CLEVELAND, Ohio – The Cleveland Cavaliers will finish fourth in the NBA East, at worst.
The last word is deliberately chosen.
If the Philadelphia 76ers, winners of 14 straight games, win their last two games, that’s where the Cavs will finish.
History indicates winning the NBA championship from a seed lower than third is more likely than winning the Powerball lottery. But what isn’t?
Low seeds come a cropper
Consider the following:
(All seeds are listed by conference, not by league-wide standings.)
Of the 71 NBA champions, 52 were No. 1 seeds, 10 were No. 2, seven were No. 3, one (1969 Boston Celtics) was a No. 4, and the 1996 Houston Rockets were a No. 6.
LeBron James won his first championship ring with the second-seeded Miami Heat in 2012. His other two (Miami 2013, Cavs 2016) were with the East’s best regular season team.
No third seed has won since Dallas’ upset of James’ first Heat team in 2011.
Go with the chalk, usually
The NBA playoffs lean heavily to the chalk. They require sustained superiority in each series. Lower seeds face better teams in the draw, obviously.
In reaching this year’s NCAA Tournament championship game, Michigan beat seeds ranked 14th, 11th, 9th, 7th and 6th.
No such luck is going to bless an NBA run.
Knowing how to win
Boston’s 1969 championship was the last hurrah for Bill Russell, the greatest winner in NBA history.
And, say, didn’t James wear Russell’s No. 6 in Miami after he renounced the Cavs, retired his No. 23 out of deference to Michael Jordan, then un-retired it as soon as he returned to Cleveland?
Any Parade 2.0 plans would necessarily require James rising above his regular season standard of play the way he soared above Ersan Ilyasova to put the 76ers’ “Turkish Thunder” on posters for eternity. James stared at the 6-10 big man afterward as if to say “Ha! I scoff at your thunder! That was thunder, my good and cowering fellow!).
The other low-seed precedent is not encouraging. Houston was the defending NBA champions when it surged from sixth place to the 1996 title. Those players had been in the playoff scrums and tasted the champagne geysering in victory celebrations the previous season.
When the Cavs remade a team going nowhere — except from debasement (a 34-point loss at Toronto) to despair (a 32-point loss at home to Houston) to disgrace (148 points allowed to Oklahoma City, at home) – they acquired veteran George Hill, whose 83 playoff games are 72 more than Rodney Hood and, uh, 83 more than Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson.
If they were only like LeBron
Not everyone handles the intensity of his first playoff series the same way.
James handled his own postseason debut with a flourish, a 32-11-11 triple double in a victory over Washington that led an enthusiastic columnist (blush) to begin his essay: “If LeBron James had butterflies in his stomach before his first playoff game, they were monarchs.”
The Cavs won in six games.
Back to the Finals, and then?
Maybe the Cavs win the East because the Raptors, deep down, have doubts they can beat Cleveland; because injuries wrecked Boston; because Philly after years of tanking is new to this big-game stuff; and because, most of all, the Cavs have James.
He has made his own history by reaching numerous milestones this season. But an NBA championship out of the 4-hole with such an inexperienced team would rank with any of the crowning moments in the idylls of the King.