Can The Cavaliers End Cleveland’s Championship Drought?

Much has been said and documented regarding the 61 years that have passed since Cleveland won a professional sports championship (Browns – 1964). In fact, the city’s long courtship of a championship was documented in ESPNs 30 for 30 series. Over the past six decades there have been many near misses, with each of the three sports falling victim to misfortune and bad decision making. Of the three teams, the Cleveland Cavaliers can make the claim that they have been snake-bitten less than their two other sports brethren (Indians, Browns). Despite suffering crushing defeat less often, their relative obscurity over more than half of the time they have been a sports franchise is also a testament to how desperate the natives of Northeast Ohio have become to witness a championship in their lifetime. While not a direct loss in a championship quest, the departure of home-grown all-world mega talent LeBron James to Miami in the summer of 2010 might as well be listed among the many failures this sports town has suffered through. Unlike many of the other tragic Cleveland sports stories, the Cavaliers have the potential to finally deliver a championship to a fan base with the unbridled passion which warrants one. Being in the title hunt is one thing, closing the deal is another, but this season may finally be the one where all Cleveland sports dreams come true; but it won’t come easy.

Through the end of April, the 2015-16 season has been marked by key milestones in NBA history, highlighted by the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors. Not only have the Warriors set the new mark for regular season wins with 73, their reigning Most Valuable Player Stephen Curry was announced as the first ever unanimous NBA MVP this past week. Surely, entering the playoffs, Golden State was the presumptive repeat champion in many fans and pundits’ minds. As the playoffs advanced through the conference finals, there is another team that has taken some of the attention away from the juggernaut Warriors; their NBA Finals opponent from last season, Cleveland Cavaliers.

Through the first two games of the conference finals, the Cavaliers remain unbeaten, running off 10 straight wins and winning by an average of 13.5 points per game. This margins stands as the largest of the four remaining contenders. In fact, as the playoffs progressed and the opponent challenge increased, the Cavaliers margin of victory increased. Over the first two games  in the conference finals, the Cavaliers have simply dominated the Toronto Raptors, winning by an average of 25 points per game. Granted, the Raptors may be fatigued as the result of consecutive seven-game series wins and also are without the services of their center Jonas Valanciunas (ankle sprain), it is hard to imagine that the outcome of the first two games would be different.

This is the same Cavaliers team that took the defending champions to Game 6 of the NBA Finals without the services of All Stars Kevin Love (shoulder) and Kyrie Irving (knee). The series was remotely competitive due to the herculean effort of future Hall-of-Famer LeBron James, who averaged 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists per contest. With a roster that remains intact from last season, it is safe to assume that having Irving and Love healthy for a possible Finals rematch can only be a huge positive should the teams square off again. Just imagine how more difficult the Warriors’ task of defending Cleveland would have been if they were forced to stop the duo of Irving and Love as well; who each have increased their production from the regular season to the playoffs.

Cleveland’s head coaching change at the mid-point of the regular season from David Blatt to Tyronn Lue came at a bad time in this team’s development. The team itself was performing well and had the conference’s best record. In fact, since the coaching change through the remainder of the season, the team’s winning percentage declined from their predecessor’s. Not only did the overall record not improve from the change, the team’s defensive performance declined as well. One thing the change did improve was the Cavalier’s offensive proficiency; much of it a result of their ability to improve ball movement.

Cavaliers PPG Opponent PPG
David Blatt (30-11 record) 101.4 95.7
Tyronn Lue (27-14 record) 107.3 100.9

When the team changed its focus to the playoffs, the real benefits of the coaching change began to bear fruit, as the team’s offensive production improved to an entirely new level. While the level of competition improved in the playoffs, so did the scoring output, with the Cavaliers scoring 108.5 points per game, four higher than the regular season in total. In fact, the scoring improved in each successive round of the playoffs.

The 2016 playoffs have proven one fact about the Warriors; no matter how well a team can defend, if an opponent will fare poorly if they cannot produce on the offensive end. In the games Golden State was challenged the most in the regular season and playoffs, their opponents were able to score, more so than prevent the Warriors from doing so. With more offensive firepower and a healthy roster, the Cavaliers could very well be poised to present a legitimate threat to dethrone the champion Warriors.I have long had my doubts that the Cleveland Cavaliers had the chemistry to become a legitimate threat for the  NBA title, and their regular season performance gave me little optimism that circumstances would change. With the relative vulnerability the Warriors have demonstrated in the playoffs; coupled with the method by which the Cavaliers have dismissed the Eastern Conference foes, Cleveland may well have the championship they have long sought. While my perception of the Cavaliers’ chances has changes, I am not yet willing to throw my hopes and expectations “All In” for a Cavs’ title. If nothing else, the possibilities will make the NBA Finals far more entertaining to watch.

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