Good, veteran NBA teams are never about the regular season. It’s about the end of the road and the prize waiting there. The Cleveland Cavaliers are in that mode, with LeBron James aiming for his sixth consecutive NBA Finals appearance and hopefully, a third title.
Despite all the difficulties in putting the Cavaliers together as he returned to Cleveland, things meshed at the right time. The Cavs were almost unstoppable in the second half of the season. The hierarchy was set, the defense came together and everyone was healthy.
But only for a short while. Kevin Love was lost during the first round sweep of the Boston Celtics, dislocating his shoulder and requiring surgery. The Cavaliers made it through the conference semifinals and finals without him, losing just two of the next ten games, but on the way Kyrie Irving started experiencing issues. On the first game of the NBA finals Irving fractured his kneecap, and was out for the series. He won’t be back until December, and maybe the Cavs will keep him out until 2016.
The Cavaliers made it difficult on the Warriors and even took a 2-1 lead. LeBron James put up incredible numbers, but a combination of not having anyone to lean on and being a bit too selfish in the whole Finals experience played out badly for the Cavaliers, losing the final three games of the series, with the Warriors taking the title in six, a number many predicted before the series would be the number of games it would take the team with the best record in the league to win the Finals.
So what’s changed since then? Not much. The Cavaliers were about keeping the roster intact. LeBron James, Iman Shumpert, Kevin Love, Timofey Mozgov, Matthew Dellavedova, James Jones and J.R. Smith were re-signed. Tristan Thompson, after a long and frustrating contract saga finally folded and took a step back from his ridiculous demands, signing a five-year deal as well. The Cavaliers added Richard Jefferson and Mo Williams to strengthen the bench. Anderson Varejao comes back from missing most of last season. The same team, with slight upgrades.
The Cavaliers showed last season that it doesn’t really matter if they finish first in the conference or have to go through at least one series without home court advantage. They were better by miles than anyone else last season, and if James is at his best during the right time, it might not matter who is in front of them, at least from the Eastern conference. It takes a little bit more to beat Western conference teams, although the leading motivational speech line was probably ‘if we had Love and Irving we would have beaten the Warriors.’ That might be true, but dwelling on ifs doesn’t help anyone.
The East isn’t going to be too different compared to last season. The Bulls stayed the same, and health is a key for them. The Wizards and Raptors haven’t budged, the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics are slightly better, and that’s about it when it comes to teams that are relevant to some sort of playoff positional battle in the East. The Cavaliers don’t really have a problem with any of them in terms of matchup, but without Irving for the first two months and James probably trying to take it easy from time to time, expect some difficulties along the way.
As we said, the goal is being healthy for the playoffs. If it comes with home court advantage all the way through, they won’t complain. Home court is what helped the Heat and James win the championship in 2013, going back to Miami behind 3-2 but miraculously pulled off a two-game comeback. An incredible finish to game 6, a dominant game 7. The Cavaliers aren’t planning on giving everyone such a head start this time.
So does this end in a championship or not? It depends on LeBron James, but not just him. Obviously, there’s no winning without him, but it’ll also take Irving and Love being there during the playoffs. It’ll take the defense of Shumpert and Smith, who hopefully won’t disappear or crumble under the pressure this time. It’ll be up to David Blatt to find solutions against the more and more popular small ball around the league. While the Cavaliers have built themselves for more than one or two years of contention, missing the goal time after time never helps keeping a potential championship team together.