In a season filled with lows and highs, the final take on the 2014-2015 Cleveland Cavaliers basketball season should be a celebration of their determination and fight. Many story lines dotted the Cleveland landscape before, during, and after the season. The media stuffed them with negativity, innuendo, speculation, unnamed “sources”, and sensationalism. The majority involved the head coach and his star player but these primarily negative narratives slowly bled the life out of the most successful season in the 44+ year history of the Cavaliers. Whether the fans and media are willing to admit it or not, there was a constant din of noise that detracted from what was going on right before their eyes. Neither group was totally focused on the magic of a severely undermanned, tired but determined group of men trying to write their own history instead of succumbing to the downdraft of unnamed sources and a now superior fully healthy team in the midst of a nearly unblemished season.
As annoying as it was, objectively there is no reason to bemoan the press or the distracted fans. The media has a job to do and, as Cavs GM David Griffin recently said, “sensational sells”.
A picture of this Cavalier season could be painted on many canvases with many colors. If the story is told from the end of last season, it was all started by another stunning NBA draft lottery pilfering of the first overall pick. Cleveland had a nearly perfect off season that witnessed the return of LeBron James, the signing of Kyrie Irving, and the trade for Kevin Love. Telling it from the first game of the season, it was a spectacle of hype followed by the drama of a disappointing loss to one of the NBA’s worst teams. The storybook off season was marred by early failure, weaknesses exposed, and the growing pains of a team trying to understand each other and their first year coach. The unforgiving reality of the NBA was thrust in front of all of us and the team. That reality was shrouded in dark grey and sometimes black. Purple hew emerged with the cranky backs of Kevin Love and LeBron James and LeBron’s angry knee. Wins were difficult to come by, especially when LeBron went down, and the resulting 19-20 record was hard to stomach.
Retrospectively, that dark period during this Cavs season is best characterized by unyielding impatience when unyielding patience was required. LeBron James is frequently quoted that having patience is very difficult for him. As with the end of the season, the early season reflected LeBron James leadership. His teammates mirrored his lack of patience. Kyrie Irving trying to find a way to be a “side kick” instead of a solo blossoming superstar. Kevin Love trying to carve his initials in a LeBron/Kyrie dominated offense where he was asked to catch and shoot threes more than dominate the paint. The media was struggling to explain the deficiencies and looked to the strain between the star and his coach instead of the lack of roster “fit”, the team impatience, and the injuries to LeBron and Andy Varejao that led to the unexpected losses. Was there any factual reason to believe that LeBron’s impatience was all directed at a “deficient” coach rather than the greatest challenge he had ever faced in the NBA, his own health? It is doubtful that Blatt was ever his most pressing concern. The resistance or inability of Dion Waiters to fill the needed three point threat. The inability of Love and Kyrie to define their play by what was best for the team. LeBron’s inability to play effectively through his injuries. And LeBron’s most trusted teammate being lost for the season probably were the key reasons why LeBron was sulking and dissatisfied. As it is with many parents, Coach Blatt was simply at the receiving end of that impatience and fleeting fear that James may have made a mistake “Coming Home.”
It is captivating that LeBron foretold all of this in his letter but, when faced with the reality he predicted, he showed signs of lack of trust in his team and his coach. The most clear reasons he could have been taken aback and reacted poorly in a situation he himself predicted were his physical inability to play at a high level and the loss of Andy. Once LeBron returned to the court with near full ability and had faced the sad reality of Andy being lost, both he and the Cavaliers took off at a dizzying trajectory. Of course, everyone knows that the reason for that upward dizzying trajectory was only partly based on LeBron’s return to health and improved patience. The explosion of the Cavs needed a dollop of dark blue, light blue, yellow and white. It seemed that the blue from the Knicks and Nuggets represented blue skies ahead for Cleveland. In two rapid fire stunning trades, David Griffin shot nearly all the bullets he had to create a fit on the Cavs roster they sorely needed. His ability to use Dion Waiters (who couldn’t or wouldn’t fit), a second round draft choice and two first round draft choices to capture Iman Shumpert, JR Smith, and Timofey Mozgov saved the Cavs season.
Once all became healthy, Cleveland went on a run that showed no signs of stopping. They won 14 out of 15 games against the vaunted Western Conference and it didn’t matter where the games were played. At home the Cavaliers were virtually unbeatable and on the road nearly so. Everyone who wished the team success was praying that Cleveland would enter the playoffs healthy. And they did. Maybe the Cleveland “Curse” would finally end. In my view, despite the almost unblemished season of the Golden State Warriors, it appeared the Cleveland Cavaliers entered the playoffs with the best team. I think the results going forward in the playoffs clearly verified that view to be correct. If healthy, Cleveland was the best team with the best player. And, only basing their opinions objectively, Las Vegas agreed sans their stubborn clinging to the Warriors as the favorites. As it turned out, Las Vegas was correct again because the magical health that had followed the Warriors all year continued through the entire playoffs. In fact, they were getting minor injured players back by the time the Finals began.
After the playoffs started, new colors were added to the Cavalier canvas, black and blue. By game number two in Boston, the Cavs second best player would be hobbled by a foot injury. Irving continued playing but was clearly not himself. He tried to compensate and the knee on the other leg began to fail him. The tendonitis would vex him until his final game, game one in the Finals, and culminated in a freak fracture to the same kneecap covered by that balky tendon. Remarkably, the injuries were unrelated but the results just as devastating, rapid surgery and gone until next season. Kevin Love had already preceded Kyrie to the operating room with an almost unheard of ripping out of his left shoulder from it’s socket by a wide eyed Kelly Olynyk responding to the admonishment of his coach to do “whatever necessary” to not allow another offensive rebound by Cleveland. He certainly didn’t try to dislocate a shoulder, but this picture says all you need to know about him not performing a basketball play.
So there it was…………. Kevin Love out for the season because of a freak play that no one has ever seen previously and, I would bet, will never be seen again. And Kyrie Irving suffering a fractured kneecap after weeks of tortured play from two other separate injuries. The Cavaliers, despite losing their second and third best players, found a way to do what no other team had ever done when that has happened. Make it to the NBA Finals. They did it because of the historic play of the best player in the game and the determination and toughness of the team that reflected his championship drive. So, in the end, the team still was a reflection of LeBron James. Only this time it wasn’t duplicating his lack of patience. This time it was honoring his unquenchable desire to bring a championship to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Whether that desire is grounded in the honest emotion of bringing joy to a sports starved community void of a championship in over 50 years or a desire to put a stamp on his legacy that can never be exceeded is irrelevant. What mattered was what was on display for all to see. A team that wouldn’t be stopped despite the odds historically stacked against them. Whether James called his own number on an out of bounds play to win a critical game in Chicago or shook his head at Blatt to change another play Blatt had designed is monumentally miniscule compared to the drive and focus needed for the Cavs to take the NBA Finals to a game 6.
It took two more colors to finish off the painting of Cleveland’s season. One was purple that represented all the players that earned purple hearts by playing through and with painful injuries during most of the playoffs. The other was red signifying all of the courage necessary to face those historically bad odds and NBA’s most fortunate and best team in the Finals. Then making them sweat to the last basket. You can package the negative narratives and send them all to Siberia for the winter. The performance of this Cavalier team should allow Cleveland fans to stick out their chests and strut. Be proud if you were “ALL IN”. The Cleveland Cavaliers have a bright future.