Overview: In what easily could have been a trap game against noted giant-killers the Pacers, the Cavaliers clinched the best record in the NBA and home-court advantage through the playoffs behind 37 points from LeBron and 38 combined points from the starting backcourt.
Special Edition Essay:
I’ve always been able to envision a championship happening in the LeBron era before I saw the Cavs get the league’s best record. With the way this team plays defense, the X-factor LeBron brings, and things going the right way, this team has shown it’s perfectly capable of beating any team in a 7-game series. But I never thought there would be enough talent around LeBron to be the league’s best team over 82 games.
I mean, think about it. Coming into this season, how could you think this was an elite-level team based on the talent on the roster? SLAM Online and Tom Ziller both had lists of the top 50 players in the NBA coming into this year. Only one Cavalier was on either list. On average, a playoff team, let alone a team with championship aspirations, should have 2. Here’s a fun game; go through the top 4 teams in each conference, and, at the beginning of the season, count all the players you would have considered better than Mo Williams.
For my little case study, let’s do the Suns, evening out Nash and James as the best players on each team. You can argue some of these, but before the year I’d say that all of these guys were held in higher regard than Mo:
-(Very arguable, but most, at gunpoint, before the year, would have said) Grant Hill
That’s 5 guys. And the Suns didn’t even make the playoffs. Top-tier NBA teams just have a ridiculous amount of talent on them, period. And at the end of last season, the best player other than LeBron on this team was Delonte West, who was the third-string point guard for the Sonics. So what is that made this roster play so exponentially better than the sum of its parts?
1. LeBron James is the Best Player in the NBA. By, like, a shocking amount.
Now, keep in mind that this is explaining the regular season-on their best days and against elite defenses, it’s definitely a lot closer and you could argue for a couple of guys, and LeBron does have a lot of work to do in the playoffs over his career before he can put the “who’s better” debate to bed once and for all. But for this regular season, LeBron was a significant upgrade over any other player in the NBA, and this year saw more truly fantastic individual seasons than any in recent memory.
Only Wade and Paul shouldered comprable offensive loads to LeBron, and Wade wasn’t nearly as efficient and Paul didn’t take over games to his degree. He put up the best individual numbers in the league for the third time in his six-year career. He tied Michael Jordan’s modern PER rcord. He was a few rested fourth quarters away from his 2nd consecutive scoring title. He is a legitimate #2 on my DPOY ballot, and that’s based on metrics and team success, not reputation or highlight-reel plays. He played to the situation better than any player in the league and was a beast taking over games. I could go on, but there is not one team this year who LeBron James would not have added at least five wins to if you were to replace your best player with LeBron. Not one. Politics will get in the way, but I’d really like to see this be a unanimous MVP vote. It’s legitimately deserved.
Defense. Defense. Defense.
The Suns, with all their individual talent, just did not have any sort of defensive scheme. And the Cavs, in the LeBron era, have proven that defense is much more about teammwork, coaching, and philosiphy than individual talent. Here’s our starting five for this season:
PG: Mo Williams (coming into the year, thought to be a defensive liability)
SG: Delonte West (never considered a lock-down guy, and absolutely nobody thought he’d be able to defend shooting guards)
SF: LeBron James (been underrated on this end his whole career, but considered a non-factor/liability his first few years and ignored when his defense made a tremedous leap last year)
PF: Ben Wallace/Andy Varejao (Okay, people know they’re really good defensively, but at this stage in Ben’s career neither of them were considered all-defense material)
C: Zydrunas Ilgauskas (Before Mike Brown’s first year, scouting reports on him said he “couldn’t guard a chair.”)
And two of our key bench guys are Wally and Boobie.
But Mike Brown’s always been a defensive savant with his hard show/rotate systems on P+Rs, his commitment to close out on three-point shooters, and (this is a miracle) his ability to turn Z from a slow liabilty into a stalwart guard of the paint by using his schemes to funnel guys into him. And from the top (LeBron) to the bottom, everyone’s bought in, and our calling card has been defense all season long, which is something that just makes a team so much more dangerous than the sum of its parts.
Just like in Boston, where Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo’s defensive excellence, combined with Thibodeau’s brilliant system, allowed Ray Allen and Paul Pierce to go from liabilities to legitimate plus defenders by osmosis, a combination of a few brilliant defenders (LeBron, Ben/Andy, kind of Delonte), a great scheme, and a defensive mentality have turned this team into a defensive juggernaut from top to bottom.
Mo Williams as the perfect fit.
I can’t tell you how long I’ve waited to see what would happen if you ever paired LeBron with a truly fantastic point guard. For a long time, everyone thought that LeBron just needed to be surrounded with shooters, but that doesn’t cover it at all-he needed a guy to make plays for everyone else, to take the pressure off of him with scoring, keep the floor stretched, allow him to work off the ball, and so many other things.
When we got Mo, the question was whether he was quite good enough as a shooter or playmaker to play effectively alongside LeBron-Larry Hughes ended up being neither, and there was a worry that Mo’s game would be in a similar no-man’s land.
Well, he came through on both counts. Not only is he a fantastic shooter, you can make the argument he’s been the best three-point shooter over the course of the season-only Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen made more threes than Mo this season, and they shot it right at 40%, significantly below Mo’s 43.4% clip.
And it goes far beyond just being a good spot-up shooter to play with LeBron-if that were the case, Boobie Gibson and his 44% from deep last year would have lit the world on fire playing with LeBron. You have to be quick and smart enough to know how to get to the open spot when LeBron’s driving and be there for the kick-out, and have the quick release and confidence to get it up before the defense can react. Mo’s been absolutely perfect at that.
And he’s done wonders as a penetrator, too, initiating the offense for the first three quarters, bringing ball movement to a once-stagnant offense, and allowing LeBron to work off the ball, where he’s as good as they come. Case in point-the two dunks LeBron had after Mo went baseline and found LeBron cutting down the middle from the three-point line and where Mo hypnotized the defense and found LeBron cutting backdoor for a resounding flush. And he’s been absolutely nails about hitting the big shot. He’s even provided a desperately needed scoring punch off the bench.
I admit to underestimating the Pau Gasol trade last year-he’s been an absolutely perfect fit with Kobe-not only can he score from the post and facing up, but he’s as good as a passer and mid-range shooter from the high post as there is, and watching him and Kobe work the triangle has been absolute poetry-everything just works for them.
Mo’s not nearly the player that Pau is, and isn’t the type who could ever be the best player on a playoff team. But as a beta dog, he has been absolutely perfect, even allowing the emergence of:
Delonte West, upper-eschelon shooting guard.
Coming into the season, it looked like Delonte was expendable as a backup behind Mo, and most thought he’d be a productive backup at both the two and one spots. But as it often does, the idea of playing your best guys regardless of position turned out to be a great one. What Delonte lacks in size defensively he makes up with absolutely everything else, and he’s been the guy drawing the other team’s best scorer on most nights and doing a fantastic job. His once-questionable outside touch has come around, and he’s a 40% shooter from deep. He knows when to move the ball and slash through and look for his own shot. He brings toughness every night. His goofy personality is perfect for the locker room. He’s a testament to post-hand check positions, where it’s not how well you fit into a position but how much game you have that counts.
The Return of Andy.
He’s harassing guys on hard shows. He’s rolling hard to the paint and finishing at the rim. He’s there on every rebound and loose ball. He’s the one doing havoc in the paint and keeping defenses from just kamikaze closing on our bevy of three-point shooters.
The frontcourt fountain of youth.
This was more the story in the beginning of the year when the Cavs were absolutely destroying everybody, but Z and Ben were both on the absolute top of their games, with Z pouring in mid-range jumpers, rebounding everything and guarding the paint, and running the high/low post offense perfectly, and had he not gotten injured he would have earned an all-star berth. Ben got back to playing like the DPOY he once was and actually made positive contributions with his passing and screening on the offensive end. Injuries and age have slowed them down in the second half of the year, but they’re a huge part of why we have this record. Even Joe Smith has been the consummate garbage man since we got him back.
It’s cliche to give this too much credit; I think chemistry follows winning a lot more than winning follows chemistry. Even so, this team has gone above and beyond. The photos, the standing bench, the celebrations, the way they all hang out and love each other, how they always have each other’s back-you don’t play at this high of a level for 82 games unless you know you’ve got 11 guys behind you and spurring you on. Absolutely a joy to watch.
So now the real work begins. 16 wins to salvation. The pressure’s on-if I live to the end of this playoffs, I’ll be happy. (If a playoff recap isn’t up by the next morning, check the Daily Trojan for bad news.) If the Cavs don’t lose at home, we’re the NBA champs. They’ve worked all season to be able to say that. Now it’s time to go out and do it. Get pumped.