No NBA team entered Tuesday with more at stake than the Cleveland Cavaliers.
No NBA team left Tuesday feeling more defeated.
Not only did the Boston Celtics surge to a 2-0 series lead over the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals with a come-from-behind 107-94 victory in Game 2, but Cleveland didn’t defy the odds at the NBA draft lottery. Armed with the eighth-best chance of winning the No. 1 overall pick (via the Brooklyn Nets’ unprotected 2018 first-rounder), the Cavaliers instead stayed right in place at No. 8.
In totality, those three hours on Tuesday night may have sealed Cleveland’s fate for the next half-decade.
Though James has overcome 2-0 series deficits twice before—in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals against the Detroit Pistons and the 2016 NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors—it’s difficult to muster much confidence in the Cavaliers moving forward. During their pair of losses in Boston, the Celtics outscored them by a whopping 19.8 points per 100 possessions, which begs the question of what should concern Cleveland head coach Tyronn Lue more: his team’s barely-there defense or its underperforming offense.
Even if James and Co. come roaring back in Cleveland to win the next two games, this series may serve as the Cavaliers’ day of reckoning. If a 40-point triple-double from James isn’t enough to stave off these upstart Celtics, what else can Cleveland throw at them? And what happens when Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward join the party next year?
Despite being without both Irving and Hayward, this injury-depleted version of Boston is uniquely equipped to destroy the Cavaliers. James can (and will) get his, but the Celtics are more than happy to pick on his lackluster supporting cast with their never-ending stream of switchable two-way wings.
Whenever JR Smith and Kyle Korver are on the floor, Jaylen Brown goes into seek-and-destroy mode, hunting out those mismatches to create easy opportunities on offense. (He’s 13-of-21 against that pair through the first two games.) Al Horford knows Kevin Love has no chance of containing him, as does Terry Rozier with Jordan Clarkson. Much like how the Celtics picked on Marco Belinelli in their second-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers, they’re rendering Cleveland’s defensive liabilities damn near unplayable.
Here’s the problem: The Cavaliers have almost nothing but defensive liabilities.
On offense, James is the only player Boston has reason to fear, particularly in late-game situations. Given Marcus Smart’s ability to smother whoever he’s covering, the Celtics will live with one-on-one attempts against him if it means James is taken out of a given play. When Smith jacked a 27-footer against Smart with the Cavaliers down eight in the waning minutes of Game 2, it all but slammed the door shut on Cleveland’s comeback hopes.
Though this series isn’t over—the Celtics have won only one playoff game on the road thus far—it can’t bode well for Cleveland’s chances of re-signing James this summer. If Boston is working the Cavaliers like a punching bag without Irving and Hayward, imagine what happens when those two return to the fold next year.
Heading into Tuesday, that 2018 Nets first-rounder was Cleveland’s best hope of retaining LeBron. Had the Cavaliers won the No. 1 overall pick for the fourth time since 2011, they would have been armed with the requisite trade ammunition to pursue a last-ditch effort to convince James to stay.
It’s anyone’s guess as to whether the San Antonio Spurs would have been willing to part ways with Kawhi Leonard for such a pick, but Cleveland could have called up playoff underperformers like the Portland Trail Blazers and Washington Wizards to inquire about the price of players such as Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Bradley Beal or John Wall.
The No. 8 pick alone likely isn’t enough to land a star of that caliber. The Cavaliers could include Kevin Love on any deal, but that would leave James’ supporting cast equally barren. Cleveland could perhaps pry away the likes of Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside, Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins or Milwaukee Bucks point guard Eric Bledsoe with a package centered around the No. 8 pick, but would any of those players put the Cavaliers ahead of the Celtics, much less the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets?
Further complicating matters, Cleveland general manager Koby Altman will have to make that decision without knowing what James intends to do in free agency.
If James has his bags packed, it makes no sense for the Cavaliers to flip that pick for a win-now player with fewer years of team control remaining. Cleveland would be better-suited standing pat and selecting someone like Oklahoma guard Trae Young or Missouri forward Michael Porter Jr. to anchor their upcoming rebuild, although neither of those players figure to move the needle on convincing James to re-up with the Cavs.
To topple Boston moving forward, James needs far more help, whether in Cleveland or elsewhere. The Cavaliers’ best chance of landing that complementary talent went up in smoke Tuesday during the draft lottery.
James, who finished with 42 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds in Tuesday night’s Game 2 loss while his teammates combined to shoot 21-of-51 overall and 5-of-20 from deep, has never looked more like Sisyphus. Except come July, he’ll have the choice to stop pushing that boulder up a hill, as he can walk away for greener pastures without thinking twice.