He stood in disbelief. With tears in his eyes and the weight of the world off his shoulders, now, a three-time champion, the all-time great had never experienced this type of glee.
“Cleveland… This is for you!” LeBron James said.
It took the squandering of two 3-1 series leads and quite a few injuries for this dream to come to fruition, but at this moment in time, James had somehow further ascended. With the championship delivered to the City of Cleveland, he was now universally revered as a Top 10 player in NBA history.
Now, the question that everyone has about him and his Cavaliers is whether they can repeat.
And the easy answer is yes, they can.
* * * * * *
As Billy Hunter and David Stern sat across the table from one another, the message that Stern delivered from the league’s owners was clear. As a class, the league’s owners were sick and tired of the stark contrast between the contenders and pretenders. At best, four or five teams enter a season with any hope of winning a championship, and the system of haves and have nots saw the rise of a few perennial powers.
That line of thinking caused the league to play 16 fewer games during the 2011-12 season, but the truth is that it was all in vain. Sure, the league’s owners secured a larger share of the league’s basketball-related income, but in a league where the major talents still seem to be concentrated across four or five teams, little has been done to address the want for greater competitive balance. At the very least, that’s true as it relates to the cream of the crop.
So entering the 2016-17 season, aside from the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers, the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors were the only two other teams that Las Vegas seemed to think had a good shot at winning the championship this season. How Vegas didn’t consider the Clippers to be a solid contender is a question for another day, but one thing that we know for sure, is that Doc Rivers has his team motivated.
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But despite what the other fringe contenders have done—the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics, Atlanta Hawks and Memphis Grizzlies among them—the road to the championship still appears to go through Oakland and Cleveland. The gross majority of NBA pundits are predicting a third-consecutive matchup between LeBron James and Steph Curry, and in the early goings of the season, those seem like fairly safe bets.
Just as they did last season, though, the Cavaliers have quietly hummed along, coasting to a few victories out in the Eastern Conference. With health perhaps the biggest obstacle standing between them and a third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals (and an unprecedented seventh straight for James), the pertinent question has become whether the Cavs would have a real opportunity to again surprise the Western Conference and walk away with all the marbles.
Again, the answer is yes, they can.
* * * * * *
As LeBron James became the youngest player in NBA history to score 27,000 points, the argument was made in this space that his greatness has become so regular that it is now taken for granted. Despite the many gifts that James has, though, his best gift always has and always will be his selflessness.
Over the years, we have seen quite a few players—perhaps due to their own insecurity—have trouble with passing the mantle. Immediately, Patrick Ewing and Kobe Bryant come to mind. In New York, many years ago, as Ewing’s knees and health deteriorated, many within the organization cited his desire to remain the team’s alpha male on the court as contributing to his famous fall out with the organization. In Los Angeles, we just spent an entire season watching Kobe Bryant bask in the spotlight that probably should have been shared with some of the younger talents that the Lakers had at their disposal.
Whether you agree with those characterizations or not, though, the important thing to realize about this year’s Cavaliers team is this: James is stepping aside and allowing Kyrie Irving to become the prominent offensive weapon for the team, much in the same manner that Dwyane Wade did for James back in Miami.
Through the early goings of the season, entering play on November 27, James is averaging a career-low 17.1 shot attempts per game. The 23.5 points per game he is averaging is the lowest output since the 20.9 points per game he averaged as a rookie.
Meanwhile, Irving—who has long been regarded as a shoot-first point guard—is averaging 19.1 shots attempts per game. James is willingly stepping aside for Irving, and we are all witnesses. Irving’s 19.1 shots attempts per game, along with the 23.8 points per game he is averaging entering play on November 27 both represent career highs for the young point guard. And what’s most interesting about the dynamic between the two is that while James’ scoring and shot attempts are decreasing, he is seemingly working harder to help his team secure wins.
Interestingly enough, James—who has long been regarded as one of the finest all-around players the league has seen—is averaging 8.2 rebounds and 9.5 assists per contest. Again, both are career highs and are each substantially higher than the 7.2 rebounds and 6.9 assists per game he has averaged over the course of his 13-year career.
Obviously, what the Cavaliers are able to achieve this season begins and ends with James, but in his true fashion, he is quietly and humbly stepping aside to allow Irving to reach his true potential, and that’s indicated in the numbers. The want to win at all costs—even if it means regressing in the realm of scoring—is the greatest asset that the almost 32-year-old James can bring to a Cavaliers team that has a rising stud whose true potential is still unrealized.
* * * * * *
With the clock ticking and the game tied, Kyrie Irving stared Stephen Curry in the eyes, knowing that it was only him that stood in the way of Irving’s glory. With less than a minute remaining in the winner-take-all Game 7 for the ages, Irving rose majestically after getting Curry off-balance with a stutter-step. The rest is history.
As the Cavaliers trod on toward their opportunity to repeat as champions, the most obvious question is whether the Warriors will have an opportunity to avenge their shortfall.
Kevin Durant has bet the farm that they will.
In acquiring Durant, the Warriors were forced to sacrifice many of the players that made their team what it was. Those casualties have been replaced by pieces that are older, less athletic and more worn. Through the early goings, the returns for the Warriors have been excellent. The team enters play on November 27 with an 11-game win streak and will probably have more than one double-digit win streak this season. But ask yourself another question: what exactly have the Warriors done to address the issues that plagued them over the course of the 2016 NBA Finals?
Have the Warriors addressed the team’s seeming inability to stop LeBron James or Kyrie Irving when it counts most? Has the team done anything to address the lack of strength and intimidation that it lost once Andrew Bogut went down? Has the team been able to find a piece who could replicate the sheer energy, will and desire of Tristan Thompson to mix it up underneath in the waning moments of a hard-fought game?
The answer in each instance could reasonably be answered with a no, and that’s a concern for a dethroned champion whose flaws were uncovered in the most heartbreaking fashion.
By adding Durant, the Warriors have helped an already impressive offensive juggernaut become all the more impressive. On the other side of the ball, however, they remain vulnerable. Through the early going of the season, Steve Kerr’s team ranks 10th in defensive efficiency compared to fifth last season, while the club is averaging 44.1 rebounds per game—down from the 46.2 they averaged last season.
In effect, by adding Durant, the Warriors have doubled-down on the belief that if and when they need to, they can simply outshoot and outscore the opposition. It may be a good bet, but if there is one thing we learned from last season’s Finals, it’s that there’s no such thing as a sure thing.
With the Cavaliers boasting a battle-tested and unified core, a player in Irving who has proven that he can rise to the occasion and an unselfish superstar in James who is proving—before our very eyes—that he is willing to step aside and share the glory with his teammates, the Cavaliers remain a dangerous team that has shown the true grit and courage of a champion.
With their learned experience, we may be ignoring them again.
And in the end, just as we were last season, don’t be surprised if we all end up as witnesses, yet again.
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