If you simply read NBA analysis or even Basketball Twitter without ever looking at the standings, you'd think the Cleveland Cavaliers were a massive disappointment. No one is ever happy with anything the Cavaliers do. Their wins over lesser teams are marked as uninspiring; their losses are a catastrophe of the highest order.
It is true that the Cavaliers have under-performed relative to expectations. But is that because Cleveland is so much less potent than it should be, or is it because our expectations were out of whack based on that heavy payroll?
The Cavaliers are on pace to finish with the third- or fourth-best record in the NBA, more than 55 wins and the No. 1 seed in their conference, which guarantees a home-court advantage through three rounds of the playoffs. Cleveland is unlikely to win 60 games, sure, but why would we expect them to do that? Over the previous five 82-game seasons, only eight teams -- fewer than two per year -- hit that mark. Winning 60 games is fairly rare and an awful high bar to set for a team that began the season behind the injury 8-ball.
It's not just performance. We expect the Cavaliers to be prettier in practice, to leverage the presence of three offensive megaliths into something greater. Sounds a lot like Miami, circa 2010-12. When LeBron joined Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Heat, we expected a basketball paradigm shift. We expected prompt and frequent genius. For the first two seasons, we got less than that. Have we forgotten?
Have we forgotten that in 2011-12, during that contemptible lockout-shortened season, Miami finished 46-20 (.697), fourth-best in the NBA and well out of No. 1 in the East? That winning clip equates to a 57-25 record in a normal season. Cleveland is currently on pace to win 57 or 58 games this season. So in the most basic indication of team quality, these second-year Cavaliers are equal to that second-year Heat team. (Those Heatians won the title, by the way.)
By the way, the preseason over/under line on wins -- a good proxy for expectations -- on those 2011-12 Heat was set at 50.5. Miami was under by five games. Cleveland's preseason over/under line this season was 57.5. The Cavs will be very close to hitting it, if not going over.
This isn't to say Cleveland is going to do what Miami did. LeBron was younger and better. Wade was way more trustworthy on both ends than Kyrie Irving, though Kyrie is a better shooter. Kevin Love is no Chris Bosh.
But a lot of how we feel about that Heat team (and the utterly dominant one that succeeded it in 2012-13) is based on what Miami did in the playoffs. The Heat nuked the Knicks, ejected the Pacers and narrowly slayed the last-gasp Celtics in a thoroughly epic East finals. Then they pasted the Thunder in the Finals. Everything came together perfectly. Everything snapped into place. The rest was history.
If you'd written the story of LeBron's first two seasons in Miami before that playoff run, it would have been a massively underwhelming yarn. The Heat with LeBron were a disappointment, until they weren't. That applies here in Cleveland, too.
What makes us incapable of presuming -- in fact, hostile to the presumption -- that the best is yet to come from this stew of talent? What makes us believe that by virtue of their singular talents LeBron, Kyrie and Love can form a basketball Voltron and wreak havoc on the league? It (almost) never happens like that! (Boston '08, being the exception to everything.) This Cavs franchise had been among the worst in the league for four straight seasons before LeBron returned and Love arrived. Finals in Year 1, East No. 1 seed and counting in Year 2. Yet, we're disappointed?
Blame the Warriors and Spurs, who are erasing all limits on what elite teams can be. They might both go undefeated at home. 73-9 is gonna happen. 75-7 might happen! Cleveland could win 60, 62, 65 damn games and they wouldn't live up to what's happening out West. Are we to hold that against the Cavaliers, that they too failed to be historically good during the regular season? They are meeting preseason predictions, but they aren't breaking records, thus they disappoint? Is this a remotely fair standard?
The good thing about sports and about the NBA is that all that matters -- all that really matters in the grand narrative that survives time and memory -- is what happens in the playoffs. Cleveland doesn't have a cakewalk to the Finals, but neither do the Warriors or Spurs.
As LeBron himself knows all too well, once you're in the Finals, regular season standings mean nothing. The Mavericks taught him that lesson, and it stung. Perhaps he can impart the same knowledge on the new wave of superstars. Perhaps he can be the grizzled old star drinking champagne and Steph Curry or Kawhi Leonard's salty tears in June. As the great philosopher Kevin Garnett once screamed, anything is possible.
So long as that maxim holds true, perhaps we shouldn't bury LeBron or his Cavaliers just yet.
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