In case you are the pope or you don’t exist, you know that the Cleveland Cavaliers are four wins away from delivering Cleveland its first professional sporting Championship since 1964. Moving forward with the assumption that you indeed exist and have watched at least part of any significant Cleveland game in the past few years, you’ve seen the montage of heartache that ESPN, TNT, Fox Sports, etc. has put together to remind the viewers how much it blows to love sports in Cleveland. So let’s not rehash The Shot, The Fumble, The Drive, or Jose Mesa any more than we have to. God knows ABC will remind us all of that in these next couple weeks. Rather, let’s take a look back at the previous year – mostly these past couple months – and take a good look at the immediate and not-so-immediate future of the Cavs.
The Cavs’ good fortunes started when Dan Gilbert sold his soul to ensure draft lottery success and continued when the Spurs dispatched the Miami Heat from the NBA finals. (If you feel so inclined, take a look at what I wrote last summer in regards to the chances of LeBron returning to Cleveland. Please note that I severely underestimated the odds of the return as well as what I thought it would take to lure him to Cleveland in terms of keeping Wiggins and trading for Love). Despite NBA insider and soap opera aficionado Brian Windhorst’s sources, Kyrie signed on to stay in Cleveland for the long haul, LeBron announced he was coming home, and Kevin Love used the leverage given to players in this current max deal salary NBA to demand a trade was traded to Cleveland. Basketball promised to be fun in Northeast Ohio again.
While I read plenty of pre-season articles written by analysts proclaiming that anything less than a title would be a bust or that the Cavs should shatter the most-wins-in-a-season mark, I had tempered expectations. Sure, the talent was evident on the roster. But this would be the first year with that young, revamped roster lacking playoff experience. This would be the first year for a new-to-the-NBA head coach. Add in an experienced and hungry Chicago squad, a loaded Western Conference, and the fact that a more experienced Miami Heat squad didn’t even win a title in its first year with LeBron, and the odds didn’t favor a championship this year for Cleveland in my mind. I figured the Bulls and the Cavs would be the top two seeds in the East and that while the Cavs could beat Chicago this year, losing to them wouldn’t have surprised me. I maintained this feeling throughout the highs and lows of the 2014-2015 regular season. (Again, feel free to check out this piece from early last season…or anything from the old blog for that matter).
Once the playoffs rolled around, I promised myself that my expectations wouldn’t change. Yes, Cleveland added Iman Shumpert, JR Smith, and Timofey Mozgov, but they were still a young core with not much playoff experience. Going into the post-season with the seeding the way it was thanks to a surprising Atlanta team, I figured the Cavs would cut through Boston with relative ease then have a good old fashioned slug-fest with Chicago with no real feel for which team would emerge victorious. Beating the Bulls would have been incredible and anything beyond that would be a bonus for the team moving forward. However, once Kevin Love’s shoulder was ripped from its socket (and especially after JR Smith introduced his elbow to Jae Crowder’s face), I had slightly less confidence in Cleveland’s ability to beat Chicago. To me, the bonus had just become everything after game four in Boston.
But somehow, some way, Cleveland – minus Love, minus Smith for two games, with a severely hobbled Kyrie Irving – took down the Bulls and pushed aside the Hawks with incredible ease. That’s some sweet bonus.
So here we are a couple hours out from game one of the NBA finals against the Warriors. Still no Kevin Love. Still a hobbled Kyrie. Do the Cavs have a chance?
Seeing as how I admitted above that going into the Chicago series I didn’t think the Cavs had a chance without Love, I still would consider Golden State favorites over the Cavs considering the injuries and the potential defensive matchups that they affect. It’s going to be tough to hide Irving’s knee while he’s guarding Klay Thompson and the Warriors could potentially stretch Tristan Thompson out of his comfort zone for extended periods of time. That said, the fight, grit, hustle, and any buzzword that the Cavs have shown have impressed me. Upon seeing Cleveland take down Chicago, I expected them to beat Atlanta. After walloping Atlanta, I feel a lot better about Cleveland’s chances to make this upcoming Finals a great series. I’d even go so far as to say a completely healthy Cavs’ squad would bring home a trophy.
While I think the Warriors should win, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Cavs pull it out. After all, they still have LeBron who based on bodily makeup alone is more un-guardable than anything Golden State has. The Cavs have also been the best defensive team in the playoffs up to this point. One (or everyone at ESPN) may argue that it’s been against weaker competition than Golden State. I’ll argue that regardless, it’s still the best defense played by a professional basketball team in this post-season. Finally, they have a bench full of vets who more than likely know how to use this underdog role to their advantage. Both teams play well at home. Both teams shoot a ton of threes. X-factors like that can make a difference.
No matter what the result is in the next week or two, I firmly stand by my belief that everything post-Boston series / Love injury is pure bonus for the Cavs. They have a solid, talented core and an owner not afraid to dip into the bank account to keep that core happy. The playoff experience seasoned with the recent injury adversity should do wonders for this group going forward. Whatever the Finals’ result this year, I believe the Cavs will be the favorites to win it all next year. After a fifty-one year title drought, that doesn’t sound half bad.
I’ll definitely take a trophy as part of this year’s bonus though.