The Cleveland Cavaliers are no longer the NBA championship favorites at sportsbooks, and history has shown that they likely will not take home the title this season because no club at .500 this late in the year ever has.
Cavaliers Could Slide Below .500 Tuesday
It's a good thing that Cleveland (19-19) is in the Eastern Conference and not the much tougher West because if the playoffs started today the Cavs would be home watching if they were in the West. The Cavaliers enter Tuesday's game in Phoenix -- the third game of a five-game West Coast trip -- having lost five straight and eight of nine. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the no team has ever won an NBA championship that's been at or below .500 38 games into a season.
This is the latest a LeBron James team has been at or below .500 since his second year in Cleveland when the Cavs were 40-40. That 2004-05 team finished 42-40 and missed the postseason. Of course James spent the past four seasons in Miami and the latest in that span that the Heat were ever at .500 or below was last season when they started 2-2.
The Cavaliers are now fourth on 5Dimes NBA odds to win the NBA Finals at +700, behind San Antonio (+550), Chicago (+575) and Golden State (+600). I don't think the Spurs should be title favorites but that's a story for another day. To win the East, the Cavaliers are +230, behind Chicago (+170). The Cavs are seven games behind first-place Chicago in the Central Division.
LeBron has missed eight straight games with knee and back issues -- a career-high nine missed games this season overall -- and the Cavs have scored in triple digits just once in that span. The good news is that James could return as early as Tuesday. He went through limited practice on Monday and is being called a game-time decision.
Whenever James does return, it will be to a new-look team. The Cavs have pretty much mortgaged any remaining assets they had in trading for the Knicks' J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert as well as for Denver center Timofey Mozgov. He cost the Cavs two future first-round picks (neither of which were actually Cleveland's originally), while Smith and Shumpert cost former No. 4 overall pick Dion Waiters.
Mozgov made his Cleveland debut in Friday's loss at Golden State and had nine points and eight rebounds. Mozgov moved into the starting lineup Sunday in a blowout loss in Sacramento and had 14 points and 12 rebounds. The Cavs don't need him to score much but to provide defense in the paint and rebound. That was the team's No. 1 weakness, especially since Anderson Varejao went down with a season-ending injury. Smith has had two quiet games and one big one -- 27 points against the Warriors -- since arriving in Cleveland. Shumpert remains out with a shoulder injury and is likely at least two weeks from debuting.
Now that Cleveland has upgraded its defense and bench with these trades, not to mention taking on extra salary obligations going forward, the pressure is really now on Coach David Blatt. You can understand the Cavs losing without James, but their past nine defeats have been by an average of 14.2 points and James was around for some of those. Blatt also seemed to call out Kevin Love following Sunday's loss. A reporter asked how the Cavs could be struggling so mightily despite having two "max" players in their lineup in Love and Kyrie Irving. Blatt's testy response was: "Well, Kev's not a max player yet, is he?" Love can walk away from the Cavs after this season and he doesn't look very happy most times. He's averaging 17.9 points and 10.5 rebounds but shooting just 44 percent overall from the field.
What's It All Mean?
The Cavs could continue to struggle even when James returns as the new players adjust, but it's still too early to make a judgment on this club until everyone is healthy and on the same page. So probably not until after the All-Star Break. No team will want to face Cleveland in the playoffs, that's for sure. The Bulls should be East favorites (sorry Hawks), but they can't be 100 percent sure Derrick Rose will stay healthy all season.