CLEVELAND — LeBron James darted between the showers and his locker last week, a distance traveled of no more than a dozen or so feet, which in itself was newsworthy. A year ago, space in the Cavaliers locker room was prime real estate. The team had a new coach in David Blatt, a new All-Star forward in Kevin Love and, oh yeah, the prodigal son, James, returning for his second tour of duty with the Cavs. Interview sessions were jam-packed with reporters; sneaking in a few questions after the pack dispersed was nearly impossible.
This season, those around the team will tell you, has a decidedly different feel. The Cavaliers are still a hot ticket—Cleveland is second in the NBA in attendance this season, just behind Chicago—and still features a local media contingent that dwarfs many NBA cities. The scrutiny, though, is far less intense. James is in his second year, and while he still feels the weight of a championship starved city, the city is not applying that pressure—yet. Love, whose future was weekly column fodder, is locked into a long-term contract. The relationship between James and Blatt, while not perfect, is much improved from what it looked like for parts of last season.
The drama—most of it, anyway—is gone.
“All of us went through not an easy year last year, in terms of the adjustment, in terms of the attention, in terms of the tremendous expectations people have for the team and the challenge we have to meet those expectations,” Blatt told SI.com. “We all came back this year a lot more comfortable with our situation and in our own skin.”
• MORE NBA: Now's not time for Rondo to hide | NBA's biggest surprises
Indeed. The first two months of the season have been a little ragged. But this year the things that may have fired up the fan base last season are being met with a collective shrug. A three-game losing streak in early December? Whatever. A players-only meeting? They will figure it out. Kyrie Irving still out with a knee injury? He’ll be back when he’s ready. The Cavs are benefiting from the run they made last season, when a .500-ish team in January morphed into one that went 34–9 in the second half of the season.
Of course, the Cavs do have things to figure out. Timofey Mozgov, for one. Prior to pumping in 17 points in a blowout win over Orlando last week, Mozgov has looked like a shell of the player who served as the backbone of Cleveland's defense in the second half of last season. Off-season knee surgery could be a factor, though Blatt insists his center is healthy. As dynamic as the Cavs can be in small lineups, a productive Mozgov, as everyone saw last season, is vital to the team’s success.
“He’s the anchor of our defense,” James said. “And he’s going to get back to that. He’s had a little tough stretch right now, which is OK. Everyone has tough stretches and it’s our job to help him get out of it. And it’s his job to continue to stay with the process, continue to get better, keep his head in the right place, and we will do a good job of helping him get back.”
And what about Irving? The Cavaliers have handled information about Irving’s rehab like a state secret. While his season debut seems imminent—he traveled with the team on this recent road trip and has been moving well in practice, according to Blatt—it will take time for Irving to work himself back into game shape. His return further crowds a backcourt rotation headlined by Iman Shumpert (who made his first appearance of the season on Friday), J.R. Smith, Matthew Dellavedova, Mo Williams and Jared Cunningham. Playing small would free up more minutes, but then you start eating into the playing time of Love, Mozgov and Tristan Thompson.
Then there is LeBron. The urgency James feels to win a title is real. James has eased any lingering tensions, real or perceived, by raining platitudes down on Blatt (“As great as any in the league.”) and Love (“The focal point of the offense”). He is a more vocal leader this season, and his team has responded to it. He wants to play every night, every minute, as if he believes the energy expended now will be returned to him in the spring.
This, potentially, is Blatt’s greatest concern. James is averaging 36.8 minutes per game this season. Two, three years ago, that might not have been an issue. But James will be 31 this month, with more than 36,000 regular season minutes on his resume and more than two seasons worth of playoff games (178) on top of it. Yet he doesn’t want more rest; doesn’t believe he needs it.
“I'm playing at a high level,” James said. "I'm shooting the ball extremely well and I'm not hurting my team when I'm on the floor. If I'm hurting my team, then I should be sitting down. But I feel good.
“I'm always kind of like in the middle. I'm not a guy who likes to sit. If we take care of business and we go out and we're able to beat up on a team and I can sit in the fourth, then I can. If not, then I need to play. If I'm in the lineup then I need to be out on the floor. And I'm not saying I have to be out there 48 minutes or 40 minutes. But I'm going to make an impact.”
At practice last week, James declared he was not a “31- or 32-minute” per game player. But maybe he should be, or at least something close to it. A back injury shuttered James for two weeks in the middle of last season, and he had to strap the Cavaliers to his shoulders for much of the Eastern Conference playoffs and nearly all of an energy-sapping Finals. Players should want to play, but it’s Blatt’s duty to make sure James doesn’t overextend himself.
Because as easy as it is to predict a strong finish to the regular season and an easy path through the Eastern Conference playoffs, reading a Finals showdown is just as difficult. The Warriors are better than the team that mowed down the Cavs last June, and James has seen firsthand just what San Antonio can do. As much as James wants to win every game, play every night, squeeze out every minute he that he can, his best chance of knocking off a Western Conference heavyweight in June is by easing off the throttle a little in January.
The Fine Fifteen
1. Golden State: No team wants to lose, but the Warriors might be better off with the streak—and the daily pressure that comes with it—behind them. They will certainly be better when they get Harrison Barnes back sometime in the next few weeks.
2. San Antonio: The Spurs are the best defensive team in the NBA—and it’s not even close, at least in the category of defensive efficiency. Can we just fast forward to the Jan. 25 matchup against the Warriors in Oakland already?
3. Cleveland: As if the Cavs needed more help, Richard Jefferson, signed to a one-year, league minimum contract last summer, has been solid in a reserve role, averaging seven points per game. That’s another player with extensive playoff experience Cleveland can trust down the stretch.
4. Oklahoma City: Look out: The Thunder have won five straight games and held six straight opponents under 100 points. That’s a good sign for a team that’s been searching for a defensive identity much of the first month of the season.
5. Boston: When Avery Bradley gets it going offensively, like he did in the first half of the Celtics double-overtime loss to Golden State last week, he sneaks into the upper tier of NBA shooting guards. As Stephen Curry can attest, there are few better on-ball defenders.
6. Toronto: A double-digit loss to Indiana on Monday snapped the Raptors’ four-game winning streak. A road-heavy rest of December will give us a clearer idea of just how good this Toronto team is.
7. Chicago: A three-game losing streak is followed by three straight wins, and Chicago still isn’t playing at the type of pace Fred Hoiberg is looking for.
8. Charlotte: How good has Nicolas Batum been for the Hornets? Batum is one of only four players averaging 15 points, 6 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1 steal.
9. Miami: Hassan Whiteside, after sitting out the fourth quarter for a third straight game, posted a picture of a caged lion on his Instagram account. Whiteside quickly deleted it and denied it had anything to do with playing time, but there’s no doubt Erik Spoelstra prefers going with a smaller lineup late in games.
10. L.A. Clippers: Here’s an encouraging stat, courtesy of the Clippers game notes: Since all teams played their 10th game this season, the Clippers defense has allowed the 10th fewest points per game. L.A. has also won five out of six after Monday’s win over Detroit.
11. Indiana: The downside of playing small so often: Defense, or a lack of it. Indiana’s defense has surrendered 100-plus points in four of the last six games, including 122-plus—twice—earlier this month.
12. Atlanta: Not surprisingly, the Hawks have had some trouble filling the spot once occupied by DeMarre Carroll. Kent Bazemore was reinserted back into the starting lineup on Monday, replacing Thabo Sefolosha. Bazemore played well (28 points) in a loss to Miami.
13. Dallas: The Mavs took down Phoenix on Monday, but the rest of their December schedule is loaded with playoff teams, capped by a home date with Golden State at the end of the month.
14. Detroit: Critics of the max-level deal Reggie Jackson signed last summer are quickly falling by the wayside. Not only is Jackson putting up career-best numbers, but he also ranks in the top-25 players in the NBA in PER.
15. Memphis: Is the Grit and Grind era dead? With Zach Randolph benched and head coach Dave Joerger committed to a smaller, more perimeter-oriented lineup, we may have seen the last of one of the NBA’s true throwback offenses.
14 and out
14. Only Rajon Rondo knows what he meant when he hurled homophobic slurs at referee Bill Kennedy during a game earlier this month. In the aftermath of that incident—and after the league had tagged Rondo with a one-game suspension—Kennedy told Yahoo! Sports that he was gay.
Did Rondo know that? Again, only he knows. But multiple league sources say Kennedy’s homosexuality was well known in Boston, as it was throughout the league. Could Rondo have used the word "f----t" as a simple derogatory term, as many athletes, unfortunately, have come to do? Yes. Could he have known about Kennedy and used it purposefully? That seems just as likely—and would make it exponentially worse. The NBA wasn’t in a position to hit Rondo with more than a one-game suspension; any harsher penalty would have triggered questions from reporters, which could have led to Kennedy being outed involuntarily. Expect severe penalties, though, for any future incidents.
13. Why would anyone trade for Markieff Morris? Yes, Morris showed the skills of a talented forward last season. But he has a burning desire to be reunited with his brother, Marcus, now playing in Detroit, and unless a team is able to package them together, giving up anything of significance is a major risk.
12. Count me among those who think it would be a good idea for the Sixers to bring in Mike D’Antoni as an assistant coach. The Sixers are a freewheeling offensive team, anyway. Might as well bring in the offensive mind that had more success with that style than anyone in the last 20 years.
11. San Antonio is 8–2 in its last 10 games and has overtaken Golden State for the best point differential (+13.2) in the league. I know I sounded crazy to some when I said this Spurs team could be the best of the Tim Duncan era. But that statement seems less crazy by the game.
10. Kristaps Porzingis in the last three games: 17-points on 6–of–25 shooting. Porzinigis has been logging heavy minutes and been shuffled between the four and five spot in New York. Hitting the rookie wall had to happen sometime.
9. I’m OK with Byron Scott’s decision to bring rookie D’Angelo Russell off the bench. There’s no evidence to suggest that starting a rookie speeds up his development. As long as Russell is getting consistent minutes—including crunch time minutes in the fourth quarter—Russell will be fine. In fact, not starting might take some pressure off of a rookie playmaker still learning the NBA’s most complicated position.
8. More and more I think the fight for Tom Thibodeau’s services is going to be intense this summer.
7. Plenty of Philadelphia fans got into me on Twitter when I suggested that the arrival of Jerry Colangelo meant a de facto demotion for GM Sam Hinkie. It’s early, but there is a lot of chatter amongst rival executives around the league that any significant deal must have Colangelo’s blessing to go through.
6. Jeff Green in Monday’s win over Washington: 15 points, six rebounds on 6–of–12 shooting. Green is clearly better suited as a smaller, more mobile power forward than as a bigger three-man. This stretch with the Grizzlies could represent Green’s last opportunity to prove he can be a consistent starter before he hits free agency next summer.
5. Friday’s pasting by Cleveland notwithstanding, the Magic have played very well under Scott Skiles this season. They should be in the playoff mix in the East, which would represent a huge step for a team that looked to be in total disarray at the end of last year.
4. Dec. 15 is known as the unofficial start of trading season. Players who signed contracts last summer are now eligible to be traded.
3. Could Milwaukee be turning a corner? The Bucks are 4–4 in their last eight games, a stretch that included the streak-busting win over Golden State. The defense has improved: In the last nine games, Milwaukee is holding opponents to 96.1 points per 100 possessions. They will need that D as they begin a four-game West Coast road trip.
2. That Portland has 11 wins and sits just a half game back of a playoff spot nearly two months into the season is a heck of an accomplishment. The Blazers were gutted last summer with many experts (ehem) predicting Portland to finish last in the conference. Great play by Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum coupled with solid contributions from the likes of Meyers Leonard, Al Farouq-Aminu, Allen Crabbe and others have made the Blazers early overachievers.
1. This week’s podcast is loaded: I talk with Warriors center Festus Ezeli, NBA commissioner Adam Silver and Miami Herald writer Ethan Skolnick. Please check it out. You can download it on iTunes, Soundcloud or Stitcher.