The Cleveland Cavaliers look bored. Sunday they played the hapless Philadelphia 76ers, but needed a fourth quarter comeback to salvage a victory. Then came Tuesday’s blowout road loss against the Milwaukee Bucks, with J.R. Smith’s decision to wander off the court and say hello to Jason Terry. It was a moment emblematic of the team’s mindset at the moment.
But while Cleveland Coach Tyronn Lue and his players, including Smith, said all the right things to reporters after the team practiced Wednesday back in Northeast Ohio, it’s easy to see why the Cavaliers would already be bored with the regular season. Not only are they the defending NBA champions and coming off back-to-back trips to the NBA Finals, but we’re a month into the NBA regular season and it’s already clear there isn’t a single team in the East that can remotely challenge them.
In fact, with one month of the season behind us, it’s hard to even tell who the second-best team in the conference is at the moment. There are a glut of teams all within a couple games of each other, and all feel as if they’re playing in a different, inferior league than Cleveland.
For someone trying to determine who will wind up being the second-best team among that group, the default answer is probably the Toronto Raptors, who are 12-6 after playing a difficult schedule early on. But the Raptors were easily outclassed by the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals last season, and already have been beaten twice by them this year. Barring Toronto making some kind of significant midseason addition to its roster – a move they don’t seem to have the trade chips to make – it’s hard to see any reason for Cleveland to fear facing the Raptors again.
The Boston Celtics were the trendy pick this summer to challenge Cleveland. After winning 48 games last season, Boston went out and landed the most coveted free agent on the market not named Kevin Durant when they convinced Al Horford to leave the Atlanta Hawks to join them. But after losing at home Wednesday night to the Detroit Pistons – who were playing on the second half of a back-to-back – Boston is now 10-8, and so far has been underwhelming compared to preseason expectations.
Some of that can undoubtedly be marked down to injuries, as Horford missed several games with a concussion and Jae Crowder also missed several with an ankle sprain. But even with their team fully fit and functional, Boston still is heavily reliant on Isaiah Thomas for its offense. And while Thomas is an excellent player, at 5-foot-8 he fundamentally is going to have a harder time carrying a team in the postseason on his own. And, like Toronto, it’s hard to see how the Celtics have the kind of mix that’s capable of scaring Cleveland in the postseason – though, unlike Toronto, Boston has the trade chips to actually go out and get a difference maker.
After the opening weeks of the season, it looked like Horford’s old team, the Atlanta Hawks, might be a worthy challenger. Atlanta had been flattened by Cleveland each of the past two seasons in the playoffs, getting swept in the Eastern Conference finals in 2015 before getting swept in the Eastern Conference semis earlier this year. But after the Hawks had been overwhelmed by the Cavaliers inside in the past, swapping out Horford for Dwight Howard appeared to pay dividends when Atlanta went to Cleveland and won earlier this season, handing the Cavaliers their first loss.
But after starting the year 9-2, things have completely fallen apart. The Hawks have now dropped seven of their last eight games after a stinker in Phoenix Wednesday, having completely flopped during their long road stretch.
Even teams like the Pistons, Chicago Bulls and Charlotte Hornets can, at least for now, make claims for being in the discussion. Detroit was thought to be a possibility to make a leap after making the playoffs and giving the Cavaliers about as much difficulty as you could while getting swept as an eighth seed could last year. But that was before starting point guard Reggie Jackson was ruled out for the first several weeks of the season because of knee tendinitis. Wednesday’s win in Boston, however, has the Pistons back at .500, and Jackson is expected back sometime in the next week or so.
Chicago has gotten incredible production from Jimmy Butler and a strong start from Dwyane Wade to help overcome its lack of shooting that was supposed to be an issue. The Bulls currently have the third-best record in the East at 10-7, while the Hornets have ridden a blisteringly hot shooting start from Kemba Walker to remain in the mix in the middle of the East, as well.
Looking at all of these teams, though, brings the discussion back to the same place: how, exactly, are any of these teams supposed to trouble the Cavaliers? Not only does Cleveland still have James – who has made six straight trips to the NBA Finals for a reason – but Kevin Love is playing his best basketball since being traded there (averaging 21.8 points, 10.9 rebounds and shooting 42 percent from three-point range), Kyrie Irving remains one of the most potent scorers in the league and that trio is surrounded by a phalanx of shooters that’s allowed Cleveland to currently sit second in the league in three-pointers made, attempted and percentage.
So, yes, the Cavaliers look bored. But after looking at their competition in the East, can you blame them?