After a 29-point blowout loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Monday, the Cleveland Cavaliers relinquished their standing as top seed in the Eastern Conference. That title belongs to the Boston Celtics, at least for the day.
The loss sent a once self-assured Cavaliers locker room into disbelief, having devolved into the league’s second-worst defense since the All-Star break. Cleveland has the league’s worst defensive rating in the month of March.
What’s unclear, though, is how much seeding matters to a Cavaliers team that had been No. 1 since Nov. 2015. Or, on a larger a scale, how much it matters to LeBron James, who has made the NBA Finals for six consecutive seasons while only having the top seed twice.
The Celtics aren’t a lock to retain top-dog status in the East, and Boston and Cleveland have a massive April 5 showdown with clear-cut seeding implications.
But the Cavaliers don’t necessarily care about the No. 1 seed, according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst. Neither did the Warriors, after a three-game losing streak put their standing atop the West in jeopardy.
And looking at LeBron James’ run of six straight NBA Finals appearances, seeding isn’t the end-all be-all for his team making its way to a championship.
“(The No. 1 seed) used to be really important,” Draymond Green said in mid-March. “At this point, it doesn’t really matter anymore.”
LeBron’s had moments of crisis before
Expectations were sky high when James first arrived in Miami. But in his first month alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the Heat went just 9-8.
Miami went on to finish 58-24, marking its first of four straight finals appearances. Even though they lost that championship run to the Mavericks, the Heat had to prove they could jell together as a unit. They finished with the East’s No. 2 seed that season. The process just took time.
Fast forward to LeBron’s first year in Cleveland, and there was more adversity to overcome. The Cavaliers had lost nine of 10 games and found themselves 19-20 midway through January.
How did James respond?
He rattled off more points than any other player (27.9 PPG) for the next three weeks, leading Cleveland to a 12-game winning streak that set the tone for the rest of the season.
The Cavaliers never lost more than two straight games for the rest of the regular season, and James single-handedly dragged a depleted Cleveland roster through six games in a finals loss to the Warriors.
The Cavaliers finished as the second seed in the East that year, as well.
In total, James has finished with the No. 1 seed just two times in the past six seasons. He’s made the finals, though, every year since 2011.
This Cleveland team isn’t the same as those Miami teams
But Cleveland has regressed even further on defense, falling to 29th in defensive efficiency since the All-Star break. The Cavaliers have allowed 113.2 points per 100 possessions during that span, according to data from NBA.com, a mark that would be the league’s worst had they sustained it the entire season.
They have the NBA’s worst defensive rating (114.5) in the month of March.
The only team with a worse defensive rating since mid-February is the Los Angeles Lakers, who are visibly tanking to save their draft pick. They’re only giving up 0.6 more points than Cleveland per 100 possessions.
Only three teams in the last 40 years have ever won the championship after ranking outside of the top 10 in defensive rating, let alone the top 20. Each of those teams, like Cleveland, were defending champions.
Only 3 teams to win title in season they ranked outside top 10 in last 40 years ('01 LAL, '95 HOU, '88 LAL) were defending champs. https://t.co/La5ysXQV8c— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) March 13, 2017
Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue says he has “a secret plan” to fix Cleveland’s defense, according to Cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon, but he doesn’t want to tip his hand before the playoffs and give teams an opportunity to adjust.
That’s a smart idea, one indicative of a coach who doesn’t care about regular season seeding.
But if the Cavs play to their potential, none of that matters
Once Cleveland realized it wasn’t winning more games than the Golden State Warriors this season, regular season record didn’t matter. Champions don’t play for the regular season. They play for the finals.
Home-court advantage for Cleveland in the NBA Finals has long been out of reach. Those hopes were dashed when Golden State signed Kevin Durant and when Kawhi Leonard began to play like Kobe Bryant. If the Houston Rockets come out of the West, they’ll also have a better record than any Eastern Conference team.
The only question was how much energy the Cavaliers would exert to get to the finals.
The talent disparity between the Cavaliers and Celtics (or any other Eastern Conference team) is tangible. Cleveland has two All-Star starters and a reserve in Kevin Love. They added Kyle Korver, Deron Williams, and a rim-protecting big in Larry Sanders.
The Celtics are deep, but Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford are their bread and butter. That’s why they went after Jimmy Butler and Paul George at the trade deadline. They need another star to legitimately compete with the Cavaliers, let alone one of the West’s powerhouse teams.
In the playoffs, it’s the stars that matter. The supporting cast plays a role, but it’s a team’s top talent that moves the needle. It’s why Atlanta nearly (and should have) blew it up midseason. It’s why the Celtics nearly mortgaged their future for an All-Star at the trade deadline.
And it’s why the Cavaliers are still the heavy favorites to come out of the East no matter where they finish in the standings.
Cleveland is planning for Golden State or San Antonio, or maybe even Houston. LeBron’s history shows a shaky regular season doesn’t mean much come playoff time.
Because May and June are when the legacies are made. October through April are when the bills get paid.