headed elsewhere.