Cleveland Cavaliers’ new-look starting group flourishing, having fun together — even without LeBron James
CLEVELAND, Ohio — The Cleveland Cavaliers’ struggles without LeBron James over the years have been well documented.
It’s only the preseason and the final outcome doesn’t matter this time of year, but these new-look Cavaliers have been able to flourish offensively without their leader — both in practice and in the first two exhibition games.
“It’s just a lot of ball movement and body movement,” Dwyane Wade said. “Guys playing their game. Certain guys want to shoot, certain guys like me and D-Rose like to penetrate. We can get to certain things that we like to do and everyone is fine with it.
“For me, the court is so much open. It’s definitely a good thing when D-Rose and myself is trying to penetrate and you’ve got Kevin over here and you’ve got J.R. (Smith) right here the defense can’t help as much. When they do, these guys are knocking down shots and Jae (Crowder) as well. It’s good, man. It’s fun to play out there with those guys, for sure.”
That didn’t seem like the original plan. Based on the first few practices, head coach Tyronn Lue looked to be eyeing a new starting five of Derrick Rose, Smith, James, Crowder and Kevin Love. Wade appeared to be the anchor of the second unit, playing alongside Iman Shumpert, Kyle Korver, Jeff Green and Tristan Thompson.
But James’ left ankle injury, which will keep him out of Sunday’s game as well, has led to Wade starting in James’ spot, helping to highlight Cleveland’s depth and versatility.
The makeshift starters feature three newbies and Love, who has changed his position. All of those factors were expected to lead to early chemistry issues.
As Wade said following Friday’s game, he’s still getting used to Cleveland. Because this is so new, the 12-time All-Star has adopted James’ schedule, getting to the practice gym and arena at the same time. The two shoot together during pregame warmups and go to the weight room with each other.
“I’m just following the leader,” Wade said.
He’s been doing that on the court as well. On Friday, Wade scored a team-high 20 points on an efficient 10-of-14 from the field. He even turned back the clock with a reverse dunk in the second quarter.
“I don’t know what happened,” he said. “It was an out-of-body experience. It felt good though, felt good.”
The entire offense seems to have those good vibes. Rose, who has been getting rave reviews from teammates and coaches during training camp, made a few vintage plays and thrilled the crowd in the first half thanks to a blow-by capped with a whirling layup.
Rose finished with 15 points on 5-of-8 from the field, including 2-of-2 from 3-point range. Crowder, perhaps the linchpin of Cleveland’s small-ball lineup, tallied 17 points and buried three triples. Love added nine points, five assists and seven rebounds.
“It’s a veteran group,” Wade said. “Guys have welcomed me with open arms and just, we all just fit. First of all we’re just happy to be playing together. I don’t think any of us can believe we are together, still. But coach does a great job and the staff does a great job of breaking down each individual teams and units, where we get comfortable running our offense together.
“A day like yesterday where we go to the game, we hang out together all night, things like that building bonds, building brotherhood and it helps out on the basketball floor. I think the biggest thing is they just want everybody to play their games and the minutes that they have it and bring what you bring to the game. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
In their first preseason game together Wednesday night, the Cavs’ starters played deep into the second quarter before getting pulled. At one time, they had built a 14-point lead and when they exited, the lead was still seven.
On Friday, the five-man unit helped build a massive 20-point advantage, only to watch it evaporate quickly in the second half.
“Offensively I feel like we are moving the ball,” Love said. “A lot of guys are getting opportunities and from that end I think it looks pretty good. A lot of guys that share the ball, a lot of guys that can play different positions. It looks good.”
It hasn’t been perfect. Wade lamented his four turnovers, chalking them up to growing pains with new teammates. Conditioning is another area that still needs to improve. Defensively, even though the communication has been there, the results have yet to follow, as Love referred to the play at that end as “not really pretty.”
Still, the early signs are promising. It wasn’t supposed to be this smooth this early. Just imagine what the offense will become when James gets back. After all, Wade and others are doing the same.
“It’s definitely going to be fun. It’s going to be cool,” Wade said. “I was talking to Jae and when we was talking about the group, I said, ‘Just wait ’til you get out there with that guy. It’s going to be different.’ I’m more so eager to see the other guys play with him. I know he’s itching to get back on the court. He hates sitting down. I can’t wait to get back out there and pick up some chemistry, some things that we just know with each other.
“Everybody is here in Cleveland because of that guy. Everyone wants to be a part of what he brings and his greatness. Everyone is excited to get out there when he’s ready to go.”