After 384 nearly unwatchable preseason minutes featuring a larger cast of extras than The Walking Dead, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ regular season looms beginning with the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday.
This season is an opportunity for Cavaliers coach David Blatt to bring a championship to Cleveland 51 years after the city last won anything, and prove the doubters last year’s Finals run was driven by something more than the indomitable will of basketball’s finest current player, LeBron James.
Such is life in the shadow of greatness; not long ago it was a shadow Blatt cast, and that transition made for a difficult first year. He was the new kid in town, full of pride at his accomplishments, which barely registered to much of the media, whose regard for European and Israeli basketball is just above that for the NBA D-league and below the University of Kentucky.
It was as though Blatt wore white pants after September 1 and nobody told him it was a thing here, just snickered among themselves.
Almost from the start his rotations were questioned, and local beat reporters wondered about the way his assistants would call timeouts or confer with players without him. (They’d never heard of delegation, the suggestion of which could have you labeled an apologist.) The way James upstaged Blatt in timeouts and on the court was heavily parsed with many media deciding LeBron held Blatt’s strings and the team’s fortunes in his oversized hands.
In the midst of a run of injuries mid-season last year, many speculated he was about to lose his job, something GM David Griffin has denied from the jump.
It always seemed unlikely. The Cavaliers were still paying Mike Brown, fired after one season, and would’ve looked awful hasty abandoning another coach at the midseason point. But the rumors were loud as the team stumbled to 19-20 before producing the league’s best record across the next 40+ games.
The Cavaliers somewhat improbable trip to the NBA Finals minus two (Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love) of its Big Three, has only somewhat chastened his naysayers. They’re still lying in the weeds waiting for an opening.
This isn’t a history lesson, but a refresher feels in order since Blatt’s running a similar gauntlet of sky-high expectations again this season. Sure, the Princeton-grad and longtime Maccabi Tel Aviv coach gained the respect of many peers and those in the media with his performance. Turning what had been a middle-of-the-road regular season defense into a Kryptonite lock in the postseason testified both to his coaching skill and the team’s buy-in.
One wonders, however, if a similar early season stumble would be greeted with the same panic as last season.
Blatt no longer has to unite a dozen guys who’ve never played together, but instead is playing the role of Hawkeye Pierce, keeping the M*A*S*H* unit that is the Cleveland Cavaliers functioning through the first two months of the season. Thanks to injuries most of the preseason games were manned by temp-worker scrubs and wannabes who’ll be looking collecting unemployment money when games start counting.
Mercurial shooting guard J.R. Smith is the only member of last year’s starting unit that isn’t nursing an injury. All-star point guard Irving fractured his kneecap in the Finals against the eventual champion Golden State Warriors.
By then, Love’s shoulder had been already separated, against the Boston Celtics. Since the end of the season center Timofey Mozgov has undergone what’s been described as minor knee surgery to eliminate issues contributing to late season soreness the past few years, according to the seven-foot Russian. Sixth-man Iman Shumpert injured his hand just before training camp and is also out for several months.
Now add LeBron, who had an anti-inflammatory injected into his back. Apparently there was a price to be paid for carrying the Cavaliers into the Finals by his lonesome.
In his only two preseason games before the shot, James was 9-28 from the field with six turnovers. Needless to say, the Cavaliers aren’t going far without their eight-cylinder leader, though most fans have dismissed it as simply, “Chill Mode.”
Fortunately for James, Griffin has brought in a couple solid veteran reserves that look like upgrades over the departing Mike Miller and retired Shawn Marion.
Richard Jefferson had actually committed to the Dallas Mavericks before center DeAndre Jordan backed out of his Mavericks commitment to return to the LA Clippers. When he did, Mark Cuban let Jefferson bolt to Cleveland where he had a better chance at championship.
Cleveland also added Mo Williams, who was excited to return. The feeling isn’t entirely mutual. Some fans still hold a grudge about Williams’s prior Cavs run from 2008- 2010, when in consecutive playoff years Williams’ shooting percentage tumbled and his absurd long-distance shooting sunk even more precipitously, helping to sink the Cavaliers postseason hopes during James’ first stretch in the wine and gold.
Williams’ poor performance, James’ back issues and need for a palliative, along with the string of other injuries might have been bigger stories were the Cavaliers season not overshadowed by the holdout of Tristan Thompson. The 24-year old Canadian backup power forward stepped in during the playoffs when Love was injured and stepped up his performance.
His energetic play and hustle on the boards keyed the team’s defensive surge in the playoffs. However Thompson’s always been limited offensively and doesn’t have the size to alter or block shots in the lane.
Still, after a tense period where Thompson’s agent indicated he might hold out into the season, he resigned with the team for $82 million over five years last week.
Keeping Thompson alleviates the need for the Cavs to add another big, a difficult task in the best of circumstances.
Now they’ve locked up the youthful twenty-something core (Love, Irving, Shumpert, Thompson) for the next four years, while thirty-year old James Smith and Mozgov move past their peak.
They also added Sasha Kaun in the offseason, who after graduating from the University of Kansas spent the last eight years in Russia.
Blatt actually coached him on the Russian National Team during the 2012 Olympics.
He’ll be joined by Anderson Varejao, the bushy-haired Brazilian whose energy and personality are palpable on the floor. He went down in December last season with a torn Achilles tendon, necessitating the addition of Mozgov. That turned out better than anyone could’ve hoped, as the team went from 19-20 to having the best record in the NBA the rest of the way.
Though he looked good, Varejao admitted he’s still not 100% – what else is new? Varejao has played more than 31 games just once in the last five years – and may need some time to get back to game speed after so much time out. Missing all of training camp with his holdout will likely require a similar adjustment period for Thompson.
It’s not exactly the blind-date of last year, where Blatt met his coaching staff for the first time when he got to America, but it’s not looking easy. All the injuries and missed time are going to produce plenty of discontinuity early on. You could see Blatt’s frustration build during the preseason as they failed to win seven times before securing the Cavaliers’ first in their final outing.
It won’t get any easier once they start counting. Hopefully he’s benefit of the doubt and won’t have to endure the indignity of media vultures circling his job again – because it might not look pretty the first couple weeks.
Love returned for the final two preseason games and the word is that James will be ready for the opener in Chicago. Irving has no timetable but is expected back by mid-December. Shumpert might be out until January. Mozgov, who is still laboring a bit with his knee, will have to build himself into shape during the season.
It may get ugly, but at least Blatt had them running his offense during the preseason.
They abandoned it midseason last year and relied heavily on pick-and-roll isolations for Irving and James, who are both so devastating driving to the basket, they didn’t need much else.
Now Blatt’s got his preferred motion offense and the ball is moving. It’s not always pretty or efficient yet, but that’s what the 82-game regular season is for. When someone asked LeBron last year about playoff seedings and the potential of home court advantage, James scoffed.
“Just get me into playoffs,” he assured the media throngs.
With the injuries and probably inevitable slow start, Blatt’s going to have to take this long view. The health of his beaten-up team is more important than anything. How they’re playing in April will have greater impact on their destiny than anything that occurs during the prior six-months.
A poll of NBA GMs revealed most thought the Cavaliers would win this season.
But you know, no pressure.This is the first in a series of monthly dispatches from Chris Parker, a freelance writer based in Cleveland. His eclectic coverage of music, sports and news has been published in the Guardian, Billboard and the Village Voice, among others. You can follow him on Twitter @CRS_1ne.