After losing six straight games in early January, including a shocking defeat at the hands of the Philadelphia 76ers, many were starting to wonder if the Cleveland Cavaliers would ever come around. Following that six-game skid, they were just 19-20 and tumbling down the Eastern Conference standings.
It was in the final game of that losing streak, a game on the road against the Phoenix Suns, when LeBron James returned to the lineup to reunite the Cavs’ trio of stars. While they were unable to pull out a victory over the Suns that night, they have been nearly unbeatable since – losing only once in their last 14 games. Their big three of James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love seems to be much more comfortable playing together as of late and their string of recent wins has reflected that. James, Irving and Love have been most responsible for the Cavs’ turnaround, however, there are three other players who have played a major role as well. The additions of Timofey Mozgov, Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith have really paid off for Cleveland. While these players certainly aren’t as revered or talented as James, Love or Irving, their contributions since joining the team have made a major difference.
It was clear early on that even with James, Love and Irving, the Cavs were not invincible and had some flaws that were concerning – the biggest being their lack of a true rim protector in the paint. Prior to suffering a season-ending injury, Anderson Varejao was the Cavs’ primary option at center. While Varejao is very skilled and always active, his calling card was never his interior defense. After Varejao went down, the Cavs were especially thin on bigs, relying primarily on Love and Tristan Thompson. Similar to Varejao, interior defense is an area where both Love and Thompson don’t excel. It was clear that with Varejao out, the Cavs needed some help at center and they found exactly that in Mozgov. Since arriving from Denver, Mozgov has settled into the Cavs’ starting rotation and been that presence around the rim the Cavs were sorely missing. According to Nylon Calculus’s rim protection statistics, Mozgov is allowing opponents to shoot just 48.6 percent at the rim. Compare that to his predecessor Varejao, who was allowing a 54.7 field goal percentage at the rim, and the Cavs other key front-court players Love and Thompson, who allow 54.4 and 50.5 percent respectively. Mozgov has quickly become the team’s best shot-blocker, averaging 1.6 per game, making him the only player on the Cavs to average over one block.
Mozgov may have filled the Cavs’ biggest need, but the backcourt additions of Smith and Shumpert have been crucial as well. The two former Knicks have both played well and fit in seamlessly in their short time with the team. With Smith, it has always been tough to predict what you’re going to get from him on a game to game basis, but he has been an improvement over the departed Dion Waiters. Waiters had struggled to knock down perimeter shots, shooting just 25.6 percent from three while with the Cavs this season, something Smith has been much better at (hitting 36.2 percent of his shots from deep). His ability to make spot-up jumpers when opposing defenses are forced to collapse on the penetration of James and or Irving has made the already lethal Cavs offense even more difficult to stop. With much more talent around him than in New York, Smith no longer needs to hunt for shots to try and keep his team in the game; instead, he can get his looks through the flow of the offense. Because of this, he has been noticeably more efficient with Cleveland than he was with New York. In fact, with the Cavs, Smith is shooting a higher percentage from three despite more than doubling his attempts from downtown per game, launching 7.8 threes per game now as opposed to just 3.8 per game with the Knicks. Smith has been the Cavs’ most productive pairing in the backcourt alongside Irving and has solidified himself as the starting two guard for the foreseeable future.
Like Smith, the move to Cleveland has proven to be the right fit for Shumpert. While Shumpert had his ups and downs with the Knicks, he has been a welcome addition to the Cavs’ second unit. His athleticism and ability to defend brings a different dimension to the team’s bench. Not only that, but Shumpert has been surprisingly effective of the offensive end, leading the team in true shooting percentage at 62.3 over his first 10 games played with the team. His role has been slightly reduced in Cleveland, but Shumpert is still playing over 20 minutes per game. The depth he provides will pay huge dividends as we get later into the season and the Cavs look keep James fresh for the playoffs.
There is no question that James, Love and Irving make the Cavaliers go. However, it’s amazing the difference having the right supporting cast can make. They are 9-1 in games where they have had their full complement of players available. The Cavs have made tremendous strides since acquiring Mozgov, Smith and Shumpert, and are now looking like the championship-caliber team that everyone expected to see from the beginning. Cavs general manager David Griffin deserves a lot of credit for being aggressive and addressing the team’s weaknesses. Incredibly, the Cavs may just be scratching the surface in terms of how good they can be as team. They will likely become even more cohesive as the season progresses, and once again have to be viewed as one of the most dangerous teams in the East.
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