This past Wednesday, NBA.com released its 13th annual survey of general managers’ opinions on the upcoming season. The Cleveland Cavaliers were a very prominent aspect of this lengthy poll, and not surprisingly, LeBron James was the focal point of numerous questions asked of the general managers.
Two obvious queries to the GM’s went hand in hand, and show how much the arrival of James and Kevin Love changed perceptions of the franchise. One dealt with which team was the most improved, with the Cavs garnering 75 percent of the vote, while the team also was recognized by 89 percent of the group as having made the best offseason moves. James’ acquisition had almost unanimous support as the best offseason move at 96 percent, while the signing was also considered the most surprising deal of the summer.
The group did choose Cleveland to win the Eastern Conference, but they raised plenty of eyebrows in Cleveland with their consensus pick to win it all. The team they selected was the defending champion San Antonio Spurs, though Cavalier fans should recognize one simple fact that perhaps was overlooked. In each of the four previous instances in which Gregg Popovich’s team has raised the Larry O’Brien Trophy, they have been unable to accomplish that goal again the following season.
In fact, in each of those four subsequent campaigns, the Spurs failed to even reach the NBA Finals. In 2000, they lost in the first round, and the next two times (2004 and ’06) they were knocked out in the Western Conference semifinals. Finally, one year after sweeping James and the Cavaliers, they were dispatched in the conference finals by the Los Angeles Lakers, who went on to lose in the Finals in six games to the Boston Celtics.
While such a statistic inevitably compels someone to say, “There’s always a first time,” the Spurs are a team that already has a number of squads nipping at their heels that can legitimately step into their shoes. Teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Los Angeles Clippers, and even the Golden State Warriors are talented units who could defeat San Antonio in May.
Compare that to the Eastern Conference, where it boils down to a two-team race between the Cavs and Chicago Bulls. The Indiana Pacers might have made it as trio, but the gruesome July injury suffered by Paul George effectively eliminated them from consideration. After that, only the Washington Wizards and newly-rechristened Charlotte Hornets would be under consideration, and both of those teams are considered extreme darkhorses who are still at least a year or two away.
The Cavaliers could actually use this poll as both an inspiration to prove the general managers wrong and also a way to at least briefly escape the relentless focus placed on the team since the return of James in July and the trade for Love six weeks later.
That latter approach will undoubtedly be difficult, given the already white-hot focus placed on the team. For example, just in the preseason, the team’s games have been a staple of either NBATV or ESPN.
When the games actually start counting, one thing will be certain. Every loss by Cleveland will be magnified, and should they start like James’ first edition of the Heat (9-8), there will be some ready to write off the team as a lab experiment gone wrong.
What those people seem to forget is that once Miami reached that stage, they were suddenly able to right themselves by running off wins in 21 of their next 22 games. In addition, the slow start resulted in the Heat not even finishing with the best record in the East, ending up four games behind—Chicago. Once playoff time came around, however, Miami rolled past the Bulls in just five games in the Eastern Conference finals, bouncing back from a 21-point loss in the opener to run off four straight victories.
Earlier this week, James used a little motivational ploy of his own by saying prior to their preseason clash with the Bulls that Chicago was the better team “right now,” and that the Cavaliers “have a long way to go.” Given the fact that James has never lacked confidence, it was simply his way of tamping down the fervor whereby many in the team’s fanbase is virtually expecting Cleveland to finish with an 82-0 mark this year.
That obviously won’t happen, but then to win a championship doesn’t require such numbers anyway. What it does require is a combination of the right talent and chemistry, coupled with avoiding key injuries. Mixing those together will allow you to have a potent unit that now has a chip on its shoulder when it comes to proving they have what it takes to win it all. In the end, not being considered the default champion might end up being the best thing for the Cavaliers entering this year