Big playoff burden ahead for Cleveland Cavaliers’ remade supporting cast
On Oct. 29, 2003, when the season opened in Sacramento’s Arco Arena, the starting lineup for the Cleveland Cavaliers was Ricky Davis, Carlos Boozer, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Darius Miles and a teenaged rookie named LeBron James.
Off the Cavs’ bench that night were DeSagana Diop, Chris Mihm, Kevin Ollie and the unforgettable JR Bremer.
That building is long gone and so, too, is every player — except one. Over the years and through two tours of duty with the Cavaliers, LeBron endured a supporting cast that looked at times like the list of starting quarterbacks for the Cleveland Browns. But not so right now.
Right now, LeBron is blessed with the best help he’s ever had in Cleveland, even better than last season’s championship-winning squad. But is it enough for the Cavs to repeat?
That probably sounds contradictory. Surely if the Cavs are improved, they’re well-positioned to blow into the playoffs next month and gain traction as the stakes rise. Especially with the West-leading Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs, and the short line in the East forming behind Cleveland, all currently dealing with issues, right?
Indeed, the circumstances seemingly favor LeBron and the Cavs, but it hasn’t manifested itself because Cleveland is unsettled. The roster has changed from opening night, but it hasn’t had enough time to mesh. Meanwhile, Kevin Love and his repaired knee is weeks away from healing completely, while J.R. Smith just got back in the lineup after having thumb surgery.
Then there’s Cleveland’s defense, which is ranked 22nd so far this season and is 29th since the All-Star break, both of which are numbers that can spell disaster for any team dreaming of a title.
If all goes well, then the nip-and-tuck roster work done by general manager David Griffin will be validated come June. And then, LeBron will walk back the comments he made a month ago, when he whined about whether the Cavs had enough to put the other contenders on alert. Here in the stretch run of the regular season, the Cavs are still putting the puzzle together, and it’ll be glorious once it’s done — if it ever gets done. In any event, LeBron is light years removed from the misfits he had to work with jerseys cheap and a decade ago.
Leonard suffered a concussion in the second half against Oklahoma City last Thursday after being inadvertently hit in the side of head by Thunder guard Victor Oladipo.
Leonard is averaging a career-high 26.2 points for San Antonio (51-14), which can tie Golden State for the league’s best record with a victory.
Forward LaMarcus Aldridge will not play against the Hawks as he continues to undergo tests for a minor heart arrhythmia. San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said Aldridge complained of ”feeling odd” against Oklahoma City, which led to the diagnosis.
Aldridge underwent further tests Monday outside of San Antonio but his status remains unknown.
The Warriors have now lost five of their last seven games and what may not help down the road is if they were to meet the Spurs in the Western Conference finals and not have home-court advantage because of a game in which the rookie McCaw played a career-high 42 minutes and shot 0-for-12.
Popovich, who was a forerunner in the school of resting players no matter the game or the situation, shrugs at the possibility of further tweaks to the schedule.
“I think they have done a good job to try to make it better…and we’ve seen improvement in that area,” he said. “But there is probably a limit to how much better you can make it given the restraints. So, unless you add days, it is pretty tough to refigure it any better than it is now. I guess what’s fair about it is that every team goes through a stretch where it’s kind of ugly.”
It is a situation that is particularly hard on the elite teams that are in greater demand for national TV slots.
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“I think that happens,” Popovich said. “Once in a while, you get an 8:30 (p.m.) game and you have to lose an hour wherever you are going and you’ve get back…We’ve had those get back at 4 or 5 in the morning kind of games and you don’t really have your best product out on the court. But it does happen to everybody.”
“Having worked in the TV business, I know how the stuff works,” Kerr said. “The networks have a draft at the beginning of the year. They pick the dates they want. They have certain dates that are important to them. That’s a huge part of our business. So, I’m sensitive to that, too. But the players are what drives this business and the quality of play drives this business. So, there’s a happy medium in there somewhere.
“I have no problem going on a five-game East Coast trip in seven, eight nights, all the cities are nearby. That’s part of it. But to fly back to Oakland for one game, then Minnesota, San Antonio for back-to-back makes no sense. Ask anybody with expertise on this stuff and they’ll tell you the players are extremely vulnerable to injury, as a result. That would be the worst thing for the product and for the networks if guys like Steph and Draymond and Kawhi or whoever were injured during the playoffs.”
Kerr was asked when he first considered sitting his key players for Saturday’s game.
“Last summer,” he said. “When the schedule came out we looked at it. I knew from the last several years that you can’t predict how players are going to feel from one game to the next. But you can look at the schedule and say, ‘Man, that’s gonna be tough.’ ”
It’s a grind that’s tough on the players. It’s tough on the league’s image. It’s tough on the fans who bought the tickets.
It could be especially tough if the Warriors should happen to find themselves back at the AT&T Center for a Game 7 sometime in late May.