If you want to take lessons from Super Bowl LI while they're still fresh, making sure you don't make premature declarations of victory or wallow in defeat halfway through certainly stand out, especially when there's greatness involved.
You don't write off goats.
That's why you're going to want to back the Cavs to get out of the Eastern Conference this season and you're going to want to do it sooner than later. Backing them to win it all depends on how much faith you have in the reigning Finals MVP. It would be wise to take his cranky nature and defiance of late as a sign that he has no intentions of being satisfied with winning one trophy for Cleveland.
Like Tom Brady, LeBron James has been at the top of his sport most of this century. Watching him navigate his way through season after season over the last decade-plus has been incredibly entertaining, and since his return to Northeast Ohio, a pattern has developed when the calendar turns to January. Turning the corner into a new year has perennially been an adventure. In 2015, he was feeling so out of sync and worn down that he took a break, returning to Miami to handle business and train, getting himself mentally prepared for the remaining grind and leaving teammates behind to figure it out.
In 2016, he played all the way through in part because he was feeling so good. James shot 55 percent last January, his best shooting clip for any month in the entire season, leading the Cavs to a 13-3 mark.
This season, he played 38.4 minutes for the second consecutive month, working in every contest in a January that featured two back-to-backs. He shot nearly 55 percent and averaged 25.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and 8.1 assists.
Cleveland went 7-8.
Won seven games, lost eight. They fell in four of the final six games, clinching a losing month in a listless 104-97 setback at Dallas. Throughout January, LeBron provided entertainment by lashing out at the front office, yelling that he needed more help, another playmaker to be exact. There was nothing playful or light-hearted about it because it wasn't meant that way. James wanted no trace of the cuddly version that smiles while selling you a Big Mac to seep into his message, so he uncharacteristically dropped a few F-bombs and seemed to throw teammates under the bus.
At 32 years old, it definitely sounds like James is seeing the crossroads approaching. He's seen Father Time conquer all the greats and knows his fate won't be any different. Currently, there are no diminishing returns. He's averaging better numbers than he ever has since heading back to Cleveland. The 8.8 assists per game he's dishing out would be a career-high. He's grabbing 7.9 boards, one-tenth off his career-best.
Charles Barkley called his request for more help "whiny." I'm in agreement, but can understand the desperation in it. James knows his legacy is tied to rings and has gained first-hand knowledge in what it takes to win a title and what it's like to be denied. He's gone through both with two separate franchises.
Although he's been slow to click and even cost the team a game with awful defense, Kyle Korver's addition was labeled a home run and should still pay off. He was brought into take J.R. Smith's spot as he mends after thumb surgery, so presumably, the Cavs will be all set depth-wise when he returns and they have their pick of sniper they want out there to capitalize off double-teams.
Cleveland says it has no interest in moving Kevin Love for New York's Carmelo Anthony, and even though LeBron and Melo are great friends, there would be too great of an adjustment required to expect them to seriously challenge the Western Conference champ come June if such a move were made. They can win with Love. They have won with Love. He's actually having his most productive season since arriving from Minnesota. The continuity has helped. Love scored 39 points and grabbed 12 boards in Monday's 140-135 OT win in Washington, further diffusing the rumor.
"It's always about outside noise and this is outside noise for us," James said afterward, dismissing the report that he's interested in joining forces with Anthony even if it costs the Cavs Love as "trash."
He's ornery, has driven up the intensity level in the locker room and has satisfied concerns that he'll be any less locked in due to last year's success. James doesn't want anyone to feel satisfied. That message has come through loud and clear.
Cleveland has opened February with victories over the Timberwolves, Knicks and Wizards, recording its first three-game win streak since it closed out 2016 by beating the Celtics and Hornets before opening up the new year with a home conquest of the Pelicans. Between now and the All-Star break, they'll be on the road at Indiana, Oklahoma City and Minnesota. There's a home-and-home with the Pacers too in addition to a home game with Denver.
All those games are challenging, yet winnable.
In truth, it doesn't really matter how they fare so long as no one gets injured and there's not a total freefall, because the Cavs are that much better than everyone else in the East. The Wizards got a brilliant 41-point night from Bradley Beal and still fell short in extending a 17-game home winning streak when James sent the game to OT with a miracle banked-in three at the buzzer to end regulation.
No one in the East is going to beat a team led by James, Kyrie Irving and Love four times in seven games. That's why James' cries for more help fall on deaf ears. He's already got more than enough on board around him to repeat as champions, and that's going to become all the more apparent after the All-Star break. The Cavs do likely have one more move coming that will further stack the deck in their favor, so coming off a losing month, this very second is the most opportune time to hop on the bandwagon and place your Eastern Conference champion future bet.
Books had the Cavs at 5-to-2 to win the NBA title entering the season and the new year. They're now 2-to-1 at the WestgateLV Superbook. They were 1-to-2 to start the season to take the east and are now 1-to-5 despite their January struggles.
Oddsmakers have essentially told you that, barring injury, they're not going to come off Cleveland as a heavy favorite. Boston has emerged as the biggest threat to the throne, coming in at 5-to-1. The Celtics don't have enough to beat the Cavs. If you're going to take the plunge on the Eastern Conference future, it's time to cash in a sure thing before the odds provide even less of an advantage.
Most of us are anticipating a third consecutive Warriors-Cavs Finals. It's definitely more likely that Golden State fails to show than Cleveland. The Cavs will be there. James won't let them lose to an inferior team. That label can be placed on all of their Eastern Conference competition.
Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA