It is now an annual tradition to worry unnecessarily about the Cleveland Cavaliers. And the opening month of this NBA season served up plenty of red flags to get the conversation brewing. The defense was a mess, LeBron James was carrying a huge burden and Dwyane Wade was still learning the offense. The starting line-up was in flux and the Cavs slumped to 5-7. Boston meanwhile were in the midst of a 16-game win streak. The writing was supposedly on the wall, especially with all the speculation over James’ future in Cleveland following this season.
But once again James and the Cavs have been able to flip the switch, reeling off a double-digit win streak of their own. Everything is starting to fall into place. Their streak has included impressive victories over the Philadelphia 76ers and Detroit Pistons, though it has been a relatively soft schedule overall.
James is still playing heavy minutes but Wade has settled into a bench scorer role, Kevin Love is in more of a rhythm and veteran Jose Calderon has steadied things at point guard. Effort levels have soared on defense. Clearly, some of the rust from a shortened pre-season has worn off while conditioning has improved.
With James putting up his typical stellar numbers, Cleveland have moved into the number two spot in the Eastern Conference and only trail the Celtics by three games in the loss column. Their upcoming clash on January 3 promises to be must-watch basketball, as does their showdown with the Golden State Warriors on Christmas Day.
While the Cavs have certainly turned a corner, we will only fully see this team’s potential when Isaiah Thomas returns from a serious hip injury. Thomas, acquired in the Kyrie Irving trade, will not help matters on the defensive end but his scoring and playmaking will allow James to take a breather at times. His ability to make three-pointers will help to space the floor better.
Top spot in the East likely does not matter to the Cavs - nor should it. After all, they reached the NBA Finals last season as a number two seed. It is all about arriving in the playoffs in good health and being ready to crank up the intensity when a series calls for it. With that in mind, head coach Ty Lue would be wise to reduce James’ minutes, especially once Thomas is back on the court.
All in all, this win streak has been a timely reminder not to get too carried away with Cleveland’s regular season performances. This team may have had a rocky start to the season but there is still every reason to think that James and company will be making a fourth straight trip to the Finals when June rolls round.