Cavs' latest defensive disaster an all-too-common occurrence

LeBron admits it's been a challenging season (1:02)

After the Cavaliers' loss to the Wizards, LeBron James talks about how tough it's been this season with starters constantly out of the lineup due to injury and knows that he can't compare this season to last. (1:02)

CLEVELAND -- It was another atrocious showing on the defensive end for the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday in their 127-115 loss to the Washington Wizards.

The numbers allowed -- 71 first half points, 59.8 shooting percentage from the field, 44.4 percent from 3, another blazing night from an opposing point guard with John Wall dropping 37 points on 14-for-21 shooting with 11 assists -- are becoming so commonplace for this Cavs team that the shock value has worn off.

This is nothing new. They have been the second-worst defensive team in the league since the All-Star break, ahead of only the Los Angeles Lakers, who, it would appear, are purposely trying to lose in order to hold on to their draft pick.

What has changed is how Cleveland tries to explain what is happening.

The Cavs first framed their defensive struggles as improper personnel, then later presented them as a symptom of injuries and then rationalized them as a lack of familiarity among the new pieces combined with the players that were on the mend. Saturday it was described as simply a symptom of the regular-season doldrums.

"The big thing for us is at least we don't have to play back-to-backs in the playoffs," said Cavs coach Tyronn Lue after his team lost for the seventh time in the last 12 games. "I was upstairs talking to the coaches before I came down, and they said we played 21 games last year [in the playoffs] in two months. This month, we have 17 alone in one month, so it's a tough stretch, but everyone is going through it right now."

This isn't to say that the postseason is not a different ballgame. Nor is it ignoring that a championship hangover is a very real thing. Repeat champions of the past -- from the 2001 Lakers to the 1995 Houston Rockets to the 1993 Chicago Bulls -- looked like shells of themselves in the regular season before recapturing their winning ways when the playoffs tipped off.

This particular Cavs group remembers being 19-20 two seasons ago before making the Finals. Last season they fired their coach at midseason and trailed the greatest regular-season team in league history 3-1 with a title on the line and still bounced back to win it all without home-court advantage on their side.

But there are real worrisome trends on the defensive side of the ball that might not be so easily fixed by an extra day between games or because the coaching staff and players can lock in on a singular opponent schematically for weeks at a time.

Just look at the Cavs' 10-man rotation. Five of them, and that might be a generous number, just aren't great individual defenders: Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, Kyle Korver, Deron Williams and Channing Frye.

And even the Cavs' best defenders have shown some sign of slippage. LeBron James has been granted defensive assignments to save his energy for offense on most nights. J.R. Smith hasn't found a rhythm on either end of the floor since last year's Finals. Iman Shumpert is seeing his minutes squeezed by Smith and Korver. Tristan Thompson, once uber-reliable, has worn down recently -- totaling just four blocks in his last six games and reaching double-digit rebounds just once in that span.

"When Tristan plays against those big centers, it's tough on him," Lue said, referring to Washington's Marcin Gortat, but he might as well have also been mentioning Miami's Hassan Whiteside, Detroit's Andre Drummond or Indiana's Myles Turner because the Cavs could see any of those teams in the first round. "You don't want him to have to wrestle with those big guys every single night on a night-to-night basis. It's tough on him ... He's the only center we have. He has to play right now."

With Thompson less than effective as their anchor, and Smith less than stellar as their primary wing stopper, and James not being asked to carry too much so he doesn't burn out in these final 11 regular-season games, you have to wonder if there is a chance for the Cavs to look consistently better on defense in the near future.

"It's been more down than up," James said. "So not room for concern, but we want to be more up than down, especially defensively coming down the stretch."

The opposite of concern is confidence. Does Lue have any of that?

"I'm not confident, but we got to," he said when asked if he believed his team's defense would get back to where it needs to be. "We have to."