The Cleveland Cavaliers Don't Need An Identity To Win A Title

The Cavaliers are the best team in the Eastern Conference, but nowhere near Golden State's historic dominance. That won't matter much when it matters most.

by Jonny Auping
Jan 18 2016, 2:18pm

Photo by David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Kyrie Irving's response when asked what the Cleveland Cavaliers had learned during what was then an eight-game winning streak was probably intended as either a knowing understatement or an on-message non-answer. It also might have been spot on.

"Umm, that we're pretty good with everybody back. It's as simple as that."

It really could be that simple; the Cavs are exactly pretty good. It might seem odd to say that about a team that has currently won nine of its last ten and is now 43-6 dating back to January 13, 2015 when they have all three of Lebron James, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving. Nothing about that suggests a qualifier to the word "good," but the level of basketball currently being played in San Antonio and Oakland is tipping the line of unprecedented. In Cleveland, even as the Cavaliers do everything they're supposed to do, there is the sense that the search continues for the right lineup, style of play, shot distribution, or in-game focus. It may well go on until the moment the playoffs begin. It also may not matter much.

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Moments before Irving's assessment, he'd hit an overtime three-pointer to clinch a win in Dallas. The play was a microcosm of the Cavs' season, both because it worked and because of how unpolished—at least relative to this year's Warriors and Spurs—Cleveland looked in making it work. James dribbled aimlessly for the majority of the shot clock until Deron Williams lost his footing, and then James kicked the ball out to Irving who knocked down the deep three. It was sloppy, but it was also proof of why the Cavaliers are so dangerous.

On this play, talent beat out execution, and the Cavaliers will have the edge in that very important category just about every time out. Just as they did last year, Cleveland will likely be looking for an on-court identity all season. Based on their roster configuration, they probably aren't going to find it. That doesn't mean they won't win the championship.

When you acknowledge that you will still kind of have to win a championship on your own. — Photo by Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Barring injuries, the Spurs and the Warriors are now what they will be in May. Neither team seems to have a significant weakness, and both play styles that enable them to easily exploit their opponents' weaknesses. You have to match up with them. They will not match up with you.

A team built around arguably the most versatile and unselfish superstar in NBA history wouldn't seem to have much trouble forging an identity. But, in Cleveland, as it was in Miami, filling in the blanks around LeBron James is not as easy as it sounds. It's harder still when the players in those slots are one-dimensional or inconsistent players who don't fit together.

And those, for the most part, are the players the Cavaliers have. If Iman Shumpert had J.R. Smith's offensive game then he might be perfect for Cleveland, but Shumpert is more likely to slow down a free-flowing offense than complement it. Smith can do a Klay Thompson impression on any given night; the other nights are the ones that make him J.R. Smith. Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov are slow players just waiting to get exploited by a small ball lineup—say, the historically good one by the bay. Every offensive rebound Thompson grabs comes at the cost of opponents constantly attacking him in the pick-and-roll, while Mozgov's rim protection comes at the cost of just about every other aspect of basketball.

It's not just the supporting players that complicate things, either—LeBron's co-stars can be troublesome, too. Kevin Love is a problem unto himself. Against small ball lineups, forwards routinely blow past him and smart coaches attack him constantly, exposing his inability to defend almost any kind of player or situation. Offensively, Love's current role reduces him to a slower, less accurate Kyle Korver. Teams routinely hide their worst defender on him and assume that his presence behind the three-point line will mitigate any chance at offensive rebounds. For all the things he does well, the rest of the league knows how to exploit the things he doesn't.

When the whole squad is not necessarily that good, strictly speaking. — Photo by Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The most effective way to use Love might be to play him at center, where he can stretch the floor and open up driving lanes for James. I asked Love about this after the Mavericks win. "It's pretty hard to guard," Love confirmed. "I can mix it up inside and out. Lebron plays the four and it just gives us a whole other dynamic." Love also told me that he thinks the four is his natural position. This might be true, but Cleveland's success doesn't hinge on whether or not he can play his game.

That strategy has its appeal, but it would also leave Thompson and Mozgov on the bench, depriving the team of rim protection and requiring an enormous defensive effort from James. Cleveland's roster is such that solving one problem tends to create another; every attempt to play to a strength exposes a weakness.

And yet, despite all of this, this is a team that can beat the Warriors or the Spurs—not just in a game, but a series. James checks off so many boxes all by himself, and Kyrie Irving has emerged as the type of player whose success isn't dependent on any system. He is no longer a defensive liability, his three-point shot is an efficient weapon, and he might be scarier to defend off the dribble than James. That alone is enough to dictate the momentum of entire quarters.

Just because the Cavaliers have not yet figured out one signature way to win doesn't mean they won't win anyway. Getting from here to there might be a matter of inconsistency turning into luck, which is the kind of thing that happens for good teams in the playoffs. One J.R. Smith game could swing a series; four offensive rebounds from Thompson aren't enough to justify his defensive weaknesses, but eight might be; Matthew Dellavedova's improved three-point shot coupled with his defense actually might be the key to a small-ball lineup. And, as inefficient as Love might be spotting up behind the arc, three-pointers are still worth more than two-pointers, and if he connects on enough it might be too much for any team to overcome. Even in an improved Eastern Conference, Cleveland has too much talent to lose before making the Finals, and might just have enough to win once they get there.

When you're having fun with your buddies, against some Eastern Conference team. — Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

After the victory against Dallas, James talked about his team with another version of a sentiment he'd been harping upon since rejoining the Cavaliers. "In order for us to be ultimately successful we all have to sacrifice, and that's on and off the floor. We have to sacrifice the number of attempts that we shoot the ball. We have to sacrifice everything that goes into it for the team."

This is a reasonable enough sentiment, if not necessarily a novel one, but it's untrue in a uniquely ironic way where the Cavs are concerned. It probably won't be sacrifice that wins Cleveland a title. More likely, it will require just the right amount of well-timed selfishness, and another dominant LeBron performance in the Finals. This team simply won't achieve the consistent offensive and defensive balance as the Warriors or Spurs; few teams in history ever have. But James can win games in plenty of different ways. He'll have to.

The Cavaliers are chasing different things than San Antonio or Golden State. They won't be historically good in the way that those teams could be. They might not be compared to the three or four best teams in NBA history, as both the Spurs and Warriors already are. But to a city and fan base tortured to the point of hopelessness, a championship for Cleveland might actually be a bigger deal. And, for all their imperfections, the Cavaliers are good enough to win one.