By Brendan DeVenney
Cleveland, you are ready for takeoff.
That’s where the Cleveland Cavaliers are at as they get ready for the final 26 games of the regular season, and then their playoff run beginning in late April. But this is a new time for this season’s Cavaliers as they have a little momentum heading into the second part of the regular season.
First off, they are a brand new team. They brushed off the baggage of what was holding them back all of January. I think it’s safe to say that the month of January felt like hell for Cavaliers fans. They went 6-8 in the first month of 2018, and 1-6 on the road, including a 133-99 blowout loss up in Canada against the Raptors where they shot a dismal 38.2% and got out rebounded 63-35 to the now current first place team in the Eastern Conference.
But what was holding them back was themselves. The team just did not fit well together, and something had to be done about it. Back in the offseason, the front office made moves that had Cavaliers fans thinking championship before the preseason began. Sadly, in January, they looked like a first round-and-done team. LeBron James even said at one point that if the playoffs started today (January) they would get bounced in the first round. It was players like Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, and Derrick Rose that made the team feel like they couldn’t get anything done. In that blowout loss against Toronto, the so-called “next thing up from Kyrie” Isaiah Thomas played 24 minutes and only put up 4 points! And as the point guard had just three assists. That type of play is not going to win you a championship from your lead point guard.
Thomas ended up being way overhyped. Coming back from an injury on January 2, he looked like he would be the missing piece the Cavaliers were looking for. Yet, he averaged 15.4 points per game, shooting 36% from the field, and as a point guard averaged just 4 assists a game. That was the problem. He wouldn’t pass the ball! When he had the ball at the top of the key, he would look to either immediately shoot a horrible fade away jumper, or drive to the basket, all 5’9″ of him. Do you know Kyrie Irving’s stats from last January with the Cavaliers? 45% shooting, 25.5 points per game, and 6 assists per game! So, yeah, Thomas didn’t fit. Neither did Jae Crowder who seemed like a waste of a body when he was out on the court, and Derrick Rose who ended up having the season we all feared, an injury plagued season that saw him play just 16 games this year.
So what do you do when you have this type of roster, but also have the best player in the world who wants a ring? Blow it up! Get rid of those players! And that’s exactly what Koby Altman and Dan Gilbert did on the final day of the trade deadline. Thomas went to the Lakers. Crowder went to the Jazz. We even traded Channing Frye with Thomas to Los Angeles, Dwayne Wade back to Miami, and Iman Shumpert to Sacramento, because while they were great presences to have in the locker room, they, too, were holding the team back in production. (Oh, and Rose isn’t even on a team right now that’s how bad he is!)
Never the less, they’re gone. So who’s new that has this team ready to take off for a second title? Better and younger talent that they got in return for those trades! They got rookie Larry Nance, Jr. and third-year man out of of Missouri Jordan Clarkson from Los Angeles. Nance, Jr. is obviously the son of Larry Nance, Sr. who played with the Cavaliers for the last seven seasons of his career, where he became a three-time All-Star, and led Cleveland to five playoff appearances. He also became the first Slam Dunk Contest Champion of the modern era in 1984.
But what Nance and Clarkson bring to the floor is youth and better options for shooting. They also bring toughness and a mindset that is emphasized on defense. That’s the one thing that Cleveland failed to realize what they need to do to win with the old team. You need to play defense to have a chance! Along with new acquisitions in George Hill and Rodney Hood, who both add some hot perimeter shooting as well and great defensive minds, this team has so much more potential to be more explosive than when they were playing really slow and looked confused on offense.
Already in their first two games they’ve played together, they were shooting the lights out. In the Cavaliers’ 120-112, dominant win over Oklahoma City to finish the first part of the season, Hood went 4 for 8 from three-point range, and shot 50% from the field to finish with 14 points. Nance finished with 13 points in 25 minutes off the bench and grabbed 9 huge rebounds. If the Cavaliers can get some more pressure underneath to rebound, that can be a way to really turn this team around. Clarkson also finished with 14 points and 4 assists.
Clarkson and Nance have played together all year with the Lakers, so that definitely helps, but already in their two wins over Boston and the Thunder with a new group of guys, this new team looks ready to compete with the big dogs in Houston and Golden State. Obviously, two wins doesn’t determine how the rest of the season is going to go, but with they’re physical, savvy type of play, and how Cedi Osman has started to contribute, and J.R. Smith is starting to shoot the three even better now, you need to remember that one guy we still have on the team.
Yeah, the Cavaliers still have the All-Star Game MVP! 33 years old and still playing monster ball, LeBron James is showing signs that he’s primed to have a huge next four months with these new guys. Just by the way he’s reacting to their play in both the Boston and Oklahoma City games shows that this is what he wanted. There’s no way he was going to be able to be the father to Isaiah Thomas that he was to Kyrie Irving. Thomas for one wasn’t healthy until January, and he also wasn’t up to get that leadership from James. Now with no second man on the totem pole, everyone is equal underneath James. They’re all Robins to Batman, as George Hill put it. Hill is in his 9th year in the league, and he has already formed the right mindset being on the Cavaliers with James.
In addition, this past Sunday night could end up being a huge boost for LeBron James’ season. The All-Star Game was different this year, as it wasn’t East vs. West. This time James and Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry were team captains and picked their own teams. This new format made James want to win this game even more, and it showed hitting huge shots in the final minutes to lift Team LeBron over Team Stephen, 148-145. James finished just two alley-oops away from a triple-double, in the All-Star Game! He put up 29 points, 10 rebounds, and 8 assists. You could just tell this exhibition meant something to LeBron, with it also being in the midst of his feud with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham after she called him out for giving his political opinion in an interview alongside Golden State’s Kevin Durant. There always seems to be something that fuels James even more at this point in the season, giving him extra motivation to play harder and better, and at the end of the day, get back to The Finals. Did Ingraham poke the bear? Right now, after winning his third All-Star Game MVP and on a four-game win streak, all signs point to yes.
This could potentially be another “year of LeBron.” He has a new and better team now, he seems happier with where he’s at, and he has fire burning inside of him to go out and get another championship and prove everyone wrong. Remember how he took a team that consisted of Drew Gooden, Eric Snow, Daniel Gibson, and Larry Hughes to The Finals in 2007? That was spectacular and a feat no one else but James could have done. And remember how he brought his team back from down 3-1 in The Finals against arguably the best regular season team ever in the Warriors to give Cleveland their first NBA title? Unprecedented. That never happened before. But James did it.
This could be another major accomplishment to add to the “Book of LeBron.” This first half of the season he was playing on potentially the worst team he’s ever been on. A 6-13 stretch of basketball, probably the worst stretch in LeBron’s career post-2007. Now he has the chance to play on an entirely new and re-energized ball club and take them to The Finals.
This year would be LeBron’s eighth straight trip to The Finals. Michael Jordan only went to six straight. Yes, he did win all six, but he really did it with just one group of guys. James will have done it with multiple different teams both in Miami and Cleveland. Out of the players who were on the team from last year, who lost to Golden State in The Finals, 4-1, only James, Kevin Love, Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith, and Tristan Thompson remain. Everyone else have exited the Quicken Loans Arena locker room. So for James to bring another group playing into June would be monumental for his career.
The Cavaliers’ remaining schedule is not as difficult than their schedule in the first half of the season, but that does not give them a reason not to play hard to the end. They need to find a way to get chemistry going before the playoffs. They’ll finish the month of February facing Washington and San Antonio, both winning clubs. Then they’ll welcome a tough opponent in Philadelphia, a team many are saying is a landing spot for James next year, to start off March. They have one more big West Coast trip to face the Clippers, Lakers, Suns, and Trail Blazers. After that they have big contests with Toronto, the current one-seed in the East, and New Orleans to wrap up March. They then have one big game in April, and that’s another home matchup with the Raptors. So that’s two more games with the Raptors this season. All of their meetings with Boston have concluded, along with both Houston and Golden State. So here comes hopefully some fun basketball in Cleveland, as James and company are looking to bring another championship back home.