The most successful season in the history of the Cleveland Cavaliers has come to a close. The Golden State Warriors are NBA Champions and the wait for next year has officially begun. As always seems to be the case with the Cavaliers, questions of "what if" seem to linger as the season comes to its conclusion.
What if Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and Anderson Varejao were healthy? Would it be the Cavs hosting the Larry O’Brien trophy if they had a full roster? Maybe… In my opinion they probably would. But the Cavs also played a lot of teams with injuries along the way and the NBA is a war of attrition. You can only play who’s in front of you and the Warriors were the better of the two teams competing in the Finals. The Cavs coaching staff deserves a ton of credit for adjusting to Irving going down in game one and coming up with a completely new offensive and defensive plan of attack to compensate for their shorthanded roster. As a result of these changes, they managed to steal two games until the Warriors coaching staff countered with adjustments of their own and the Cavs ran out of gas. Both teams showed high level coaching that should be commended and resulted in an incredibly intriguing NBA Finals.
But while the questions of "what if" are inevitable for a fan of any team that comes up short. Something was different about this season for me and I sensed it with the people I interacted with.
There are no moral victories in sports. That’s the way I’ve always thought when I played, that’s been my attitude as a fan. You can be excited with growth, or getting going in the right direction. But if you lose, you lose; that’s the bottom line. But in the four years after the decision, my perception as a sports fan changed dramatically. The bulk of my formative years as a basketball fan were spent watching LeBron James, seeing him overcome incredible odds and do things that no other player could do. While ultimately his efforts came up short, that hope and belief that he could pull it off was always there and when they would lose, it would crush me. In the four years following his departure, learning how to lose and how to no longer live and die by the result of each game were necessary coping mechanisms. It helped me rediscover my love for the entire NBA and put aside petty rivalries or players I disliked solely because they were the opposition (some still remained, looking at you Joakim Noah). But during those years in the wilderness, marred with losing, quitting and turmoil I longed for the team to return to a roster I was proud to be a fan of. The 08-10 Cavs weren’t perfect, but they were fun, likable and accomplished great things on the court. After years of being at the bottom of the NBA barrel, I just wanted to be back in the dance again.
With the complete overhaul of the roster this summer, things felt so surreal. Gone was the freak show of yesterday and suddenly the Cavs were Hollywood. They were the favorite to win it all in the betting books and many expected them to roll through the regular season. Their… let’s call it "slow" first half to the season was humbling. Doubt was in the mind of many fans and many were recalibrating their expectations. While I felt as though they would right the ship and I was confident that moves would be made, the frustration over seeing the team check out some nights was too much to take.
Everybody knows the rest, the Cavs traded for Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and Timofey Mozgov and started taking the league by storm. As much fun as it was to see the growth of Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson in the beginning of the year, that fun was amplified as the wins started to pour in. Heading into the playoffs it seemed perfectly reasonable to expect the Cavs to make the NBA Finals and to have a very healthy chance at ending Cleveland’s title drought. When Kevin Love went down, the attitude changed. The question was no longer if the Cavs could win it all, but if they could get past the second round and the Chicago Bulls. A limping Kyrie Irving didn’t do a lot to calm the nerves of concerned Cavs fans either.
But unlike in previous years, this team didn’t fold. They didn’t accept the fact that this might not be their year and pulled together to try and pull off what most thought to be impossible. Having LeBron James always will give you a shot, but we saw in both Cleveland and Miami that having him on your team does not automatically lead to everybody on the team playing inspired basketball. The leadership structure on and off the court deserves a ton of credit for getting every single player on the roster to play as hard as possible. While his impact wasn’t consistent,Matthew Dellavedova gave absolutely everything he had every minute he was out there. It was clear that he was in over his head and playing more minutes than he was ready for, but he never stopped. Iman Shumpert didn’t let a groin injury stop him from playing and when it was compounded with a shoulder injury, he didn’t sulk. He competed on the defensive side of the floor and never quit, even though his offensive game went down the toilet. Tristan Thompson blossomed as a high end role player and didn’t let bigger players intimidate him; he didn’t stop when his offense wasn’t going, he kept on pushing. When he was knocked to the ground, he bounced up and was ready for the next play.
Then there was James. The man who’s last playoff moments as a Cavalier before this season were him checking out of a series against the Boston Celtics and storming off the court as he ripped off his jersey. That image has been cleansed out of my mind and has been replaced with a warrior battling and giving everything in his power to try and will an undermanned team to victory. Playing out of his comfort zone by taking more shots than he ever has to before, because that’s what was needed. Complete exhaustion would cover his face at times, only to find him pulling from some reserve deep within himself when it was needed.
These are not the Cavs of old. These aren’t the same players that never had a taste of the post-season at the start of the year. They went through a near worst case scenario this playoff run and they gave everything they had. Kyrie Irving got hurt against the Celtics and battled through it until his body finally betrayed him. He’s not going to be asking "is this what the playoffs are like" in game two of next season. He’s paid his toll as have the rest of the team.
Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment. I stick with the teams I root for no matter what. I don’t know what it feels like to have a team win it all, but I know what it feels like to be proud of being a fan of a team. This Cavaliers team has restored that feeling for me and while the disappointment of the final result is still fresh, they delivered all I really want from a team I root for. They didn’t quit and showed that they care even more than I do. So for that, thank you Cavs. We’ll see you next year.