The Cavaliers are without their starting backcourt, Timofey Mozgov had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in July and is still getting back into shape and Kevin Love says he's still finding his comfort level on the court as he recovers from a dislocated shoulder suffered during last year's playoffs. Over the weekend, after a double overtime loss to the Bucks, LeBron James said: "We're not a great team right now. We give a half-a** effort sometimes and expect that we can just make a run at the end. We're not good enough to do that right now."
The last part is debatable, as Cleveland is 8-2 on the season after seeing their eight-game winning streak snapped in Milwaukee on Saturday. They've been putting together second-half runs against the opposition, evidenced on Friday when the Cavs erased a double-digit third quarter lead against the Knicks to rally for a win on the road. On the season, per NBA.com, Cleveland is tied for second in the league in fourth quarter scoring, averaging 27.4 points in the final 12 minutes. They've outscored opponents by an average of 7.3 points in the second half, and sit atop the Eastern Conference, where most expected them to be.
A year after all the headlines and scrutiny, the 19-20 start, the loss of Love and Kyrie Irving in the playoffs, there's a much calmer feel with this Cavs group. The change in tone is best reflected through second-year coach David Blatt, whose interaction with the media felt combative last year, when he spent the entire season fielding questions about his authority on the sidelines, culminating in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Bulls when LeBron overruled his head coach on an out-of-bounds play in which he was drawn up to be the inbounder. Instead, LeBron got the ball, shot a game-winner, the Cavs won the next two to eliminate the Bulls, swept the Hawks in the next round and came within two wins of winning the title. This season, Blatt's demeanor is much more relaxed. After two decades of coaching in Europe, the experience of coaching LeBron in his first season in Cleveland offered many lessons, which he spent the offseason reflecting on.
"I learned an awful lot," Blatt said. "People always ask me what I've learned. I just say everything."
Okay, but really, what was the biggest thing you learned?
"Understanding the big picture," Blatt replied.
For the Cavs, taking the long view means working their way back to the Finals. To do so, they'll wait for Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert to return. In the meantime, they also want to manage LeBron's minutes to keep him fresh for when the games really matter. The former will simply take time. Irving fractured his left kneecap in Game of the Finals in June, and while a return wasn't expected until January, he was recently cleared for weight-bearing activities, and could be back on the court sooner than expected. Shumpert injured his wrist in late September and will be out at least another five weeks.
Despite these injuries, the task of carrying the Cavs has been much less onerous than what was required of him in last year's playoffs. Love is averaging 17.2 points and 12.1 rebounds so far this season, and looks more comfortable on the offensive end, where he has seen more post-up opportunities than last year. Mo Williams, who last played for the Cavs from 2008 to 2011, is playing 31.5 minutes per game as Irving's replacement in the starting lineup, and making 37.5 percent of his three-point attempts while averaging 15.6 points and 5.5 assists per game.
Even with these contributions, LeBron's minutes per game has gone up so far this season, as he's averaging 36.3 minutes this season compared to 36.1 minutes a year ago. Part of that has to do with Cleveland's inability to put away opponents in the first half so far this season. Fewer blowouts provide fewer opportunities for rest. Quietly (if it is possible for LeBron to do anything without creating chatter and much noise), LeBron is averaging 27.0 points, 6.8 rebounds and 6.4 assists, and has looked fresh so far despite missing part of the preseason after an anti-inflammatory injection on his back. The key to the Cavs season will be preserving LeBron and keeping him healthy for the playoffs, and that means the minutes should come down once the team is back at full strength. But that's the last thing on LeBron's mind when he takes the court.
"If I'm on the floor, I'm going to play my game," LeBron said after Friday's victory over the Knicks. "I'm going to dive for loose balls. I'm going to take charges. I'm going to exert a lot of energy. That's just who I am. I got to this point in my career being that player. I won't stop just because I have [all these] miles. That's just not me."
"There's no greater player in the game than that guy," Blatt said. In a season devoid of drama so far, the biggest challenge for the second-year coach is finding superlatives to convey the appreciation he has for LeBron on a daily basis. On Friday alone, Blatt used the terms mathematical savant and unusual intellect to describe LeBron's court vision and basketball IQ before coming to his concise conclusion above.
The internal desire to improve is reasonable for this Cavs team, which has championship aspirations and needs to use the regular season to tinker and prepare for another postseason run. Despite LeBron's challenge to his team to play at a higher level, the Cavs are a top-10 team in offensive and defensive efficiency. They're the clear favorites to win the East, and that prognosis has not changed. There are fewer distractions this season, too. Aside from having a rookie coach integrating LeBron and Love into the lineup, last year's Cavs always acquired Mozgov, Shumpert and J.R. Smith in mid-season trades. This season, the Cavs have their core group in place to start the season, and for now, Blatt and LeBron appear to be on the same page, especially when it comes to assessing the team's fast start.
"We're nowhere near our full potential," Blatt said. "We're certainly nowhere near where I think we can be. And that's a good thing."