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Paul Flannery | November 16, 2014

Sunday Shootaround

What are we supposed to make of the Cavaliers?

What are we supposed to make of the Cavaliers?

BOSTON -- Less than a month into the season, the Cavaliers are an enigma. They’ve shown flashes of offensive brilliance but haven’t always functioned as a cohesive unit. They’ve also displayed maddening defensive tendencies that may be tougher to overcome given their personnel. All of this was predictable. So maybe a better question at this early stage is, should we make anything of them at all?

After losing three of their first four, they reeled off three straight wins including a 122-121 win over the Celtics where they rallied from a 17-point deficit to start the fourth quarter. The talent is obvious -- "undeniable," as C’s coach Brad Stevens said before the game. "They’re going to be in it when it’s all said and done," Stevens added. "We all know that."

That is the expectation. That at some point during the season, maybe after a month, or the new year or the All-Star break, the Cavs will bond offensively and figure out enough things on the defensive end to be a serious threat to come out of the East. A trip to the conference finals is the minimum requirement, which is a hell of a thing when you consider Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love have never even tasted playoff basketball.

Is that enough, for us or for them?

"We’re a long ways away," Mike Miller was saying hours before the game while the media scrum hopped from LeBron James to Irving to Love. "But listen, there’s no substitute for talent. We have that. There’s no substitute for experience. We have that. There’s no substitute for youth and athleticism. We have that. So it’s a matter of things coming together. I tell people all the time, saying we’re going to sacrifice without knowing the outcome is very difficult to do. For the guys that have been through it and sacrificed and see what it’s worth, that’s where we can help. We’ll figure it out. Everybody wants it today. So do we. It’s just not going to be that easy."

There are comparisons to be made with other recent superstar alliances, but none seem apt.

The first point of reference is the 2008 Celtics, but Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce were at different periods in their career when they came together and their games uniquely complemented each other. The Celtics ruined it for everybody by setting such a high standard.

It seemed easy because it looked easy on the court, but behind the scenes there were small things and tiny details that needed to be addressed and ironed out during their entire run together. If there was one true lesson teams needed to take away from their experience, it’s that nothing is ever guaranteed and one key injury can change the equation dramatically.

The second point of reference is the 2011 Miami Heat, but everyone involved with that endeavor shoots that notion down almost immediately. "No team will ever go through what we went through my first year in Miami," James said. "Our expectation was win or bust, that was it."

Everyone around the Cavs contends that the environment is different because they’re building toward something rather than assuming belonged to them. Where the Heat were immediately cast as villains, the Cavs’ early-season controversies have been more playful, even silly.

This is the other side of the LeBron effect. His presence not only guarantees a shot at a championship and the promise of meaningful basketball, it also brings a horde of media attention and scrutiny. Everything they do is magnified, whether it’s a sidelines out of bounds play or a handshake routine.

"Any time you have expectations you’re going to have pitfalls and, ‘What the hell’s going on’ kind of deals," Miller said. "The one good thing about the whole Miami experience is even the media and fans realize that it isn’t going to be easy and it’s going to take time. When we started off 9-8 in Miami the world was coming to an end. We started off pretty slow this year in some aspects and it’s been, ‘Hey listen. It’s going to take time.’ We never had that in Miami.

"The expectations are still the same and there’s going to be the criticisms, that’s all going to be there. We understand it. But there’s also a little bit of an understanding about the process and there was no understanding of the process the first go around. Not even the players. The players didn’t know either."

A few feet away from where Miller was talking, Love was explaining the infamous moustache sharpening routine with Irving and the unsourced speculation that he was already thinking about opting out and signing with the Lakers.

"Whatever people assumed we were doing with our hands was about as true as me going to the Lakers next year," Love said. "I mean, I don't know why it was so hard for people to realize that we were actually curling our mustache. I guess because I had my fingers in the wrong place. Looking at the tape, film don't lie. It looks like we are doing something bad, but that wasn't the case. Going to the Lakers, I don’t know where somebody got that."

Love is great at this sort of thing. He has an easygoing way with the press that defuses moments rather than exacerbate tension. In a sense, it’s a positive sign that Love and Irving didn’t get defensive about the reaction to their handshake. The uproar -- if there really was any -- was good-natured and just another Internet moment.

There will be many more such moments throughout the season that will become things that will have to be dealt with and addressed. Some will be real distractions, others will be frivolous but that’s the world they’re in now. Nothing will escape notice.

The real underlying tension at the heart of the Cavaliers’ existence is the push and pull between James and his younger teammates. LeBron has cast himself as the wizened elder and the season has already provided teaching moments, such as their loss to Portland when he went scoreless in the second half and made a point of calling out the "bad habits" that have built up over the years.

The Celtics game provided another. After a dreadful third quarter in which they allowed the C’s to score 42 points -- a performance LeBron labeled "unacceptable" -- James let Irving go to work to start the fourth. Kyrie scored the Cavs’ first 12 points and got them in the bonus with more than eight minutes left.

The real underlying tension at the heart of the Cavaliers’ existence is the push and pull between James and his younger teammates.

"He’s a special guy, a special talent," James said. "He can do that at any time."

Then, something important happened. Irving went to James and told him that he needed to be aggressive. LeBron agreed and took over down the stretch, scoring eight straight points to give Cleveland the lead while guarding Rajon Rondo at the other end.

"He came to me and said be aggressive and make some plays," James said. "I told him all you’ve got to do is talk to me. And I answered."

As for the defense, well, they won the game.

"We have to see what we do well, what we don’t do so well," James said. "It’s easy to say it. I feel like the young guys are like my kids, they’re not accustomed to reading textbooks. They like diagrams and you’ve got to show them. That’s the process we’re in right now. You can’t just tell them, you’ve got to show it on film and see it. When they do it right, this is the result."

The next night the Cavs buried the Hawks by 33 points. They made 19-of-31 shots from behind the arc, racking up 39 assists on 49 makes and smothering Atlanta’s offense. If the fourth quarter of the Celtics’ game was a turning point, their performance on Saturday was a revelation.

Our notion of the Cavs will change and evolve as they do, in real time and with the knowledge that they are not ready now but may be when the time is right. The expectations will rise and fall with each step of their journey so we may as well enjoy the discovery process together.

"To me, where I’ll really enjoy is April, May, June," Miller said. "That’s why you make these sacrifices to do this. This process right here is fun, but the real fun is when it boils down to get down."

The ListConsumable NBA thoughts

Kevin Durant is hurt and LeBron James is picking his spots. Until proven otherwise they are still clearly the league’s alpha superstars, followed by familiar warhorses like Chris Paul and Dwight Howard. But the next group in the pecking order is coming and here are five who are making their claim.

Anthony Davis: What profound thing can be said about Davis that hasn’t been said already? That his athleticism knows no bounds, that he does things on a nightly basis we’ve never seen before, that he might be one of those once-in-a-generation players who revolutionizes the game? It’s impossible not to lapse into hyperbole when discussing Davis, so let’s keep this simple: He just keeps getting better. If he can continue to develop that mid-range jumper, there will be no stopping him.

DeMarcus Cousins: I touched on DMC in last week’s list and by both the numbers (22 and 11, PER over 27) and the eye-test, Cousins has been simply too big, too fast and too strong for the league to handle. It’s worth pointing out that his offensive numbers actually went from really good to holy shit last season, so this isn’t as much of a jump as you might think. There have been two notable differences. First, the Kings are playing solid defense and Cousins has picked it up on that end. Second, he has kept his cool while opponents are doing everything short of jumping off the top rope to try and rattle him. If he continues dealing with it without racking up technicals, the calls will come.

Steph Curry: It’s generally accepted that Curry is a star, but I’m l not sure people understand how good he really is, especially with so much focus on Klay Thompson. It’s not just the lights-out shooting, it’s also Curry’s ability to create shots for himself and for others. So many of his little tricks look so smooth and effortless, that it’s easy to overlook just how good he is at finding and using space. He’s not a point guard, per se, and Steve Kerr has introduced more wrinkles and sets to allow Curry to play off the ball. He’s not a traditional shooting guard either. Curry is an original and arguably the best lead guard in the game today.

Damian Lillard: The Portland point guard appeared before us as a ready-made NBA player after four years at Weber State where he ran a pick-and-roll heavy offense that prepared him for life in the league. Lillard was so good, so quickly that it’s easy to miss the subtle improvements in his game. On the surface he’s averaging about 20 points and 6 assists just like he has during his first two seasons, but he’s making over 44 percent of his 3-point attempts and has an elite True Shooting percentage (.625). He probably won’t be able to keep that up, but Lillard looks like a top point guard for years to come.

Gordon Hayward: More than a few people scoffed at the Hornets’ max offer to Hayward in the offseason, which left the Jazz no choice but to match. No one’s complaining about his first 10 games in which he’s averaging almost 20 a game with 6 boards and 5 assists and a True Shooting percentage of .610. Credit some of this to new coach Quin Snyder whose offense has improved from bottom of the barrel to middle of the pack with much of the same personnel. Hayward may never be a superstar, but he’s making the jump to All-Star consideration.

ICYMIor In Case You Missed It

How good are the Raptors?

Mike Prada takes us through their hot start from the good signs to the worrying trends.

The Lakers in 8 charts

Here are eight charts that explain just how bad the Lakers have been, via Tom Ziller.

Miami's power vacuum

Chris Bosh isn’t replacing LeBron James, he’s filling the production vacuum that LeBron left behind. Yaron Weitzman explains just how good Bosh has been this season.

Lance's rough start

On the opposite end of things, Lance Stephenson has been … not good. Satchel Price examines Lance’s horrific shooting numbers.

Denver down

The Nuggets have just been bad, period. Kevin Zimmerman writes about the need for change in Denver.

Say WhatRamblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

"It’s just, as individuals, as players, have each other’s backs out there. I just felt, I didn’t believe it. I go back, and I watch the tape, and I watch film just to try to get a different perspective, and I mean, my feelings haven’t changed. It’s just kind of what it is. Defensively, we help from time to time, offensively, I just think guys kind of exhaust their options and then when there’s nothing else for them, then they’ll pass it when they have to. For the most part, we’ve been very selfish." -- Joe Johnson, calling out unnamed Brooklyn teammates.

Reaction: Predictably for the man known as ISO-Joe, his words boomeranged back on him after a rough outing in Phoenix that featured lots of late-game Joe Johnson moments. Still his words have merit because no one can remember the reserved Johnson ever calling out his teammates like that.

"Every time something happens to him, people act like it's the end of the world. And that's fucking so lame to me. Relax. Like, OK, he's coming back from two crazy surgeries. Obviously we're being conservative with him, and when things aren't going right, he's got to listen to his body more than anybody. So everybody needs to chill the fuck out. I mean, I'm sorry for cursing, but I'm really passionate. I don't like to see him down. And he doesn't say that he's down, but I don't like it when, like, people portray him and judge him. ‘Cause it's not fair to him. It's not." -- Bulls forward Joakim Noah, defending Derrick Rose.

Reaction: Good for Noah, obviously, but what are we doing here? Injuries are not a test of manhood and players have every right to protect their bodies from physical damage. This is really not that hard.

"Why don't we have the owners play half the games? There would be no money if not for the players. Let's call it what it is. There. Would. Be. No. Money. Thirty more owners can come in, and nothing will change. These guys [the players] go? The game will change. So let's stop pretending." -- NBPA president Michele Roberts from ESPN the magazine.

Reaction: Here’s this week in Michele Roberts being awesome. I wonder if she reads Ziller?

"We couldn't disagree more with these statements. The NBA's success is based on the collective efforts and investments of all of the team owners, the thousands of employees at our teams and arenas, and our extraordinarily talented players. No single group could accomplish this on its own. Nor is there anything unusual or ‘un-American"’ in a unionized industry to have a collective system for paying employees -- in fact, that's the norm." -- NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s response.

Reaction: We are several years away from the next potential lockout, so let’s call this back and forth what it is: saber-rattling. What is encouraging is that Roberts is talking about the issues that matter and getting them out in the public sphere before the hard work of negotiations take place. Talking is good and debate is healthy, even if the rhetoric gets heated.

"I want to buy the Timberwolves. Put a group together and perhaps some day try to buy the team. That's what I want." -- Kevin Garnett to Yahoo’s Marc Spears.

Reaction: Yes, yes, a million times yes. People have long speculated about what KG may do when he finally does retire. While he’s long taken an interest in tutoring young post frontcourt players, the coaching life doesn’t seem to suit his personality. Buying into an ownership group would keep him around the game, and don’t we all want to see him at Board of Governors meetings?

Vine Of The Weekfurther explanation unnecessary

Yes, the ending was controversial but the play to spring Courtney Lee was magnificent. Prada has a full breakdown from all the angles.

Designer: Josh Laincz | Producer: Tom Ziller | Editors: Tom Ziller and J.R. Wilco

About the Author

After covering everything from 8-man football in Idaho to city politics in Boston, Paul came to SB Nation in 2013 to write about the NBA. He developed the Sunday Shootaround column and profiled players such as Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, and Isaiah Thomas. When not in arenas, he can usually be found running somewhere.