The Cavaliers have the league’s best record for the second year in a row. Their best player is likely about to win his second MVP award in a row. They’ve made major changes to their team specifically designed to avoid another disappointing playoff exit. If they win, they become the first Cleveland team to win a major pro sports title since 1964. If they lose, there may well be no next year. No pressure or anything.
Here’s why the Cleveland Cavaliers might just pull it off this year:
1. LeBron James
He’s 16 (big) wins away from his official coronation as the league’s best player and the best player of his generation. He’s four losses away from a summer of ridicule and a possible location change. It’s impossible to confidently say that he’s the league’s best player until he gets some jewelry. What can be said is that LeBron, for the second straight regular season, was significantly better than any other player in the league.
No player imposes his will on the game the way that LeBron does. He’s a dominant force on offense, and can seemingly get to the rim and finish any time he feels like it. His combination of scoring and passing ability is off the charts; he shattered the record for assists per game by a forward this season while scoring almost 30 points a game. He’s the best player in the league on the fast break. He’s not automatic with his jumper, but he’s improved his ability to hurt teams with deep jumpers. He’s a great rebounder for his position. He’s capable of playing lockdown man-to-man defense late in games and getting shocking blocks and steals coming from the weak side. No team relied more on one player than the Cavaliers did this season, and no team had a better record. As long as LeBron James suits up for the Cavaliers, they have a great chance of beating any of their opponents.
It’s no secret that the Cavaliers have modeled their franchise using the Spurs as a blueprint. Like the championship Spurs team, the Cavaliers have the personnel to match up with any team in the league and beat them at their own game, something they weren’t capable of doing last season. They have both the biggest and tallest player in the league on their roster, and managed to be successful without either of them in the lineup. The Cavs have the size to matchup with the hulking front lines of Orlando and Los Angeles, and they have enough sweet-shooting forwards and perimeter players capable of cross-matching to play an uptempo game with any team that wants to run with them. If the Cavaliers can figure out the best way to fit their pieces together in a given series, they have the talent to play any style and play it very well.
The Cavaliers weren’t as dominant defensively this season as they were in years past, finishing only seventh in defensive efficiency. However, they have historically played much better defense in the playoffs than they have in the regular season, when their effort increases and LeBron James starts playing much harder on that end of the floor. They will be getting Shaq back for the playoffs, who did a great job defending the paint in the regular season. Anderson Varejao has proven himself to be one of the league’s best defenders at the power forward spot. Anthony Parker and Delonte West give opposing shooting guards hell for the full 48 minutes. The Cavaliers have always been a defense-first team under Mike Brown — don’t expect them to forget that during the most important postseason run in franchise history.
4. Three-Point Shooting
If you have LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal controlling the paint on offense, who do you want to put around them? Three-point shooters. Well, the Cavaliers have those. Mo Williams and Anthony Parker are snipers from beyond the arc, and Delonte West, Antawn Jamison, and even Jamario Moon are all capable of hitting threes if they’re left open. Throw in the occasional three-point barrage from LeBron, and the Cavaliers finished the season with the second-best three-point percentage in the league, trailing only the Suns in that category. The Cavs are a classic “pick your poison” team on offense — they finish at the rim better than any other team in the league, and will gladly knock down the open three if the defense collapses.
JJ Hickson, Leon Powe, Daniel Gibson, Jawad Williams, and Jamario Moon have all proven themselves to be solid NBA players. It’s entirely possible that none of them could see significant minutes for the Cavs in this year’s playoffs. That’s how deep the Cavs are.
It’s not the sexiest team about the team, but the Cavs lead the NBA in rebound rate this season. Nobody on the team is averaging gaudy rebound totals, but almost all of their players rebound exceptionally well for their position. Because of this, the Cavs control the boards. It can’t be overstated just how important winning the possession battle is in the playoffs, and the Cavs have a leg up in that regard.
The Cavs have assembled a team with great chemistry on the court (every player is comfortable being in LeBron’s shadow, and they all compliment his strengths very well), as well as off of it. It’s always easy to have fun when you’re winning a lot, but the Cavs seem to have a lot of faith in each other, which could end up coming in handy for them.
The Cavaliers know what this playoff run means to them. Shaq, Zydrunas, and Jamison aren’t getting any younger. They’ve had the best regular-season record in the league for two years in a row. Cleveland is aching for a championship. LeBron’s future with the team could be on the line. The Lakers have last year. The Celtics have 2008. The Magic have the future. For the Cavaliers, this is the year. Now they just have to go out there and actually do it.