A year ago, Kevin Durant was excoriated for joining his vanquishers, Stockholm Syndrome carried out to its absurd conclusion -- a 6-foot-11 Patty Hearst brainwashed into basketball capitulation. He gave in, his critics carped. He gave up. How could he go to the team that beat him?
What, then, are we to make of this year’s Cleveland Cavaliers -- a team full of players conquered by LeBron James?
What do you say about Derrick Rose, whose Chicago Bulls fought James tooth and nail for three seasons from 2011-13, during which time Rose was the 2011 Kia MVP, and Joakim Noah’s contempt for James, whether he played Cleveland or Miami, was ever present? Now, Rose is James’ starting point guard -- at least until Isaiah Thomas returns from his hip injury -- after signing a minimum deal with Cleveland in July.
What about Kyle Korver, who was also on those Bulls’ teams with Rose, and then had a star turn on a 60-win Atlanta Hawks team in 2014-15 -- one that reached the Eastern Conference finals, only to be zapped by James and the Cavs in four straight? Traded to the Cavs last season, Korver could have gone to any number of teams last summer as a free agent. He’s an elite shooter, a career 43.1 percent marksman on 3-pointers. A dozen good teams and several great ones would love to have him. But Korver took about four seconds to re-sign in Cleveland for three years and $21 million.
What about Kendrick Perkins, whose Celtics smothered James in his first stint in Cleveland, blocking his path to The Finals with stifling low-post defense and physical play? Now, Perkins is toiling with guys who’ll surely be playing with Canton, Cleveland’s G League affiliate, in a few weeks, in a longshot bid to make the Cavs after being out of the league last season.
And what of Jae Crowder, who was the Celtics’ first line of defense against James the last couple of seasons, when Boston jumped to the front of the line as the latest to challenge James and the Cavs in the East? Now, he had no say in coming to Cleveland; he was part of the package, along with Thomas, that Boston sent to the Cavs for Kyrie Irving. Okay, give him a pass.
But isn’t it weird to be James’ teammate now?
“I went through that, of course,” Crowder said Sunday, as he walked to the Cavs’ bus following an exhibition game with the Wizards. “But after a week of training camp, a week of battling with these guys and bonding with these guys, all that’s gone away now. I’m all aboard with it, trying to win a championship here.”
Such is James’ continued reign of terror over the Eastern Conference. His teams have made seven straight Finals, a period of dominance not seen in this league since Bill Russell’s Celtics. No superstar of the last four decades – Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, none of them -- made seven Finals in a row. Eventually, even great players on great teams fall and fail -- age, injuries, something, everything -- conspiring to beat them.
Not James. At least, not yet.
And so, even though Boston has great potential, both short-term and long, with Irving, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, buoyed by youngsters Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart, and the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards still have their deadly backcourts -- Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and John Wall and Bradley Beal -- Cleveland’s still the team to beat in the East.
It’s just different. The one thing that really caught me by surprise is how they come in and work, how each guy comes in and works. ... These guys really get it.
There was James on Sunday in Washington, getting up a sweat before a preseason game in which he wouldn’t play -- James has a sprained ankle, though coach Tyronn Lue said he’d probably get into the Cavs’ last two exhibitions this week. A little earlier, Dwyane Wade, two weeks into his Cavsdom, had gotten his workout in on the floor.
“Well, we still have the best player in the world, too, so it makes it a lot easier building around him,” Cavs General Manager Koby Altman said.
Wade, of course, has the cheat code; he has a friendship for life with James, won titles with him in Miami, and doesn’t need stroking or extensive playing time at this point in his career. But for those who have competed against James the last few years, being a teammate opens up new levels of appreciation, for him and the Cavaliers.
“I noticed the difference in mentality; I noticed the difference in the culture of work,” Crowder said. “It’s just different. The one thing that really caught me by surprise is how they come in and work, how each guy comes in and works. The feel of being at work is much different. These guys really get it. They get it. You don’t have to coach anybody to go work out or be in the weight room and take care of your body. It’s like mandatory here. It’s no coincidence that these guys have been the top team in the east this long.”
And thus, even though Irving’s trade request sent the Cavs reeling in the early days of July, they’re in the process of getting themselves back together -- just like when Ice calmed the Jets down after the Rumble in ‘West Side Story’ and got them back on track.
As ever, players who’ve been used having to big offensive roles in the past, and dominating the ball, will have to figure out where they belong when playing with James. There is almost always a role there, but it usually takes a while to discern.
“Every game I played against him, I saw different ways that he manipulated the game,” Rose said. “And having the chance, seeing how he supported his teammates, the cast that he had, making them play bigger and better than they were at that time, he showed a lot. He’s a leader. And being here, the way his work ethic is is crazy. The way he’s a professional, a business guy. I can learn on and off the court from him.”
Since James’ return to Cleveland in 2014, the Cavs had a distinct identity -- James, Irving and Kevin Love exploiting mismatches or single coverage, and James and Irving taking turns collapsing defenses off the dribble, with enough perimeter firepower surrounding them to make stopping Cleveland impossible.
“I really wanted to be on that stage again. Forty-something games I’m on TV, taking the minimum, so many things that’s bigger than me. I always had the underdog mentality.
It’s not like the Golden State Warriors shut the Cavs down in The Finals; the Cavs averaged 114.8 points in the Finals, and shot 38 percent on 3-pointers.
But the Warriors did to the Cavs what they did to everyone else; they ultimately overwhelmed their defensive principles and rotations.
Cleveland’s going to look very different this year. The Cavs will play small like everyone else, with Love starting at center and James playing more four, and Tristan Thompson going to the bench. That move was directly tied to Rose being on the floor in place of Thomas. Cleveland would die on the vine with a steady diet of pick and pops for Rose as he’s fallen through the floor as a 3-point shooter.
Three seasons ago, per NBA.com/Stats, Rose scored 25.2 percent of his points for the Bulls on 3-pointers. Almost a third of his shots that season -- 32.5 percent -- were 3-pointers. But last season, in New York, those numbers cratered. Only 3.4 percent of Rose’s points came via the 3-pointer, and just 6.1 percent of his shots were 3-pointers. Part of that dropoff, of course, came because Rose was creating for Kristaps Porzingis and Carmelo Anthony in the triangle rather than looking for his own shot. But while he’s in a different offense this season, Rose isn’t likely to start catching and shooting, with James, Love, J.R. Smith and Korver on the floor.
And any lineup with James in it will create more ball movement, which should get Rose to the front of the rim much more often.
Lue hasn’t yet quite decided if Wade will start, though he’s started with Rose in the backcourt during the preseason. Can Wade play with Smith and/or Iman Shumpert? (More likely Smith than Shumpert.) Meanwhile, until Thomas is back, Rose will be on the ball.
“Kyrie, he’s a great player,” Rose said. “But getting it off the break, being able to push the ball the way that me and ‘Bron push the ball, the bigs really have to get back and communicate. And just hopefully (it’s) a different type of leadership. Whenever he takes a break during a game, hopefully I’m the guy that they listen to, and follow while he’s on the bench, or at least organize the guys that are out there so we have a decent run while he’s out.”
That’s been a recurring problem for the Cavs as they’re 4-23 the last three years when James doesn’t play. And Lue has tried to get him scheduled days off during the regular season since taking over as coach in 2016. Irving, and to a lesser degree, Love, bore the brunt of the criticism when Cleveland struggled without James.
“The most important thing is just having a consistent year, not having those lulls where we lose three of four, or four of six,” Lue said. Now, the Cavs’ hope is that their depth -- we haven’t even mentioned Jeff Green, Jose Calderon or Channing Frye yet -- should fix that.
“As long as we continue to think team first, there’s a lot of guys who can play, a lot of guys who can score, a lot of guys who can play-make,” Korver said. “I think just taking advantage of that, not taking possessions off, knowing there’s another guy behind you who can come in and play, knowing if you don’t bring it, Ty can put somebody else in, I think it’s going to add to what we’re able to do on a consistent basis throughout the season. Different guys can kind of shoulder the load at different moments, can kind of spread that around a little more.”
Rose says he’s betting on himself this season with the veteran minimum deal, anticipating he’ll restore some of his value after a miserable season in New York by once more being on a contending team.
“I really wanted to be on that stage again,” Rose said. “Forty-something games I’m on TV, taking the minimum, so many things that’s bigger than me. I always had the underdog mentality. But coming from Chicago, coming from a hustling background, I’m a show it like that. I’m going to be on that. Because I know how hard I worked and I know how good I am.”
Cleveland also has work to do at the defensive end. The Cavs fell apart on defense last season, finishing tied for 22nd in the league in Defensive Rating (108.0) and were 29th in that category after the All-Star break (111.1). And yet, they still steamrolled the East. To beat the Warriors four times, though, they have to find more stops.
They think they can do it, ultimately, with Crowder and James together. James is still more athletic than Crowder, but Crowder reads weakside action -- where the Warriors destroy teams with their ball movement -- just as well as James. He’ll allow James to still play centerfield and give Lue another body to put on Durant if it comes to that in June, and the Cavs will be able to switch across the board in lineups with Shumpert on the floor. Nor does starting Love mean that Thompson won’t be out there in crunch time if Cleveland needs a stop.
It will take time, for the new players to learn the language and chemistry and communication on defense. James is a good talker on defense, as is Thompson.
“Really, I was that guy, communicating” in Boston, Crowder said. “Now, I have him, playing alongside him, it really made my job a little easier, especially when we’re practicing. Hopefully it’ll translate into the games; I’m sure it will. But it really helps, myself as a defender, and the team defense, it helps when guys are communicating as loud as he does.”
There remains the issue of Thomas, whom the Cavaliers continue to hope will be back in January. His offensive talent is undeniable and often unstoppable. The space he’ll have to operate on the floor with defenses leaning toward James and Love will be twice as wide as he is tall.
Among players who played in 50 or more games last season, Thomas led the league both in drives per game (12.7) and points per game (9.5) off of drives. And his fourth-quarter heroics were part of the reason he was so beloved in Boston.
Yet there will still be adjustments.
Last year, Irving was lethal on catch-and-shoot baskets. Per NBA.com/Stats, among point guards who played in 50 or more games last season, only Golden State’s Shaun Livingston (50 percent) shot a better overall percentage than Irving’s 48.2 percent on catch-and-shoot shots, and only Livingston and Chris Paul shot better on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers than Irving’s 47.9 percent.
Meanwhile, Thomas shot just 40.5 percent overall on catch-and-shoot shots. His catch-and-shoot 3-point rate, 40.4 percent, was very good. It just wasn’t as good as Irving. So, again, it will take time, even after Thomas gets back on the floor, for the Cavs to flow as they did last year.
Thomas is traveling with the team during the preseason.
“We told him to stay engaged,” Crowder said of Thomas. “He wants to be out there so bad. But he has to stay engaged. I think it helped him this past week. Because he was down on himself. It’s the injury, man. Nothing you can do. I know ‘Bron does a good job of telling him to stay engaged, watch practice and plays, so when you do come back, you hit the ground running.”
Of course, no one knows if this will be James’ last run in Cleveland. The rumors about him leaving and going to the Los Angeles Lakers in 2018 are still out there, even as those who would know insist he hasn’t even begun to make up his mind and won’t do so during the season, so he can devote his mental energy to the quest for an eighth straight Finals and a fourth title -- which would get him closer to the ghost he’s chasing.
They had no idea Irving wanted to leave. But they’re not exactly quaking with fear at the idea of playing without him. Not with the Ghost Chaser still around, still motivated, and still unbeaten in the East since 2009.
“It was surprising,” Korver said of Irving’s trade request. “I thought one of the strengths of our team last year was everyone got along really well. And that’s why to me, it wasn’t like, when he came out and said it was all about he wanted to take his game to the next level, and personal growth and all that, you can agree or disagree with that, but you can respect it. It wasn’t anything where he didn’t like somebody, the locker room, or whatever, or made a big deal about that. I don’t think that had anything to do with it. But, it’s also the new NBA. Teams are going to keep on doing this.”
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