“I guess we’d all like to be recognized not for one piece of fireworks, but for the ledger of our daily work.”
-- Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, to “60 Minutes,” 2005
What does one do after achieving the seemingly unachievable?
You move on to the Indians.
“People were relaxed,” LeBron James said of his city last week, “but now they’re kind of getting their emotions going again because of the Indians. It’s no relaxation time again for fans because the Indians are playing so well. They’ve gotta be intense. If you saw Game 3 in Boston our fans was like, come on, you gotta close this thing out. So, the relaxation period is not as relaxed as well because the Indians are playing so well.”
End one little 52-year title drought, and your city gets all swole.
The Cleveland Cavaliers’ comeback from a 3-1 Finals deficit last June stands on its own: a moment of joy for a city and area that identifies so strongly with the success -- and, more often, failure -- of its local sports teams. Winning the city’s first major sports title since 1964 ended that narrative: what is Cleveland if not the city that fails?
But now, the Cavs are the NBA champions, and the Indians are two wins away from the World Series -- they haven’t won it since 1948. There is a new tale to be told. (Though it still excludes the Browns, at least for a while.)
“I think for a long time, people just felt that Cleveland players really didn’t care about the legacy, and that the players never really embodied or embraced that burden. And we did,” forward James Jones said. “This team, that’s all we talked about. That’s all we talk about, being the group to change that narrative, being the group that redefines Cleveland professional sports history.”
And the Cavs are in position to keep the party going for a while -- a soiree that was held up for a minute while J.R. Smith worked out a new contract with Cleveland. Out during the first two weeks of training camp and exhibition games, Smith and the Cavs agreed to a four-year, $57 million deal that works out to about $15 million guaranteed per year during the first three years (the last year of the contract is only guaranteed at $3.5 million).
The new deal gives Smith what he wanted -- economic parity with veterans around the league like the LA Clippers’ Jamal Crawford (three years, $42 million), the New Orleans Pelicans’ Eric Gordon (four/$53 million) and the Portland Trail Blazers’ Evan Turner (four/$70 million). It gives James a teammate he’s long lobbied for and come to respect. And it gives the Cavs a guy who made two huge 3-pointers in the third quarter of Game 7 of The Finals, and who’s done little to call attention to himself off the court since the Cavs traded for him in 2014.
Cavs owner Dan Gilbert had to come out of his pocket a little more than he wanted for Smith, but that’s the cost -- literally -- of winning. And as he has profited more than a little from his team’s re-emergence since James came back home in 2014, paying a few million more in repeater luxury taxes is well worth it.
Yes, Cleveland is one of the league’s oldest teams entering the season, but that number is skewed a little by the Cavs’ acquisitions of 38-year-old Chris Andersen, 36-year-old Mike Dunleavy, Jr. and having 36-year-old Richard Jefferson return for one final season. If James’ body holds up over 82 games -- he’ll be rested, early and often, during the regular season to make that more possible -- there’s no reason to suspect he won’t make a seventh straight Finals, continuing his path to basketball immortality.
There simply isn’t a credible alternative to Cleveland at present in the Eastern Conference. The Toronto Raptors have two Olympians and All-Stars in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. The Boston Celtics added Al Horford and Lottery pick Jaylen Brown to go with All-Star Isaiah Thomas. The Indiana Paers made a couple of astute deals for Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young.
But none of that matters. The triad of James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love towers over the East, with a confidence and a certainty built upon its ultimate triumph.
Now, it starts again.
“It’s a process for us,” James said. “We just want to implement our system, try to get better every day. No matter who’s in the lineup during the preseason, we want to play Cavaliers basketball, and so far that’s what we’ve been doing.”
James, still, always sets the tone. Held out last Thursday against the Raptors, he munched popcorn on the baseline. A few days earlier, though, he railed about the mess his teammates left in the locker room, a longtime James pet peeve.
But now, James has teammates -- younger ones -- who’ve gone through the crucible with him and won. In his second go-round in Cleveland, the 31-year-old finally has teammates who aren’t just complimentary pieces. The Cavs have figured out how to make this all work.
Love’s shot was inconsistent in the playoffs -- AWOL against the Atlanta Hawks in the East semifinals, better against Toronto in the conference finals and invisible against the Golden State Warriors in The Finals. But he got on the glass throughout the postseason, with double-figure boards in 11 of his 20 playoff games, including 14 in Game 7. A ring shuts everyone up. Now, he will benefit from what will really be his first season in Cleveland where all three of the Big Three are fully healthy.
Irving, a three-time All-Star, also won gold in Rio this summer. A year after shredding his kneecap against the Warriors in The 2015 Finals, he vanquished them with the game- and series-winning 3-pointer in Game 7.
He always had elite skills. Now, he has elite experiences.
“I just learned a lot over the last year, of just the sacrifices, of being on a team, being on a daily grind of just trying to become a champion every single day,” Irving said. “And knowing that you can never skip steps -- ever. You can’t have bad practices; you can’t have bad meetings. It’s just so many things that go into being a championship team.”
The Cavaliers do have some challenges this year. Coach Tyronn Lue has to reconstruct his bench, with Matthew Dellavedova off to Milwaukee in a sign-and-trade deal after the Milwaukee Bucks dropped a $38 million offer sheet his way, and Timofey Mozgov now with the Los Angeles Lakers, $64 million richer.
The Cavs didn’t exactly counter Kevin Durant going to the Warriors with their offseason moves, but they did okay. Cleveland brought Andersen (a former James teammate in Miami) to replace Mozgov and acquired Dunleavy from the Chicago Bulls, which needed to clear Dunleavy’s contract to be able to sign Dwyane Wade. Holdovers Jefferson and Channing Frye return to space the floor. But Lue needs to find a defensive on-ball replacement for Dellavedova, who annoyed opponents from Miami to Portland for three years.
And Lue -- who also got a new deal in the offseason after taking over for coach David Blatt in February -- also had a full training camp for the first time as coach to implement his system.
“With us, I just think we have a lot of time to work and focus on execution,” Lue said. “Last year, we executed, but I think now we can even execute at a higher level. We know exactly what we’re looking for when we run plays, the first, second, third, fourth option. Guys are picking that up. Just talking to our video guys, they’re like, ‘we look like we’re running things a lot better this year.’”
Dunleavy was on good teams in Indiana and Chicago, but at 36, this is his best -- and, likely, his last -- chance to win it all. In Cleveland, he’ll play the role that most defending champions of recent vintage has had -- the new guy who doesn’t have a ring.
“There’s going to be some tough nights for me -- I’m not going to lie,” Dunleavy said. “Opening night, ring night, going to the White House, things like that. I’m happy for my teammates, but it will be tough for me. Maybe it’s a little extra motivation for me to do it again.”
Everyone knows Dunleavy can shoot (career 37.8 percent on 3-pointers), but he’s always been an underrated defender. He knows where he’s supposed to be and he doesn’t make many mistakes. Tom Thibodeau, his former Bulls coach, vouched for his defensive bona fides to Lue. The Cavs have similar defensive principles, and the length and switching abilities of James and Tristan Thompson will make the transition even easier.
And when he’s open at the other end, he knows he’ll get the ball. And he should be open a lot when on the floor with James and/or Irving and Love.
“I like to say you’ve always got to be ready, and I think I always am ready,” Dunleavy said. “For the prior 14 years that I played, if I’m open, I’m gonna be ready. But now, more than ever, I’m getting it. (James) loves to pass. He sees everything. You’ve really got to be ready. You’ve got to get your feet set and you’ve got to get to your spot and expect it’s coming. I’m not going to say I’m more motivated to do it, but you’re definitely going to see the ball more. When you’re open, you’re going to get it. Playing with him the first month or so, even just watching him over the years, he just doesn’t miss stuff. He’s so willing. It’s his physical stature too, his size, he just sees over people.”
James always has a full dance card, on and off the court, in and out of season. His LeBron James Family Foundation announced last week that it was hiring educators to help further his initiative to send any child who completes the Foundation’s program a scholarship to the University of Akron. The program helps at-risk students in elementary, middle and high schools get the skills necessary to get into college; the new initiative is designed to aid with retention in and graduation from college.
James also, famously, was on stage with Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul in Los Angeles at the ESPY Awards in July, speaking out on the spate of shootings of African-American civilians by police around the country. The idea of the four speaking together was to keep the conversation going, a goal seemingly achieved when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick explained why he knelt during the playing of the national anthem before games.
The next step is for individual players to formulate game plans for helping their own communities. James has known what he wanted to do in Akron for years.
“It has to be in you to want to help, to want to give back to your community,” he said. “You shouldn’t be forced to help. Because if you’re forced, it won’t be genuine to the people that’s receiving it. So, for me, it’s a genuine thing for me, for me and my foundation and for my family to give back to our community. I know what my vision is. I know what I’m going to be able to do in this next 10, 20, 30, 40 years.”
The only challenge for James on the court is chasing the “ghost,” as he put it to Sports Illustrated this summer, of Michael Jordan. When Jordan turned 31 -- James’ age now -- he also had three rings. But he won three more thereafter. James will need to play, roughly, 300 more regular season and playoff games to have a chance to equal that.
He’s already fourth on the all-time playoff scoring leaders list (5,572 postseason points), third in playoff assists (1,348) and ninth in playoff rebounds (1,758).
His close friend, James Jones, who has been on all three of James’ teams that won it all, has observed first hand how difficult defending a championship can be, even to a team with the best intentions.
“The hardest thing is accepting that you have to be so much better, and that you’re not good enough as you were to win it the next year,” Jones said. “Because when you win that first one, you have to play at such a high level that you kind of peak at that point. And you really to come to grips with and come to terms with that your peak is no longer your peak, and you have to find another level if you want to repeat. And you have to. You have to. You can’t win unless you find another level. And that’s a challenge. Because everyone else will doubt you can find another level. So it really just becomes you and your team.”
That is where we left the Cavs in June, with no one tethered to reality believing they could come back from a 3-1 deficit. James, however, had other ideas. Now that they’ve done something no NBA team has ever done -- and, more importantly, something that no Cleveland basketball team has ever done -- the pressure is off.
Finally, a Cleveland team can enter a season relaxed.
“I don’t know about relaxed; I just think you become more confident,” Lue said. “You know what it takes to win. You’ve been there. You’ve hit the mountaintop. So coming into the next season, you have a lot of confidence, because you are the defending champs, and you carry yourself that way. For us, you know, the monkey is off our back. We had a chance to bring a championship to a great city and a great team, great organization. So now, I just think now, guys are playing with that confidence of, we’re the champs.”
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