Following a summer of blockbuster signings and game-changing trades, the Cleveland Cavaliers—three superstars in tow and a basketball wizard at the wheel—look better on paper than a briefcase full of Woodrow Wilsons.
Heading into the 2014-15 season, Cleveland’s status as a championship contender is, barring the unforeseen, set in stone.
We’re still weeks away from the flood of predictions and power rankings written to ring in the new season. Rest assured, though, that when they hit the Internet newsstands, the Cavs will be covered in conference chalk.
Top to bottom, Cleveland boasts arguably the East’s deepest, most experienced depth chart. The team’s most recent coup: reaching an agreement with Swiss Army knife Shawn Marion on a one-year, veteran’s minimum deal, per USA Today’s Sam Amick.
Scarier still, the Cavs might still have an ace or two up their sleeves:
The Cavs are also optimistic about their chances of signing free agent guard Ray Allen prior to the start of training camp, a source said.— Marc J. Spears (@SpearsNBAYahoo) August 17, 2014
Fancy a fast glance down Cleveland’s roster, it’s hard not to want to invest heavy in the hype. Until, that is, you recall the growing pains faced by the 2010-11 Miami Heat, those hardwood heavyweights some doubtless believed should’ve been awarded the Larry O’Brien trophy schedule unseen.
Just months after staging what amounted to a preseason championship parade, the Heat staggered to a 9-8 start out of the gate. On the one hand, panicking over an above-.500 start not even a quarter into the season would seem a hyperbolic response.
Just how bad did it get? According to a November 2010 report by ESPN The Magazine’s Chris Broussard, all out mutiny was becoming a real possibility in Miami.
"Right now, in my opinion, no one is doing a good job," Wade told Broussard. "We're 9-and-8. We're all in this together. The players are not doing a good job. The coach is not doing a good job."
Seldom does such under-the-bus bluntness escape the locker room walls, particularly in an organization so lauded for its all-in-the-family philosophy.
Like Miami coach Erik Spoelstra, Cleveland head coach David Blatt—hired weeks before James’ league-altering decision—faces the unenviable task of being target No. 1 for whatever flak should come the Cavs’ way in the season’s opening days. On a team where the vets have paid their dues in pain and pride, Blatt is the new guy and will be punished as such should the train fly too far off the rails.
To his credit, Blatt has remained cool as a locker room icepack during his many summer interviews.
"I do feel a great sense of responsibility about that because although I'm not fully one of them, they are all a part of me. I feel responsibility. Pressure? No. I don't feel pressure," Blatt told USA Today’s Jeff Zillgitt back in July. "But a lot of responsibility yes and honestly a lot of pride that I was the one who was chosen. I feel like I've got to do a good job."
It’s certainly worth wondering whether the asymmetric weight felt by Spoelstra during Miami’s early struggles—a prelude to four straight trips to the NBA Finals—might serve as a sobering reminder of the perils of rushing to judgment.
If anyone can deflect whatever doubt that’s bound to come Cleveland’s way, it’s James, whose prodigal return is sure to buy him and his comrades some much-needed leeway.
Sooner or later, though, all the praise and expectations won’t be worth the pulp it's printed on if it isn’t accompanied by the beautiful basketball we all know lies in wait—an ether-bound spell waiting for the right mix of thought and action to conjure it in full.
Writing at BusinessInsider.com, Tony Manfred underscores the almost frightening fury Cleveland’s offense holds:
It's one thing to have a pair of exceptional offensive players on your team. It's another to have what the Cavs have now — two exceptional offensive players with complementary playing styles.
Love is a nominal power forward who can shoot threes and make enough mid-range shots to keep defenses honest. The LeBron-Love pick-and-roll will be a nightmare, with defenses stuck between keeping LeBron away from the rim and guarding the Love jumper.
Love is basically Chris Bosh if Chris Bosh had a better post game and was a great offensive rebounder. This is a very scary proposition for the rest of the NBA, and that's even before you get to Kyrie Irving.
The question now becomes whether Cleveland’s cartoonish potential will be grounds for even more caustic pressure or it’s safeguard against a prolonged slump.
Considered as a whole, Cleveland’s lineup boasts more worst-to-first firepower than any of the Heat’s four rosters with James. The challenge for Blatt is in figuring out which pieces fit where and when, and how to look beyond resumes and bona fides to find the best basketball balance possible.
Then there’s the more pessimistic view, offered by Hardwood Paroxysm’s Steve McPherson, who sees in how the Cavaliers have gone about weaponizing LeBron both the best and the worst aspects of Miami’s approach to team-building:
It’s possible that the Heat’s experience shows that the Cavaliers are making a mistake here, and not just with regard to positions as they neglect the backup point guard and center positions in favor of wings. But it’s also possible that in many ways the path of this next season is already written: a wealth of jaw-dropping moments and victories in the regular season and then a swoon in the playoffs that ends with the Cavs falling short of a title. Whether you deem that a failure or success deferred will depend on how long a view you can take to team building.
That the Cavs might well mimic Miami’s year-one trajectory is certainly plausible. Still, Cleveland’s unique combination of youth, depth and star power makes its mold altogether different. Not better, per se, but different.
Short of missing the playoffs completely, there aren’t many outcomes to Cleveland’s season that would be considered shocking to the basketball-viewing public. Injuries, chemistry, game-to-game plans—all these factors and more contribute to a formula whose ultimate answer has, if you look back far enough, been written before.
Viewed from the dining room floor through the kitchen door, the Cavaliers have all the makings, both homegrown and imported, of a Michelin bistro. Just don’t expect the first few plates to come out flawless.