LeBron James wanted time, but never an excuse, when it came to turning the Cleveland Cavaliers into a championship team in his second run with the franchise. During a costly, possibly power-shifting four-game sweep of the Boston Celtics, the Cavaliers lost Kevin Love to a dislocated left shoulder and J.R. Smith to some dislocated sense and James was awarded both time and an excuse should he be proven incapable of delivering a title this season.
Cavaliers GM David Griffin revealed Tuesday that Love is expected to miss the rest of the season after Boston’s Kelly Olynyk yanked his arm Sunday in what Love called “a bush league” move. Monday, the NBA suspended Smith for the first two games of the conference semifinals for swinging wildly and clocking Boston’s Jae Crowder in the head. Their absences have diminished the Cavaliers’ chances of reaching the conference finals and put them in an unusual position as an underdog despite having home-court advantage against their expected opponent, Chicago.
Expectations aren’t usually tapered when it comes to James; he is subject to ridicule if he or his team doesn’t reach or exceed previous standards. But he freed himself of the pressures of winning “not three, not four…” championships in Miami simply by returning to Cleveland, where at least one would suffice for a community accustomed to failure and disappointment for much of the past five decades.
After overcoming some early-season tumult, the Cavaliers regrouped – behind two trades and a two-week James hiatus – and entered the playoffs as a prohibitive favorite to make James’s heroic homecoming end with Cleveland reaching the NBA Finals for the second time in the franchise’s history. The postseason can be cruel, however, as players aren’t immune from having their legs plant in awkward positions or their arms bend or twist in unnatural directions.
The Cavaliers certainly won’t find much sympathy in Chicago, where the Bulls were a top overall seed in 2012 when Derrick Rose’s left knee buckled and made the next three seasons an endless waiting game. Or in Oklahoma City, where the Thunder was the top overall seed in 2013 when Houston’s Patrick Beverley dove into Russell Westbrook’s right knee. Last year, the Thunder had to endure an extended absence from Serge Ibaka and he couldn’t return in time to save them.
In his first title season in Miami in 2012, James encountered a similar setback in the second round when Chris Bosh went down with an abdominal strain. The Heat had to repackage itself as an effective small-ball – or rather “position-less” – team and James and Dwyane Wade had to impose their superior talent on the Indiana Pacers to survive a tough series. Bosh came back in the conference finals against Boston and James used the experience gained from playing in the low post without Bosh to destroy Oklahoma City in the Finals.
Back then, James had to win after coming up small against Dallas the previous season and anointing the Heat a multiple championship team before holding one practice. James has refrained from getting too excited about his current team, even as it started to show the makings of a contender. He can take comfort in knowing that no overly confident comments will come back to haunt him.
James is certainly capable of carrying the Cavaliers through another reinvention. At this stage in his career, the case could have been made for the four-time most valuable to transition into an effective power forward even before it became a necessity without Love.
No matter which team(s) the Cavaliers face in the Eastern Conference postseason, they will always step on the court with the game’s best player — and arguably second-best player in Kyrie Irving — on their side. But that would’ve been the case had James simply signed a free agent deal with Cleveland last summer and the team stopped tinkering. In James’s mind, that wasn’t enough. The Cavaliers needed more. And to James, they needed Love. If it came at the expense of the past two No. 1 overall picks — most notably, rookie of the year favorite Andrew Wiggins — then so be it.
Love rarely looked comfortable with the Cavaliers. That included both his role and his teammates. But there was no denying that the team was markedly better with him on the floor. With their preferred lineup of Love, James, Irving, Smith and Timofey Mozgov, the Cavaliers outscored opponents by 19.3 points per 100 possessions in the regular season and had a net rating of 16.6 in the first three playoff games.
Before the playoffs began, James jokingly said he would vote for Love as his choice for MVP – a playful comeback for Love saying he would vote for Westbrook for the game’s highest individual honor. But from his passive-aggressive comments on social media and constant encouragement throughout games, James recognized how much value Love brought to the team’s championship goals.
“I think he’s a big-time player,” James said after Love hit six three-pointers and scored 23 points in the Cavaliers’ 103-95 victory in Game 3 against Boston. “In order for us to be the team that we want to be long-term, Kevin is going to be Kevin.”
On the nights when he wasn’t spreading the floor and knocking down open three-pointers, he still rebounded, delivered pinpoint outlet passes and was enough of a threat that opposing teams had to respect him. And on the nights he was on, the Cavaliers were unstoppable because the lane was so open for James or Irving to take their defenders off the dribble. Love was becoming more than a decoy or a one-dimensional shooter in his first three playoff games. Just as he was gaining confidence in how he was being utilized, Love has found himself having his time with James paralleling with Bosh once again.
Love is currently in the process of seeking additional opinions on his shoulder with the hope that the Cavaliers can win a playoff series without him and he can return in time to help them claim glory in June. Cleveland went 3-4 without Love in the regular season, including a 113-98 loss to the Bulls in which James was clearly missing the presence of one of his more reliable targets.
James kept his team together as the Cavaliers closed out the overmatched Celtics without Love. But the task of winning will only get more difficult – and perhaps be even more rewarding — if Cleveland can reach its ultimate goal. Either way, James now has an excuse if he comes up short.