One of the hardest things for professional teams to accomplish is playing their best game for the entirety of their season. Whether it be injuries, a lack of chemistry or just not having the right roster at the right time, team's will rarely go from the first to the last game playing at the peak of their abilities. In most cases, it usually ends up being either of these two cases: either a hot start followed up by a cold finish, or better finish to make up for that porous opening to their season. The level of disparity between one part of a season compared to another will be, for the most part, the definition of the team's season.
Most of you already knew that, but no team's season last year could be more true of that change in play between two halves of the season than the Cleveland Cavaliers. If you're reading this, you know the story; the Cavs started off the season 19-20 and all out of sorts and questions surrounding the team, then a few trades and LeBron James being fully turned their season into a complete 360 and became the best team in the league over the final three months of the season.
Just as important as that turnaround was the Cavs is the date that is also the date that the transformation began -- Jan. 15, 2015. There was no trade that day, nor was their a lineup change that turned the season around. Instead, it was their first win of a 13-game winning streak. It wasn't a win against one of the top teams in the league, nor was it a blowout win -- it was a seven-point win over the lowly Los Angeles Lakers.
If you go back and read any sort of analysis piece over the final three months of last season, I can guarantee there is at least one phrase that includes "since Jan. 15.." or a before-and-after Jan. 15 comparison. It was the official turning point of the season, the point at where disappointment transformed into satisfaction.
However, just as important as that date was for the Cavs turnaround is a trade that happened 10 days prior and exactly one year ago today. On Jan. 5, the Cavs traded for New York Knicks guards Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith, while also ridding themselves of Dion Waiters. Although LeBron's reaction wasn't necessarily that of when the Cavs ended up trading for Timofey Mozgov just a few days later, he was the one that gave general manager David Griffin the green light to make the trade.
The deal, at the time, netted the Cavs two things they were in desperate need of: a starting shooting guard who was willing to accept his role as a secondary offensive player and a primary defensive player, and a sixth man who was able to spread the floor and score a number of points in a fury.
Not only was this a deal that was beneficial for the Cavs, it was equally as beneficial for both Shumpert and Smith, who were stuck in their own purgatory while playing in New York. For Shumpert, he was able to go to a team where he didn't need to work as much on offensive, which, in turn, would help him on the defensive end, his better of two sides of the ball. As for Smith, he was in the midst of his worst year of his 11-year career. His off the court antics had translated to his game on the court, where he was shooting himself out of the rotation of New York and out of the favor of Knicks President Phil Jackson, the reason as to why Smith was the price tag for acquiring the 24-year old Shumpert.
As it turned out, the roles of both Shumpert and Smith were switched, at least at the start. While nursing a dislocated surgery, Shumpert's first eight games as a Cavs had him suited up in street clothes, sitting on the end of the bench. Smith would take his place in that span, and as a result of a rejuvenated play that had him looking like the Sixth Man of the Year award winner of a couple years ago, he would command that role for the remainder of the season, even when Shumpert came back and was fully healthy.
Although the roles of starter and sixth man were switched, their impact was similar to that of what was expected when they were both acquired. Smith fired up three-pointers at a league-high rate, while Shumpert's perimeter defense was everything that the Cavs wanted in the guy they ended up trading to get both Smith and Shumpert.
Since Smith and Shumpert became Cavs exactly one year ago today, the Cavs have gone 57-22; third-best in the NBA, only trailing the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs in that span. More importantly since that date, the Cavs officially proclaimed themselves as bonafide title contenders on the court instead of just simply on paper.
Of course, as it was said above, the date that will be synonymously associated with the Cavs 2014-2015 season will be Jan. 15. However, the first domino to fall in that turnaround came when Smith and Shumpert arrived 10 days earlier. Although the importance of the Cavs turnaround will revolve around LeBron James and his health, there's no telling where the Cavs would be today without Smith and Shumpert.