If you’re a Cavaliers fan on the verge of a nervous breakdown because your favorite team has lost two straight games and because LeBron James is now saying things like this in postgame pressers, go on to your Spotify, search “Sleep sounds,” close your eyes and try to realize how this whole thing works.
Kyrie Irving is gone. Iman Shumpert is out, too. But the Cavaliers are still here, sitting atop the Eastern Conference as everyone predicted. Cleveland keeps chugging along, posting an 8-3 record, with back-to-back losses to the Bucks and Pistons, respectively.
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Most teams hear they could lose someone of Irving’s caliber through Christmas, and they feel like they’re losing the trunk of their tree. The beauty of the roster in Cleveland is that Irving and Shumpert are merely ornaments. Here’s why the Cavs aren’t panicking — beyond the simple fact that they have LeBron James and Kevin Love, of course.
Mo Williams has been far better than anyone thought he would
It’s funny, right? It feels like the Mo Williams-LeBron James combination has been around for decades. OK, maybe not decades, but it does seem like Mo was running in the North Coast for more than 2 1/2 years. He must’ve felt the same way, too, returning this summer to the team that traded him to the Clippers for Baron Davis in 2011.
Here’s the thing, though: At 32, after he shot worse than 40 percent from the field last season, Mo has been good. Really good.
Williams is averaging 15.5 points and 5.3 assists while fillng Irving’s starting role. He’s shooting 48 percent from the field and 36 percent from three, all while acting as the team’s secondary ball-handler behind James.
Williams and James are pulling stuff straight from 2010, too, busting out pick-and-roll actions we haven’t seen in half-a-decade. It’s like their chemistry, which was always noticeable, never went away. It’s almost as if it’s natural.
Mo isn’t Kyrie. He won’t get to the rim as often, he’s going to rely on his jumper more, and that’s merely in a usual Williams season. Williams is actually attempting a fewer percentage of his shots from the restricted area. Irving layups, conversely, are as common as songs called “Breathe” from early-2000s female pop stars. And in case you were wondering, yes, the only thing as syrupy as one of Kyrie’s improvised lay-ins is Michelle Branch’s voice.
He hasn’t been Kyrie. He can’t be Kyrie. But he can be serviceable.
The Cavs are still doing their “unheralded, smart things”
There isn’t really a good name for this in sports. The term “little things” is too demeaning. If the “little things” are so important, why are we constantly referring to them with a word that degrades.
Little. They’re not little. They’re … unheralded. (Caution: Name still under construction.)
For all the flack David Blatt gets, the Cavs’ infrastructure is actually well-coached. And on top of that, one of the team’s strengths is its ability to ad-lib on the offensive end. Yep, shocking someone would say that about a team that has LeBron James.
It sounds cliché, but the Cavs are partially maintaining without Irving and Shumpert because they almost always make the right play.
Actually, that seems too basic. They don’t make “the right play.” The right play is the correct pass or the proper cut. They go above and beyond. They’re making unheralded plays.
You can see examples all over, like during the team’s game against the Jazz last week. Cleveland ran a pick-and-roll at the top of the key. The screener, Timofey Mozgov, darted to the basket after setting the pick, as his man stuck with him. So far, all usual stuff. That is, until LeBron extemporized, came into the lane and perfectly screened up Mozgov’s defender. Two points on the Timo layup.
Spontaneous screening for a roll man isn’t something you see every day.
Even during Tuesday night’s loss to the Pistons, Detroit was draining 3-point shots early, but Cleveland adjusted. It extended its defense beyond the 3-point line, pressured the ball, and Detroit ended up shooting just 21 threes on the evening, below its season average of 25 per game. The Cavs ended up losing the game, mostly because of their inability to break up the Reggie Jackson-Andre Dummond two-man game, which has been a difficult — if not unrealistic — task for every defense.
Thwarting the long ball, though, was in character for a Cavs D that allows just the fifth-fewest triples a night so far this season.
The D has been even better this season than it was last season
Last year’s Cavs made a run to the Finals, in part, because of their improved defensive work. As Tristan Thompson saw more playing time, as Mozgov and Shumpert joined the roster, LeBron & Co. were able to win, as injuries continually tried to take them down. Now, the Cavs are flying all over, preventing threes and grabbing defensive rebounds at top-10 rates.
Cleveland currently ranks ninth in points allowed per possession, up from 20th last season, per NBA.com’s data. And based on the pure numbers, the improvement looks even more extreme.
As average pace of play gets faster, offensive efficiency has been notably down around the league to start this season. The Cavs D has actually been 5.6 points per 100 possessions better than it was a season ago, about the difference between the league’s No. 1-ranked Spurs D and the No. 12 Raptors. The return of Shumpert, the team’s best play-by-play perimeter defender (if you’re up in arms about that label not belonging to LeBron, consider the phrase “play-by-play”) should only boost it.