Despite LeBron's brilliance, defense will dictate how far Cavs can go

LeBron James plays tight defense against Justise Winslow on Tuesday. (AP)

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THREE POINTS

Would the real Cavaliers please stand up?

So what do we make of Cleveland? Are the Cavaliers the hapless defensive bunch that stumbled to a 5-7 start and careened to the bottom of the NBA in defensive efficiency? Or are they the team that has won nine straight, controlling games with the league’s fourth-best defense during that stretch?

Your faith in the Cavs’ ability to make a fourth straight NBA Finals depends on what you make of that defense. Cleveland has never been an elite defensive team during the LeBron James 2.0 era; the Cavaliers have ranked in the top 10 in defensive efficiency just once in the last three seasons, and last season finished 21st. This year seems particularly bad; Cleveland has a notable lack of athleticism in its backcourt, with a handful of aging players headlining the rotation. In year’s past, the Cavs have simply flipped a switch in the playoffs and become an above-average defensive team. This year feels different.

Is it? I posed the question to David Griffin, the former Cavs general manager.

“Not really,” Griffin told Yahoo Sports. “One thing that I think was different early on that was unique to this season was that because the turnaround was so short between the Finals and the season starting this year, I think they really weren’t in very good shape to start the season. Guys hadn’t had enough time off. LeBron had the really bad ankle that caused him to miss most of the preseason. His conditioning wasn’t what it was. You have seen this from the Cavs before, and certainly it would frustrate me immensely to go through a season where all we were trying to do was to get to the playoffs, and from an effort standpoint there were games we would get more or less excited for. So you can say you have seen that from the Cavs. But I think this [season] was a unique combination of things coming together.”

Cleveland’s other early-season concern: James, a month from his 33rd birthday, is averaging 37 minutes per game — second most in the NBA. Clearly, James doesn’t operate by the same chronological rules as everyone else. But should the Cavs be worried about James burning out during the regular season?

“It’s only a big deal because LeBron would like to be playing 47 minutes a game,” Griffin said. “You have to convince him of the benefit you get from sitting. I just think he is a different animal from everybody else. He is fanatical about taking care of his body and putting himself in the right position to succeed, and I think he knows his body better than anyone else. I think there is far too much made of the minutes that he plays. The one thing this year I was concerned with before this recent run was that there was so much being asked of him in those minutes. It’s very difficult to carry the scoring load and set everybody up. He was resting on defense because that was the only break he got.”

No judgment of the Cavs can be made until Isaiah Thomas returns to the lineup, but while Thomas will bolster Cleveland’s offense, it’s the defense that will determine if the Cavaliers will get a possible fourth crack at Golden State in the Finals.

Time to panic in OKC?

We knew there would be a learning curve for Oklahoma City, which was attempting to blend the talents of three players — Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony — who ranked in the top 20 in usage rate last season. But the Thunder’s most recent three-game skid highlighted all of the team’s problems. An inability to score reared its head in an ugly 97-81 loss to Dallas on Saturday, and an occasionally leaking defense — exemplified in a 121-108 loss to Orlando on Wednesday — can be foul-happy and ranks in the bottom five in the NBA in defensive rebounding.

The defense is less of a long-term concern; even after getting lit up by the Magic, the Thunder are third in the NBA in defensive efficiency. The offense? That’s a different story. Oklahoma City’s isolation-heavy offense has become predictable, and the lack of passing — the Thunder are dead last in the NBA in passes per game, per NBA.com — stalls the team in the halfcourt. Westbrook is trying to share the scoring, though Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan has suggested the point guard may be trying too hard. The Thunder’s new trio still looks uncomfortable on the floor together.

“When you’ve played a certain way for so long to just expect in a month, or six weeks, that that’s all of a sudden going to change, it’s going to be a little bit different,” Donovan said. “But they’re very willing. They’re very open. They’re very unselfish as it relates to moving the ball. So I think we’ll continue to get better and evolve and improve on that end of the floor.”

Indeed, no judgment should be made on Oklahoma City until at least Christmas, and perhaps later. Every team would like to be the 2007-08 Celtics — after adding Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to a Paul Pierce-headlined roster, Boston opened the season 29-3 — but emulating the 2010-11 Heat, which battled through a roller-coaster regular season in the first year of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, is more realistic. The Thunder remain highly motivated to unlock the secret to a successful offense, and given the talent, it’s hard to see them not doing it.

“You see the talent, you see the star power, you see the ability that we have,” George told reporters. “But then you see what we have around us and you get really, really enthused. You just feel great about the situation. We’ve been in so many games, and every game it’s something that we have to learn and figure out what we haven’t done yet. Once we get that down, this team will start to click.”

What’s happening in New Orleans?

The Pelicans absorbed a pretty good beating from Minnesota on Wednesday, but if you asked New Orleans’ brass if it would be satisfied with an 11-10 start to the season — a reversal of the early-season holes New Orleans has fallen into in each of the last two seasons — it would be giddy.

So what’s gone right for New Orleans? Playmaking, for one. The Pels’ two point-guard starting lineup has paid dividends, with Rajon Rondo — who missed the first month of the season with a sports hernia — and Jrue Holiday spearheading a team that ranks second in the NBA in assists. Holiday, who has been plagued by injuries in recent years, has been an ironman, averaging 36.1 minutes per game.

Then there is the DeMarcus Cousins-Anthony Davis frontcourt. There were plenty of skeptics to start the season (ahem, right here) questioning whether a pair of super-sized big men could co-exist in today’s NBA. But Cousins and Davis have accounted for nearly half of the Pelicans’ points per game, while gobbling up more than half of the team’s rebounds. They are two of only three players in the league averaging 25 points and 10 rebounds — Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo is the other — and appear pretty comfortable playing together.

Is it sustainable? The Cousins/Davis pairing will be under a microscope all season, and the Pelicans’ 3-point shooting remains pretty brutal, even with Darius Miller (48.8 percent), Jameer Nelson (39.2 percent) and E’Twaun Moore (37.3 percent) opening the year surprisingly hot. Still, after opening the last two seasons in sizeable holes, an early-season spot in the playoff mix is a huge win for New Orleans.