Big playoff burden ahead for Cleveland Cavaliers' remade supporting cast
Other stars, reserves may be best-ever group LeBron James has played with in Cleveland. Can they deliver come playoff time?
On Oct. 29, 2003, when the season opened in Sacramento’s Arco Arena, the starting lineup for the Cleveland Cavaliers was Ricky Davis, Carlos Boozer, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Darius Miles and a teenaged rookie named LeBron James.
Off the Cavs’ bench that night were DeSagana Diop, Chris Mihm, Kevin Ollie and the unforgettable JR Bremer.
That building is long gone and so, too, is every player — except one. Over the years and through two tours of duty with the Cavaliers, LeBron endured a supporting cast that looked at times like the list of starting quarterbacks for the Cleveland Browns. But not so right now.
Right now, LeBron is blessed with the best help he’s ever had in Cleveland, even better than last season’s championship-winning squad. But is it enough for the Cavs to repeat?
That probably sounds contradictory. Surely if the Cavs are improved, they’re well-positioned to blow into the playoffs next month and gain traction as the stakes rise. Especially with the West-leading Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs, and the short line in the East forming behind Cleveland, all currently dealing with issues, right?
Indeed, the circumstances seemingly favor LeBron and the Cavs, but it hasn’t manifested itself because Cleveland is unsettled. The roster has changed from opening night, but it hasn’t had enough time to mesh. Meanwhile, Kevin Love and his repaired knee is weeks away from healing completely, while J.R. Smith just got back in the lineup after having thumb surgery.
Then there’s Cleveland’s defense, which is ranked 22nd so far this season and is 29th since the All-Star break, both of which are numbers that can spell disaster for any team dreaming of a title.
If all goes well, then the nip-and-tuck roster work done by general manager David Griffin will be validated come June. And then, LeBron will walk back the comments he made a month ago, when he whined about whether the Cavs had enough to put the other contenders on alert. Here in the stretch run of the regular season, the Cavs are still putting the puzzle together, and it’ll be glorious once it’s done — if it ever gets done. In any event, LeBron is light years removed from the misfits he had to work with a decade ago.
It’s not a coincidence that constantly adding salary made Cleveland’s payroll the NBA’s highest. Owner Dan Gilbert is laughing at the luxury tax and willing to spend whatever it takes to keep the Cavs dangerous in LeBron’s prime, which is exactly what an owner should do.
Gilbert doesn’t care about losing a few million on the Cavs. He wants to win, and besides, he’s worth about a billion. This is the philosophy Oklahoma City Thunder owner Clay Bennett should’ve adopted when he had Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, all 22 and younger, fresh off a trip to the 2012 NBA Finals and looking like a potential dynasty.
The personnel work done by Griffin since the season began and the open-wallet policy by Gilbert is aimed to help LeBron make a seventh-straight trip to The Finals.
Here’s a look at how LeBron’s upgraded supporting cast shakes out:
Kyrie Irving: He’s having his finest season ever, with career highs in scoring (25.2 ppg) and shooting efficiency while also averaging 5.9 assists per game. His handles are lethal, to the point where the Cavs run almost as many isolations for Irving (20 percent of the time) as they do LeBron (20.7 percent). And LeBron has more faith in Irving than any teammate he’s ever had except Dwyane Wade. LeBron would rather have the ball in his hands in a tight game, but if Game 7 of the NBA Finals taught him anything, it’s that the Cavs are fairly safe when the ball is with Irving. As for defense? Well, that’s still under construction. Isaiah Thomas and Goran Dragic, among others, have given the Cavs fits lately by attacking the rim repeatedly. In this instance, though, the good outweighs the bad with Irving.
Kevin Love: Finally freed from the burden of expectations last season, Love scorched through the first four months of this season and was an All-Star, averaging 20 points and 11.1 rebounds per game before the All-Star break (and looking suspiciously like the Minnesota Timberwolves version of himself). He was so good that LeBron didn’t issue any tweets about Love’s desire to “fit in.” He was forceful and active before injuring his knee and requiring arthroscopic surgery. The question now: Can he regain the zip, both physically and mentally, when he returns? The Cavs did rally from a 3-1 hole in the 2016 Finals in spite of him, but any repeat of slippage from Love could truly harm Cleveland.
J.R. Smith: The wildcard among the starters, Smith is valued by LeBron because he’s a fearless shooter and the team’s best on-ball defender (after LeBron). But perhaps Smith has peaked as a player and could soon start rolling down the other side of the hill. His shooting was a major concern – 33.7 percent overall, 36.2 percent on 3-pointers — before his thumb injury and if it doesn’t improve down the stretch, Cavs coach Tyronn Lue might feel safer with Kyle Korver in certain spots instead of Smith.
Tristan Thompson: Not much has changed here. He’s a robo-rebounder and a total liability on offense, despite being the No. 1 roll man for Cleveland in its pick-and-roll sets. Bad hands and clangy free throw shooting keeps him benched in tight games.
Kyle Korver: A massive midseason pick-up who is proving to be a tailor-made for system where he’ll get open looks. Still one of the game’s dangerous 3-point shooters, having Korver on the floor with LeBron drawing doubles can pay handsomely. No one on the team or in the NBA gets more looks off screens (35.3 percent of them) and his 48.7 percent 3-point shooting (as a Cav) keeps defenses honest. While Korver is not the volume 3-point shooter of a few seasons ago in Atlanta, he reminds LeBron of his old Heat teammate, Mike Miller.
Iman Shumpert: A decent 3-point shooter (38.3 percent this season) who isn’t the defensive pest he was three seasons ago. One of the few returnees from the 2016 Finals run whose value is questionable.
Derrick Williams: Another player plucked from the discount bin, Williams is a Draft bust who’s finding a second life in Cleveland. For much of his career, he was a hopeless ‘tweener — not big enough to play power forward, yet not a good enough shooter to play small forward. In Cleveland he has turned himself into an energy guy, hustling for fast-break layups and scoring off the dribble. He’s made 39.5 percent of his 3-pointers in Cleveland (after shooting 20 percent earlier this season with the Miami Heat) and is a solid sixth-man type.
Deron Williams: His career is all but finished, but the Cavs can use his floor smarts and playmaking skills when Irving needs a breather. Plus, point guard is the position LeBron wanted upgraded the most.
Richard Jefferson: An old-but-brainy swingman brings a healthy attitude and calming influence, and can still make a highlight play here and there. He’s still useful in small bites.
Larry Sanders: To replace Andrew Bogut when the center broke his leg 58 seconds into wearing a Cavs’ uniform, Cleveland is turning to a free-spirited but formerly troubled big man who hasn’t played in two years. At his peak, Sanders was a shot-blocking, rim-running, rebounding big man for the Milwaukee Bucks before he signed a big contract there and then left the team, citing psychological issues. It’s a small risk/potentially small reward situation here for Cleveland.
Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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