NBA PM: Cavaliers Playing Well at Right Time

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Cavaliers Playing Well at Right Time

If the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2014-15 season seems familiar, it’s because LeBron James been through a season like this before.

It’s James’ first year back with the Cavaliers since his decision to leave for the Miami HEAT in 2010, and it’s gone similar to his first campaign in Miami.

James signing with the HEAT was one of the biggest free agency moves in recent years and completely changed the landscape of the NBA. Chris Bosh also signed with Miami and Dwyane Wade re-signed with team, forming one of the most talented trios the league had seen in quite some time.

The HEAT started off that first year in the ‘Big Three’ era by getting off to a rocky start, compiling just a 9-8 record through the first month of the season. It turned out that they all just needed some time to play with each other, as they went on an incredible run to win 21 out of their next 22 games and improve to 30-9. After their rough start, the team showed that they were a legitimate contender. They would go on to make the NBA Finals in four consecutive years and win two championships.

There are certainly some similarities between that run and this season.

James’ decision to return home wasn’t as surprising as when he signed with Miami, but he was faced with a similar situation in Cleveland. Cavaliers cornerstone Kyrie Irving inked a long-term extension with Cleveland and Kevin Love was acquired through a trade to form another ‘Big Three’ on the Cavs. The three players had to get on the same page and needed much of the first half of the season to adjust to playing with each other. There was even a time when Cavaliers head coach David Blatt was said to be on the hot seat due to the team’s rough start. But James warned everyone that this process would take time. He even said that it could take much longer than it did in 2010 and that his patience may be tested.

After a 19-16 start, some people were ready to hit the panic button. The team was playing average basketball in a below-average conference. A 95-92 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Jan. 5 was the breaking point for the Cavs’ front office and led them to make some moves.

The team had a number of trade chips including Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, Anderson Varejao and Brendan Haywood’s large non-guaranteed contract, and they ultimately opted to deal Waiters in a three-way trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder and New York Knicks. In the process, they acquired J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert while also sending Alex Kirk and Lou Amundson to New York. Shortly after, they acquired big man Timofey Mozgov from the Denver Nuggets to shore up their frontcourt depth after losing Varejao to season-ending Achilles surgery.

“When the trade happened, we understood the Knicks had to go in a different direction because things weren’t working out and it was a tough pill to swallow,” Shumpert told Basketball Insiders. “We got put in a great situation. We thought we could come over here and help and we’ve been doing everything that we can to just rack up as many wins as we can by the end of the season. It’s definitely more fun winning than it is to be struggling for a win. We’re just trying to be a part of that energy.”

Since making those trades, the Cavs have become one of the hottest teams in the league, as their 24-6 record since Jan. 15 is the best in the NBA. The trade, at the time, was heavily scrutinized as many didn’t think Smith would contribute well after becoming known in New York for his off-court antics rather than his play on the court.

But the trades have rejuvenated the Cavs. Shumpert has given the team a legitimate defender off of the bench. Mozgov has been a very good defensive presence in the paint with his ability to protect the rim (he’s averaging a career-high 1.5 blocks per game since joining the Cavs). Smith has turned out to be arguably the most valuable player acquired in that three-team deal, making a big impact on the offensive end. In 34 games in Cleveland, Smith is averaging 12.6 points and 3.7 rebounds. His three-point shooting has been big for the team, as he’s been able to get hot from the beyond the line multiple times, including hitting six threes against the Orlando Magic on Sunday.

“It goes without saying,” James said on Smith’s impact to the team. “Sometimes what’s known doesn’t need to be said. He comes in with a defensive mindset for one. He plays all of the two-guards in our league. Then he just makes the right plays offensively. If he’s got a shot, he takes it; if not, he swings it. He continues to get everyone involved, but obviously his shooting ability definitely helps our team as far as space and it’s a very key component for us.”

While James has turned in yet another MVP-caliber season, he’s had a huge impact on his teammates in a variety of ways. Other Cavaliers have praised James for his knowledge of the game and the way he leads. Part of playing on a team with James is knowing that opposing teams are going to be putting in their best effort of the season. Teams know that a win against the Cavaliers can turn their season around for the better and that’s due to James’ presence on the floor.

“I feel like that’s the biggest thing that I’ve learned playing on this team is that everyone is giving us their best shot,” Irving said. “It’s packed everywhere we go and the competition and teams are fighting for playoff spots so I feel like this second-half stretch has been an eye-opening experience. I’m glad that I’m going through with it with my brothers.”

James is currently third in the league in scoring at 26 points per game, trailing only Russell Westbrook’s 27.5 points and James Harden’s 26.9 points. Still, it seems like James isn’t being taken seriously as an MVP candidate given Westbrook’s recent hot play and the continuing rise of Harden as well as other players like Stephen Curry and Anthony Davis putting up great numbers. While there seems to be a chance he may not win the award for a fifth time, he remains the MVP to the Cavs and their future success. The “old head” on the team is leading his younger teammates and they’re taking notice.

“I think his attention to detail is never really highlighted,” Shumpert said of James. “You can give him a whole gameplan with how we’re playing each player and in a matter of two minutes, he can carry that out. If the coaches all left then he could carry out the whole practice just off of a two-minute conversation.

“Having him and his knowledge of the game and his knowledge of every player in the league, I think you just have to soak up as much as you can when you’re around him. He understands every read, he’s been through almost every situation so it’s a learning process as soon as you walk into the locker room with him. You never know what conversation we might be having but you’re always going to have an open ear to what’s going on.”

The Cavaliers have addressed many of their early-season weaknesses and it appears the team is playing well and coming together at the perfect time.

Thunder’s Serge Ibaka to Undergo Knee Procedure

The hits to the Oklahoma City Thunder’s playoff hopes just keep coming.

It was reported on Monday by Royce Young of ESPN that Serge Ibaka will  undergo a knee procedure to relieve some soreness that he’s been experiencing. The Thunder announced that Ibaka had the arthroscopic surgery today to address right knee soreness, and they estimate that he’ll be out four-to-six weeks.

“After monitoring the soreness in Serge’s knee and having taken several intermediate steps to assess and manage the discomfort, it was determined that the necessary next step in the evaluation was to see a specialist to discuss options to help alleviate the soreness and swelling he had been experiencing,” Thunder executive vice president and general manager Sam Presti. “During the consultation with Dr. David Altchek, his recommendation, in agreement with Thunder medical personnel, Serge and his representatives, was for Serge to have arthroscopic surgery to remedy the problematic area.”

The Thunder are currently without Kevin Durant after he needed a second surgery on his right foot to replace a screw that was causing discomfort. Durant last played for the Thunder on Feb. 19 against the Dallas Mavericks. Thunder head coach Scott Brooks said last week that Durant is “a week to two weeks” away from returning. They were also without leading scorer Russell Westbrook for 15 games earlier this season due to a broken hand. Westbrook has played himself into the MVP race in Durant’s absence as he’s averaged 32.3 points, 10.8 assists, 10.4 rebounds and two steals per game.

With Ibaka sidelined for four-to-six weeks, the Thunder will turn to Steven Adams, Mitch McGary and newly-acquired Enes Kanter in the frontcourt. Heading into Tuesday’s slate of games, the Thunder are holding onto a half-game lead over the New Orleans Pelicans for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.