Cavs are growing up and learning how to be great without LeBron James


CLEVELAND — Darius Garland was wearing a towel and shower shoes as he walked over to the Cavaliers’ stereo system and punched in Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” for the locker room.

Within seconds, Garland, who is just 22, was singing with Isaac Okoro, 21, in such perfect harmony, it wasn’t immediately clear there was a recording backing them up.

Kevin Love, 34, with the sides of his hair getting grayer all the time, is the last remaining player in that room from Cleveland’s 2016 title team. He shook his head and laughed at the youth and exuberance on display from his 20-something teammates during the singalong. He’d just put down his phone, after a text exchange with the past.

It was last Friday night, the Cavs had just pounded the Philadelphia 76ers, and Love’s old teammate LeBron James had just passed Magic Johnson for sixth all-time in assists in the Lakers’ win at Milwaukee. On that text chain with Love was not only LeBron, but others from that ’16 championship, retired players such as Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye, and not-retired-but-not-in-the-NBA-either players such as Tristan Thompson.

“We talk every day,” Love said.

Love’s thoughts quickly turned to the game that was looming the following Tuesday in Cleveland – James’ return to town with the Lakers. Since LeBron left town in the summer of 2018, Love said the Cavs had a track record of getting too caught up in the energy and buzz and nostalgia that is so palpable any time LeBron returns. Their 0-3 record against the Lakers in the building they used to call “The Q,” with LeBron wearing purple and gold, was a testament to that.

After spending the first three seasons as the NBA’s worst team following James’ departure for L.A., the Cavs stunned the league last year by climbing to as high as second in the East, before injuries and youth caught up and they died in the Play-In Tournament.

This year, the Cavs are the best home team in the NBA, and in comparison to last season’s group, are not only a year older and better, but also added Donovan Mitchell. Still, Love was wondering if the LeBron’s in the building vibe would shake his team again.

“This will be a test for us, to see if we’ve grown up,” Love said.

Well, they passed. Mitchell lit up the Lakers for 43 points, Jarrett Allen returned from a lower-back injury to score 24 points and add 11 rebounds, and the Cavs won 116-102. The Lakers played most of the game without Anthony Davis, their current best player, who left after the first quarter with a fever that topped 101 degrees.

This is the second time this season the Cavs have defeated L.A., and this one hit differently. It happened on a night the organization, and 20,000 screaming fans, serenaded LeBron with a video tribute and standing ovation, again, in the first quarter of a game in which he’d finish with 21 points and two rebounds shy of his career-high 19.



LeBron set a ‘standard’ in Cleveland, and Donovan Mitchell can’t wait to reach it

This is James’ fifth season with the Lakers, and come June, it will have been seven years since that unforgettable Game 7 in The Bay. It’s been celebrated countless times, including over the last half decade since he left Cleveland, and won another ring for the Lakers in The Bubble, but the Cavs and the people who live here brought up their own title with him again anyway, because, that’s how special he is and how much that time meant to the organization and its legions of fans.

That was the ghost the new Cavs finally shooed away.

“It’s difficult to follow in the footsteps of someone who is arguably the greatest at anything,” Cleveland coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “You know as a player – even you see that, you know that – you feel that when you’re walking around the community and you see everybody in the jerseys and those types of things. It’s not easy, and the only way to do it is, in a team setting, get to where that person has gotten and accomplish those things.”

Cleveland is now 11-1 at home and in third place in the East. The Cavs own the second-best defense in the NBA. Mitchell is the league’s seventh-ranked scorer, at 25.8 points per game. Allen and Garland are under contract for years to come, and both coming off All-Star campaigns. Evan Mobley could wind up as their best player.

Given last season’s collapse, a maturity that has developed in Koby Altman’s front office, and the sobriety Bickerstaff brings to the picture, as the son of a coach himself, the Cavs aren’t ready to say they are contenders today. But they also know it’s a label they’re close to earning.

All by themselves. Without LeBron.

For 20 years, the Cavaliers’ plan revolved around James. The year before he was draft-eligible, they heaved overboard their top three leading scorers in lopsided deals for essentially water bottles and practice jerseys just to be lousy enough to perhaps have the chance at drafting him.

After they won the 2003 draft lottery, it became a fire drill to rebuild the roster and win a championship before his contract expired. When that was unsuccessful, they spent his four years in Miami scheming to lure him back. Once he returned, the race for a championship frantically resumed, culminating in the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history.

James was 33 when he left again in 2018. He could no longer serve as the carrot or focal point for his hometown team. The Cavs, for the first time in two decades, had to find their own way out of the forest.

They have.

This season marks the first time James and the Cavaliers could both be playoff contenders apart from one another. LeBron has won titles while the Cavs were rebuilding. Last year, the Lakers were floundering while the Cavs were fighting for the playoffs before ultimately settling in the Play-In Tournament.

The Mitchell trade makes the Cavs viable contenders in the East, while the Lakers had won three straight and eight of 10 prior to Tuesday following a dreadful start that left them buried in the standings. There is optimism in Los Angeles following Davis’ recent tear that the Lakers can climb back into the race in the West.

James had the opportunity to return to Cleveland as a free agent this summer. He acknowledged during All-Star weekend here in February he hadn’t closed the door on the idea of another return, but he instead elected to stay with the Lakers despite the fact they finished 33-49 last season and James missed the playoffs for the second time in his four years there.

The season after the Cavs’ 2016 championship, James was furious after a particularly bad loss at New Orleans. He skewered the entire franchise after the game, calling the roster “top heavy” and questioning whether ownership and the front office still had the same desire to win.

“It would be different if I wasn’t still in championship mode,” James said that night as he fixed his collar before departing the arena. “But I’m still playing at an incredibly high level.”

James turns 38 in three weeks, yet he’s still playing at an incredibly high level – as his 25.8 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 6.4 assists per game show. He voluntarily returned to a team that finished 16 games below .500 last season and is without much trade capital. The Russell Westbrook saga had been a disaster and sapped the Lakers of much-needed draft picks and cap space. The pathways for improvement in Los Angeles remain narrow.

All of which begs the questions: Is LeBron still in championship mode? Or is he content to ride out the last years of his career filming Hollywood commercials and cashing checks?

As he dressed in the visitors’ locker room in the arena he knows so well, and the Lakers sitting in 13th place in the West, James emphatically insisted Tuesday he is still playing for rings.

“I’m still playing at an extremely high level,” he said. “I’m not out there to f—- around. What would I do that for? Me and (Tom) Brady. We’re the same people. We out there for championships.”

The Lakers are finally playing the way James envisioned when they traded a war chest of draft picks to New Orleans in exchange for Davis. For the first time in his career, James was content to defer when Davis arrived and not be the focal point of a franchise. That never really transpired.

James was the dominant force in guiding the Lakers to a championship in The Bubble. Davis has battled injuries the last two years (as has James), and the 2-10 start to this season under rookie coach Darvin Ham left James’ decision to remain with Los Angeles look suspect.

Davis is averaging career highs in scoring, rebounding and shooting percentage, among other categories. He averaged 35.3 points, 15.6 rebounds and 2.9 blocks while shooting 65 percent over the previous 10 games to breathe life back into a franchise that looked unsalvageable just 2 1/2 weeks ago.

The Lakers have been better, too, since Dennis Schröder showed up. Moving Westbrook to the bench may not make anyone comfortable when it comes to locker room vibes, but he’s performed admirably in his new role, and has especially clicked with Davis while James rests.

League-wide, executives expect the Lakers to do something that brightens their outlook a little more. Maybe they swing a massive trade involving Westbrook, or something smaller to build around this new, perhaps imperfect union of Davis as the alpha male, LeBron as the most celebrated wingman in history, and the former MVP Westbrook coming off the bench.

Is that what championship mode looks like nowadays for James?

The irony of it all – Westbrook’s $47 million salary comes off the books in L.A. after this season. The Lakers should have a much better chance to retool around Davis and James for one last great push next season, when the Cavs are more experienced and perhaps a top contender in the East.

Twenty years later, the Cavs are standing on their own. LeBron might have one last run left, too. Championship mode comes in all forms.

(Photo: Jason Miller / Getty Images)


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