The NBA Draft is next week. One of the league’s major events will take place as dozens of bright young stars walk across the stage to fulfill what for most has been a lifelong dream. It’s a favorite event for fans who get to feel excitement about change and promise coming to their favorite team.
But what’s most interesting about this to me this year is that I had absolutely no idea it was happening this soon. I guess intellectually I knew it was next week on some level because it’s always right after the Finals, but the Draft has been so far from my consciousness that I probably couldn’t name the top five prospects on most draft boards. (Let’s see…that big guy who renamed his middle name Trill, Russell from Ohio State, the big Duke kid, the Duke kid who people compare to James Harden, and that other guy who decided it was a better idea to play overseas somewhere than play for Larry Brown. Does that count as “naming” five guys?) What’s even crazier is that when I started this blog two years ago nearly every article I wrote was an NBA Draft piece leading up to the Cavs No. 1 drafting Anthony Bennett, the one guy I didn’t seriously consider for the Cavs and therefore didn’t write about…I’m counting this as a victory for me. But this year…this year the stories are different. And there has not been much, if any, draft talk around Cleveland for these past months. Guess there must have been something else going on.
It was an unsatisfying end to the 2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers season that was really so much fun. The team went through so much change over the past year and by the time they reached the Finals that group of players had really developed a bond with the fans and community at large. We wanted to believe they could win because in many ways they embodied the city in their play on the court. But it wasn’t meant to be. In the end, the Warriors were just the better team. Golden State has been the best team in the NBA all season, winning 67 games in what was one of the best regular seasons in league history. They were also the beneficiary of some good luck as they stayed healthy throughout the playoffs despite a few scares to their star guards. They also had the luxury of playing teams along the way that were all missing key pieces which most of the time included their starting point guards. You need a little bit of luck and a lot of talent to win the NBA Championship and the Warriors had both. The Cavs missed out in the luck department.
For some fan bases, especially ones mired in long losing droughts such as ours, this would be a time to complain about poor officiating, bad coaching, players choking, or just general bemoaning of our state in life. But that’s not the attitude that got me out of bed this morning to sit here and write.
I lead with the mentioning of the Draft to underscore the point that where we’ve been this year is so much more enjoyable than where we were the previous four years. It was fun in a sense to have three No. 1 picks in four years and to have all those first round selections. The debates are always a lot of fun. But to get there, to have those top picks in the draft, you have to suck on the court…which is no fun at all and lasts way longer. I mean, those teams were terrible to watch. Losing to that level is no fun. The 2014-15 Cavs had the most success of any team in franchise history. They may not have won as many regular season games as the 2008-09 and 2009-10 teams which both went over 60 games, but those teams didn’t even reach the Finals. And while the 2007 team had that wild exhilarating ride through the Eastern Conference Finals they were swept in the Finals against the Spurs. This year’s team, despite losing two All-Stars, three starters, revamping the team on the fly during the season (remember when Joe Harris was on the court getting fourth quarter crunch time early in the season?), and starting an undrafted Australian at point guard to match up with the league MVP, won two games in the Finals and took most of the rest down to the wire. In the end, the Cavs didn’t have the luck or good fortune of health that the Warriors enjoyed. But that’s not a fact to bemoan. It’s something to take pride in and something to remember for years to come. This team came together in a hurry and got mixed around in the process. By most respects they shouldn’t have even made it to the Finals. But they did. And that’s something to cherish, because as we well know, these things don’t happen every year.
I hope that it isn’t lost on any fans of the NBA, and Cavs fans specifically, just how amazing of a performance that was in the Finals by LeBron James. It was easily one of the greatest performances of all time in Finals history: 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, 8.8 assists per game…all while carrying a group of role players who were literally lost without him. The fact that the Cavs managed to win even two games is a testament to how great LeBron played.
And that’s why I really thought he deserved to win MVP of the Finals. I don’t want to belabor this point because winning the championship is what really matters. But everyone knows about Jerry West winning Finals MVP despite losing, a fact that has come to define his greatness as a player. It’s not a normal thing to win an individual award like that in a team game when you lose. And if you won you must have done something spectacular. And that’s exactly what LeBron did. I wanted him to be MVP so that when future generations of fans look back they’ll see that abnormality of take notice of what an amazing Finals he had. It would forever cement his place in these Finals…something that deserves to happen because of how great it was. It’s not like Andre Iguodala outplayed LeBron. He made him work, sure, and he may have been the key to the Warriors winning if you look at his on/off the court plus/minus stats. But the only reason Iggy scored any points at all was because the Cavs basically didn’t guard him and sold out on defending their offensive stars—the right strategy and one that worked for a while when guys like Iguodala and Draymond Green were missing their shots. LeBron was the best player in these Finals and it wasn’t really close at all. I wish that fact would have been cemented by giving LeBron the MVP.
The other reason that this is not a time for sorrow but one of excitement is that the future is incredibly bright for the Cavaliers. There is some uncertainty about a few players’ futures in Cleveland. But the Cavs certainly want to bring Kevin Love back and if he really wants to win there isn’t a better place to do it (while making more money than he can get from anyone else) than right here in Cleveland. And he certainly went out of his way to give signals to this is where he wants to be. The Cavs also hold matching rights on restricted free agents Tristan Thompson and Iman Shumpert, both of whom you’d assume the Cavs will keep. JR Smith says he wants to be back. Timofey Mozgov is on the books for cheap. Anderson Varejao will be back. Brendan Haywood’s $10.5M expiring contract is extremely tradable.
There is every reason to believe that the 2015-16 Cavaliers will be a force to recon with. They are already the odds on favorite in Vegas to win the title next season. Considering everything we’ve been through to get us to this moment—the greatest team in Cavs history—it is something to be remembered and enjoyed.
“Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”
“Wait till next year” isn’t just a perfunctory Cleveland sports expression anymore. It’s one of anxious believing anticipation.