The Fear the Sword Staff got together to ruminate on some of their favorite parts of the 2015-16 season in the inaugural edition of Fear the Shootaround.
J.R. Finally Makes Good
Carter Rodriguez (@Carter_Shade)
J.R. Smith won a title, and in his press conference afterward, sobbed at the podium.
Listen to JR here. Real as hell. Very happy for this man. https://t.co/MwUtVSGQsR— NBA Central (@TheNBACentral) June 20, 2016
This is a guy who was (sometimes) rightfully dismissed as a clown for much of his career. He drove coaches crazy, he took awful shots, he was a space cadet on defense and was a loose cannon on and off the floor.
Even after arriving in Cleveland and being a mostly model citizen, the perception still lingered. When he struggled to shake free in the first two games of the Finals, the chorus started again. Smart people blamed Smith for not being able to show up on a big stage, for some reason.
He started to figure things out as the Cavs did, and hit two monster threes to start the second half to close a gap that was beginning to look frightening. He didn't need the Finals to validate the player he's become for the Cavaliers. He's a terrifying fourth option, a release valve that decimates teams that dare help off him and a willing and able perimeter defense. He developed discipline without losing his fundamental J.R.-ness.
When J.R. sobbed at the podium, and talked about his parents, he talked about how the negatives surrounding his career hurt him and his parents.
"To hear people talk bad about me, it hurts me because I know it hurts him, and that's not who I am. And I know he raised me better, and I know I want to do better."
Well, Mr. Smith, you did better. You're a champion.
A Brief Discussion of how the Finals Said "Well, Actually" to the Narrative
Trevor Magnotti (@IllegalScreens)
The Cleveland Cavaliers have been surrounded by criticism and overreaction since LeBron James came back to Cleveland in 2014. Such is the nature of having LeBron James play basketball for your franchise. But it's amazing how, as the Finals unfolded, these takes were disproven, or at least strongly countered, by the play of the team. From the relatively reasonable to the patently absurd, let's explore how that occurred:
"Kyrie Irving dribbles too much and kills the Cavs offense" or "Delly's a better fit for the Cavs' offense than Kyrie"
Well, actually the Cavs scored 111.0 points/100 possessions in the Finals against the Warriors, the fourth best defense in the league, with Kyrie on the floor. Without him, they scored 79.6 points/100 possessions. That's a 31.4 point increase. So, yeah. No.
"Kevin Love can't help the Cavs"
Well, actually Love can help the Cavs, even if he might not be the best fit on this team as a whole. The way Love played in Game 7, working as an outlet option, busting his limited butt defensively, and relentlessly hitting the boards, he succeeded in every part of the role he has somewhat been pigeon-holed into in his Cavs tenure. He hasn't always fit the best, but he did the most when he was needed most, and that matters, too.
"Tristan Thompson isn't worth $82 million"
Well, actually Tristan's Finals on/off net rating was +24.8. He defends everyone, is a top-three rebounder in the league, and he averaged a double-double for the series, even scoring off the dribble a couple times. Tristan is worth every one of his gorillion dollars, thank you.
"Shouldn't have fired Blatt"
Well, actually James and Irving took over and swung the series, but Tyronn Lue out-maneuvered Kerr and stuck to his rotational guns even when Kerr decided to start getting weird with Varejao and Barbosa's minutes and hacked Tristan Thompson. He helped the team capitalize on Golden State's mistakes every step of the way. I don't know how well Blatt would have done in this series, but I can safely say Lue's performance probably doesn't get topped.
"Every LeBron James take"
Well, actually, LeBron James was a unanimous Finals MVP, led the series in every box score stat, had a PER over 35 and had back to back 40 point games and a triple-double to help knock off the best regular season team ever. I don't want to hear about crying, clutch jeans, Kobe freaking Bryant, or what Michael Jordan would or would not have done anymore. James's legacy hasn't had criticism that was reasonable in three years, but now? After this Finals? Even the unreasonable garbage we've heard is irrelevant.
Daniel Rowell (@Daniejrowell)
As time expired on the Cavaliers 93-89 win in Game 7, LeBron James embraced Kevin Love and his teammates in a huddle before kneeling to the floor and crying with his head in his hands. After thirteen years chasing an NBA championship for his hometown, he had finally done it. James proved emotional throughout the interviews, trophy presentation, the Finals MVP award. James had put everything he had out there, and in the raw emotions of the moment, was crying on the floor on national television.
It was the perfect ending to a series, where LeBron James had been known as a cry baby:
This title is a victory for concision in prose pic.twitter.com/JFzr2CoFSg— POP MY TRONC (@edsbs) June 20, 2016
In season of Crying Jordans and a Finals series of "Loser Cry Baby LeBron James", watching the raw emotions of a 31-year-old man accomplish a goal thirteen years in the making was the perfect end. So much in sports is built around grit, and the ability to keep one's composure through the losses and the struggles. It's a chess match of interview reactions and questions on mindset, and James, like many, has been coded and reserved in his responses.
Through seven games in the NBA Finals, LeBron James led all players in points (208), rebounds (79), assists (62), steals (18), and blocks (16). He led the first team in NBA Finals History back from a 3-1 deficit. And he did it against the winningest team in regular season history. It was the biggest game of his career. When it was all over, the weight of the moment found James kneeling, overflowing with tear of joy at the journey that had brought him from a kid from Akron to Ohio's NBA Champion.
I'm not crying. No, you're crying.
Timo the Teammate, Living Life to the Fullest
William Bohl (@BreakTheHuddle)
There's probably no one in the NBA who lit more money on fire over the past twelve months than Timofey Mozgov. 365 days ago, Mozzy was considered to be a serious candidate to receive a max-level extension someday, likely in the range of $18-$20 million annually. And why not; he'd been one of the key acquisitions for the Cavs in mid-January 2015, helping to solidify their defense (by offering outstanding rim protection) while playing competent, if unspectacular offensive ball. To top it off, he'd started all 20 of the Cavs' playoff games, finishing 5th on the team in minutes played and averaging 14 points and 8 rebounds on 55% shooting in the Finals.
Unfortunately for Mozgov, he wasn't able to carry that over to the 2015-16 season. Cleveland was 5 points better per 100 possessions when the 29-year-old Russian was parked on the bench this year. His rebounding rate declined. He stopped getting to the charity stripe. Neither he and Kevin Love nor he and Tristan Thompson worked out anything resembling frontcourt chemistry. He wound up playing 76 regular season games, but by the time the playoffs rolled around, it was perfectly clear that he'd be the odd man out in a shortened rotation, and that sitting him down was the right call.
But to Timo's credit, he didn't let his poor play, rapidly decreasing financial prospects (he'll be very fortunate to earn eight figures annually on his next deal), or his evaporating playing time get him down:
I know it's been caught on tv a few times, but Timofey Mozgov is INTO these games from the bench. What a teammate.— David Zavac (@DavidZavac) May 20, 2016
David's firsthand account definitely matched what we saw on television: he was into the games. He seemed to be the first guy on the floor during timeouts and the most vocal cheerleader on the sidelines when things were going well. He went from starting 20 games in the 2015 playoffs to appearing in just 13 this time around, and only then only in garbage time. But when the champagne was flowing after the Game 7 victory, and the cigars were lit, he didn't hold back. He didn't have a muted celebration, or a sheepish grin, or stand in the background politely smiling as his fellow Cavs went berserk. No, he never seemed to feel sorry for himself. He just revelled in the joy with his teammates, and it was beautiful sight to see - the postgame pictures are an absolute delight.
I know it's easy to expect a pro athlete to just suck it up and put away their pride, but come on- it'd be a hard thing for anyone to do. To Timo's credit, he was able to stay a great teammate despite his lack of playing time, and for that, Cavs fans should always (try to) think of him warmly.
Tyronn Lue passes the biggest test
Chris Manning (@cwmwrites)
Coaching an NBA team may not be as hard or as stressful as being a fighter pilot, but it is a hard job that's hard to evaluate from the outside looking in. It's a job that requires in game adjustments, managing egos and knowing what buttons to push at the right time. All of this is magnified in Game 7s when the a title is on the line.
In Game 7, Tyronn Lue handled all of it calmly. As it has seemed since the moment he took over for David Blatt, no moment has seemed too big for Lue and the Cavs seem to respond to him, to trust him to lead them. In the series, he made adjustments - most notably having LeBron defend Draymond Green - that paid off. What he did for the year and during the season wasn't necessarily world-changing or culture rebooting, but they mattered.
And let's be frank: Lue out coached Kerr. He made the right adjustments at the right time and had the Cavs focused on the one thing that mattered. Even with Kevin Love - who looked dead and traded for much of the series - Lue at least deserves some credit for getting Love to play with such energy and focus in Game 7. And Lue didn't stick with things that didn't work (Matthew Dellavedova, for example) and really just seemed to make the right decisions at almost every turn, particularly after Game 4.. In a series that was so close - ultimately decided by four points over seven games - that matters in a way that's hard to quantify because we can't watch it in a Vine on loop.
I think, ultimately, that it all comes back to why the Cavs fired Blatt and replaced him with Lue. This is a guy who connected with this group and had their respect enough to demand the best out of them when it mattered most. This maybe doesn't happen if the Cavs don't make Lue their head coach when they did, crazy as that sounds.
One Team to Rule Them All
Alex Ralston (@aralsto)
How lucky the city of Cleveland is to have this team become the team? The members of the 2015-2016 Cleveland Cavaliers are now forever linked to the city and franchise in a way that will make them immortal in the eyes of Clevelanders everywhere. The fans have embraced this Cavaliers team and the feelings have been reciprocated and to see how viscerally the players reacted to winning just illustrates how strongly they are connected to the fans and city that they represent.
It is truly good fortune that this roster of players and coaches is the one that will be remembered forever in the minds of the residents of Cleveland. No other team seems to have accepted the burden of a city quite like LeBron James and company did during this series with the Golden State Warriors. Of course, LeBron and Kyrie would always be linked to the city, but now even the likes of J.R. Smith, Channing Frye, Richard Jefferson will be welcome sights in Northeast, Ohio as long as they live.
Kyrie MF Irving
Brett L. Zelman (@blouiszelman)
"JR Smith, NBA Champion," sounds amazing. "Tristan Thompson, NBA Champion," too. But to me "Kyrie Irving, NBA Champion," sounds the best. Hard to explain why, but I'll give it a try. I had such low expectations for Kyrie. I didn't watch much college ball the year (11 games) he played at Duke. So I didn't know his game at all. And then I got to see him play with the Cavs and he wowed me. Aesthetically, he became my favorite athlete to watch, ever. The way he swoops and plods and dribbles and swerves and contorts and swivels and finishes and floats and crosses over and shoots is art and music and poetry to me.
And then the sporting world picked him apart over and over again. They said he's not a winner. We should keep Dion Waiters over him. He dribbles too much. He shoots too much. He's too injury prone. He can't play with LeBron. He can't play defense. He doesn't want to be in Cleveland. We should start Delly over him!
And then then he thoroughly outplayed his counterpart in the NBA Finals, who happened to be the first ever unanimous MVP in NBA history. Now the only thing you can say about him? He's an NBA Champion.
LeBron might be the Undertaker and the Ultimate Warrior, but Tristan Thompson is Iron Man
Scott Recker (@scottmrecker)
$82 million. That number followed Tristan Thompson around all year, a lingering, pseudo ace-in-the-sleeve for skeptics to pull out at any downward moment. The larger, contextualized picture? Who cares? He has no post moves. He can't score. When he came into the league, people thought he wasn't big enough. Then, after the Warriors sent waves through the state of basketball, he wasn't skilled enough. I've always thought the $82 million was a lot easier to justify, and if I had to write a guide to appreciating Tristan Thompson, it would look something like this:
1. Understand the NBA salary cap.
2. Watch basketball.
You could never justify the contract in a vacuum or from a stat sheet, and certainly never through correlating the two, but it's doubtful the Cavs would have won the NBA title without him.
His finals performance was remarkable: he averaged a double-double, he put himself in position to get easy buckets when the Warriors tried to suffocate LeBron in the paint (especially in Game 6), he shot 100 percent from the field (9-9) in the last two games combined, he kept possessions alive and played quality defense inside and out.
And there are two things that I've always really liked about Tristan that have nothing to do with general stats. He has an ability to switch on smaller defenders and have the lateral quickness to stay in front of them, the intelligence not to foul them and the timing to close out. He also has a knack for not letting the opposing team get clean defensive rebounds, whether it's getting a hand on the ball and hitting it out of bounds or awkwardly changing its direction, or forcing the sort of physical battle that makes it hard to catch and run.
These two things were magnified during the finals. The Warriors bury teams with relentless switching to find just the amount of daylight that their shooters need, and by having an insane amount of players who can lead and finish a fast break — whether that's an outlet pass for a quick lay-up or a dagger pull-up three. He was an integral part of slowing down a historically good offense in more ways than one. Steph Curry doesn't usually see centers that can still get a hand in his face after a screen and seven crossovers. Draymond Green doesn't usually have that much trouble getting into transition. The likelihood of completely shutting down great players is extremely low, but if you make them work harder than they're used to and frustrate them, well, then you have a chance at making history. Of course being on a team with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving certainly helps matters, but identifying and empowering the team Rodman through fistfuls of cash seemed to be a positive step in bringing a title to Cleveland as well.
Cleveland's love letters make good on their promises.
Aaron Perine (@SumitLakeHornet)
"I'm not gonna write you a love song!" or so the thought process went for so many in the national media as this series started and the Cavaliers fell down 0-2 to the Golden State Warriors. I mean they respected how "great" Cleveland's fans were but, that did not stop many outlets from outright mocking the region and those same fans.
I can't think of a time that a team legitimately wrote so many letters about the task at hand for them in a given season or period.
Here are all the players that contributed some sort of piece to talk about this year or the task of winning Cleveland an NBA Title: LeBron James, "I'm Coming Home", Kevin Love, "Unfinished Business", Mo Williams, "Full Circle", Iman Shumpert, "You Have to Start Over from Damn Near Square One", Richard Jefferson, "Who We Are".
I love all of those pieces for different reasons. James' letter will be going in my apartment or house as a piece of art that I will have commissioned, it means that much to me. Love completely flipped the script by returning to give this another go and it paid tremendous dividends.
Williams came back to try and make this thing work and filled in admirably in Kyrie's absence. Shumpert's injury and comeback helped steady the Cavs throughout the season. Jefferson helped get that crowd into a lather before they even entered Quicken Loans for Game 6 with his letter.
Each of these dudes played their role in the finals. Mo hit the Mo-Flo, Shump had his 4 Point Play in Game 7, Jefferson turned back the clock in Game 6 (and the series honestly), Kevin played rugged in the clincher and locked up Curry in a crucial possession, and LeBron kicked it into Kill-Mode for the second half of the Finals.
We really shouldn't be surprised that they all did their thing. These letters told us that they would try their hardest. It may not be a love song, but they gave us a championship when we needed one. I will always love them for it.