With all of the new talent that the Cleveland Cavaliers have assembled for this season you knew that it would take some time for them to gel. When small forward LeBron James decided to return to the Cavs this season, the expectations for Cleveland went through the roof. But just like Rome wasn’t built in a day, the Cavaliers found out the hard way that there’s no such thing as a quick turnaround in the NBA. In early to mid-January, the Cavs were mired in a six-game losing streak and they had an overall record of 19-20. But since then the Cavaliers are 17-2 including a 12-game winning streak as they now appear to be on the same page heading into the spring.
Aside from James returning to Cleveland, the Cavs began this season with a new head coach in David Blatt. Prior to joining the Cavs, Blatt had never coached in the NBA (even as an assistant) which meant that he had to get accustomed to the nuances of the league. The Cavs lost their regular season opener to the New York Knicks and shockingly Blatt decided to call a team meeting afterwards. Along with Blatt attempting to get on the same page with James and the rest of the players in Cleveland, Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving had to figure out how to play with other talented players while the newly acquired power forward Kevin Love needed to figure out his role in Cleveland as well. In the past Irving was accused of playing “buddy ball” with Cavs center Tristan Thompson by former Cavaliers shooting guard Dion Waiters. Irving would also tend to play one-on-five offensively which would alienate his teammates. Prior to joining the Cavs, Love put up big numbers as a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves, but the team there wasn’t close to being a winner.
And in just one stroke of the pen by James last summer, the Cavaliers went from being an underachieving team in the Eastern Conference to a team that is now expected to contend for the NBA Championship. But for guys like Love and Irving who have never been to the NBA Playoffs, they’ve had to learn how to win in the league which also required them to understand the concept of playing team basketball. And that meant that you wouldn’t see as many 35-point, 20-rebound games from Love and not as many 35-point games from Irving either with the new and improved Cavaliers.
But now all of that appears to be behind the Cavaliers as they are rolling. The Cavs currently have the fourth best record in the Eastern Conference and they’re only half a game behind the Chicago Bulls for first place in the Central Division. Irving is only averaging 5.3 assists per game, but his shot attempts are down as he is not coveting the basketball like he did in the past, but he is still averaging 21.7 points per game. Love has accepted his role as the third wheel in the Cavaliers offense behind James and Irving while still being able to maintain his status as one of the better rebounders in the NBA at 10.4 per contest. James is still the best all around player in the NBA and at the age of 30, he is now becoming more of a mentor to the youngsters on the Cavaliers such as Love and Irving. On the season James is averaging 25.8 points per game which is third in the NBA. The turnaround this season for the Cavs simply began when everybody including Blatt started to trust one another. James had been down this road before when he went to Miami 2010 as he and Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra didn’t start out on the same page. Things would change and subsequently the Heat would win a pair of NBA Championships in four seasons with James. However the Cavs are dealing with a more mature James this time around and more than ever he is leading by example through his focus and intensity.
The City of Cleveland has never been a hotbed as far as luring NBA free agents, but James’ presence alone on the Cavaliers roster is changing that notion. A pair of James’ old teammates with the Heat in forwards James Jones and Mike Miller followed him to Cleveland over the summer. And James’ return to the Cavaliers has also made everybody on the team step their game up.
Last month the Cavaliers acquired shooting guard J.R. Smith from the New York Knicks. During his NBA career Smith has developed a reputation as being a loose cannon. Smith has had issues throughout his playing career as far as playing within the realm of an offense as he has never met a shot that he didn’t like. But in 23 games with the Cavaliers, Smith is averaging 13.0 points per game and Blatt has trusted him to be on the court for nearly 32 minutes per contest. Along with Smith, swingman Iman Shumpert was acquired from the Knicks last month. And like Smith, Shumpert was considered to be a malcontent with the Knicks but all he has done with the Cavs is what he has been asked to do which is to play basketball and have fun doing it. This past Sunday, the Cavaliers faced the Knicks in what marked the first game back at Madison Square Garden for both Smith and Shumpert since the trade. In the game Smith went for 17 points as the Cavs easily disposed of the Knicks 101-83. Another ex-Knick in center Timofey Mogzov was acquired last summer in a deal with the Denver Nuggets. The Cavs needed another big man after center Anderson Varejao was lost to an injury. And so far with the Cavaliers, Mozgov is averaging a career high in points (10.4) and rebounds (8.2) which was highlighted by a 20-point, 7-rebound performance in a 113-93 victory over the Heat on February 11. Along with Love and Thompson, Mozgov has given the Cavaliers another big body in their frontcourt to provide size, get rebounds, and clog up the defensive interior.
The Cavaliers a gelling and they appear to have all of the tools necessary to make a deep run in the postseason. James is in the prime of his career while he also has a strong supporting cast around him which wasn’t the case during his first run in Cleveland. Nothing is set in stone for the Cavaliers, but the best appears to be in front of them.