WASHINGTON -- Even before the Cleveland Cavaliers stumbled out of the gates to a 3-5 record -- owners of the league's 29th-ranked defense, picked apart by the likes of Orlando, Brooklyn and New York -- teams were taking their shots at the three-time defending Eastern Conference champs.
"We see an opportunity because there isn't a Golden State in our conference or San Antonio or Houston," Miami Heat president Pat Riley said in September.
Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards, who the Cavs will face Friday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN), followed up last month with another declarative statement that threw shade on The Land.
"I feel like we're the best team in the East, I really do," Beal told ESPN's Brian Windhorst. "That's how we feel coming into the season."
The truth is, these Cavs aren't those Cavs of the past couple years. LeBron James and Kevin Love have shown little sign of drop-off: James is putting up 25.6 points (on 59.4 percent shooting), 8.9 assists and 7.0 rebounds per game, and Love is averaging 18.4 points and 11.4 rebounds. But Cleveland still hasn't figured out how to account for Kyrie Irving's absence.
Irving averaged 25.2 points per game for the Cavs last season, shooting 47.3 percent from the field and 40.1 percent from 3-point territory, providing a constant dynamic presence that made Cleveland dangerous on offense, even if their defense was disastrous.
"Last year our offense saved us a lot," Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. "We were able to score, and when teams were scoring on us we could score. But now, the way the games have been going, you miss three or four shots, you're down nine points. Quick. And that's around the league."
With Irving playing for Boston now, and with James surrounded by an aging cast of complementary players -- including Dwyane Wade (35), Jeff Green (31), JR Smith (32), Kyle Korver (36) and Derrick Rose (29, but with an injury history of someone twice his age) -- the opposition hasn't treated the Cavs with the type of reverence you'd expect a team with Cleveland's credentials to receive.
"Anytime you play against a team that went to three straight [NBA] Finals and won a championship, they're coming to play," Lue told ESPN. "They want to beat you. And we're going to have that target on our back every single night, and we understand that. So teams are just coming in, they're playing fast, they're trying to speed the game up on us and they're trying to kick us when we're down. And if I was them, I would do the same thing."
Jose Calderon is a member of the Cavs but, with only eight games under his belt with the franchise, can still provide an outsider's perspective of what it's like to be "them." He was on the undermanned Atlanta Hawks team that beat Cleveland in consecutive games in April to thwart the Cavs from nabbing the No. 1 seed in the East.
"We sat five starters, we came in against a full Cavaliers team," Calderon told ESPN, remembering one of the two Hawks victories. "You know when you get into the building -- and it's the same with the Warriors -- you know you got to [bring] your best game possible to try to win. And the only thing that happens with this kind of team sometimes is, like, when you're already up there, sometimes it's tough to play 82 games really motivated."
Staring at a potential five-game losing streak -- and potentially giving a conference rival a confidence boost to make Beal believe his bold preseason promulgation -- should be motivation enough for the Cavs to start their turnaround.
Because the more losses that pile up, the more teams will believe the Cavs aren't what they used to be.
"Ain't nobody afraid," Wade said. "Teams come in here to whip our butt and they're whipping our butt. One thing I did notice at Miami, teams were afraid of us a little bit. Ain't nobody afraid. Maybe at some point it will get there, but not right now. Everyone's playing free, it's early in the year, and everything's going right for everybody but us. And we've got to figure it out."