Cleveland Cavaliers Are Ready to Lock in on Their Championship Chase

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Cleveland Cavaliers Are Ready to Lock in on Their Championship Chase
Tony Dejak/Associated Press

CLEVELAND — Forget that the Cleveland Cavaliers lead the Eastern Conference by two-and-a-half games. Forget that they're operating with a healthy roster for the first time all season. Forget that sparkling 15-1 record at Quicken Loans Arena.

Are the Cavs, ahem, actually holding back?

That is to say, have we seen the best that Cleveland has to offer already? Mixed in with a strong 24-9 start to the season has been, at times, a noticeable lack of effort. The rotation has been jumbled, and multiple teams out West have clearly been in a class of their own.

The reality is the Cavaliers have had no choice but to hold back, and they must figure out the following situations before they can truly flip the switch.

 

Stabilize Rotation

Head coach David Blatt has already used 10 different starting lineups this season due to injury, and more could be on the way.

With Kyrie Irving back and Tristan Thompson promoted, the Cavs have filled in the rest of their opening five with J.R. Smith, LeBron James and Kevin Love. The only uncertainty moving forward appears to be Smith.

Noah Graham/Getty Images
J.R. Smith (left) and Iman Shumpert

Although Smith has played well as of late (13.9 points, 42.4 percent from three over his last seven games), Blatt used Iman Shumpert as a starter over him during the final three playoff rounds last spring. Blatt would also remark that the team was "missing two starters" earlier this season when both Irving and Shumpert were recovering from surgery.

For now, however, Smith appears to be the guy.

Building a rotation that can legitimately go 10-11 players deep should now be considered a luxury, and it's something Blatt doesn't do on his own.

"It's something the coaching staff discusses together at length. All of us," Blatt explained. "Generally you're thinking about your defensive schemes and having shooting on the court and having ball-handing on the court together and who's playing the best basketball right now. I think those are the three main things."

The only bad part about Irving's return has been figuring out what to do with Mo Williams. A starter who played well in Irving's absence, Williams has since been skipped in the rotation by Matthew Dellavedova and now finds minutes hard to come by.

There was also an awkward moment before a Jan. 2 game against the Orlando Magic where Williams entered the locker room in dress clothes just an hour before tipoff.

While Williams defended himself by tweeting "There is no particular time we have been at the arena. My routine has just changed, that's all," it still raised a few eyebrows. Every other player was either participating in shootaround, receiving treatment or talking with media by the time Williams arrived.

David Zalubowski/Associated Press/Associated Press
Mo Williams

The 33-year-old knew he would be relegated to a reserve role with the return of Irving, yet it's unlikely Williams would have agreed to join Cleveland in free agency if he knew he'd only be playing in garbage time.

Blatt now finds himself with a problem he wishes would have occurred during the 2015 NBA Finals—finding enough minutes for all his healthy bodies.

 

(Hopefully) Returning to Form

Irving may be the most important player returning from surgery, but he's certainly not the only one.

The 23-year-old is no longer sitting out back-to-backs, and he recently enjoyed his best performance of the season. Thanks to a 32-point effort in a 121-115 win over the Washington Wizards, Irving is averaging 23.0 points on 53.0 percent shooting over his last four games.

"I'm good, still knocking off some rust," Irving said. "It's still about getting up good quality shots in practice. In terms of pace and getting up and down, I feel great. I feel great."

Cleveland goes from a very good team to an elite one with a healthy and productive Irving, who's already improving the offense by 19.8 points per 100 possessions.

"I just want the car riding around the race track," Blatt said of Irving. "We know what he can do and who he is. He needs to get reps and rev those engines."

As good as Irving has looked, the same cannot be said for last year's standout, Timofey Mozgov.

The 29-year-old recently lost his starting job to Thompson and has averaged just 13.0 minutes in five games off the bench since. According to Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports, teams are noticing his deteriorating role and have inquired about Mozgov's trade availability.

Thus far, the Cavs have not been interested.

With Thompson playing well in his place, Mozgov doesn't need to produce the same numbers he did last year, but he shouldn't be satisfied with his current contribution, either.

"Knowing Timo very well, he's not a guy that's going to quit or put his head down," Blatt said. "He's going to continue to practice hard and work hard and get out on the floor and get after it."

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Timofey Mozgov

Even with limited production (4.2 points, 3.6 rebounds) in his new role, having Mozgov come off the bench seems to be the right move. Cleveland is 5-0 since Blatt made the switch, with Mozgov averaging a plus-3.2 following a minus-1.2 mark as a starter.

A healthy, productive Mozgov gives the Cavaliers an anchor to build their defense around. They can get by with Thompson for now, but a Mozgov of 2014-15 may be even better.

 

New Year, New Goals

Cleveland didn't enjoy the greatest end of 2015, dropping a pair of their final four games.

A loss to the Golden State Warriors on Christmas was understandable. The Warriors haven't lost a home game all year (17-0), and Irving was playing for just the third time this season. The Cavs may have only scored 83 points, but they also held Golden State to a season-low 89, an accomplishment in and of itself.

Their other defeat to close out 2015, however, was a bit more embarrassing.

Cameron Browne/Getty Images
Allen Crabbe goes in uncontested versus the Cavs.

Playing the following night in Portland against a Trail Blazers squad minus an injured Damian Lillard, Cleveland looked flat-out embarrassing. Coming in, Portland had lost eight of its last 10 games, and the team is very much lottery-bound. The Cavs didn't get that memo, as the Blazers won 105-76 in a game where Cleveland didn't look interested in much of anything.

With the start of a new calendar year looming, the Cavaliers got together off the court to begin fresh.

"Before the new year, we had a great team meeting," Irving revealed. "Basically the entire team and the staff, just talking about getting back into the swing of things and really locking in on what we have to do in order to be a better team.

"Having everybody back does that for us. With the veteran leadership that we have on this team, everyone's accountable. I think we're starting to show steps. I think our attention to detail is improving."

Love also acknowledged the much-needed get-together.

"I think we, whether it's a new year or not, got a chance to refocus and start setting our standards a little bit higher," he said.

These new high standards should start with a look at the top of the West, where the Warriors and San Antonio Spurs are both playing at championship levels. It's safe to say you won't see Golden State (33-2, plus-12.0 difference) or the Spurs (31-6, plus-14.2 difference) get blown out by showing a lack of effort.

Now is the time for Cleveland to join these two on an elite level. As always, it starts and ends with the Big Three of James, Love and Irving.

Noah Graham/Getty Images
Kyrie Irving, LeBron James and Kevin Love

"Those guys together went 33-3 in the second half of the season," Blatt said. "They know what they can be when they're all healthy and playing together. I think it gives them the kind of confidence and energy to be out there playing together."

The rotation is healthy, the stars are all playing at a high level and the playoffs are but a few short months away.

It's time for the Cavaliers to show us what they truly can be.

 

Greg Swartz is the Cleveland Cavaliers Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @CavsGregBR.

All quotes are obtained firsthand. Stats via Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise sourced and are current as of Jan 7.

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