Former Detroit Pistons star Richard Hamilton picked the Cleveland Cavaliers to win the NBA title before the start of the season and he’s not changing his prediction now, even as LeBron James and Co look vulnerable in the midst of a tough stretch.
Cleveland couldn’t be playing much worse as they enter a marquee match-up with the Golden State Warriors tonight (UAE: 05:00 +1), having dropped eight of their last 11 games in a concerning run that has once again raised questions over their status as contenders.
Yet Hamilton, who won a championship with the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons and was a three-time All-Star during his 14-year career, remains confident in the Cavaliers.
“I still think the Warriors are the team to beat, but I think Cleveland is going to win. That’s my own personal prediction,” Hamilton told Sport360° ahead of the second meeting between Golden State and Cleveland this season.
“I mean you have the best player on the planet with LeBron James. The one thing about LeBron is he challenges his team in different ways. But if you look at how that team is made up, that team is made up to win a championship. That team is not made up to lead the regular season with wins in the Eastern Conference. You have guys on that team like Dwyane Wade, the veterans they brought in like Isaiah Thomas, those guys play their best basketball when the playoffs start.”
Much of Cleveland’s woes this season have centred on the defensive end, where they’re allowing the second-most points per 100 possessions in the league at 109.3.
Hamilton knows a thing or two about what it takes to succeed defensively, with his successful Pistons teams of the previous decade known for their ability to limit opponents.
While the Cavaliers’ effort has fluctuated wildly, the 39-year-old Hamilton believes their defensive struggles have been more about the players on the roster and how coach Tyronn Lue mixes and matches lineups.
It’s a problem Cleveland can choose to fix in the playoffs, as long as defence eventually becomes the focus, according to Hamilton.
“I think with the Cavaliers, it’s more about their personnel. It all depends on what kind of team they’re going to try to be, especially in the playoffs,” he said.
“Are they going to be a 3-point shooting team or are they going to be a defensive-minded team? That’s more of a concern to me.
“Who is Tyronn Lue going to put in for different situations? If they’re going to try to out-shoot someone like Golden State, I think they just can’t. Your best shooters are not your best defenders and your best defenders are not your best shooters.
“So if they feel they’re going to concentrate more on defence and say ‘alright, you know what, a guy like Jae Crowder is going to play more minutes than Kyle Korver because defensively his impact on the floor is better’. It’s something Tyronn Lue has to figure out.”
Loss after loss and defensive breakdown after defensive breakdown, it’s getting harder to trust that the Cleveland Cavaliers will look like a different team when it truly matters.
The story feels as old as time. The Cavaliers look vulnerable as their weaknesses are exposed in the regular season. We collectively wonder if this is finally the year that a LeBron James team gets knocked off its perch in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Cleveland dispel doubts by steamrolling the competition on their way to another NBA Finals appearance.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
If past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour, then there’s no point reading into the Cavaliers’ current woes, right?
Well, at the risk of sounding like ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’, this season feels different.
What does consecutive 25-point losses mean for the Cavaliers? No team has gone on to win an NBA title after losing consecutive games by 25 points that season, and only one team has even reached the Finals ('73-74 Bucks). More from @EliasSports at https://t.co/zy7fgAN15c pic.twitter.com/jZ3IRXvlQh— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 12, 2018
For one, this isn’t the same roster that flipped the switch in the playoffs the last few years. LeBron James remains the ultimate constant, but many of the key supporting pieces around him have changed – Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade, Jeff Green and Jose Calderon are all in their first season with Cleveland.
And while it’s easy to attribute their current struggles to lack of effort, especially on defence, the truth is their personnel consists of fundamental flaws and inabilities on that end of the floor that can’t be fixed by just upping the stakes.
Cleveland’s defensive rating of 109.5 points allowed per 100 possessions isn’t just concerning, it’s likely fatal. That figure ranks the Cavaliers as the second-worst team in the league, ahead of only Sacramento.
For comparison, Cleveland were bad last year, but ranked 22nd in defensive rating at 108.0. There’s a difference between being below average and being nearly worst in the league.
Couple the Cavaliers’ deficiencies with the improvement of their two biggest Eastern rivals – Toronto and Boston – and there’s every reason to believe the gap has been significantly closed.
It may not end up mattering as it’s possible Cleveland are challenged more than ever through the first three rounds, only to get through the East again.
But really, this entire conversation doesn’t matter, if we’re being existential, because there’s no way this version of the Cavaliers can beat Golden State.
Terry Rozier scored 20 points off the Boston bench to lead six double-figure scorers Wednesday and the Celtics routed visiting Cleveland 102-88 in an NBA Eastern Conference showdown.
Jayson Tatum and reserve Marcus Smart each scored 15 points, Jaylen Brown added 14 points and Kyrie Irving and Al Horford each contributed 11 and nine rebounds as the East-leading Celtics improved to 31-10.
“That shows what type of team we are,” Rozier said of the Celtics’ scoring depth. “From day one we’ve always had that next man up mentality and we’ve kept it going.
“We just want to build from this and keep going.”
— NBA (@NBA) January 4, 2018
LeBron James led the Cavaliers with 19 points and added seven rebounds and six assists but Cleveland fell to 25-13, third in the East, behind Boston and Toronto.
Cavaliers big man Kevin Love injured his right ankle late in the second quarter and managed only two points on 1-of-11 shooting.
Cleveland’s Isaiah Thomas sat out a night after making his season debut for the Cavs, missing more than two months with a hip injury after being traded from the Celtics in a deal that sent Irving to Boston.
Thomas exchanged hugs and smiles with his former team-mates before and after the game and when he was shown on the scoreboard videoscreen, Boston fans responded with a standing ovation. Ex-Celtics forward Jae Crowder received one as well.
— NBA (@NBA) January 4, 2018
“It’s always great going against your former team-mates,” Rozier said. “Those guys are great. I played two good years with them. Always great catching up.”
DeMar DeRozan scored 35 points to power the Toronto Raptors (26-10) to a 124-115 victory at Chicago while Greek standout Giannis Antetokounmpo had 31 points and 10 rebounds in Milwaukee’s 122-101 home romp over Indiana.
Stephen Curry scored 32 points, including the game-winning 3-pointer with 3.4 seconds remaining, and reigning champion Golden State improved to an NBA-best 30-8 with a 125-122 triumph at Dallas.
— NBA (@NBA) January 4, 2018
Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson each added 25 points for the Warriors. Durant had 11 rebounds while Draymond Green contributed 18 points and 10 rebounds.
The Houston Rockets, playing without guard James Harden due to a hamstring injury, had 27 points off the bench from Gerald Green and 21 more from Clint Capela in a 116-98 romp at Orlando.
Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson each scored 17 points for the Rockets (27-9), who had 13 assists from Chris Paul and never trailed. Aaron Gordon led the Magic with 16 points.
Bradley Beal scored 27 points while John Wall added 25 and nine assists in Washington’s 121-103 home rout of New York. Poland’s Marcin Gortat added 21 for the Wizards while reserve Michael Beasley led New York with 20 points.
Australian guard Ben Simmons scored 26 points while Joel Embiid shook off a right hand injury to produce 21 points and 11 rebounds in Philadelphia’s 112-106 home victory over San Antonio.
Aussie reserve guard Patty Mills scored 26 points to lead the Spurs, who rested star guards Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker plus Kawhi Leonard. LaMarcus Aldridge added 24 points and 14 rebounds in a losing cause.
Canadian Kelly Olynyk had 25 points and 13 rebounds while Slovenian Goran Dragic added 24 points and 13 assists to lead Miami over visiting Detroit 111-104. Tobias Harris had 19 to lead six double-figure scorers for the Pistons.
Spencer Dinwiddie, who scored 26 points and passed off nine assists, sank the winning jumper with nine seconds remaining to give Brooklyn a 98-97 victory over Minnesota. Jimmy Butler led the visiting Timberwolves with 30 points but missed a decisive jumper at the final buzzer.
Anthony Davis scored 29 points and grabbed 15 rebounds to spark New Orleans to a 108-98 victory at Utah while Gary Harris scored 36 points off 14-of-17 shooting to power Denver over visiting Phoenix 134-111.