At 30-11, the Cleveland Cavaliers have a 3.5-game lead on the second-place Toronto Raptors atop the Eastern Conference and the NBA's third-best record despite playing for most of the season's first two months without starting guard Kyrie Irving and key reserve Iman Shumpert.
Nonetheless, Cleveland's decision to fire head coach David Blatt Friday and replace him with assistant coach Tyronn Lue suggests simply being best in the East wasn't good enough for the Cavaliers and their 31-year-old star, four-time NBA MVP LeBron James.
"Frankly, 'pretty good' is not what we're here for," said GM David Griffin in Friday's news conference announcing the move, referencing Blatt's comments before Thursday's win over the L.A. Clippers. "That's not what we're in the business to be."
No, the goal of James' return to Cleveland as a free agent in the summer of 2014 was to bring a championship back to his native northeast Ohio, which hasn't tasted a title since the Browns won the NFL championship in 1964.
Which brings us to the key question behind all of this: With time running out on James' prime, can he win it all again?
The case for James: comfortable path to the Finals
Remember, we're less than three months removed from the Cavaliers -- not the Golden State Warriors or the San Antonio Spurs, who have started the season a combined 66-10 -- being the gambling favorites in Las Vegas to win this year's championship.
While the Spurs and Warriors were generally considered better teams entering the season, their path to the NBA Finals through the Western Conference is a lot more challenging than Cleveland's in the East. Golden State and San Antonio are likely on a collision course for the conference finals, and just to get there whichever of them finishes second will likely have to beat the 32-12 Oklahoma City Thunder.
Despite the East's improvement this season, the West is still far top-heavier in terms of contenders. ESPN's Basketball Power Index (BPI) rates the top four teams out West (the aforementioned three and the Los Angeles Clippers) better than any East team besides the Cavaliers. (The Cavs rank fourth, and the 27-15 Toronto Raptors rank sixth.)
As a result, BPI gives Cleveland a 47 percent chance of getting to the Finals, better than the Warriors (41.1 percent) and nearly as good as the Spurs (53.6 percent). Gamblers like the Cavaliers' chances of reaching the Finals even better, making them overwhelming favorites with implied odds of nearly 80 percent according to VegasInsider.com.
The case against James: historic powers in the West
Alas, to reiterate, just getting to the Finals is not enough. And the Cavaliers' task in beating the winner of the West looks monumental. Golden State and San Antonio aren't just the two best teams in the NBA. They appear to be two of the best teams in league history.
The Warriors' plus-12.1 point differential would be the fifth best in NBA history for a full season, according to Basketball-Reference.com. And that pales in comparison to the Spurs' crushing opponents by 14.5 points per game, which would be the highest margin of victory ever by more than two full points.
Both teams have played relatively easy schedules -- among other things, they've yet to play each other, with their first meeting set for Monday in Oakland -- so some regression should be expected during the second half. Still, Cleveland will likely have to beat an all-time great team to win a championship.
The Cavaliers were competitive in their first two matchups against Golden State and San Antonio, losing to the Warriors by six points on Christmas Day at Oracle Arena and by four at the Spurs last Thursday. Then came Monday's blowout at the hands of Golden State. Cleveland lost by 34 points, the team's worst home loss with James on the roster.
On the one hand, there's only so much we can glean from a single game. There are certainly examples of teams losing blowouts and coming back to win playoff series. On the other, home blowouts are rare for elite teams like the Cavaliers.
No champion has lost by 30-plus points at home since the Boston Celtics did so in both 1967-68 and 1968-69. Intriguingly, both Celtics blowout home losses were to the L.A. Lakers, which they would avenge both seasons in the NBA Finals.
BPI gives Cleveland a 7.0 percent chance of winning this year's championship. Those chances improve if the Cavaliers are overwhelming favorites in the East as Vegas thinks, but their title odds still might not be better than 1 in 10 because of the strength of the West.
The future: LeBron in decline with Irving hoping to compensate
James' age helps explain the urgency for Cleveland to win now. He's 31, and already gradually declining from his peak years during his first stint with the Cavaliers and his four seasons with the Miami Heat. James' 26.5 PER is actually up slightly from the 25.9 he posted last season, but neither can compare to his prime. James topped a 30 PER during all four of his MVP campaigns from 2008-09 through 2012-13.
The good news is that even a lesser James is still one of the league's best players. He remains third in ESPN's real plus-minus ratings, which estimate a player's impact on his team's success. That's more than good enough to be the best player on a championship team. But after single-handedly dragging Cleveland to the Finals last year with Kevin Love injured and Irving hobbled, James will need more help going forward.
No clear rival to the Cavaliers has yet emerged in the East, and until further notice James is likely to continue his remarkable streak of five consecutive trips to the NBA Finals. But unless Irving can take the next step in his development and shoulder a larger share of the offense, this is probably the best team Cleveland will have with James -- and it still doesn't look good enough to win the title.
That's where Lue comes in. While Blatt did a good job of adapting tactically to the NBA after spending his entire coaching career overseas, building the Cavaliers into a top-five team at both ends of the court, it's evident in hindsight that trust was missing. James never appeared to fully buy into Blatt's message, and trust has also been an issue between James and Love.
As recently as after Monday's blowout loss, different members of the organization sounded very different tones in the media. It's up to Lue to get everyone on the same page.
Small strategic tweaks are probably in order as well. Blatt stuck with Timofey Mozgov, whom he'd coached with the Russian national team, despite the team being far more successful with Love and Tristan Thompson in the frontcourt or even smaller lineups with Love at center and James at power forward.
Right now, the chances of James bringing home a championship as the centerpiece in Cleveland look worse than 50-50. They might not be better than 25-75. In that context, a coaching change makes more sense. Any chance Lue can help to lift the Cavaliers over the top may be one worth taking.