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NBA Sunday: Cavs Close In On Repeat

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Atop the NBA, the king reigns.

Come June, he just might do so again.

With LeBron James famously proclaiming that his Cleveland Cavaliers needed some help at the point guard position, those that know anything about basketball saw a massive void on the team’s interior. With Timofey Mozgov having taken his talents to Los Angeles, the Cavs have depended on the reliable Tristan Thompson to man the middle for them.

And although that’s a recipe for success in the Eastern Conference, it was obvious that James and his crew needed more girth in the paint.

Now, as Deron Williams and Andrew Bogut each inch toward joining the Cavs in their quest to repeat, rest assured that Stephen Curry, Steve Kerr and Kevin Durant should all be taking notice.

The Larry O’Brien trophy may not be leaving “the Land” this season, after all.

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You can count on death and you can count on taxes. As it relates to pro basketball, you can also count on the San Antonio Spurs, as well as one additional fact: a defending champion will go through its share of hot and cold spells over the course of a regular season.

What’s most interesting as it relates to the Cavaliers is that, through 57 games last season, the club had already had its share of hot streaks. At the 57-game mark, despite having five separate winning streaks of at least five games, one eight-game winning streak and three separate stretches where they had won at least 10 of 12, they were “just” 41-16. Sure, not many believed that the Cavaliers were going to best the Warriors in a seven-game series at this point last season, but nobody was declaring the team to be a disappointment.

This season, the team has been without Mozgov, Matthew Dellavedova and Mo Williams. They entered the season believing to have gotten weaker. Since then, J.R. Smith has gone down with a thumb injury while Kevin Love—despite enjoying his best season as a Cav—has been shelved after knee surgery. Each of the two is expected to return prior to the playoffs, though.

Along the way, though the Cavs have looked a step slower and somewhat listless on certain nights, they arrived at the 57-game mark with a won-loss record of 40-17. A whole game worse than they were last season. They have done so despite missing Smith and Love for 36 and 11 games, respectively.

Now, consider this: Kyle Korver is on the team, Iman Shumpert has transformed into a lethal three-point shooter and now, Deron Williams and Andrew Bogut are each on the verge of becoming Cavaliers.

Despite those facts, for some inexplicable reason, the masses have been led to believe that the Cavs were somehow worse off than they were last season. Granted, on the surface, one could sound the same alarm that James did—the one blaring that while the Cavs are well equipped to win the Eastern Conference for a third-straight year, whoever will await them in the Western Conference will be better equipped to oust them when it all counts. While that’s a fair point, those buying into the argument would have probably been guilty of overlooking a few key facts.

First, and most important, is the fact that the Cavs didn’t reinvent the wheel in overcoming the 3-1 series deficit they faced. Led by Thompson, head coach Tyron Lue did an expert job of managing the switching schemes that the team employed. Rarely would a big man aside from Thompson or James switch out onto Stephen Curry. Rarely would a guard end up in front of Draymond Green. Instead, Cavs guards switched out on Klay Thompson. While Klay Thompson is a deadly offensive weapon, he is not nearly as adept as creating looks off the dribble for his teammates as Curry and Green, and he is not a reliably consistent post scorer. If a team had the ability to both keep Green and Curry in front of them—something the Cavs quicker-footed big men did phenomenally well—and force Thompson into creating his own looks rather than merely catching and shooting, the Warriors could be toppled.

That’s what Lue figured out and that’s what the Cavaliers exploited, masterfully.

Second, despite the fact that coaches commonly employ “offense-defense” substitutions, Curry is far too important for Steve Kerr to live without in the waning moments of any important game. Curry, a true superstar, is a lot of things, but he’s no defensive stalwart. Whether it was strategically having Curry switch onto James in the post or exploiting him on the defensive end in other ways, Curry became an Achilles heel for Kerr’s defense. It was no coincidence that Curry was originally guarding J.R. Smith on the fateful play of last season’s Game 7, just like it was no coincidence that Smith was the screener for Irving. Irving was originally guarded by Klay Thompson, and when Thompson and Curry predictably switched, it was checkmate.

Defensively, the Warriors still employ the same strategies as last season and today, they don’t seem any better equipped to solve the issues they will face so long as Curry remains a switcher in pick-and-roll situations in late-game scenarios.

Third, the reason why the Cavs were actually able to do the unthinkable was because in Games 5-7, they had the two best players on the floor in each contest. There was no answer for LeBron James and there was no answer for Kyrie Irving. Adding Kevin Durant to the Warriors may have changed this, sure, but even if Durant does manage to outplay Irving over the course of a potential NBA Finals, the depth that the Warriors sacrificed to attain him could end up having deeper consequences. It is entirely possible that the Cavs could have two of the best three players in the series. It’s also possible that the Warriors would have the fourth to seventh-best players. But it takes far more than four players to win a championship. The Cavs, though, have already shown us that having the top two can go a long, long way.

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The term “irony” is one that is commonly used in the English language but rarely used correctly. By definition, an event can be classified as being ironic if it causes events that have an outcome contrary to what was expected or most probable.

So when one is looking for a modern day example of NBA irony, they need to look no further than Bogut and his departure from Oakland.

Bogut had been a lynchpin for Kerr. His uncommon fusion of skills—post moves, finishing ability, rim protection and passing—are a part of what made the Warriors who they were. Little did Bogut know that when he went down with some serious bone bruises to his left knee during Game 5 of the NBA Finals, that he had played his last game for the organization.

So, in short, the irony is the Warriors losing to the Cavaliers and waiving Bogut to sign Durant, only for Bogut to end up with the Cavaliers, who, in turn, defeat the Warriors again in the NBA Finals.

Granted, only the first half of those events have already transpired, but it certainly looks as though the second half may be in store.

Believe it or not, despite all that we have read and heard about the Cavaliers, despite missing Smith and Love for substantial portions of the season, the team may have arrived at the 50-game mark better equipped for a repeat than many thought.

Now, will both Williams and Bogut appearing likely to land in Cleveland, things have changed fairly dramatically.

That’s good for the Cavs, not so much for the Warriors.

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About Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and international basketball.