Ladies and gentlemen, your Cleveland Cavaliers have a firm grasp on third place in the Eastern Conference soon heading into the All-Star break. Again, I'll admit I was wrong upfront about this team – I think a lot of people would say they were. But, I'm not going to gas myself up in regards to my doubts over them and sound like a bloated windbag. You can pay for a subscription elsewhere to see that.
Instead, let's talk about how fun this team is and how they continue to find wins by remaining true to their brand of basketball. They dominated two hapless squads in the Indiana Pacers and the San Antonio Spurs at home before heading on the road and duping the Pacers a second time in a week after going down 47-28 in the first quarter. Finally to wrap up the week they went into a hostile environment in Philadelphia and went blow for blow with the 76ers and Joel Embiid, who Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff considers the frontrunner for MVP this season and came up just short.
Sure it was a tough loss for Cleveland but it's honestly impressive that Cleveland has gotten to this point. They've dealt with losing their best young scorer and key veteran, plenty of COVID issues and a rotation that always feels like it's in flux. Speaking of in flux, the Cavaliers are trying to add Caris LeVert, who they acquired days before the trade deadline, into the mix. The loss to Philadelphia was disappointing in the sense that Cleveland is trying to prove they belong in the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference. But, it also was a valuable learning experience as well. Hopefully, as the season goes on more folks get on the bandwagon since all things considered this Cavaliers team is special. It'll help if all media covering them makes that possible but more on that in a bit.
How has Caris LeVert looked so far for Cleveland?
When the trade between the Cavaliers and Pacers was announced, it wasn't much of a surprise that Caris LeVert was headed to Cleveland. It was one of the worst kept secrets leading up to the deadline and according to Bleacher Report's Jake Fischer, it took the Dallas Mavericks and New York Knicks trying to pry LeVert to make him a Cavalier.
Thankfully, with Cleveland making the trade a few days before the deadline, it gave LeVert time to acclimate to his new situation. When he was first available to the media, LeVert was overwhelmingly positive about coming to the Cavaliers. He noticed that this team was having fun together and that everyone wants the best for each other. LeVert also echoed similar sentiments to former and now current teammate Jarrett Allen that it felt like the vibes surrounding this team were similar to the ones he and Allen built in Brooklyn.
“He’s a quiet, caring guy. When he first came in the locker room, the first thing he asked about was my family. How’s my mom doing, my dad, how’s everybody doing?” Allen said. “That means a lot to me. You could just say, ‘How’s the team? How’s basketball?’ But he actually cared about my personal well-being.
“I’m really excited. When I heard he was getting traded here I was just happy to be able to play with him again, happy to be able to grow our basketball careers together again.”
LeVert will slot in nicely as a key veteran alongside Allen to help continue guiding Cleveland's blossoming culture. But, that's still going to take time as this Cavaliers team has a long way to grow in order to reach their full potential. The same can be said for LeVert and his overall impact on the floor for Cleveland as well. In three games played for the Cavaliers, LeVert is averaging 11.0 points, 4.3 assists, 2.0 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game.
In his short time with the team, LeVert has mostly come off the bench for Cleveland. But, when the Cavaliers decided to rest Darius Garland while on the road in Indianapolis, LeVert drew the start at point guard. He was sensational for Cleveland – putting up 22 points, 2 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals in 36 minutes played. LeVert was all over the place for the Cavaliers on Friday night and drew plenty of admiration from his former team.
"This is why they wanted him and why they were willing to give up multiple drafts picks and expiring contracts and all that stuff to get him," Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said. "I know it's not fun losing that to that guy, but I know what he's capable of."
"He was one of the hardest people I've ever had to trade,'' Pacers president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard said about LeVert before the game. "He is a special person, and I want to thank Caris. He's probably going to go score 50 tonight.''
The Cavaliers went out and got their man and fans got a taste of what to expect on how Cleveland will utilize the multi-faceted forward. Prior to their Saturday night tilt against Philadelphia, Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said that they've been making a concerted effort to utilizie LeVert in the pick and roll so that the former Pacer can establish a rapport with his new team. Eventually, Bickerstaff said that LeVert will have a full grasp of Cleveland's offense and that'll open up more for him. So far, it's been good on the returns from LeVert for Cleveland but, when that happens the Cavaliers could be dynamic on that end once again.
Philadelphia superstar Joel Embiid throttled the Cavaliers on Saturday night. It was arguably one of the more disappointing losses of the season but it also gave perspective on where Cleveland needs to head next.
It's not about wins and losses, it's about wins and lessons for the Cavaliers
Simply put, the Philadelphia 76ers rocked Cleveland's world on Saturday night. You could tell that the Sixers, especially their superstar big man Joel Embiid, was juiced after it was announced that Philadelphia would be acquiring superstar guard James Harden. Embiid throttled the Cavaliers finishing the night with a triple-double with 40 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists.
Prior to the game, Cleveland head coach J.B. Bickerstaff heaped praise on Embiid this season – calling him the front runner for league MVP. Embiid's performance really reinforced Bickerstaff's sentiments. But, it also gave him more for him, and his team, to reflect on and use as a valuable learning experience.
"It was a clear message from the beginning of the game the intensity that they were coming with," said Bickerstaff postgame. "The physicality that they played with. I think that these are the tests that we've talked about and these are the lessons we've got to learn."
Bickerstaff seemed frustrated but encouraged for the next time the Cavaliers play the 76ers in Philadelphia in March. It was a similar sentiment from Darius Garland and Dean Wade, who both gave credit to Embiid and the Sixers but felt like there was still something there for them. Granted, it'll likely be a different team with Harden in the lineup but, the Cleveland will likely be a bit different too.
The deadline for the Cavaliers to add buyout players to their roster is March 1 – days before they return to Philadelphia to play the Sixers. There will be plenty of names for Cleveland to consider – including former Cavaliers big man Tristan Thompson. No matter who Cleveland ends up adding, it'll be a new dimension for Philadelphia to evaluate and factor into their game plan. Sure, the same can be said with the Cavaliers and the Sixers as well. But, they'll have more in-game footage to help plan and prepare for Harden – who should and likely will be one of their primary defensive focuses.
With that said, Bickerstaff and his team should be optimistic about their chances heading into the next time they face Philadelphia. It feels reminiscent of the first time Milwaukee Bucks superstar Jrue Holiday locked down Garland on defense. The Cavaliers made smart, tactical adjustments in order to make Garland's life easier the next time Cleveland played Milwaukee. It may not be to a similar effect next time the Cavaliers play the 76ers. But, it will be different.
A fairly innocuous post about Rajon Rondo started a bit of social media drama on Friday night. It also put into perspective the current state of Cavaliers media coverage.
Media members need to stop gatekeeping coverage of the Cavaliers and support one another instead
During Cleveland's postgame media availability in Indiana on Friday., Cavaliers veteran point guard Rajon Rondo gave an interesting quote to a beat writer that has traveled to nearly every road game throughout the entirety of the pandemic. It gave perspective on Rondo's season prior to Cleveland and how he considered his basketball future during that time and how he now feels rejuvenated with the Cavaliers.
"I was thinking about retiring," said Rondo. "It's very refreshing to be around a group of men, young guys like this that's willing to sacrifice every night. Playing for one of my favorite coaches I've ever played for, he's a point guard or a superstar's dream coach to play for, even the roleplayers. He gives us a bunch of confidence, he's very positive on the court. When he needs to be direct or stern, that's what he is and guys respond very well to him.
And again, it's so refreshing to be around a group of men that love to play the game and are so unselfish and want to win every possession."
When the reporter who traveled pre-vaccine pressed on Rondo actually considering retirement, the Hall of Fame point guard said he's been considering it for a while. He wasn't doing what he wanted to do with the Lakers and coming to the Cavaliers has completely turned things around for him.
It seems like a pretty cut and dry answer, right? Rondo, who has been in the league since 2006, has plenty of mileage on his body and is entering the final years of his career. It makes sense that he would be considering retirement while with the Lakers, he was seldom playing for them this season. It's what made him so obtainable for Cleveland when they needed a point guard after Ricky Rubio went down for the season and Darius Garland was sidelined with COVID. Again, it's fairly cut and dry and it seemed like Rondo did consider retirement while with the Lakers this season.
At least, that's how it felt when those listening in on media availability via Zoom shared Rondo's quote. That's where things started to hit the fan. First, said reporter wanted to provide clarity and make it be known that he got the answer from Rondo. That's fine. Clarity is always important – especially in an era where news can have legs quicker than most expect. No harm. No foul.
But, said reporter then decided to double down in the most condescending way imaginable. The level of elitism oozing from that tweet is maddening but not surprising considering who it came from. He has become a tireless, chirpy gatekeeper of Cavaliers coverage and his presence in my life is less a coincidence than it is a hard law of science. Gravity keeps me adhered to the Earth’s surface. Water and air combine to deliver fresh oxygen to my working cells. Every day has 24 hours and not an hour more. And whenever the Cavaliers, at any level, wants good publicity, he is there, overjoyed to deliver it to the masses while gatekeeping coverage from everyone else.
Acting that entitled to a response from a player in a public space shared amongst reporters is maddening. I've personally had answers to questions or stories aggregated and explored from different angles as well. I haven't ever let it perturb me this much. Because, at the end of the day, all it's going to do is further drive an audience to my work and get more people excited about the topic it's covering. In turn, that same audience will look elsewhere for content to consume that will only bolster the work of my friends and colleagues.
So, that's why it makes next to little sense to be this rude considering that, again, not everyone has the privilege to travel to every road game in the midst of a global pandemic even before the vaccine was conceived. Some of us, myself included, need to utilize these Zoom calls in order to make our work actually function. Because of that, not everyone is able to get a question in over Zoom with some in the media room dominating player and coach availability. Availability here is the keyword as it isn't an exclusive one-on-one interview for a feature or anything like that.
To be fair, this reporter is a journalist. So having this coming from me is a bit rich since I'm a guy with no training in the form who made his bones by blogging about the team. But, everyone started from somewhere and has earned the right to be a part of covering this team. So, instead of trying to punch down and belittle others, support them. Think of creative and unique ways to approach speaking to these players and coaches so that it allows for opportunities for others to grow as well.
There's going to come a time when many of us move on to other ventures and we'll need fresh, new faces covering this team in our place. If you act like this, you'll only continue to discourage those trying to climb the ranks to keep pushing. So, instead of enduring this reporter's vanilla reign as an optimized Wormtongue with a smiling emoji for a face, I hope others push through and continue their coverage. As the team gets better, so will the scope of work revolving around them. Hopefully, by then, some are a little less sensitive and stop acting like an answer in an open forum is their exclusive intellectual property.