Barnstorming: These are the Cleveland Cavaliers


The fortunes of the Cleveland Cavaliers changed the moment LeBron James chose to return. Their greatness was certified before they even had a chance to play a game. Pairing LeBron with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, screamed historic-offense-in-the-making, an instant championship contender.

It’s never quite worked out that way.

The beginning of last season was rocky but the roster reworking and additions of J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Timofey Mozgov only raised expectations. From pure talent and on-paper-evaluations, the Cleveland Cavaliers were probably the best team in the NBA each of the last two seasons. The actual has never really matched the hypothetical — what should be a brilliant combination of overlapping offensive skills and talents is, instead, far too-often a halting, gear-grinding, contraption.

Grating is the fundamental aesthetic of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Puzzles pieces and personalities that don’t quite fit together. For two seasons it has manifested in inconsistency, subtweeting, disjointed execution, and…a boatload of success. The Cavaliers raw talent is, more often than not, enough to get the job done. They did win 57 games this season, more than any team in the Eastern Conference. During the regular season they had the league’s fourth-most efficient offense, and fourth-largest point differential. And yet they never seemed to scrape their assumed ceiling — LeBron, Love, and Irving seem incapable of playing together and playing at their individual bests.

The Cavaliers swept the Detroit Pistons in the first round but the margin of victory wasn’t as wide as it could have been. Irving was brilliant scoring the basketball and LeBron mostly took a backseat to him dominating the ball. Love was a revelation playing minutes at center, causing mismatches for Detroit and knocking down 7-of-15 three-pointers in Games 1 and 2. In the last three games, he was 5-of-17 on three-pointers, shooting 33.3 percent from the field overall. In Game 1 against the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland took control early and led by as much as 18 in the third quarter. They would eventually give that entire lead back to the Hawks, and need several huge plays from LeBron down the stretch to hold onto the victory. It was a skin-of-the-teeth win, garnered mostly by muscling through and flexing their talent when it mattered most.

These are the Cleveland Cavaliers — two steps forward, two steps back, three steps sideways. We have come far enough with this team to know that all those projections of historic offense and anointed greatness are not going to work themselves out. The problems Cleveland is struggling with can be solved for a moment, a few possessions, maybe even a quarter or two, but the long-term answers are going to remain out of reach. They are not going to coalesce into a fluid juggernaut of space, penetration, and shooting. Things are not going to be easy for them. Ever.

And, yet, they are undefeated in the playoffs. In the 14 minutes of “clutch” basketball they’ve played in the playoffs, the Cavaliers have been outscoring their opponents by an average of 38.0 points per 100 possessions. No team in the Eastern Conference has looked as good as they have in the postseason and FiveThirtyEight’s projection model still gives them a better than 50 percent chance of advancing to the Finals. By FiveThirtyEight’s ELO Ratings this team is in roughly the same shape they were at the beginning of the season, just a hair behind where they were entering last year’s Finals.


For all their flaws, Cleveland is still very good. They are a championship-quality team, a distinction that might mean more if not for the elite seasons of the San Antonio Spurs and the Golden State Warriors. The Cavs may not be what we thought they would be, what we hoped they would be, but this group has figured out a way to get the job done with what they are.

Cleveland can win the Eastern Conference, even playing ugly. They can overcome double-digit deficits and they can give away double-digit leads, and still make the plays when it matters. They can survive Irving’s occasional tunnel vision, Love’s pick-and-roll defense and suddenly shaky jumper, Tristan Thompson’s limitations as a rim protector, and LeBron’s willingness to vacillate between offensive focal point and part of the scenery. They can give up open three-pointers, get beat on the glass, and turn the ball over.

The Cavs can survive all that because J.R. Smith is going to get hot occasionally, because Thompson is going to get them a few extra points on the offensive glass, because Dellavedova is going to leave it all on the court, because Love can punish smaller bigs in the post, Irving can beat anyone off the dribble. And because when they need him to be, LeBron can still be the best player in the world.

Cleveland needs to win 11 more playoff games for that elusive title and they appear up for the challenge. Getting through each one of those wins is going to require letting go of the hypothetical, the fantasies, and the alternate realities. It is this real-world, flawed, and messy team that will have to get the job done.

There is no perfect, there is only the Cavs.