CLEVELAND – The Cavaliers and their fans at Quicken Loans Arena will begin one of the city's most memorable sports nights Tuesday by looking back to the recent past, celebrating in an NBA championship ring ceremony what the Cavs accomplished in June.
Then they'll shift their attention forward, not just to the New York Knicks in that moment but to the greater ambitions they harbor for a 2017 postseason to rival the last one.
In between: the care and feeding of an 82-game regular season. Something that's more difficult, perhaps, for elite teams than for those still on their way up.
Lesser teams can find a dozen different challenges and yardsticks along the way, from improving on last season's record to chasing a playoff berth to nailing down a top seed. The very best teams have to begin with the end in mind ---a trip to the Finals, a seizing of the Larry O'Brien trophy -- and somehow hang onto what that means and what that takes for the next six months. At which point, they finally can get serious targeting something tangible.
"Our goals aren't regular-season accolades," veteran Cleveland wing James Jones told NBA.com Monday after his team's final practice of the preseason. "If we have the best record in the league and we don't win the championship, every single guy on this team will continue this a lost season. That's the mentality you have to have if your ultimate goal, if your only goal, is winning."
Sound familiar? That's all anyone heard out of the Bay Area last season, as the Warriors -- defending champions from 2015 -- closed in on the NBA record for regular-season victories. Sure, they wanted to top the 1996 Chicago Bulls' 72-10 record, but not if any extra exposure to the injuries or fatigue complicated what mattered most: repeating as NBA champs.
Well, Golden State did get the record. But its dream season fizzled against the Cavaliers in the Finals, improbably dropping the final three games in that failed bid to repeat.
This time around, the Warriors sport several significant changes -- Kevin Durant has joined them, a number of valuable role players are gone, coach Steve Kerr is around from the start again and his surrogate last fall, Luke Walton, is down in L.A. -- that will make their regular season part lab experiment, part test course for the playoffs.
And still, Golden State will be judged not on what unfolds from now through May but on what happens in June. Title-or-bust expectations are unavoidable -- and nothing to run from, Kerr said.
"The alternative," Kerr said, "is, 'Oh, maybe we can win 30 this year!' Who wants that?"
No one in Cleveland, not anymore. But the Cavaliers face a trickier challenge than the Warriors because they'll mostly be playing a pat hand. Nine of their top 12 in minutes played last season are back; Matthew Dellavedova, Timofey Mozgov and Mo Williams are the three departed. And frankly, their roles had diminished enough by The Finals that plugging in replacements now qualifies as tweaking and fine-tuning more than overhauling.
LeBron James made it sound so Monday, when asked about the Cavs' priorities for the next 82.
"Just take it day by day," James said. "And don't short-cut the process. Can't get to April right now. There's no way you can fast-track the process. We have to work hard every single day. We have to get better every single day. Work on habits. And then if we do that – and obviously health is a big factor as well – but if we do that, we give ourselves a good chance to be there when we want to."
James said there are no great lessons to be learned this season, compared to the past two. How might he, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love mesh? Could they afford to start J.R. Smith? Can coach Tyronn Lue build on what David Blatt started? Where would the backup help come from? Those questions all are so 2014 and 2015 for Cleveland.
Lue said he mostly wants a healthy roster come April. The conference doesn't boast contenders formidable enough to push and chase the Cavs. As for targeting a certain W-L record or the East's top seed, they accomplished so much last spring – coming back from 3-1 in the Finals, delivering the first major sports championship to Cleveland in more than a half century – their needle won't move much whether they land on 55 or 59 or 61 victories.
Fine. That's just leaves the chore of playing those 82, a rigorous 3,936 minutes of basketball (not counting overtimes) before they can lock in on their real target.
James Jones has been through this before, teaming with James on Finals-bound teams in Miami before following him to Cleveland. "You try as much as possible to focus on the quality of your performance," he said. "Wins are still important. But you're not in a state like most teams, where they're trying to build championship capacity. Where they're looking for seeding or looking to give themselves some home-court advantage, and you've got guys trying to find the level that it takes to be an elite team. We know the level."
If the Cavaliers or, for that matter, the Warriors go off the rails in one direction, they'll "burn out too fast," Jones said. If they derail to the opposite side, they might lapse into complacency and think things will be all right regardless of a losing streak or some bad habits. Running too hot or running too cool can be equally risky.
"You don't know what it takes [this year]," Jones said. "That's the fallacy. When people say they have it figured out … this season isn't last season. These are different teams. This is a different gauntlet.
"We have an idea, but we don't know. That's the good thing about this team – none of us, coaches down to players, believes that we have it all figured out. We just think we understand the process it takes to give yourself a chance."
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