Just as when we were all counting them out, the Cleveland Cavaliers have started to make their playoff push. And the reason for this resurgence has been no other than the King himself.
Sitting Out on His Throne
LeBron James isn’t only the best player of this era, he is also one of its most durable and most busy. Not only did James miss just a total of 44 games in his first eleven years ( average of 4 per year), James also played an “extra” 99 games in the last four years. Credit the fact that when he moved to Miami in 2010, the Heat made four consecutive NBA Finals appearances and that 2012 was an Olympic year. Don’t forget that James is a perennial All-Star. So here’s how the extra games were broken down: 87 playoff games, 8 Olympic games and 4 All-Star game appearances.
So when you add up that wear and tear to the unbelievable pressure of making the Cavaliers live up to their pre-season billing as NBA title favorites, something had got to give. So when the Cleveland Cavaliers started the season 18-12 and suffered their second blowout loss of December, a 23 point loss to the then 6-23 Pistons on December 28, the Cavs convinced James to shut down and recoil. The Cavaliers went 1-7 with James on the sidelines resting his body and just when everyone started to count the Cavs and their King out, he made a triumphant return.
The Return of The King
Three games after returning from his two week rest, LeBron James declared that it was “the best he’s felt all season”. It wasn’t that James was struggling, per se. It was just that it wasn’t the King we were used to witnessing: Prior to his rest period, the .492 FG% was the lowest since 2009 while his scoring of 26.0 was the lowest since his rookie season in 2004. James’ rebounding also dropped to nearly two boards below his career average at 5.5. But those numbers look like an aberration right now.
The Cavaliers have racked up seven consecutive wins and James looks invigorated. From throwing windmill dunks, halfcourt alley oop finishes and dagger threes, James has returned to the royal form that has dominated the NBA in the last four seasons. James’ statistics since returning are: 30.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 6.4 assists and 2.0 steals per game while shooting at a better .506 FG%. Another key statistic has been James’ free throw attempts which have gone up by two per game. The increase in foul shots shows that James has been more aggressive and authoritative on offense since his return. Currently, James has moved in to second place in scoring at 26.4 PPG behind James Harden’s 27.6. James’ 7.4 assists per game is 7th in the NBA and the best by a non-point guard. His PER of 26.21 is 7th best in the NBA.
A New Crew, A New Hope
Aside from going 7-1 since his return and 25-12 overall with the King playing, the Cavaliers also remodeled their roster while James was sidelined. They shipped out Dion Waiters and took in Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith from the Knicks while finally completing a trade that brought them 7 foot Russian Timofey Mozgov to patrol the middle. Forget the critics who said that they were in desperation move when they changed course in the middle of the season, those three player acquisitions are slowly starting to payoff and are slowly blending with the Cavs.
Smith has compensated for Waiters’ production and he will bring in the playoff experience that Waiters didn’t have. Mozgov has helped the Cavs improve their interior defense and has provided the needed paint patrol left by the injury to Anderson Varejao. Shumpert has returned and his minutes (and contributions) are expected to follow next. What’s more important for the Cavs is that these three are what the doctor prescribed for the Cavs whose achilles heel has been defense. Cleveland has limited their last seven opponents to 42.7 FG% and to 98.9 points per game. In the last five games, the Cavs have improved those to 40.2 FG% and 93.8 PPG. The NBA leaders are at 42.2% ( by the Warriors) and 96.2 (by the Hawks). Incidentally, those Warriors and Hawks are the top two teams in the NBA right now.
Proving His Worth
This seven game winning streak matches their longest of the season but it doesn’t say whether they’ve become serious title contenders. But Cleveland’s resurgence is scary for the rest of the NBA. What’s scarier than having three new key players to add to what is already a formidable line-up is having LeBron James play at an MVP pace. James has won four MVPs in the last six seasons.With the way he’s been playing in 2015, he should be in the discussion for a fifth MVP.
The MVP talk of this season has revolved around the likes of Stephen Curry, James Harden and Anthony Davis. But no mistake about it. Just as King James has returned to action, he’s also returned to the MVP race whether you like it or not. The MVP is not his goal though, it’s giving his hometown its first ever NBA title. But a fifth MVP award would tie him with Michael Jordan and Bill Russell for 2nd most in history and make him just one shy of Kareem’s six MVP awards. Wouldn’t that be another step forward in his march to greatness?