The Cavs finished the season at 61-21, the best record in the NBA and their second best in team history, after last season’s 66-16 However, they also ended the season on a four game losing streak.
All in all, I feel pretty good about them heading into the postseason. I’m not thrilled with the way they ended the year (barely even trying), but I do see the logic in it (hell, they saw the Raptors lose Chris Bosh first hand and they nearly lost Jamison against the Bulls). I have a hard time complaining that the team with the best record in the NBA didn’t win enough games. (And as for the ‘Michael Jordan played all 82’ argument, who cares? Jordan was also a competitive maniac who got into fistfights with teammates during practice).
Statistically, the Cavs are quite good. They’re 9th in the NBA in scoring, averaging 102.1 points a game (up from 100.3 last year) and are tied for fifth in points allowed, only giving up 95.3 (they were first with 91.4 last season). Their difference of +6.5 ranks second behind Orlando’s +7.5 (they were first last season with +8.9) and they’re tied for third with Chicago in opponents field goal percentage, holding teams to just .442 shooting (the Magic are first with .438). Their team field goal percentage is up from .468 to .485 and they assist on 53% of their made baskets (3rd in the NBA). The offense is good and the defense is good (I know, you’re shocked).
So despite the five win difference, I fully believe that this year’s squad is better than last season’s 66 win team. The Cavs started off this season 3-3 and finished 0-4, meaning 1/3 of their losses came either while they were still working in two new starters or when they rested LeBron and others after clinching the best record in the NBA. A full third! (Interestingly, they lost to the Bulls during both stretches).
I’m confident in this team because they’ve passed basically every test they’ve faced this season. The Cavs were just 4-3 early in the season when they went down to Florida and swept back-to-back against Orlando and Miami. They went 3-1 and 3-2 on their two West Coast trips, losing those three games by a combined 10 points. They beat the Lakers on Christmas Day and again a month later, without Mo Williams. They swept a home-and-home with the Hawks and nearly came from back from a 22 point deficit in Boston (with LeBron missing a three to win).
They added three new players in the offseason (including two, then three new starters), developed J.J. Hickson and Jawad Williams, added Antawn Jamison (another new starter) and Leon Powe midseason, brought back Z late in the year and still managed win streaks of 13, 8, 7, 6 and 5 (twice). Shaq hurts his thumb and the Cavs go 16-2. Mo Williams goes down and they rattle off 11 straight wins. These guys are talented and they are very, very deep.
They also happen employ the best player on the planet, LeBron James. James, a shoe-in for his second MVP in as many years, finished with averages of 29.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 8.6 assists while shooting 50% from the floor. LeBron’s chameleon like ability to play anywhere from point guard to power forward (coupled with the Cavs’ great depth) allows Coach Mike the luxury of playing any style of ball. They can slow it down and go big or speed it up and go small at a blink of an eye.
If LeBron and the Cavaliers have one weakness, it’s free throws. James is shooting 76% from the stripe, down from 78% last season (though still the second highest % of his career) and as a team the Cavs are dead last in the NBA at 72% (down from 75% last season). It’s not exactly shocking that the team free throw % took a dip after adding Shaq (who made just 49% from the stripe) but Antawn Jamison didn’t help matters by shooting just 50% at the line since the trade (he made them at a 75% clip for the Wizards).
Being last in the NBA in free throw shooting obviously isn’t good, but it won’t necessarily stop the Cavs from winning a title. The San Antonio Spurs won the championship in 2003 and 2005 and both years were 26th in the NBA from the stripe, shooting 72.5% and 72.4% respectively. While 72% foul shooting isn’t acceptable or defendable, it doesn’t have to be a fatal flaw.
Things are looking up heading into the playoffs, despite the free throws and four game losing streak. Despite the 0-4 record, I did like the fact that Mo Williams had to carry the load with LeBron street clothes. The Cavs are going to need Mo to play well if they are going to win the title and his 35 points, 10 assist effort against the Bulls was great to see (as was his 19 points through three quarters against Orlando). And while I don’t blame Brown for resting guys for health reasons, I really would’ve liked to see Shaq shake off some rust in a game that didn’t matter, rather than the first round.
(I will note that Brown chose to stop competing in crunch time following the Chicago loss (playoff preview!), when the James-less Cavs went scoreless over the final minute and a half, mustering only a forced turnaround from Mo and two ugly jumpers from Varejao. I’m still quite wary of their late game play calling).
The Cavs are healthy, LeBron is rested, Shaq has lost 20 lbs, Mo’s shot is falling, there’s no one like Sasha Pavlovic or Eric Snow in the rotation and they have home court advantage throughout the playoffs. You’ve got to feel good about this, no?
Plus, as a Cavs fan, you couldn’t ask for a more entertaining (potential) road to the title. Should Boston, Orlando and the Lakers take care of business (let alone the Cavs themselves), Cleveland will face the Bulls in the first round, the Celtics in the second round, Orlando in the Eastern Conference Finals and the Lakers in the Finals. So they’d start with Michael Jordan’s old team, then face the team that knocked them out in 2008, follow that with the team that sent them home last season (one of Shaq’s former team) and finally end it against Kobe and the storied Lakers (another one of Shaq’s former teams). Awesome.
This should be fun.