Are the Cleveland Cavaliers back as championship contenders?
Don’t look now, but the Cavaliers are playing their best ball at just the right time. Cleveland is 32-21, only a half-game behind Chicago and Washington for third place in the conference standings. After a rocky start that included rumors about head coach David Blatt’s job security, Kevin Love’s happiness and LeBron James and Kyrie Irving not getting along, the Cavs appear to have righted the ship. Side note: Isn’t it hilarious that there was a story centered around the fact that LeBron and Kyrie “exchanged words” after a loss? Is it news to anyone that players talk to each other after games?
Cleveland is 13-1 in the last four weeks, the NBA’s best record over that stretch. The main reason for their success, of course, is LeBron James coming back and playing at his usual MVP level. LeBron was having a below average year by his standards for the first two months of the season. LeBron didn’t look like his usual explosive, aggressive self. This was due to knee and back problems. LeBron missed two weeks to recover. At this point, the Cavs were 18-12 following a blowout loss to Detroit.
With LeBron out, it only got worse for Cleveland. Irving and Love could not get on the same page, and the Cavs went 1-7 in James’ absence. They lost to Phoenix in LeBron’s return, dropping to 19-20 and falling to sixth place in the East behind Milwaukee. Then it all turned around, and they won 12 straight, momentarily taking third place in the conference standings.
What turned it around? It helps when the four-time MVP and still the holder of the “World’s Best Basketball Player” belt is refreshed. LeBron has his explosion back, and is averaging 27.6 points, 6.0 rebounds, 6.9 assists and 1.9 steals per game on 50 percent field goal shooting. LeBron is back in the MVP conversation and no one is talking about his career decline anymore. Plus, in the only game he’s missed lately, Irving had a career-high 55 points in a 99-94 win over Portland.
The moves made by GM David Griffin cannot be overlooked either. Griffin made two separate trades that were basically one big trade, essentially acquiring Timofey Mozgov, Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith for Dion Waiters and two protected first-round picks. Mozgov has given Cleveland the rim-protecting big man it needed after Anderson Varejao’s season-ending injury, Smith is trying hard and averaging about 13 points with solid three-point shooting, and Shumpert looks good while coming back from injury.
So it’s all peaches and cream lollipops, right? Not entirely. Their winning streak was helped in part by an easier schedule, and the latest controversy involves a tweet LeBron sent after yesterday’s win against the Lakers that was directed toward Kevin Love, basically telling him that it’s time to buy into the team system and trust his teammates. The tweet came after Love’s best game as a Cavalier, when he had 32 points (including 7-8 from three) and 10 rebounds against L.A. This is just a weird, dumb story all-around. LeBron first denied it was about Love, and said it was about people in general. Then, he admitted that it was about Love, but criticized the media for making a big deal out of nothing. My take on this asinine story is that LeBron should handle this internally, as he is welcoming media reaction with a tweet like that. Overall though, this story means nothing. Everyone knows Love has been struggling mightily this year, and that his 32-point performance is a step in the right direction. That’s it.
So, are the Cavaliers back to where most people predicted they’d be at the beginning of the season, in position to compete for a title? I hesitantly say yes. There are certainly more kinks to be worked out for Love on offense, the bench isn’t particularly deep, and I’m still not sure Blatt is a good NBA coach. However! My Eastern Conference Finals pick right now is Atlanta-Cleveland, as they are clearly the top two teams at the moment. Who knows if the Hawks’ magic can hold up over a seven-game series? Also, I’m not quite sold on Toronto and Washington, and Chicago has been a train wreck lately, going 7-10 the past month amid organizational uncertainty.
I’m not ready to anoint Cleveland’s title chances yet. I think they’re a tier below the West’s top teams, and will have to survive a tough Eastern Conference Playoffs. Remember, Irving and Love have played a combined zero playoff games. There are still minor issues in Cleveland, but with LeBron in peak form, the Cavaliers are the East’s scariest team.