The start of LeBron’s second era in Cleveland is only a half-season old, and already the Cavaliers have experienced some pretty extreme ups and downs. They’ve been a streaky team, already notching both an 8-game winning streak and 6-game losing streak, and the tone surrounding this group has been unsteady since day one, from the negative rumors that have dogged coach David Blatt to James’ and the rest of the team’s injury struggles.
Since James returned from his knee injury, however, the Cavs have found one of their upswings. Cleveland sorely missed the league’s best player and went 1-8 without him, but the team has looked revitalized in his four games back, winning three-straight after losing a close game in Phoenix during James’ comeback debut. He’s been tight-lipped about his injury, but LeBron has said he feels better now than he has all season, and the eye test agrees. He looks more explosive and more assertive than he did earlier in the season, when he was clearly picking his spots, something many wrote off to his adjustment to a new roster.
Assertiveness has not been a problem since LeBron’s return, as he’s averaged almost 32 points in 38 minutes per game in his four games back and has been making the kind of impact we’re used to seeing from the world’s best player. He’s led the team in scoring while they swept the Clippers and Lakers in LA, and then beat the Bulls in Cleveland upon their return home. Although neither the Clippers nor the Bulls are playing the same level of defense they were last season, James’s good outings came against Matt Barnes and Jimmy Butler, no less, two of the better wing defenders in the league.
What’s been most encouraging has been his finishing around the basket. That area was an issue for James early in the season, sinking to almost a league-average level shooting at the rim, a scary sign, because that usually indicates waning athleticism and explosiveness. James has returned to his usual flexing lately though, shooting 73% at rim since he’s returned, according to NBA Stats. His jump shot still looks a bit rusty, and the Cavs are clearly still adjusting as a team on offense, but at least they have their security blanket back: being able to put the ball in the hands of the best player in the league and say, go get a basket.
A big reason for the Cavs’ continuing adjustments has been their rotating personnel. They’ve lost both James and Kevin Love to extended injury periods, and lost key rim protector Anderson Varejao for the year. Cleveland has also been active on the trade front, making a pair of high-profile trades in the last couple weeks to address their needs and introduce two new, key players to the rotation: Timofey Mozgov and JR Smith. Between so many new players and so many injuries, coach David Blatt has had to tinker with his team’s rotations for most of the season, which can make for difficult adjustments on the fly, especially for a young team and brand new NBA coach.
The spotlight hasn’t helped. As the Cavs have struggled, the attention on the team has intensified for the worse, with rumors flying about relationships between pretty much everyone, but especially with coach Blatt, who has been characterized as unable to captivate or motivate his team, including his star player. Much has been made about James’ unwillingness to come out and explicitly endorse his coach, but that becomes less of an issue if the team continues to win.
Winning becomes easier with better players, and make no mistake, the Cavs are in a much better position than they were a couple weeks ago, now with a healthy James added to the fold, and both Mozgov and Smith making the best possible impact the Cavs could have hoped for so far.
Mozgov had 15 points and 15 rebounds against Chicago on Monday night, along with a bunch of tips and contested shots. Those are exactly the types of efforts he’s given Cleveland so far, and he seems to be eagerly embracing the responsibility that comes with being the linchpin and last of defense of a team’s defense. His Russian machismo has been a big lift for this team’s attitude.
Smith’s success has been a bit more unexpected, but he’s been at his best in the past when he’s playing on contending teams with veterans that hold him accountable. So far, it seems like he and James have enjoyed playing together, and JR’s effort has been noticeably better so far in Cleveland that it was in New York this season. If James can continue to inspire the best in Smith– something like his current average of nearly 15 points per game on 43% shooting and 39% from three–that would be a huge boost to both Cleveland’s offense and defense, where Smith at least provides a competent body. His former teammate and trade partner Iman Shumpert should help in that area as well once he returns from a shoulder injury.
Finally, after a rough first half of the season, Cleveland seems like they can finally look forward. There’s been a good deal of scrutiny and stressing as people wondered about LeBron’s health and this team’s makeup, but as LeBron gets right, the rest of this team should follow, because everything starts with him. The front office surely isn’t done making moves in angling for a title, and the Cavs players know they have improving left to do, but having LeBron back and the team finally looking a bit more cohesive overall surely has Cleveland feeling better than they have all season.