Cavs look to keep edge -- and Smith -- in quest for repeat
INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — LeBron James has let go of the trophy. The downtown streets of Cleveland are clear of jubilant and crazed humans. J.R. Smith is no longer roaming topless, although he has covered up with a shirt and not a Cavaliers jersey.
The defending NBA champions didn’t stagger into the first day of practice reeking of champagne, which means they’re finally over the biggest sports hangover this town has ever seen. But does this mean the Cavs have the right frame of mind and body to place the historic 2016 season far in the rearview and tackle the next task with equal ambition?
Winning a title is one thing, repeating another. Especially when, to be honest, there’s no topping what the Cavs did last June. Therefore, the devils they must deal with are complacency, a sense of satisfaction and, as Pat Riley famously coined, The Disease Of Me.
The Cavs tackled that last issue throughout the summer when coaches and players came looking for their reward. The Cavs wrote fat checks for Tyronn Lue and his staff, then used a forklift to deliver another one to LeBron, but paying dearly for last year’s results does have its limits. That’s why Smith was a no-show Monday, a free agent still holding hopes of getting a bigger raise from the Cavs (possibly) or that another team signs him (unlikely).
His absence, along with the unexpected and 11th hour retirement of backup point guard Mo Williams, were the only signs of imperfection with the Cavs. LeBron reported in terrific shape (“I took two or three days off after the parade before starting offseason training”), Kyrie Irving feels fueled from perceived disrespect even after swishing one of the biggest shots in NBA history, and Kevin Love feels unburdened. Those are the most important pieces and they are healthy and in place. That’s what matters most.
And this, from thoughtful reserve Richard Jefferson:
“The only thing better than being a champion is being a two-time champ. Be greedy.”
Is that easier said than done? Anything more from the Cavs is simply gravy. LeBron can retire tomorrow and, big deal. Irving can miss 20-footers for the rest of his life because he made the one that counted. Love can disappear for long stretches, as he’s done in his Cavs career, and still will never pay for a meal in this town again. Their legacy is written in ink and their place in Cleveland history is secured. They spread joy in a city that hadn’t celebrated in 60 years. There’s no special urgency, nor is there the same kind of “pressure,” acknowledged Jefferson, as before.
And that, more than the Raptors or Pacers or maybe even the Kevin Durant-spiced Warriors, is what confronts the Cavs the most.
“I think I’m really grateful that Kevin Durant went to Golden State, and I think most of our guys are too,” said GM David Griffin. “It creates a situation for us where it’s not just about repeating, it’s earning our respect as the most meaningful team in the league.”
Any team with LeBron is meaningful. He’s rested after waving his option to play in the Rio Olympics, and there’s perhaps an inner desire to remind folks that he’s not weary of winning Kia MVP awards, with the last two going to Stephen Curry. LeBron wondered aloud why Curry was the first to win unanimously, and LeBron responded by winning the Finals MVP award, also unanimously.
As for whether he’s still thirsty for rings, now that he has achieved his main goal for returning to the franchise, LeBron is on a legacy hunt. His place in the game means much to him, and the best way to be in the conversation with Jordan and Russell and others is to collect rings along with MVPs.
“We’re not satisfied with one championship,” he said. “We have to recalibrate and get back to the fundamentals and the basics of the game.”
LeBron knows what he accomplished last season but isn’t the nostalgic type, at least not yet, not until he’s cradling his grandchildren in a rocking chair.
“I don’t really look back on it,” he said. “I’ve been working all summer. You guys know I don’t stop. My second year back with the franchise will go down in history, but it’s a new season. There will be so many new challenges and obstacles that we have to be prepared for as a ballclub. I think we will be. It will not be easy and it shouldn’t be. I look forward to the journey and the work.”
He threw his weight in Smith’s direction, as he has all summer, saying the Cavs are not a better team with Smith wearing a shirt (or nothing) and not a Cleveland jersey.
“JR is my most liked guy on the team,” LeBron said. “We all know JR is an important piece of our team and without him we wouldn’t win a championship last year. He brings dimension that we don’t have. A two-way player, a `space’ guy, a good player to have in the locker room. We look forward to getting him back.”
Griffin said the Cavs made a “substantial” offer to Smith and yet the sides remain apart. On one hand, Smith didn’t fetch any offer of significance from another team, which means there’s no market for him and the Cavs are likely bidding against themselves. On the other hand, Cleveland lacks a proven replacement for Smith, and would rather have him instead of someone who’d need to learn the system and how to play next to LeBron.
When he wasn’t playing for Team USA, Irving spent a portion of his summer watching replays of Game 7 and the jumper that put Cleveland ahead for good. He said it gave him “chills” and that “It still gets me excited, thinking about it.”
So you can forgive Irving for living a bit in the past; he has earned it.
“Watching it, knowing that the shot’s going to go in but revisiting the emotion that I felt at the time,” he said, “was special.”
Irving exorcized a few demons with that shot, namely the annoying feeling that, had he been healthy, the Cavs would’ve beaten Golden State two summers ago as well. He did mention how he doesn’t believe he gets his proper due, and how he’s rarely mentioned among the game’s very best point guards, and how his game is often picked apart for not being complete. Whether these critics are real or imagined, Irving says their voices are giving him an “inner rage” to be a better player this season.
But does anyone in Cleveland or on the Cavs have reason to feel any bitterness or anger? As Love mentioned, once the Cavs began to rally successfully from 3-1 down, everyone became a Cavs’ fan. The only city that can possibly experience more euphoria is Chicago if and when the Cubs win the World Series. A new season awaits the Cavs but the championship banners hanging in bars around town still say 2016, and proudly.
“There were genuine tears of joy,” said Griffin. “There were fans from different generations who celebrated together. We’d done something the city desperately needed. You don’t forget that. You can’t.”
Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.
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