Washington (33-24, fourth in the East) has since been forced to evolve without Wall, who is recovering from left knee surgery, while the Cavaliers — with a flurry of moves at the Feb. 8 trade deadline — have morphed into something else altogether, once again inspiring James.
“They changed so many guys and I think they look very good. They look like they have new energy now,” said Wizards point guard Tomas Satoransky, adding that the Cavaliers look “a little reborn.”
Cleveland (34-22, 1 1/2 games ahead of Washington in the standings) had languished before the trade deadline. The team spent much of January near the league’s cellar in defensive efficiency and tensions became public following reports of a locker room meeting. The Cavaliers front office responded by making stunning wholesale changes. Gone were Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, Channing Frye, Jae Crowder, Derrick Rose and Iman Shumpert. In were Jordan Clarkson, George Hill, Rodney Hood and Larry Nance Jr.
“I think they jell well, I think they mesh really well,” Bradley Beal said. “It’s worked. I think it was what was best for the organization. I can’t really speak for them but they’re a good team.”
Over All-Star Weekend, injured Cavaliers forward Kevin Love admitted that it was pretty “apparent” that the team needed a makeover. In only two games with the new guys, Cleveland’s chemistry has looked palpable. As the Cavaliers defeated the Boston Celtics and Oklahoma City Thunder, James averaged a near triple-double and when he wasn’t on the court, he was joyously celebrating others’ effort.
“They still have LeBron, [he] makes everybody better,” Wizards Coach Scott Brooks said. “They’re playing with just a new, refreshed sense of urgency. A couple of guys probably [have] never been into the playoffs and they’re excited about the playoff chase.”
Beal now has firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to play with James. In his first All-Star Game, Beal practiced and played on the team captained by James. Though the experience was limited to two days and even fewer moments together in a locker room, Beal left feeling more respect for the all-star MVP.
“He’s an unbelievable teammate, first and foremost,” Beal said of James. “That was an unbelievable experience and to see his preparation, his focus, his mentality, what he does to take care of his body before and after games. That’s a true testament of a Hall of Famer and one of the best ever to play the game.
“So, you respect that and all aspects of it and his approach and his leadership, it’s top notch,” Beal continued. “It’s crazy, because you always play against him. To play with him, you get the experience to get inside.”
If Beal takes one thing from James, it should be his approach to staying healthy. When the Wizards return to play, Beal, who had little rest over the all-star break, will be expected to resume carrying the load, as Wall remains sidelined. In the remaining 25 regular-season games, Washington has the toughest schedule in the East. Thursday in Cleveland is just the beginning. The Wizards play five games in seven days, concluding with the reigning NBA champion Golden State Warriors on Feb. 28.
“That’s one of the downfalls to being an all-star, I guess. You don’t necessarily get the full break but I just got to take care of my body,” Beal said. “Trust it, listen to my body the best that I can. Trust my teammates … they’ve been playing well, we’ve been playing well as of late. We want to keep that momentum going. Just making sure I rehab right. Get my treatments and get my proper rest as well.
“I’ll definitely be smart about my body,” Beal continued, “and get the rest when I can.”