Before any Cavs’ fans become overly concerned about Cleveland’s two game losing streak, it is worth remembering that in the long 82 game NBA season even the eventual NBA Champion struggles at times: almost exactly a year ago (December 9, 2008), the L.A. Lakers lost 113-101 to the Sacramento Kings, the team that finished with the worst record in the entire league (17-65). The 2007-08 NBA Champion Boston Celtics displayed remarkable resolve and defensive consistency but even they had some clunker losses: they dropped a 95-83 decision at home to the Charlotte Bobcats and also lost both ends of a home and home set to the Washington Wizards. Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls never had losses like that, though, right? It is funny how the passage of time tends to make people forget things: Jordan’s 1995-96, 72-10 record-setting NBA Champions lost 104-72 to the New York Knicks–and those Knicks were hardly a powerhouse, finishing 47-35. Those Bulls also lost to the 21-61 Toronto Raptors, an expansion team. Both of those losses came before the Bulls set the regular season record for wins, so it would be incorrect to suggest that the Bulls had shut things down.
It is true that a “bad” loss—a loss to a clearly inferior team—could potentially cost a team in the battle for playoff positioning; last season after the Lakers finished one game behind the Cavaliers in the overall standings they surely rued that loss to the Kings but the Lakers ended up with homecourt advantage in the NBA Finals anyway and went on to capture the title. One complicating factor for the Cavaliers this year is that while the 2009 Lakers were the class of the West—finishing 11 games ahead of the pack—it looks like the 2010 Eastern Conference race will turn out to be a four team dogfight between the Celtics, Cavaliers, Orlando Magic and Atlanta Hawks. In that regard it would be a significant advantage to earn the East’s top seed not only because that team will play the weakest team in the first round but because the top seed will face the fourth seed in the second round while the number two and three teams face off in the other bracket. Assuming that Orlando stays in front of Atlanta, if Cleveland finishes first overall then the Cavs could potentially play Atlanta in the second round with homecourt advantage and then only have to beat the winner of a Boston-Orlando matchup to advance to the NBA Finals. The Hawks are a much improved team but they have yet to demonstrate that they can win on the road in the postseason, so the Cavs would surely prefer to face them in the second round as opposed to possibly having to beat Orlando and Boston in consecutive series.
All of those scenarios are purely hypothetical right now and there are two factors that are even more important than the race for playoff positioning: the overall trend for a team and the likelihood that a team is properly constructed to win a championship.
As I discussed a couple years ago, two important statistical indicators for possible championship success are point differential and defensive field goal percentage. Despite Cleveland’s slow start and the two recent losses, the Cavs rank sixth in the NBA in point differential and are tied for second in defensive field goal percentage; the Lakers ranked second and sixth respectively in those categories last season en route to winning the championship (the 2008 Celtics led the NBA in point differential and defensive field goal percentage). The Cavs have some well known problems in screen/roll coverage but they are still a top notch defensive team; just as significantly, defense has always been a focal point for Cleveland Coach Mike Brown, so it is likely that the Cavs will maintain or improve their rankings in these categories as the season progresses.
The Phoenix Suns are an excellent example of a team that is not properly constructed to win a championship; since acquiring Steve Nash they have posted two 60-plus win seasons and they won at least 54 games for four straight years but during that time they never made it to the NBA Finals. Their run and gun style can catch a lot of teams flat-footed during the regular season but in the playoffs there are no back to back games and an opponent can zero in on nullifying a team’s strengths and exposing a team’s weaknesses. When the Suns brought in Shaquille O’Neal to provide a paint presence at both ends of the court, several Suns’ players chafed at the idea of playing a slow down, defensive-oriented style, causing ABC commentator Jeff Van Gundy to declare that this attitude is a “blight” on the careers of Nash, Amare Stoudemire and Grant Hill.
In contrast, the Cavs are a defensive-minded team, so the coaching staff and players welcome the addition of O’Neal because O’Neal can help them match up better against Dwight Howard and other top flight big men. LeBron James is averaging his fewest field goal attempts per game since his rookie season and his scoring average is at a four year low but he is not complaining about the ball going into O’Neal in the post; instead, James has increased his offensive efficiency (he is posting career-high shooting percentages from the field, free throw line and three point range) and he is averaging a career-high 8.2 apg, using his passing skills to create easy scoring opportunities for O’Neal in the post and for other Cavs when James or O’Neal are double-teamed.
Six of Cleveland’s next nine games are on the road, including a stretch of four games in six days that culminates in the much anticipated Christmas Day showdown with the Lakers, owners of the best record in the NBA. Road trips challenge teams to execute efficiently despite fatigue and provide an opportunity for teams to bond together. This season will not rise or fall on the outcome of any one particular regular season game—even though the game with the Lakers will obviously be treated as if the fate of the world is at stake—but this upcoming nine game run provides a good litmus test for the Cavaliers, particularly in light of the fact that the Lakers will also play six of their next nine games on the road. The Lakers’ schedule was frontloaded with a lot of home games, so this stretch will be a big test for them. If the Cavaliers play well and the Lakers stumble slightly then Cleveland could move to the top of the NBA standings by the end of the month; conversely, if the Lakers continue to roll and the Cavs fail to keep pace then the Lakers could create some real separation. Either way, what happens in the next two-three weeks will turn out to be a lot more meaningful than an overtime loss to an energized, young Memphis team or a road setback versus a scrappy, well rested Rockets team that generally beats Cleveland in Houston.