By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 25, 2008
DENVER -- After the Cleveland Cavaliers claimed an impressive road win over the Denver Nuggets last Friday, LeBron James shot up from the seat in front of his locker stall and burst into an off-key, high-pitched tune with incoherent words that seemed to have been invented by his 18-month-old son, Bryce. Before the song could be dismissed as gibberish, guard Delonte West formed a duet with James from the other end of the locker room.
Back and forth they went, screeching contentedly, and then it all made sense: The Cavaliers just get one another.
It has happened relatively quickly. Only five of these Cavaliers were on the roster at this point last season. But with Cleveland off to the best start in franchise history at 24-4 -- a 70-win pace -- there is no denying that the team has clicked. As they prepare to host a Christmas day playoff rematch against the Washington Wizards, the Cavaliers are the only unbeaten team at home at 14-0.
"I've said this many times before: Watching this team come together, watching them interact with one another, it's some unusual stuff," Cavaliers Coach Mike Brown said. "They've found on their own that if they can trust one another, at the end of the day, that's what helps build chemistry and that carries over to the floor."
Brown talks about how players started to jell in training camp, watching "Monday Night Football" together, hanging out after practice and at games. James likes to refer to the Cavaliers as family because "no one is isolated from the other."
That chemistry didn't immediately translate when Cleveland started the season 1-2, with losses to Boston and New Orleans. Since then, the Cavaliers have won 23 of 25, with 18 of those wins decided by at least 10 points. They have allowed the fewest points per game (89.3) and have the second-lowest defensive field goal percentage (42.1).
For the first time since Brown became coach after the 2004-05 season, they have managed to blend relentless defense with efficient, high-powered offense. Cleveland is sixth in the league in scoring (102.3 points per game) and third in team shooting percentage (48.1 percent).
The defending champion Celtics are the first team in NBA history to start a season 27-2 and they have won a franchise-record 19 games in a row, but Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey said in a telephone interview that the Cavaliers have actually had the most impressive start. "They're rolling in every sense of the word," said Morey, whose Rockets lost to Cleveland, 99-90, on Tuesday night. "They've had a tougher schedule, and they are beating opponents by a larger margin [than Boston]. This is one of the best 30-game starts in history."
After winning the Eastern Conference in 2007, the Cavaliers struggled at the start of last season, with Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic in contract holdouts, and Larry Hughes and Damon Jones unhappy with their roles. General Manager Danny Ferry broke up the team with a huge midseason trade to land West, Ben Wallace and Wally Szczerbiak. Cleveland pushed the Celtics to seven games in the second round of the playoffs, but James said, "We didn't have enough time to make what I thought we could become."
Cleveland acquired point guard Mo Williams from the Milwaukee Bucks in a three-team trade this past summer, and all of a sudden the pieces started to fit. Center Zydrunas Ilgauskas is producing like he did during his two all-star seasons. Wallace, a former all-star center and the highest-paid player on the team, has accepted the responsibility to defend and rebound at power forward. And West, Williams, Szczerbiak and Daniel Gibson give the team a stable of shooters to surround James, who is a front-runner for the league's most valuable player award by making the spectacular look routine.
The early success prompted James to make the somewhat surprising declaration that he would consider signing a contract extension in the summer and avoid becoming a free agent in 2010.
"His leadership is really off the charts," Brown said of James. "He picked up a lot of things playing with the gold medal team [at the Beijing Olympics] and being around those types of players, being with Coach [Mike Krzyzewski] and the other guys on that staff. But he still hasn't reached his ceiling. There is plenty of potential still with LeBron James."
The Cavaliers are looking to defy conventional wisdom in the post-Magic Johnson-Larry Bird era that teams need at least two stars to win a championship. The 2004 Detroit Pistons won without a traditional superstar and the 1994 Houston Rockets won with Hakeem Olajuwon and some good but unspectacular role players. The 2003 San Antonio Spurs had Tim Duncan and the retiring David Robinson, but second-year point guard Tony Parker and rookie reserve Manu Ginóbili had yet to establish all-star credentials.
James could emerge as the perimeter version of Olajuwon or Duncan -- arguably the best player in the league flanked by players who fit perfectly into the surrounding holes. When Brown was asked to name James's sidekick, he looked at the stat sheet and started reading off every player on the roster. Brown, an assistant coach with San Antonio in 2003, said the Cavaliers have modeled themselves after the Spurs.
"When you have a special guy like Tim Duncan, when you have a special guy like LeBron James, you're able to put the team in the right position on both sides of the floor and when they do trust each other, good things happen," Brown said. "That's what we're seeing on the floor early in the season, but I think we can still get better."