After Sunday’s loss to the Atlanta Hawks, the Cleveland Cavaliers are currently tied for the first seed in the Eastern Conference with the Boston Celtics. While the Cavaliers have struggled lately, they should still be considered the favorites to represent the East in the 2017 NBA Finals.

I got together with Chris Manning from Fear The Sword and the Locked On Cavs Podcast to discuss the team as they prepare for a run that will hopefully end with them as the defending champions.

Q: Is it fair to criticize LeBron James for not being engaged in games?

Chris: Ya, I would say so. When he’s on the floor and engaged, the rest of the team tends to follow suit. He is the tone setter. When he’s not fully focused, that’s where some of the issues come from. But it’s something that feels less serious now that it would in May or June when the Cavs are (presumably) deep into the playoffs.

Q: Is Kyrie Irving incapable of playing defense or is it just about showing effort?

Chris: Its a little bit of both. Athletically, he’s not a Chris Paul or John Wall – someone who can physically dominate and athletically handle guys on defense. He’ll probably never be that. But he can get passable on that end with effort and focus. Not dying on screens, tracking his man, and doing the little things would go a long way for him on a night to night basis. I think he’d be viewed differently if he did that for a year or so.

Q: How deep is the Cavaliers’ bench when everyone is healthy?

Chris: It’s shaky deep. They have a lot of useful players, but they are mostly older players with specific skill sets. Kyle Korver, for instance, is an elite shooter, but will struggle on defense. Ditto for Channing Frye. And I don’t think someone like Derrick Williams will actually play, which drives Cavs fans nuts. I would say this team is eight or nine players deep, but it tilts toward offense instead of balance or defense.

Q: Which team scares you the most? Washington [Wizards], Boston, or Toronto [Raptors]?

Chris: A healthy Toronto team. DeMar DeRozan being so good and so big makes it hard to hide Kyrie on defense in that series. Kyle Lowry is also really, really good. Plus, they have legit high-level defensive lineups and I think they are better than they were last year. After that, I’d go with Washington and then Boston. I think Washington could be ahead of Toronto too.

Q: How concerning is the Cavaliers’ defense? Will it be fixed?

Chris: It’s definitely the team’s biggest weakness. I think it will get better in the playoffs, but I’m not sure by how much. The team isn’t stocked with good defenders and they probably can’t scheme their way into being as good as they were last year. How and if they overcome that will almost definitely be the main storyline to follow in the playoffs. I think they have to hit a certain level in order to repeat.

The Cavaliers definitely have their work cut out for them. With the top four seed in the East looking like solid all-around teams, the Cavaliers will have to step it up on the defensive end.

LeBron James isn’t getting any younger and this might be one of the last chances he has at winning an NBA Championship. He’s going to need help from his teammates, particularly on the defensive end.

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