After speaking for 11 minutes, the candid LeBron James exhaled, put on his sunglasses and exited stage right.
For 11 minutes, he answered all kinds of questions: some about his return to Cleveland, some about Andre Iguodala and some about the losses of Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving.
What all of those questions had in common was that they came in the aftermath of the Cleveland Cavaliers faltering due to a talent deficiency and succumbing to the Golden State Warriors in the 2015 NBA Finals.
Collectively, they have been waiting for an opportunity at redemption.
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The Cleveland Cavaliers will enter the Eastern Conference Finals having gone 8-0 over the course of the first two rounds of the 2016 NBA Playoffs and they will be heavily favored to reach the NBA Finals for the second consecutive season. Before our very eyes, they have become a new team. Chemistry, cohesion, ball movement, three-point shooting and big contributions from those not named LeBron—these Cavaliers have it all.
What they also have is an opportunity to pull off a shocking upset and walk away with the 2016 NBA Championship, regardless as to who they may face in the NBA Finals.
If there is one thing we have learned from the Oklahoma City Thunder and their improbable toppling of the San Antonio Spurs, it’s this: the game isn’t played on paper.
Somewhere between Game 3 and Game 4 of that Thunder-Spurs series, Billy Donovan realized that having Kevin Durant play off of the ball was most effective. He also realized that playing Steven Adams and Enes Kanter were a part of the recipe for success. Most (including yours truly) picked the Spurs to win the series, but what Donovan has proven is the extent to which heads up coaching and unforeseen adjustments can cause disruption to the point of destruction—of the opponent, at least.
In the minutes following last season’s Game 6 loss, James questioned whether he would rather not make the playoffs at all than to lose in the Finals. Per James, the mental and physical toll that is taken is tremendous, and it’s difficult to argue with that.
Believe it or not, James is finishing up the 13th season of his NBA career. He has played 986 games and has looked like it at various points during the season. Traditionally, players begin to regress after they cross the 1,000 games played mark and James will do exactly that next season. It’s sad to say—especially after losing Kobe Bryant—that it is time to come to terms with the fact that James is going to have to pitch count himself from here on out. Still considered by many to be the greatest player in the game, James will continue to be dominant, just not every single night.
That will become easier to come to terms with when one realizes that over the past five seasons—all of which have resulted in NBA Finals appearances for James—he has played an additional 107 games. And over the course of his 13-year NBA career, James has played a total of 186 playoff games. Though not necessarily the same level of competition as the NBA, James has also played quite a bit of international basketball, participating in the 2006 FIBA World Championship, the 2007 FIBA Americas tournament and on the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Olympic teams.
He may still have some tread on his tires, but James’ odometer has steadily accumulated miles.
In a way, though, that may make him a dangerous man. Older and wiser, one could only imagine that James has begun self-preservation.
With his prior losses in the Finals fueling him, one could only wonder what he still has left in the tank for what seems to be an inevitable battle with the Golden State Warriors or the Thunder.
One thing is for certain: with the Cavaliers playing the way they have over the past few weeks, they will have an opportunity to win the championship, regardless as to who they play. Agreed, the Warriors are a better team than they were last year, but so are the Cavaliers. And if there is one major advantage this year’s Cavaliers have over last year’s team, aside from health, it would appear to be coaching.
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David Blatt appears to have gotten a raw deal while Tyronn Lue seems to have gotten a windfall. In this space a few weeks ago, it was suggested that Luke Walton hadn’t done anything overly impressive in helping the record-setting Warriors burst out of the gate en route to their 73-win season.
One could easily argue the opposite about Lue.
From the time he took over in Cleveland, Lue vowed to hold players more accountable for their shortcomings and keep honest and open dialogue with everyone. A player on the team recently told Basketball Insiders that the team seems to communicate better, both on and off the court, and that there seems to be a genuine level of trust that hadn’t previously existed. That is something that should be credited to Lue.
In terms of what has transpired on the court, we have seen the Cavaliers adjust their offensive attack in a way that measures and gives repetitions to Kevin Love. Upon taking over, Lue vowed that, while still expecting Love to be willing to sacrifice his own shots and statistics, that he would feature Love more on the low box, both in an effort to keep the big man happy and preserve James’ legs. Lue being true to his word is proven in the fact that Love averaged 12.4 field goal attempts per game under Blatt this season. Thus far, through eight games in the playoffs for the Cavaliers, he has averaged 16.5. It should also be noted that after failing to register as many as 20 shots in any game during the regular season, Love has done so twice in the playoffs.
Love aggressively given scoring opportunities—aside from keeping him motivated—has the effect of keeping opposing defenses guessing. Without question, Lue’s utilization of Love has been a positive development.
The other major adjustment Lue has made relates to Timofey Mozgov. Although not substantially, Lue used Mozgov a bit less than Blatt and, during the playoff run, has committed to Tristan Thompson as his starting center. Although Thompson has less length than Mozgov, his biggest strength on the defensive end is being able to effectively guard pick-and-roll ball handlers. Thompson is also one of the best offensive rebounders that the league has seen recently and—when playing with Iman Shumpert and LeBron James—gives the Cavaliers three somewhat malleable defensive presences, all of which can protect the shortcomings of Love and Kyrie Irving.
Lastly, Lue has managed to find minutes for Channing Frye and help put him into situations in which he can be an asset. Over the course of their sweep of the Atlanta Hawks in the second round of the playoffs, Frye played about 20 minutes per game in which he converted about three three-pointers on 58 percent shooting from behind the arc.
They may be minor adjustments, but they may be indicative of Lue’s ability to react to what he sees as flaws in his team’s approach. What they also may indicate is that Lue knows a thing or two about what it takes to be successful in the NBA, and more importantly, what his personnel needs to finally get over the top.
During the 2015 NBA Finals, in Cleveland, I had a few conversations with Lue. He struck me as incredibly humble, approachable and honest. We spoke at length about Tristan Thompson and about what the Cavaliers were attempting to build around LeBron James in the second go round. Lue told me that he felt the team was ready to compete, but that they still had much untapped potential. He seemed to think that they had another gear and that, so long as they re-signed Thompson, they could get there.
Coincidentally, he now has the opportunity to prove his theory correct.
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As LeBron James put those dark sunglasses on and seemingly held back his pain, he exited stage right, embarking on yet another long summer wherein he would introspect and consider what it was that he needed to do to help get his team over the hump.
Ironically, it seems that the answer there was “less.”
As James continues to advance in his career and in age, the pitch-counting seems to have begun. The 38.8 minutes per game he has played is these playoffs is the second lowest of his career while the 19.1 shots attempts per game pales in comparison to the 27.2 he had to take last season.
Make no mistake: James is far from done, but he is feeling his mortality. Stategically, he and Tyronn Lue have worked to preserve him and knowing that he will only have but so many opportunities left, I suspect that, at least for this season, we are yet to see the best LeBron James.
Stephen Curry may be the Most Valuable Player, but I’ll still take a hungry and motivated James over any other player in the league. And if there would be some words of advice I would give to any NBA fan wondering if the pursuit that James and his Cavaliers are on will ultimately end up fruitless once again, it would be to never discount greatness.
After all, as the Thunder helped remind us just recently, regardless as to what the experts have to say, the game isn’t played on paper.
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