In the first game of their recent swing on the West Coast, the Cleveland Cavaliers confronted their past.
It had been more than four years since LeBron James left Cleveland for the second time, and the Cavs had lost every game to their former superstar since then. But a new-look Cavs team led by Donovan Mitchell, picked up in the off-season, rolled over to Los Angeles to turn the page.
James helped the modest Lakers to a six-point halftime lead with just two wins back then. But Mitchell, the Cavs’ newest star, took over, finishing the evening with 33 points and leading his new team to an eighth straight win.
After the game, Mitchell was asked about the overall meaning of the win.
“As you know, there is so much history with the Cavs organization and LeBron James,” one reporter said. “When you win a game like today against him, does it feel like a page turning moment for the organization in any way?”
“I think for us as an organization we are all grateful for a championship. We’ve got it on the banner, we’ve got stuff about it non-stop, and you know greatness is your only guess,” Mitchell replied. “And for us, it’s all about building our own, different culture.”
James’ presence is still strong in Northeast Ohio. The 2016 title banner he helped put up hangs high above the plaza at the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland. But a new breed of Cavs is trying to build their own legacy.
Over the past month, the team has shown signs of progress, winning eight of their first nine games and briefly finishing second in the Eastern Conference standings. After the team released their 20th offensive unit last season, Mitchell’s arrival gave the team the goal balance needed to accompany an excellent defense. And young stars like Darius Garland, Mitchell’s backcourt colleague, and Evan Mobley are leading the Cavs’ front office to believe the current roster may be a contender for years to come.
But a somber stretch in early November has stalled Cleveland’s rise. Wednesday night’s 113-98 loss to Milwaukee lowered the Cavs’ record to 8-6, a game down from where they started last season. Cleveland has now lost five games in a row, with the worst defense in the league in that span.
Cleveland pulled off a big swing last summer by trading the rights to five first-round draft picks plus player for Mitchell amid the multi-year Eastern Conference dispute. But now, as their quick start gives way to adversity, they’re experiencing the growing pains required to reach that goal.
Kevin Love could feel a change 13 months ago, in the first few weeks of the 2021-22 NBA season. After a 2-0 start, the young Cavs won seven of their next nine games.
“We toured and won in Toronto and New York,” Love said. “I thought, ‘Damn, we could be pretty good if we could put some stuff together.'”
Love has seen a lot in his nine seasons in Cleveland. He came to the Cavs via trade in 2014 and tweaked his game to fit alongside James and Kyrie Irving, helping Cleveland to four straight 50-win and one-title seasons. “I’ve had two primary ball handlers, who are scholars in their different ways, in Kyrie and LeBron,” he said. “But for us to be great, I had to be able to level the ground for them.”
He stayed even in the fallow years when the Cavs never got past 22 wins. frustration rose; In January 2020, as Collin Sexton dribbled for almost 10 seconds at the top of the court, Love memorably waved for the ball and then blasted a pass to Cedi Osman.
In recent years, Love has become the Cavs’ elder statesman. When Evan Mobley was in Los Angeles last offseason, Love occasionally accompanied him to practice at USC. And when the 34-year-old was asked to come off the bench last season, he did. Much like he’s done to help those LeBron teams, he’s slowly accepted the role his team needs. And with another chance to fight, Love looks forward to the journey ahead.
“It’s gratifying more than anything,” he said. “All I knew was that through anything, good or bad, I could persevere and see it through. I mean, it’s something that I think a lot of people didn’t expect, maybe even myself.”
JB Bickerstaff, the coach tasked with overseeing the Cavaliers’ renaissance, also got to that point the hard way. A basketball nomad, he toiled in the league for a decade, including three midseason head coaching assignments, including in Cleveland. In the past few stops, Bickerstaff has been obsessed with working to the point of failure. “I made myself miserable,” he said last week. “Worry about every single thing and you make records of yourself that don’t exist. And you can make this job, which I think is the greatest job on the planet, miserable.
“And there was a point where I decided I wasn’t going to let that happen anymore. Whether ups and downs, victories or defeats, I wouldn’t put myself through that again.”
Now Bickerstaff is building a locker room that prioritizes selflessness. As the Cavs struggled through a 6-10 stretch after last year’s All-Star break, the team introduced the “Junkyard Dog Chain” — an iridescent necklace featuring an oversized “C” logo pendant of the Cavs, which is awarded to the most rugged and formidable players in the game. After last week’s win in Los Angeles, the players presented the coveted piece to Bickerstaff in honor of a fiery halftime speech that motivated Cleveland’s run in the second half.
“He’s the leader in all of this,” Garland said last week. “So whatever we put on the floor, I think that’s a reflection of him. So when we bring in our tenacity and that courage, we know inside that this is JB Bickerstaff.”
But in the days after defeating James’s Lakers, the team began to face adversity. The next night, against the Clippers, the Cavs gave up a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter and lost the game in the final minute. Worse, Mitchell, the team’s top scorer, failed to receive the ball in the final moments.
“There’s no way we can let that happen again,” Bickerstaff raged the next day.
Two nights later in Sacramento, Mitchell scored 38 points and helped close a 15-point deficit, but the Kings prevailed. The game highlighted Mitchell’s new teammates’ persistent habit of staring at his exploits rather than following individual tasks. “Guys really believe in him where they feel like he can pull them out of anything,” Bickerstaff said after the Sacramento loss. “But if we play the way we played tonight, it doesn’t do him any favours.”
Shortly after Mitchell was acquired, he traveled to a team mini-camp organized by Garland in Nashville so the backcourtmates could get to know each other. Two months later, the partnership is still in the works. Garland missed most of Mitchell’s shot on goal at the start of the season due to an eye injury. His own breakout game – a stunning 51-point performance against Minnesota on Sunday – came as Mitchell cheered in street clothes. And if Mitchell and Garland missed time through injuries, the Cavs’ lackluster bench hasn’t closed the gap. Against Milwaukee, Mitchell and Garland both had 23 points, but the Cavs as a whole didn’t crack a 100.
“We kind of have a fat cat mentality,” Bickerstaff said. “We went out and won eight games in a row, everyone loved us and praised us and we felt really comfortable.”
Still, there are signals the Cavs can make a run. Even after Wednesday’s loss, Cleveland remains among the leaders net ratinga statistic measuring a team’s point differential per 100 possessions, boasting one of the best point differentials in the league.
Also, history suggests that Cleveland’s recent troubles are not uncommon. When James returned eight years ago, the team lost seven of their first 12 games earlier in the season before reaching the finals six months later. The next year, Cleveland won it all. The goal remains similar for this group, but now the real work needs to be done.
“I think for all of us, everyone preaches championship,” Caris LeVert told me. “I’ve been on a lot of teams and it’s a long season. A lot of things happen during the season. So I think we’ll just focus on everyday life, get the most out of each day and try to maximize our potential each day, and we’ll take care of all the rest.”