Cleveland sports fans will have to wait another year for that first NBA championship and that first pro sports title since 1964. Failing to win “The Big One” undeniably hurts to a certain extent, but to the good people of that fair city in northeastern Ohio, let’s acknowledge something you already know:
This was not Earnest Byner or Jose Mesa or anything (or anyone) seen in one of those stupid Cleveland sports montages.
This, of course, refers to the 2015 NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors. The Cavaliers maxed out (or pretty close to it) through three games. If the old 2-3-2 format existed, Cleveland very well might have taken a 3-2 lead in the series. If Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love had been healthy, the Cavs might very well have won the whole thing.
However, everyone knew going into these Finals that the 2-3-2 no longer existed. Everyone knew Love would be out. Everyone knew that while Kyrie had a full week off following the East finals against the Atlanta Hawks, his body was going to have a tough time managing the full best-of-seven series.
Clevelanders were dealt some blows during the playoffs, blows that proved costly against Golden State. However, in terms of the Finals themselves, the Cavs acquitted themselves as well as they possibly could… with the exception of J.R. Smith (and since that’s always been a part of The J.R. Smith experience, it shouldn’t be seen as aberrational or shocking to the slightest degree).
Really: Cleveland could not have competed any better in this series than it did. No resident of the city should be in a position to dispute that claim. The Cavs left every last ounce of sweat on the court, and players accessed higher levels of quality than at any previous points in their careers, particularly Timofey Mozgov, Tristan Thompson, and Matthew Dellavedova.
That LeBron guy? All he did was lead the Finals in points, rebounds and assists, while averaging 46 minutes per game. When LeBron wasn’t on the floor in the Finals — and as you can see, he had to be on the floor as much as possible — an injured Iman Shumpert, an exhausted Delly, an erratic J.R., and a hit-or-miss James Jones were a combined 0-for-21 from the field. LeBron was magnificent in these Finals on an absolute scale, but he was even more impressive in light of the limitations he was swimming against, especially as the series wore on and the benefits of a week off following the East finals began to be eroded.
As Golden State turned this series around in Game 4 and pulled ahead in Game 5, plenty of discussion moved to Cleveland coach David Blatt, who — let’s be honest — greatly outperformed national expectations relative to the start of the playoffs. (Not nearly enough ink or bandwidth have been devoted to Blatt’s coaching acumen in the playoffs. Similarly, not nearly enough attention has been given to the idea that having LeBron as a coach on the floor is anything but a sign of weakness, powerlessness, or imprudence.)
The central criticisms of Blatt which emerged in Games 5 and 6 were that he:
A) conceded too much to Golden State’s use of small ball by keeping Timofey Mozgov off the floor;
B) didn’t play Shawn Marion to steal minutes for LeBron and other starters.
It’s true that his rim protection in this series was outstanding, and that certainly gave Golden State problems. However, when Mozgov was brought into high pick-and-roll situations in the series’ latter three games, Curry and the rest of the Warriors exploited his limitations as a perimeter defender. Mozgov scored 28 points in Game 4, sure, but Cleveland’s defense was less effective against Golden State’s smaller lineup.
Remember that as valuable as a healthy Kyrie would have been in this series, his presence on the floor would have taken away points for Cleveland as well as adding them. Kyrie added plenty of points on offense, and would have solved so many issues for the Cavs at that end of the floor. On defense, though, Cleveland would have been weaker. The tension between playing Mozgov against a smaller lineup and sitting him was very similar — anything the Cavs gained at the offensive end was counterbalanced by limitations at the defensive end. Blatt was, as Crossover Chronicles writer Bryan Gibberman noted during the Finals, damned if he kept Mozgov in and damned if he sat him out. This underscores why Cleveland can’t leave this series with any regrets in terms of the way it competed. The Warriors simply had more options than a team with two high-profile injuries.
Now, about Marion:
For starters (pun not intended), Marion not being worthy of Finals minutes in the estimation of the coach is a personnel issue. If Cleveland stocked its roster with players it wasn’t able to trust when depth became an acute concern, that roster needs to be replenished with better pieces in the offseason… and you can bet that David Griffin, Blatt, and LeBron will come up with better solutions.
Let’s re-emphasize that for the sake of clarity: Cleveland needs better solutions if the likes of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love get injured. The Cavs didn’t have better solutions in this series.
Consider this: While Golden State received central contributions in the Finals from core players Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala, all of whom averaged over 30 minutes per game in the playoffs, the Warriors were also powered by multiple big games from more peripheral players such as Festus Ezeli, Shaun Livingston, and David Lee.
If you think that Marion had a reasonable chance of impacting one game the way Livingston did, you’re reaching. If you think Marion could have had Ezeli-like or Lee-level impact, you’re making a reasonable point, but please realize this: Golden State had three relatively peripheral players (guys playing an average of under 21 minutes per game in the Finals) who significantly impacted at least one game in the Finals, and one (Livingston) who provided huge contributions in more than one game.
James Jones came up big for Cleveland in Game 2 — give him that. However, as the series moved along, he became less productive and influential. Mike Miller? Blatt tried him out, but the 2012 version who hit seven 3-pointers in a Finals close-out game for LeBron’s Miami Heat? That version isn’t here, and he’s not walking through that door.
The point arises that when Steve Kerr inserted David Lee into Game 3, Golden State came to life. Kerr — since he was the coach whose team was losing (and losing ground) at the time — was under fire at that point in the series. However, if putting in David Lee was what Kerr needed to give his team a jolt (and make Game 3 close enough that LeBron had to remain overextended in terms of minutes, something Crossover Chronicles writer John Cannon identified as a central tension point in the series’ latter games), one can safely say that the bigger problem with Golden State through three games was that its better players weren’t playing well enough. Once Draymond Green and Stephen Curry played better, coaching somehow had a way of receding as a concern for the Warriors.
Funny how that happens.
Given that David Blatt really didn’t have many options, it’s very hard to hold him responsible for how this series turned out on that score.
As the focus shifts to the 2015-2016 season, Cleveland fans should be very proud of their team for what it accomplished in 2014-2015. The concerns about David Blatt; the supporting cast; the ability of LeBron to make J.R. Smith and other spare parts into a functional roster — they should all be greatly diminished at this point.
The Cavs should feel they have the right pieces in place to enjoy a smoother ride next season. There won’t be any 20-20 start to the regular season. There won’t be huge concerns about the roster, given that the team remade by David Griffin in midseason was consistently good. This team coped with those injuries to not only make the NBA Finals, but arrive there by means of a sweep of a 60-win, top-seeded opponent, the Atlanta Hawks. Cleveland — without Kevin Love and with Kyrie Irving missing multiple games before the Finals — overcame only one moment of acute crisis (Game 4 in Chicago against the Bulls). Once it walked over those hot coals, Cleveland put the East at its feet.
Next season, it is just about impossible to see any other team in the East matching the Cavs unless more injuries occur. With the tweaking that will surely take place on the margins of Cleveland’s roster, this team should have the quality depth it missed (through no real fault of its own) in the Finals.
It’s worth noting that in each of the past two seasons and in three of the past five, LeBron’s team has been the second seed in the East, without homecourt advantage in the conference final round of the playoffs. The composite record of LeBron’s teams (the 2011 and 2014 Heat plus the 2015 Cavs) in those three East finals against No. 1 seeds? 12-3.
LeBron should have more than enough depth on the Cleveland roster next season to take ample rests in the middle of the journey, much as he did this past season. (It’s worth noting that his midseason break this year, combined with the extended All-Star break, were very beneficial for both LeBron and the team as a whole. Keep that in mind.) Cleveland wouldn’t want to be a No. 3 seed and give up homecourt advantage in two East series, but the need to be No. 1 relative to No. 2 just isn’t paramount. The Cavaliers can cruise through the regular season, save LeBron for the playoffs, and carry the kind of roster that is primed to win an NBA championship.
Pressure? Let’s wait until the beginning of May 2016 to talk about that word. For now, Cleveland fans should be very pleased with the progress of this team in the span of one very uncertain and wild 12-month period. They should be even more excited about the future of this franchise. If any team other than the Cavs finds itself representing the East in next year’s Finals, it will come as a huge shock. The Cavs should be far too good to allow the ghosts of Cleveland Sports Past to get in their way.