Eight games into the regular season, the Cleveland Cavaliers are 3-5 and have lost four straight games, which include losses to the Brooklyn Nets, the New York Knicks and, on Thursday, a 17-point loss at home to the Indiana Pacers in which the Cavs gave up 124 points a day after holding a team meeting to discuss their defensive woes.
Regular-season turmoil has been a familiar narrative for LeBron James and the Cav. Three seasons ago, Cleveland was 19-20 in January. The following year, the Cavs fired head coach David Blatt despite having the best record in the East (30-11) at the time. Last season, Cleveland stumbled into the playoffs with a 12-15 record after the All-Star break, with a defense that ranked 29th in the league in the second half of the season.
All three seasons ended with the Cavs flipping a switch in the playoffs, mostly rolling through the competition in the East on their way to three consecutive Finals appearances and a championship in 2016. So, it's no surprise Cleveland is facing some early season adversity, but, for the first time in four years, the struggles on the floor appear to reflect larger problems with a reconstructed roster.
LeBron remains the best player in the league -- averaging 25.9 points, 8.9 assists, 7.0 rebounds and shooting 59.4 percent from the field through eight games -- but there are a bunch of pieces on the aging club that don't exactly fit.
Dwyane Wade has averaged just 7.7 points, and removed himself from the starting lineup less than a week into the season. Moving back into a starting role, J.R. Smith has made just 8-for-41 from three so far this season. Jae Crowder, acquired in the Irving deal to provide perimeter defense and three-point shooting, has played just 25.6 minutes per game and shot 28.1 percent from three.
Per NBA.com, the Cavs are scoring 104.3 points per 100 possessions, which is middle-of-the-pack. Eight games into the season means this is a very small sample size, and the offense should perk up once the rotation settles and the new players figure out their roles, and, presumably, their shooting numbers perk up. A team with LeBron should figure it out on the offensive end, even with so many mismatched players, but defensively, it's unclear how the Cavs can solve their issues.
Right now, they are the worst defensive team in the league, allowing 111.3 points per 100 possessions. You can attribute a lack of effort to those numbers, although that excuse sounds a bit discouraging considering the players held a team meeting to discuss exactly that and came out with arguably their worst defensive effort of the season the night after. The Cavs' roster lacks the speed, youth and athleticism for Tyronn Lue to find a five-man lineup that can make them even an above-average team on D.
Wade, Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, Jeff Green and Kyle Korver don't present themselves as a plus on the defensive end on most nights. Isaiah Thomas, who is expected to return in January at the earliest from a hip injury, won't provide a defensive upgrade at the point guard position. Iman Shumpert and Tristan Thompson -- two players with the type of defensive upside the Cavs desperately need -- are both out with injuries.
The Cavs have Brooklyn's first round pick in the 2018 draft as a potential chip to upgrade their roster in-season, but there isn't necessarily a player in the trade market worth adding, and the organization would be correct to keep the pick as a future asset with LeBron heading to unrestricted free agency this summer. Also: the Nets don't look like they'll be one of the worst teams in the league this season, which would take away some of the trade value of the pick.
Without a trade, the Cavs have to bet on few things to fall into place for them. If Thomas can return healthy, he offers them a path towards being a dominant offensive team again. Smaller lineups featuring Thomas at point guard and a front court headed by LeBron and Love can be lethal. Once Rose, Wade and Thompson and Shumpert -- presumably off the bench -- are together, the Cavs might have a semblance of a rotation where the starters provide the offensive spark with the second unit giving them some sort of defensive identity.
The East has looked wide-open so far, and come playoff time, the team with LeBron will still be considered the prohibitive favorite to make the Finals. But in years past, the Cavs have known exactly who they were. Even with a below-average defense, an offense led by LeBron and Irving was enough to dominate opponents. Now, the roster is teetering and on the decline, and it's unclear how the Cavs can find a consistent formula on either end of the floor, let alone find the balance on both ends that Lue wants to see.
After the team meeting this week, Lue said the Cavs are simply not having fun. LeBron's dominance in the East -- seven straight Finals appearances, the last three with Cleveland -- has perhaps overshadowed the simple issue of fatigue with a team that's trying to make a fourth Finals run together. Chris Bosh, who made four straight Finals with the Miami Heat, once talked about how drained he was by the end of the run.
"You're trying to three-peat and do all these things," Bosh told Grantland's Zach Lowe in 2014. "That's what a lot of people misinterpret when we say it wasn't fun. That's the reason it wasn't fun. To live up to expectations isn't fun. It's fun maybe the first year. But the third year and fourth year, it's just very, very difficult."
That part of the equation might be catching up to the Cavs too. They've also lost some core pieces who were integral to keeping the locker room together. James Jones, who LeBron once called his favorite player of all time, retired this offseason to take a front office role in Phoenix. Richard Jefferson and his jovial social media personality was traded before the start of the season for luxury tax purposes.
Add all that to Irving's departure, the flaws of the Cavs' new additions this offseason, LeBron injuring himself during the preseason, and there are a confluence of factors as to why the Cavs are the third-worst team in the East right now, ahead of only the Bulls and Hawks in the standings.
Right now, Cleveland is far away from even thinking about the matchup problems the Warriors will present in a potential Finals rematch. They have to find a way to start playing good basketball, and restore order. It gets late early in the NBA.