Cavaliers first-month grades: LeBron and Co. are looking like the defending champs
The Cavs have looked excellent at the start of the season
Fresh off ending the city of Cleveland's 52-year championship drought, the Cavaliers are looking extremely sharp. A little over a month into the season, the Cavaliers are 13-4 and are on top of the East, a position they will likely hold onto until the postseason. The Cavs seem poised to make a third straight trip to the NBA Finals in June.
Here's an early report card:
Dealing with championship hangover: A-
Looking like the defending champ, Cleveland has had very few inconsistencies this season. The Cavs' offense looks stellar and is top three in the league, averaging 110.8 points per 100 possessions. LeBron James is playing like an MVP candidate, Kyrie Irving is leading the Cavs in scoring, Kevin Love looks extremely comfortable in his third season in Cleveland and the role players are meshing perfectly with the stars
The Cavs have already beaten one of their main competitors in the East, the Toronto Raptors, twice. Cleveland Toronto once on the road (notable since the Cavs lost two games at Air Canada Centre in the Eastern Conference finals last season) and again at home. The Cavs also have one victory over the Celtics, another of their challengers in the East.
Kevin Love's chemistry with LeBron: A
Winning a championship has brought an already tight-knit Cavs team even closer together. This is quite evident in the relationship between LeBron James and Kevin Love.
The thinly veiled tweets directed at Love are a thing of the past. When the Cavs were being honored at the White House, James had Love give a short speech and present President Obama with his custom Cavaliers jersey. James is now also playfully poking fun at Love on social media, quite the opposite from previous seasons.
On the court, their relationship is also thriving. Love has embraced his role in Cleveland and is helping to ease the pressure off of LeBron by spacing the floor with his shooting and scoring. James is averaging a career-high 9.1 assists, which Love has contributed to by shooting 45.6 percent and 41.8 from three.
The Cavs love to go small, playing either Tristan Thompson, Love or Channing Frye at the five and LeBron at the four. Cleveland has been able to thrive on offense due to these smaller lineups but both Love and Frye are not strong defensive players, so the Cavs have just been middle of the road on defense.
The Cavs have the 17th-ranked defense, giving up 104.7 points per 100 possessions. The 6-13 Phoenix Suns are right behind them (104.8 points per 100 possessions) and the Dallas Mavericks (the worst team in the league) have a better defense (104.2 points per 100 possessions) than the Cavs. So clearly defense is not really an area of strength for the defending champs.
But their mediocre defense is not that big of a concern for the Cavs right now. Improvements will have to be made if they want to defend their championship. However, if the offense remains elite, Cleveland should have no problem maintaining the No. 1 seed in the East.
The merits of paying J.R. Smith: C-
The Cavs and J.R. Smith had a back-and-forth regarding his re-signing that wasn't resolved until the start of the season. Smith missed all of training camp and the preseason but he was quickly integrated into the Cavs' lineup. While the familiarity and continuity has been huge for the Cavs, Smith has been brutally bad shooting the ball.
Missing all of that time has to have had an impact on Smith. He shot a dreadful 28.7 percent (32.9 percent from three) in November. Smith has not had an auspicious start to December, going 1 of 3 in Cleveland's blowout loss to the Clippers on Thursday. The streaky Cavs guard is now 4 of 30 in Cleveland's past four games, which makes his presence on the floor almost a negative.
The Cavs rely on LeBron, Irving and Love but they need their role players like Smith to play at a high level. If Smith can't find his shot as the season progresses, that could mean his role in Cleveland is diminished. Which after all of the contract drama in the summer would mean that Smith can't really justify his new deal.
Reminding Warriors that they gave up a 3-1 lead in the Finals: A+
LeBron might not be thinking about an NBA Finals rematch against the Warriors, but teammates like Iman Shumpert surely are. Plus James definitely has the Warriors on his mind as he threw a Halloween party where the theme was basically Golden State gave up a 3-1 lead in the Finals.
The Cavaliers will never let the Warriors forget about their Finals collapse.
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