As the Cleveland Cavaliers tip off the 2010-11 NBA season against Boston Wednesday night, one thing is evident: The LeBron James hoopla has had no effect on Head Coach Byron Scott.
As he told the Associated Press recently, he wasn’t emotionally attached to James’ decision to leave the Cleveland and join the Miami Heat. “It was easy for me to move on,” he said.
And so, while fans were busy venting and players were busy regrouping, Scott was busy charting a course for his new troops.
In the process, an unusual reality has taken hold in Cleveland: A coach is the face of an NBA franchise.
For the Cavaliers, however, it may be just the ticket to post-LeBron success. While James continued to devour the spotlight with re-posted tweets and dramatic television ads, the Cavs were busy learning to play without the two-time MVP.
The test balloon that is the preseason offered glimmers of hope. It wasn’t just because the Cavaliers went 6-2 (and looked very good during the brief stretches when their starters were on the floor together).
It was also because Scott demonstrated, time and time again, that there would be high expectations of a team that he believes is flying under the radar now that James is gone.
When the Cavs practiced and played well, he was open with his praise. When they lapsed into bad habits or careless mental mistakes, he called them out.
Never was that more evident than when he publicly took forward J.J. Hickson to task for his lack of focus on offense in the Cavs’ final preseason game, a win over Milwaukee.
Even though the newly installed Princeton offense is more complicated than what the Cavaliers have been accustomed to, Scott would accept no excuses for poor execution on the part of Hickson, or anyone else.
“To me it’s a lack of focus,” Scott said. “I think he wants to do it, but sometimes he’s 22 years old and…he’s not focused. He has to get much better.”
The Princeton offense features constant motion and an almost AAU-style of teamwork. That’s foreign to many players at the pro level, but if properly done can elevate an average team to above-average.
So the die has been cast, the gauntlet laid down. Forget what everybody else thinks; Scott expects the Cavaliers to win.
But will they?
That depends. Kelly Dwyer of Yahoo! Sports’ predicted they’d win 12 games this season. After the universal laughter died down over that resounding slap in the face, Dwyer qualified his prediction in a blog post on Monday, sort of explaining that he meant they’d win 12 if they followed his advice and gutted their roster by dumping the huge contracts of Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison.
There have been predictions of 20, 30 and even 40 wins and a playoff berth. Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain Dealer aimed surprisingly high with a 46-win forecast on Wednesday.
I’d like to agree, but I’m not quite that optimistic—this is the NBA, where stuff happens.
Already in the preseason, Williams and Jamison have nursed injuries. It’s a fact of life in pro sports, and it’s bound to happen during the regular season, quite likely to one of them, if not both.
Williams and Anderson Varejao left the team for extended periods this fall because of family crises—in Varejao’s case, the death of his grandfather, and in Williams’, the passing of his father-in-law.
Things come up. Players get hurt. Family situations demand attention. The 82-game season is a long and sometimes bumpy road.
Combine that with the loss of James, who could single-handedly close out an opponent on any given night (and often did), and there will be a dramatic drop-off this year.
That said, I still like this team. They are close-knit, and Scott’s influence appears to be bringing them closer.
Daniel Gibson, one of the heroes of the Cavaliers’ surprising run to the Finals in 2007, is thriving in Scott’s system. Together with Williams, Anthony Parker and Ramon Sessions, Gibson is part of a four-guard unit that was surprisingly effective in exhibition play.
Varejao will start at center, flanked by Hickson and Jamario Moon at the forward positions. Jamison will begin the season coming off the bench.
Scott is emphasizing depth and ball-sharing, which wasn’t the case when things were built so squarely around James.
The Cavaliers have a chance to surprise their early opponents and steal some wins against even the league's better teams. Once they do, however, they’ll show up on opposing coaches’ radar screens. As teams make adjustments, the Cavs will face some lean periods where wins may be hard to come by.
Scott has said repeatedly that the Cavaliers have more talent than the Nets or Hornets did when he took over as coach. Let’s hope so, as those teams won just 26 and 18 games, respectively, in Scott’s debut seasons.
I think the Cavs will be entertaining and fun to watch. They’ll lose some games they could have won; however, the reverse won’t be true as often.
All of which leads me to go with 38 wins and a shot at the eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. If they stay healthy and experience few distractions, they could do better, but that rarely happens in the NBA.
I’ll be rooting for them to prove me wrong. Let the games begin.