Can a rotation of role players help the King beat the Warriors?
POSTED: May 31, 2015 2:26 AM ET
LeBron and his Cavaliers cohorts take a postgame selfie.
Coach David Blatt, LeBron James, J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson talk about their crazy season and heading the the NBA Finals.
Before this season, which seems long ago now, LeBron James called a meeting with his new teammates in Cleveland. He spoke with each of them, one after the other, about their strengths and what they needed to do for the team.
"We did it collectively as a group,'' said Tristan Thompson, the Cavaliers' fourth-year big man. "He pointed everyone out and talked to them. It's great for you to hear that, and also to know what you're expecting from the other guy. So maybe if [Matthew Dellavedova] is not doing his job or Kyrie is not doing his job, it can be, 'hey man, this is what we need from you.' Because we know what everyone's role is.''
It was not that Thompson was picking on Dellavedova or Irving in particular: He was simply buying into James's message that everyone would need to hold up his end. Each of LeBron's teammates was like a spoke supporting the wheel. LeBron was the hub of the wheel. Their responsibilities would feed out from him.
Road to the Finals: A new beginning
When LeBron James announced his return to Cleveland, a new sense of hope took over the city and the team as the Cavs prepared for the upcoming season.
"Just play hard,'' said Thompson of the assignment he received from James in preseason. "Just to do what I've been doing since I've been in the NBA. Play hard, rebound and defend, and then when you get the ball, finish around the rim.''
The assignments were updated by James entering the playoffs. By then everything had changed. His teammates had listened to him and coach David Blatt more attentively than James would have imagined last summer, when he decided to return to the Cavaliers and take leadership of their young roster. Then the rotation was reshaped steadily by GM David Griffin, and as the playoffs approached, LeBron could see that his teammates were becoming more valuable than role players. They were turning into his partners -- sharing the responsibility with him, as opposed to waiting for him to bail them out.
Road to the Finals #3: Cleveland Cavaliers -- Growing pains
Losing their season opener was an omen for the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers -- building chemistry wouldn't happen overnight. By mid-January, the team was hovering around .500 and preaching patience as it fought through tough times.
"The way I have played throughout my career has been sporadic,'' said Iman Shumpert, the 24-year-old shooting guard who had played four seasons with the Knicks. In New York he had been asked to score at times, to focus on defending at other times, to adapt himself to the ever-changing demands of a team that was always in flux. Then, four months ago, he was traded to Cleveland.
"I had never really gotten a role: To just do this and this for the whole game,'' Shumpert said. "You do this and this, and we will do the rest.''
He was describing the big-picture view of the team as laid out for the Cavaliers by their greatest teammate. For the first time in his NBA career, Shumpert was able to trust in the messages he was receiving from his fellow players and coaches. He could see the larger goal of the team and where he fit in.
"It is simplifying things for me,'' Shumpert said of his role with the Cavaliers, who have asked him to be focused defensively.
"This has been the easiest for me mentally as far as what I have to prepare for. There are times where they're going to need me to do a little bit more scoring or a little bit more rebounding, with the injuries or fouls that happen throughout the game; or maybe they'll need me to handle the ball. But on a day-to-day, I know what my job is on the team. And I think simplifying that in my mind, and not having me think about so much other stuff, it really has helped my game evolve.''
Less is more.
After a difficult regular season, All-Star power forward Kevin Love appeared to be finding his role in the opening round of the playoffs. He had averaged 18.3 points and 9 rebounds in three full games against the Celtics when his left shoulder was separated in an awkward lockup with Kelly Olynyk. Even so, without one of the NBA's most talented power forwards, the Cavaliers went onto snuff Chicago in six games.
By then All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving was being slowed by foot and knee injuries. His production waned; he missed two games in the conference finals against the top-seeded Hawks. And still the Cavaliers swept Atlanta in the absence of James's two most talented scorers.
They've also been lacking Anderson Varejao, the starting center who suffered an Achilles injury in December. And yet they have improved steadily, while reinventing themselves to become the most intimidating defensive team in the playoffs. It's next man up,' said James.
It is more than that, actually.
The reason James left Cleveland in 2010 was because he had never been surrounded by teammates who could help him win the championship. During his final two years with the Cavaliers, when they were earning the No. 1 seed in the East, his only teammate to join him in the All-Star Game was Mo Williams, the point guard whose value dropped after LeBron's departure to Miami: Williams has played for a half-dozen teams over the last five years while coming off the bench more often than he has started.
Consider the others who played large roles alongside James in the old days: Daniel Gibson, Sasha Pavlovic, Delonte West and Jamario Moon were all out of the NBA within three years of losing their association with James. But that was only part of the issue. James was lacking in complementary talent, for sure; but then he also wasn't the leader that he has become now, after four years of winning experiences in Miami.
"I never felt that I had to do it by myself, even in the past,'' James said. "Mentally, I just wasn't who I am today. My hard drive wasn't as big as it is today. I'm able to handle a lot of situations that I wasn't able to handle at 24 and 25 and 23 years old. The mental side is way more important than the physical, so that's where it comes from.''
At age 30, James has learned to apply his people skills more profoundly. Imagine how intimidating it might be to have the world's most imposing player as your teammate. Then imagine how liberating it must feel to realize that he is showing confidence in you.
"It's not like he's asking us to shoulder the burden of the entire thing,'' said Cavaliers backup forward James Jones, who played with James in Miami. "He's just asking us to do our piece. To do a little bit. So that's the least we can do, and it's vice-versa. Because you know that the reason he competes at the highest level is because he doesn't want to let us down. He knows that he has a tremendous amount of responsibility for us.''
Jones has averaged 14.1 minutes per game in the playoffs. As a 3-point specialist, he is expected to make the most difficult shots instantly. It is a hard job -- more like a pinch-hitter than a field-goal kicker -- because he is expected to score cold off the bench, as if he is all warmed up and in rhythm.
"I just have to step on the floor and perform,'' said Jones. "So that's how I train; that's how I practice. I come into the arena every day and the first thing I do is take the shot that I'm expected to make when I'm ice cold on the bench. As practice goes on, it becomes a situation where it's more and more unlike my game situation. I know I'm not playing 30 minutes in a game, so if I'm feeling good 30 minutes into practice, that really doesn't translate. For me it's always the first five to 10 minutes of practice, and my first 10 to 15 shots are what I'm focused on. Because that's my game.''
As he prepares himself to heat up fast at practice, Jones is aware that LeBron is taking account of his preparations. In the weight room, in the video sessions, during the defensive drills -- he is watching to see which of his teammates are zeroing in. In whom can he trust?
"Spacing, toughness plays, winning plays, sacrifice -- the little things are what the best players need,'' Jones said. "We ask them to do the big things, and a lot of times there's just too much. The things they need help with are the little things -- it's a charge, it's a block, it's being in the right position. It's making a huge shot so that during the next possession they can have an extra foot or two of space, which is all they need.''
Over the course of three days in January, Griffin essentially surrendered Dion Waiters and a first-round pick in exchange for Nuggets center Timofey Mozgov, as well as for Shumpert and his Knicks teammate J.R. Smith. All kinds of behind-the-scenes conversations were held in Cleveland before those deals were made, with the focus centering on Smith, who had earned his reputation as an explosive and altogether unreliable scorer.
Irving knew him well and assured the Cavaliers that Smith would try to fit in. Mike Miller communicated with friends around the league and provided helpful intelligence on the Knicks and Smith to the Cavaliers, even though the acquisition would lessen Miller's own role. The most important counselor was James, obviously, who signed off on the trade and who has since convinced Smith to play the best team defense of his career. The message has been simple enough: He has told Smith that he is capable of helping defensively, he has held Smith accountable to their defensive schemes, and along the way he has provided Smith with positive feedback for his role in helping the Cavaliers reach the NBA Finals.
There have been all kinds of transformations over the last year in Cleveland. Dellavedova, an undrafted guard who in other circumstances might have bounced around the league, now looks indispensable. Shumpert has joined with LeBron to provide the Cavaliers with two lockdown perimeter defenders.
"In Game 3 I felt like I played terrible, defensively,'' said Shumpert of the recent conference finals. "But I had my guys with me. It was a lot of times that I got blown by, I didn't get the coverage right on the switch, or maybe I got out there late and the guys drove past. But then I got the stunts from the corner or help from somebody. Everybody is going to need help at some point. I am just glad that I've got a team that supports me.''
No one feels alone, although the support is shared in some unusual ways. Mozgov, who two seasons ago was a DNP for half of the Nuggets' schedule, instantly provided the Cavaliers with a massive presence around both baskets. But was he ready for a two-month run at the championship? Kendrick Perkins, the backup center signed by the Cavaliers in February, insisted on making certain. During their second practice of the playoffs, he clobbered Mozgov in the paint relentlessly until his teammate wheeled around to complain. That was when Perkins announced for the entire team to hear, in language not to be reprinted, that the postseason was going to demand an entirely new level of intensity from all of them.
They could either be the victims of that intensity, or its instigators. Were they going to provide LeBron with the support he needed?
"The guys that thrive around LeBron are the guys that are internally motivated,'' said Jones. "Our internal motivation leads us to build a confidence that we can do the things that he needs us to do, and to gain his trust. I think that permeates everyone's psyche. So when you gain his trust, you gain the coaches' trust, you gain your other teammates' trust, and that's how you build chemistry.''
This is what the Warriors are up against. MVP Stephen Curry and his teammates have never played in an NBA Finals. They have been unstoppable for much of this season. But they also have none of the experiences that LeBron has earned the hard way, and which he has spent the last year sharing with his teammates.
"At the beginning of the season he lets guys kind of understand and feel themselves out,'' said Thompson of LeBron. "But after All-Star break, that's when he really locks in. I saw the change in him. I saw a different approach. He wants perfection from his teammates, and you are glad that's what your leader wants.''
Can a rotation of role players join with an injured Kyrie Irving to help James upset the top-seeded team in the NBA? James believes they can. And that is all they need to hear.