On Saturday night, the Dallas Mavericks will host the three-time defending Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers at American Airlines Center.
Three days earlier, Dallas snapped a six-game losing streak with a 14-point, road win over the Washington Wizards 113-99. In that game, only the team’s second win of the season, rookie point guard Dennis Smith Jr. and forward Harrison Barnes combined for 53 points, 17 rebounds and nine assists.
The Cavaliers, meanwhile, are in an unfamiliar position. LeBron James and company are 5-7 and 11th in the weak Eastern Conference. Going into this season, Cleveland was thought to be a favorite to once again reach the NBA Finals, and they’ll probably still get there.
For now, they’re vulnerable. Even so, James is still a game-changer whether the Cavaliers are struggling or not.
Here are five things to know about the Cavaliers:
No Kyrie Irving
Following Cleveland’s NBA Finals defeat to the Golden State Warriors last summer, Irving made it known that he no longer wanted to play second fiddle to LeBron James. Management elected to trade the talented point guard to the Boston Celtics for a package that included All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas.
While Irving has thrived in Boston, Thomas will be out until at least January with a hip injury. In his absence, James has been forced to pick up a huge amount of slack, playing almost 40 minutes a night, and is averaging just shy of a triple-double per contest. Only three other players on the roster are averaging double digits in scoring. The team’s second leading scorer, forward Kevin Love, is averaging 17.5 points.
Irving’s decision to force a trade might have gotten under LeBron’s skin, depending on how much you read into posts on social media.
Irving’s departure and Thomas’ injury also coincide with the last year of James’ contract. The four-time league most valuable player has been non-committal about his future in Cleveland past this season, which has led to speculation that he will leave the franchise that drafted him in 2003 for a second time this decade.
When the idea of trading Irving became an inevitable reality, the front office got a surprising return that provided more depth. In that deal, Boston also sent to the Cavaliers Brooklyn’s 2018 first-round, lottery-protected pick. That asset could be used as trade chip for another significant roster piece this season. But, as long as James remains mum on the topic and this group continues to play mediocre basketball, the chatter surrounding his potential departure will only get louder.
With LeBron, the Cavaliers have, on paper, more talent than the Orando Magic, Brooklyn Nets, New Orleans Pelicans, Atlanta Hawks, Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks. But, even with a combined record of 30-38, those teams have handed the Cavaliers six of their seven losses so far this season. Aside from Houston and Orlando, none of the teams Cleveland has lost to occupy any of the top-four spots of the Eastern or Western Conference.
As surprising as some of their losses have been, the manner in which they’ve occurred is even more shocking. Four times this season, Cleveland has lost by 15 points or more. And in two of those games, they were beaten by 20 points or more. Four of those losses were at home.
The Cavaliers defense was an issue down the stretch last spring, and it looks like those problems have carried over. Cleveland has surrendered the second-highest field goal percentage (48.3) and the third-most points per game (114). They are also the worst team in the league at defending the three-point line. Opponents are converting 41 percent of their shots from behind the arc. Dwyane Wade has lost a few steps and is coming off the bench. He’s still more of a scorer than a defender. Love has trouble guarding athletic big men.
The Mavericks will be playing their first game in three days. The Cavaliers will be in the middle of a road trip that includes Houston, Dallas, New York and Charlotte. While there aren’t any back-to-backs on the trip, the Cavaliers took a hard-fought loss to a Rockets team that is tied with the Warriors for the best record in a very deep Western Conference. Going forward, the Cavaliers face a revitalized Knicks franchise and a Hornets team that is hovering above the playoff line.
Peter Dawson: 817-390-7657
Mavericks vs. Cavaliers
7:30 p.m. Saturday, FSSW