But rather than panic, we're trying to figure out what any of this means. CBS Sports' Matt Moore, Brad Botkin and James Herbert break down Cleveland's ugly start in the latest three-man weave.
Matt Moore: The Cavaliers are off to a rough start. The general consensus is, "Look, they do this every year, and then every year they tear through the East and make all this look silly." It's certainly possible that happens again. But I want to present some ideas.
First off, this isn't the same team as the past three seasons. They had Kyrie Irving to bail them out offensively if the rest of the team didn't have it. Now, with Isaiah Thomas on the shelf, they don't have that option. Kevin Love is an underpinning to this team. He isn't someone who lifts them past adversity. Derrick Rose may have a night or two where he takes over and wins it; same goes for Dwyane Wade. But none of those guys are going to rip off many 30-point games. Meanwhile, they've gotten worse defensively, somehow. Jae Crowder hasn't helped as expected, and the good defensive support players, Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith, sport the worst defensive ratings on the team. Who is going to get better? Where is the improvement going to come from? Oh, yeah, and they're relying on multiple guys over 34 years old to give major minutes.
Even then, yeah, you can make an argument that the worst they'll finish is fourth in the East. If that happens, does it matter? They can still tear through. But let me put forth another argument: It was less about the Cavs tearing though teams as the East vomiting on itself the last few years. Cleveland faced Atlanta, which they simply dominated matchup-wise, twice. The Cavs faced the Raptors, who is arguably the worst team imaginable when it comes to how they perform in the playoffs relative to the regular season. And they faced the super-try-hard Celtics, who Danny Ainge recognized were such a shame that he blew the team up. Will that happen this season? Are they definitely going to face teams who give Cleveland their worst shots? Maybe. But do we know that?
I'm no saying the Cavs should panic. I'm not saying the need to trade everyone including LeBron and tank. I'm not saying I think they lose in the second round. I'd still put them as the favorite among the East teams. But I don't think we're at a place where we can just say "Oh, well, they do this every year." And all of this is totally beyond the point that if they do this, and bring this team to the Finals? It'll be even worse than last season. All I'm saying is we should call a team that's playing badly now a team that's playing badly now, and that this version of the Cavs hasn't earned our faith that they'll turn it around.
Brad Botkin: There was a decent contingent that said the Cavs actually got better in the Irving deal -- an assertion almost entirely propped up by the belief that Thomas could effectively cancel out Irving's production, which would leave the versatile Crowder as something of a free addition. Obviously that case holds zero water without Thomas on the floor. As is stands, the Cavs have replaced Irving with Rose. They're not the same team. Not even close.
Through that lens, it's really not even worth evaluating the Cavs as a whole until we see them with Thomas.
Also, to Matt's point, there is clearly an element of "this is what Cleveland does every year" that we have to weigh heavily. Over the last three seasons, the Cavs have averaged fewer than 54 regular-season wins, and they've only been the East's No. 1 seed once. Last year, they had the 22nd-ranked defense in the league. Everyone wondered if they could just "flip the switch" come playoff time. Well, they didn't exactly flip the switch on that end; Cleveland's 108 defensive rating was nearly identical to its regular-season mark. But it didn't matter, at least not until it met up with Golden State.
So why would these early-season defensive struggles suddenly matter this year? I don't think they do. Defense over the course of an entire season is about consistent habits and effort, but for one series, or even one playoff run, we've seen that teams who have the right blend of personnel can lock in for stretches. Look at the 2015-16 Thunder, who were a mess defensively only to turn into something of a juggernaut in nearly knocking off the Warriors in the conference finals. With Crowder on board, with LeBron and Smith switching on the perimeter, with Thompson at the rim, the Cavs, on paper, absolutely have the parts in place to get it together in money time.
And unfortunately, that's the only thing that matters for the Cavs, who have the luxury of not caring about their regular season and subsequent playoff seed. As long as they're in the East, as much as I'd like to talk myself into the Celtics, Wizards and Raptors as viable threats, it likely won't matter if they win 45 games or 60 games. They're going to be favored to go to a fourth straight Finals either way.
James Herbert: LeBron complained about their "top-heavy" roster last season, and that problem is much worse now, unless you're a big fan of Rose and Jeff Green. It's hard to fault the front office for signing them to minimum contracts, but it's also hard to make a case that they fit well on this roster. I'd argue there is still a chance Cleveland will look better than last season come playoff time, but that's assuming Thomas is able to reach his peak and the rotation is significantly different. It would help if Cedi Osman is able to contribute by that point.
It's really not that deep. Rose, Green and Wade don't help much when your major problem is defense, and Thompson's minutes have been cut, too. As Matt said, it's fair to say the team is playing badly now, and I'd add that it's fair to question some of the moves it has made. The Cavs still employ LeBron, though, and they should be able to balance things better once Thomas is healthy. It's a bit of a bummer -- and an exaggeration -- to say that nothing they do matters right now, but it's still extremely early and these guys are used to playing until June.
On Monday before the New York Knicks hosted the Denver Nuggets, clips from the Cavs-Knicks game played in the visitors locker room at Madison Square Garden. A reporter struck up a conversation with Nuggets forward Richard Jefferson about his former team, and Jefferson emphatically stated that they'd be just fine. Before grabbing a slice of pizza, Jefferson said that Cleveland's season hasn't really even started yet. He would know.
Moore: Here's another question. Is "flipping the switch" sustainable, over time? The Cavaliers didn't "flip the switch" in 2015; they legitimately figured out their team for the first time. In 2016, you look at the back half of their season, and yeah, it's clear that they improved; they really found a groove over that last half of the year, and that fueled their first run where they really were playoff-impressive. Then last season, again, they flipped the switch. But eventually that's going to bite you.
When the 2011 Lakers struggled, we all thought "well, it doesn't matter, they'll flip the switch." Then the Mavs hit them like an absolute hurricane, and that was the end of that era in L.A.. This feels a lot like that. It'll be interesting to see how this plays out. Guys around the team will get a sense of where the squad is at; folks around the 2014 Heat knew that team was coming apart way before LeBron dropped his SI article. Thomas isn't a Cav for life, he's not even really a Cav yet. Smith has regressed back to his career mean. Wade and Love are only going to be there exactly as long as LeBron is.
My point in saying this is that in order for them to flip the switch, in order for these early struggles to not define them, there has to be a collective togetherness, and right now, you don't get that sense. This team knows it can't beat the Warriors, and if they can't beat the Warriors, what's the point in fighting through the malaise? This stuff isn't simple, it isn't easy, and I'm just not convinced that this Cavs team is constructed well enough, or that the East is so bad this season as to say they have nothing to worry about.
Herbert: Yeah, that's where LeBron's free agency comes into this. On a recent podcast with ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz, Doc Rivers said that it's hard for a team to be truly invested when there is more than one core player in a contract year. Everyone in Cleveland knows this team could be torn apart at the end of the season, and that has to be at least a little bit strange. The key, to me, is whether or not James truly believes this team can take down the Warriors. I'm not as sure as you are that the answer is no, but if it ever feels that way, then the Cavs won't be a particularly fun team to play for.
When it comes to "flipping the switch," most people just think about effort. Cleveland has developed a reputation as lazy during the regular season, and the idea is that it will start to care more about getting stops in the playoffs. With this group, though, It might be more about personnel. When it really matters, can Tyronn Lue keep good defensive lineups on the floor? Crowder helps a lot in this area, but it's going to be tough to hide Thomas and there are going to be difficult decisions involving Thompson and Smith, two guys who were crucial parts of the Cavs' championship run two seasons ago.
No one is going to watch Cleveland these days and see anything resembling a "collective togetherness," as you put it. It has been trying to integrate new players, experiment with new lineups and just get by without its starting point guard. By the end of the season, it will have to be more than the sum of its parts.
Botkin: It's a good point, James, that people wrongly assume effort is the only thing a team like Cleveland needs to address when it decides to "flip the switch." Come playoff time, personnel is first and foremost. Even healthy, I don't think Thomas is the player Irving is. Rose and Wade cause more issues than they address -- if they address any at all. I don't see how Love doesn't get lost in the mix when they try to integrate Thomas at the last minute as a potential second option gong into the playoffs.
That said, defense is funny. It can come and go. Depth is a problem for the Cavs, but it's not like a lineup that includes LeBron, Crowder, Thompson and Smith can't put together a stretch of stops when they need them. Don't let the big picture completely cloud what a team can do in moments, and don't lose sight of the randomness that make up some of these debates. Boston was a great defensive team two seasons ago, then regressed last year with the same players. When everyone thought the Celtics would struggle on the defensive end this year with the addition of Irving and the losses of Crowder and Avery Bradley, here they are playing on a string and rebounding the heck out of the ball to finish stops. But they're also a lower-third offensive team at the moment.
That's my point: The other teams have flaws, too.
Indeed, this conversation is as much about Cleveland's potential competition as it is the Cavs themselves. I was on board with the Celtics being a real threat to the Cavs this season before Gordon Hayward went down. I love watching John Wall and Bradley Beal do their thing as much as anyone. I'm fascinated with this sudden Raptors shift in philosophy, and they have looked really good.
There is definitely an element of people wanting to believe the Cavs have come back to the Eastern pack because, frankly, these other teams feel more fun and this idea of watching the Cavs roll through the playoffs again, even after struggling through the regular season, makes everything we want to believe in feel irrelevant.
But in the end, if the only thing we have to convince ourselves that the Cavs are in trouble is that LeBron might play out the string of the season with half a heart, I'm not buying that at all. I think all these questions will fuel yet another superhuman playoff run for James. And that trumps the worries about contract situations. Since LeBron's return, the Cavs have never really felt like a long-term, everybody-buys-in situation. They feel like a team that gears up one playoff run at a time without looking too much farther down the road that that. Oklahoma City is doing the same thing with Carmelo Anthony and Paul George potential one-year rentals, and I'm definitely not ready to write them off.
In the end, I still just don't see anyone in the East who can quite stand up to LeBron when he has something to prove all of the Cavs' issues notwithstanding -- though, admittedly, it does feel like the gap could be starting to close.