Things are about as bad as they could possibly be for a team that still has LeBron James on the roster. Kevin Love is out for six weeks, J.R. Smith for three or four. The Cavs have only a two-game lead in the Eastern Conference, and LeBron is playing so many minutes that by the start of the playoffs he will probably require a walker. Somebody on TV today was insisting that a trade for Carmelo Anthony was the only way to salvage the season.
Let’s take a breath. Then take another. Love and Smith are both projected to be back by April 1, which gives them two weeks of regular season games and the first round of the playoffs to get reacclimated. Even if the Cavs go into absolute cruise control for the rest of the regular season, it is hard to imagine them winning fewer than half of their remaining games, which would leave them with a final record of 53-29. The current third seed in the East, Washington, would have to win 20 of their last 28 games to get to 53 wins. Toronto, a trendy pick because of their point differential and acquisition of Serge Ibaka, would have to win 20 of 25. So the Cavs, barring an absolute free fall, are likely to finish with a top two seed, which means an opening round matchup with the likes of Indiana, Chicago, or Detroit, and home court advantage in the second round against Washington, Atlanta, or Toronto.
All of that leads to a likely Eastern Conference Finals matchup against the Celtics, who are playing great ball and who have the leverage to add a major piece between now and the trade deadline. Boston would be a tough matchup for the Cavs under any circumstances because of their depth and because their hottest player, Isaiah Thomas, would be matched up against the Cavs’ worst defender, Kyrie Irving. That matchup gets even tougher if the Celtics have home court.
But that’s the reality of the worst case scenario: a slightly tougher second round matchup, and a potential seventh game of the conference finals on the road. In the meantime, the Cavs are integrating Derrick Williams into their rotation, and have cleared a roster spot so that they can add one more piece before the trade deadline. Williams gives the Cavs versatility and athleticism that will serve them well in a matchup against Boston or Golden State. There will be a substantial push for that last piece to be an inside player, since they are now missing Love and Chris Anderson. That would be a response for the regular season, which GM David Griffin has shown the ability to resist thus far. For the postseason and beyond, the biggest hole in the Cavs’ rotation is someone who can run the offense for 15-20 minutes a game. If they still have trade chips after that hole is filled, it would make sense to get another big, as it has ever since Anderson got hurt, but that is definitely a secondary priority. Whether the lack of a big is worth getting rid of one of the younger players at the end of the bench is debatable. Jordan McRae has shown himself capable of volume scoring, but so do about eight other guys on this roster, and McRae doesn’t bring much of anything else. Kay Felder has enough ball handling and scoring skills to raise at least the possibility that he could be a serious contributor in a year or two, if he figures out which of his moves work in this league. If he could bring someone who could help in the playoffs right now, though, it would be tough to say no. The Cavs have shown no inclination to sacrifice the present for the future, which is appropriate when you have LeBron James.
What everyone really wants to know is whether recent events have impacted the Cavs’ chances in the NBA Finals, since most experts still feel that they will end up in another rematch against the Golden State Warriors. That reality has not changed, either. The Warriors remain the most talented team in the league, and if they are healthy and playing their best ball, they are overwhelmingly likely to win the championship. But if Love is healthy and Smith locates his jumper during his hiatus, the Cavs can bring an arsenal of shooters to the Finals that is perhaps unparalleled in NBA history. Regardless of who is acquired to back up Kyrie Irving, the first four guys off the bench will be Smith, Kyle Korver, Channing Frye, and Richard Jefferson. Korver and Frye are both shooting well over 40 per cent from three point range this season, and Smith did so last year. That range of weapons, plus starters James, Irving, Love and Iman Shumpert, all of whom are currently above 38 percent from three, gives the Cavs a reasonable chance of getting hot and taking the Warriors to six or seven games, at which point, as we learned last year, anything can happen.