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The Cleveland Cavaliers’ roller coaster ride that has been the 2014-15 season hit the bottom of its deepest valley on January 11th, as the Cavaliers lost their fifth straight game, their eighth loss in nine games, dropping them to 20-20 on the season. LeBron James had not played since December 28th, after the decision had been made to shelve him for two weeks, allowing him to rest his ailing back and knee.
LeBron returned on January 13th as the Cavs faced the Suns in Phoenix. Despite LeBron’s 33 points, 7 boards, and 5 assists, the Cavaliers dropped their sixth straight. Despite the loss, which dropped them below .500, there was some cause for optimism. After a poor first quarter, the Cavs actually did outplay the Suns for the next three quarters. New acquisitions were starting to find their place in the team. J.R. Smith scored 29 points in the game, his fourth with the Cavaliers after arriving with Iman Shumpert from the Knicks. Timofey Mozgov, who had been acquired from the Denver Nuggets for a pair of draft picks, was starting to help solidify the Cavaliers defensively.
After that loss to Phoenix, the Cavaliers have now reeled off 11 consecutive wins, which became the longest active streak in the NBA after the Cavs beat the Sixers last night while the Pelicans snapped Atlanta’s 19-game win streak. There has also been some regression among Cleveland’s Eastern Conference rivals. The Bulls and Wizards are both 4-6 in their last 10, and the Cavs now sit a half-game and a game-and-a-half back of them respectively in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
So how can the film title that adequately describes a team go from Dazed and Confused to Unbreakable in just a few short weeks? There are a number of factors.
Not to state the obvious, but having the planet’s best player return to the line-up is the biggest factor in the Cavaliers’ recent improvement. But its not just that LeBron is back on the court, but it’s that he is back to his, “old self.” Since returning from his two-week lay-off, LeBron is averaging 28.8 PPG, 6.7 assists per game, and 6 rebounds per game. Watching him night in and night out, it’s quite clear that his body is feeling better than it was earlier in the year. He’s been more involved in the offense, with his usage rate up to 36% from around 30% during December and January.
In addition to the tangible ways that having LeBron back helps the Cavaliers, its LeBron’s intangibles that have helped guide him to four straight finals and two titles and are now benefitting this Cavaliers squad. He’s now a proven leader, one that makes his teammates better, and influences the game on both ends of the floor.
During the first two months of the season, the Cavaliers showed brief flashes of the dominant play that they were capable of on the offensive end, but it was wildly inconsistent and at times looked only marginally better than their offense last season. Since LeBron’s return to the line-up, and with the help of the continued integration of Smith, Shumpert, and Mozgov into the offense, the Cavaliers’ offense has become one of the best in the NBA.
During their 11-game win streak, the Cavaliers are averaging 108.4 PPG, up nearly 17 PPG from their recent 2-10 stretch that began with a Christmas day loss in Miami. They have become a much more cohesive offense in that time, turning the ball almost one time less per game. Their offensive efficiency is up to 47%, compared to just 40% during LeBron’s absence.
Kyrie Irving has also been a major factor in the Cavaliers’ recent success. He’s been playing incredible as of late. He erupted for 55 last Friday against Sacramento while LeBron sat out, hitting both the game-tying and the go-ahead three-pointers in the final minutes. He’s shooting 51% from the field and an incredible 50% from behind the arc during the 11-game win streak. He’s also done a better job of finding teammates to score, with his assists up to 5.3 per game.
I also think a big part of the reason for this offensive improvement is the replacement of Dion Waiters with J.R. Smith. Waiters did not fit well alongside of LeBron for the simple fact that he is not a great 3-point shooter. He shot only 25% for the Cavaliers this season before being dealt. J.R. Smith is a much better long-range option, shooting 35% since joining the Cavaliers, but he’s a 37% career-shooter from behind the arc. Smith has given the Cavaliers 13.4 PPG since joining them, compared to 10.5 PPG from Dion Waiters.
Offense has not been the only part of the equation for recent success for the Cavs; their defense has been fantastic as of late, allowing just 95.5 PPG during their 11-game win streak. During their 2-10 stretch prior to the streak, the Cavaliers were allowing 101.3 points per game and opponents were shooting 47.7% from the field. During their win streak, the Cleveland has held opponents to just 41.8% from the field, a stark improvement.
An understated reason for the Cavaliers’ defensive struggles as of late is the loss of Anderson Varejao. He provided the Cavaliers with a little toughness inside as well as a great deal of energy. Timofey Mozgov has been a stellar replacement for Varejao, and should be considered an upgrade. Mozgov has averaged 1.6 blocks per game, in addition to his 9.8 PPG and 8.4 RPG. His addition has made the Cavaliers’ a much more formidable defensive side.
So has, on the perimeter, the insertion of Iman Shumpert to the line-up. He’s only played 7 games for the Cavaliers after returning from a shoulder injury that he sustained while he played for New York, but he’s already starting to have an impact. He’s grabbing over a steal per game so far and has improved the Cavaliers’ depth and defensive capability on the wing.
So when it comes down to it, it’s really quite simple. Get the game’s best player back. Check. Score 17 more points per game and drastically improve your shooting percentage. Check. Hold opponents to six less points per game and a much lower shooting percentage. Check. For the Cavaliers, turning things around have really been that “easy.”