On Thursday, December 2nd, the eyes of the basketball nation will get a good look at the Cleveland Cavaliers for the first time since last May.
Unfortunately, the story that night won't be about basketball but rather the intense emotions and actions of fans and players toward a former Cavalier.
Maintaining focus and not getting caught up in the frenzied media coverage or subplots is instrumental for Cleveland heading forward.
The schedule won't allow for distractions—they just came off of a four-game in five-night stretch, host the Boston Celtics before Thursday's showdown, and then immediately go on the road for three games in four nights—the start of a stretch where they play seven of their next eight games on the road.
But behind some hot shooting from Mo Williams, the usual strong production from the bench, some increased defensive pressure, and a second-half resurgence from J.J. Hickson, the Cavs bounced back to beat Milwaukee and Memphis at home, giving Byron Scott some solid foundations to build on.
Cleveland's had one of the easiest schedules in the league—only five of their first 16 opponents have a record above .500.
Let's look at a few key players and areas that will be a major factor in determining how we evaluate the Cavaliers when the schedule flips to 2011.
In the offseason Williams pleaded with the front office to not be traded, even posting a message on his Twitter account saying "I'm not ready to go."
In the midst of last week's losing streak, he certainly didn't play like a guy with anything to prove, averaging 11.0 points, 3.8 assists, and 2.5 turnovers.
He also hit just one three-pointer in that stretch and attempted only five free throws.
He's come to life recently, however, putting up 70 points (47.4 field goal percentage), 25 assists, 13 rebounds, and eight three-pointers in Cleveland's last three games.
He was the catalyst in Wednesday's second-half comeback win vs. Milwaukee (including hitting the game-winner at the buzzer) and had two big buckets in the final 90 seconds to hold off Memphis last night.
The Cavs need a go-to scorer in crunch-time and Williams is clearly the most qualified to fill that role. While the late-game execution is seemingly the same as when LeBron James dominated the ball in the fourth quarter in year's past (clear out and let one guy create), it's refreshing to see that Williams does have a sense of the moment and can spark the team offensively in the final minutes of a close game.
That said, it's probably unlikely that he'll continue this pace for the rest of the season—he's a streaky shooter that sometimes goes through multi-game stretches where he can't make anything.
When he's not hitting shots, he has to find other ways to contribute, whether it's through dribble penetration, setting up teammates, or—gulp—defense.
Still, his recent play suggests that he's healthy and happy—a good sign for the Cavs.
A few defensive statistics:
—In wins, opponents are averaging 93.7 points per game. In losses, opponents are up to 104.1 points.
—In wins, opponents shoot just 44.4 percent from the field. In losses, the opposition is a blistering 47.5 percent.
—In wins, opponents are shooting 36.0 percent from the three-point line and connecting on 5.7 makes. In losses, that percentage jumps up to 41.1 and opponents make 9.2 three-pointers a game.
—Other than the Nov. 5 win against Philadelphia, the Cavs have given up two 30-point quarters in wins as opposed to nine 30-point quarters for opponents in losses.
—Opponents have been held under 99 points in six games. Cleveland is 5-1 in those contests.
This isn't anything mind-blowing. When you play good defense, you usually win (or have a chance down the stretch). When you don't, you lose.
Typically the Cavs give up a majority of their points in quick spurts. For example, Philadelphia scored 45 points in a 14-minute stretch, Orlando scored 35 points in 11 minutes, San Antonio scored 41 points in 13 minutes, Memphis had 49 points in 18 minutes—you get the picture.
In the Mike Brown era, when the Cavs were struggling on offense, they could rely on their defense to keep them in games. But that's not the case this year—when they struggle on offense, it usually carries over on defense.
Seven of the next 12 opponents are in the top 12 in points per game. This will only put more pressure on the Cavs to buckle down defensively and make opponents work for their field goals instead of giving up points in bunches.
J.J. Hickson's Inconsistent Play
If you can predict which J.J. Hickson will show up a nightly basis, I'd like your help in purchasing some lottery tickets.
Through the first nine games, Hickson was the player he showed flashes of last year and in the Vegas Summer League, becoming one of Cleveland's most reliable players with 16.0 points (50 percent shooting) and 5.7 rebounds (1.5 offensive).
And in the last seven games he hasn't scored in double-figures once, sat out the majority of fourth quarters, and is averaging 8.0 points (41.1 percent shooting) and 5.1 rebounds (.7 offensive).
When the season started he showed great improvement on his jump shot, stepping out from 15-18 feet, and looked a bit more comfortable taking defenders off the dribble and attacking the offensive glass.
But his glaring lack of confidence has affected his play recently—he's timid, he's taking delayed jumpers that are out of his range, he's not attacking the rim with any purpose—he's playing the way he did last year, when he knew if he made any little mistake that Mike Brown was going to take him out.
This is Hickson's third year so there will be rough patches. This is his first extended time as a featured player—last year he had the luxury of being the fifth option on offense.
Defenses are now adjusting to his strengths and tendencies and forcing him into situations where he's not comfortable. Right now he's clearly not flowing in the offense and he's always been a questionable-at-best defender.
The coaching staff would love to see him find other areas in which to be productive.
Last night against Memphis was a perfect example—he struggled initially but in the fourth quarter he was tenacious and aggressive on both ends, scoring six points in the final three minutes.
If you're struggling on offense, you can still make an impact by boxing out, grabbing boards, playing strong defense, or getting to the offensive glass. That's something J.J. is still learning.
On the bright side, Antawn Jamison has excelled recently during Hickson's struggles.
Starters vs. Reserves
Cleveland's starters have averaged 50.2 points per game this season, one of the lowest of any starting units in the league.
On the other hand the bench has been tremendous with 44.9 points—some of the NBA's best production from reserves.
How many wins will Cleveland have on January 1?
Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy may have said it best: "People love to put (bench scoring) up on the ticker. All that means sometimes is that your starters stink."
In this case, he may be right.
The Cavs have had three or more starters score in double-digits just five times this year.
Not coincidentally, they're 4-1 in those games.
Five times this year they've had just one starter reach 10 or more points (0-5 in those contests). And the bench has outscored the starters eight times this year.
Part of this is strategic—Scott loves bringing Ramon Sessions and Daniel Gibson, two change-of-pace guards, and Jamison off the bench because of their scoring capabilities—especially against the opposition's second-unit.
But the starters need produce more.
Getting Mo Williams back in a rhythm will help in that department and Joey Graham is much more aggressive offensively than Jamario Moon.
If the starters can begin to increase their scoring, it will take more pressure off the bench since they're usually playing from behind.
It's nice to have balanced scoring but guys like Parker, Graham, and Hickson need to get on track with the team in the next few weeks.