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Your Cleveland Cavaliers, one arm at a time

Ponder this for a moment.

One year ago, LeBron James wasn't a part of the Cleveland Cavaliers roster. Sure, we had watched Dan Gilbert's plane fly to Miami...literally...but not a soul outside of Gilbert, David Griffin and LeBron James knew what was to happen a few short days later.

James returned home.

A lot happened between then and now, but that's really not the point of this piece. It's just to understand that this team took a long and strange journey to get to the 2015-2016 season.

Some would say that it happened long before James's latest return, but in the 2003 draft, when the Akron-born high school star officially joined his "home-town" team, and that would be partly true.

Some would say that it started way back in 2005, when billionaire Dan Gilbert purchased the Cavs from the revered Gund family, and that would be partly true as well.

The reality of the Cleveland Cavaliers' story as it moves forward, is that while James joining the franchice (twice), and while Gilbert purchasing the Cavs, will always be seismic events, the tale of this current roster seemed to truly begin with the yanking of an arm.

We know the Cavs struggled to start of the 2014-2015 season, but that really wasn't a surprise. Most knew in their hearts that this team needed time to fit together, and then needed more pieces to win consistently against the great teams of the West. The returning Cavs on this roster from the post-LeBron era were consistent losers, and so was Kevin Love. While the new players added as free agents (James Jones and Mike Miller) had won titles, these were fringe players that likely wouldn't make a difference, unless they had to.

Things weren't right during the 2014 portion of the season, but they weren't horrid either. They had a stretch in which they won eight games in a row. This may have been some smoke and mirrors at work, but it was a taste of what this team could do, should things turn right.

They still struggled, we know that.

We know LeBron was hurt, and missed two weeks. Or maybe he wasn't. He could have just been disinterested in those early games, knowing the real important games didn't start until the playoffs. Or, he could have been pouting, who knows really. The media sure didn't, and this is no knock on them really, just where LeBron is, and we'll get to that in a bit.

During that time, LeBron flew to Miami, spent time in a cryogenic chamber, using cryo-therapy to recuperate. When he returned, Louis Amundson, Alex Kirk, Dion Waiters and some draft picks were gone, replaced by Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and Timofey Mozgov.

That was the real transition, and while the team was clearly better, they still just didn't feel quite right.

We know that the Cavs then started winning, a lot, once this new version took to the court. But there were still questions from the media, and this team still didn't really feel like a "team." Many of you reading this are likely nodding, knowing exactly what I'm talking about (or wondering what I'm smoking). There was an uneasiness about this roster, that was either still a product of 2010 decisions, Cleveland "jixes," or a very real sense that the players on this team still didn't know each other. Likely all of the above.

Perhaps it was the aloofness of Kevin Love, and the ongoing rumors of his departure, even though he was adamant that he was going to be a Cavalier.

Perhaps it was the newness of Shumpert, Mozgov and Smith, and the unknown factor that each player brought to the team to the average NBA fan. Shumpert came over hurt, was never really a gamebreaker in New York, and would be a restricted free agent (a very respected player in inner circles, and a great defender). Mozgov is a player that was on the radar in the Cavs' front office for the past 18 months, but wasn't a known commodity at the center position, especially in a league moving away from supposed "lumbering" centers (Mozgov isn't lumbering at all, but not many knew that).

And then there's J.R. Smith, who made Dion Waiters seem downright, well, normal.

Don't get me wrong, this team was really good, and everybody knew it, but there was something that just didn't feel quite right. This team felt like some good players jammed together, and less a "team."

Now it's important to note that a lot of this "feeling" may stem from a San Antonio Spurs team that won the 2013-2014 NBA Title, defeating LeBron's Miami Heat. This was a team that knew each other, and worked together to beat the best player in the league, and his aging Heat. This was a team that understood sacrifice for the greater good. This was a team that didn't worry about money (well, you know) or coaches or press or playing time.

Fast-forward to 2014-2015. The Cavs won basketball games, but it was often based on a big performance from one of its big time players in LeBron or Kyrie Irving. And Love still didn't quite fit in, and neither did head coach David Blatt, if you were to believe the media. But our comparisons are to LeBron's teams from the past, and those pesky Spurs, who were a team that seemed to fit more in the past, then in the present.

What about Blatt? He is clearly a smart guy, but...he's odd. He's great in front of the camera, but he just doesn't remind me of any coach I've ever really seen before. He wears his emotions on his sleeves, and just wants to win. It's odd to say that I think he's an optimist in a world and league and town of pessimism.

It was kind of refreshing. What was clear is the Blatt wasn't an NBA insider, and that likely hurt him with a bunch of media that loved their "insider-ness" with coaches they've known for years.

Now I truly don't buy the media that had him out the door nearly every week after January 1st, but I do think that this team literally had a season-long feeling out process. I'm not saying this team and coach didn't like each other. I'm not saying that this team and coach didn't know how to play basketball. I'm just saying they were still learning how to play together, and trying to figure it all out.

It was like that from day one, and it gives an off-balance feel to those watching. It's glorious to THINK this all comes easy and that 70-games is an attainable goal. Hell, Bill Simmons even said that the "Cavs may not lose a game at home this year."

That's talent, but talent doesn't always perform at their max, coaching included, when you don't know each other's tendencies. Think about it, you have a GM highly respected in NBA circles, but in his first full season, and now taking hits for not really being the GM of the team. I've already talked about Blatt. LeBron is supposed to be the savior. Kyrie is a returning Cav and was supposedly out the door, and the rest of this team trying to figure out their place in things.

The fact that they had an influx of three major players to their rotation in January can't be overlooked, and the fact that this team dominated without really knowing each other on-the-court all that well, can't be overlooked either. It's not a surprise, but it's often overshadowed by some very talented players.

It's that weird balance you hear experts blather on about. "You can't win unless your a team," mixed with "the Cavs should win because of their singular talent."

It's an odd place to be, at least publicly.

It all still didn't feel quite real, and they didn't quite feel like a team, much more those singularities I mentioned, wearing all the same jersey, trying to find their way around a superstar. Plus, that superstar couldn't just feel right, right? I mean, there's never been a player more "hated" in Cleveland than LeBron, ever.

I know he felt a lot of love, but he's a human being. There had to be some part of him that thought this was just as weird as we did. Maybe that's where this unbalance came from.

I'm not trying to be metaphysical here, but trying to figure out this team from afar is not an easy thing to do, especially when most of the beat writers are kept at a distance.  A lot of the "inside" stuff seemed more like sources having a lot of fun misleading writers. Perhaps this was the lesson that King James learned in 2010 and beyond. DTA...Don't. Trust. Anyone.

Hell, Cleveland fans have felt that way for years and years, long before LeBron took it to another level in 2010. The heartbreaks are obvious, and the dis-trust of people runs deep, thanks to Art Modell's slimy underbelly, and capped off nicely with Carlos Boozer's back-stabbing from the early LeBron era. It's ingrained in all of us.

Regardless, trying to figure out who or what this team was from the stands or in front of the T.V.'s wasn't easy to do thanks to our history, the media, and what we saw and heart.

It became a game of reading into interviews and figuring out why certain players were (or weren't) in an instagram picture. Hell, that began back in that July 11th essay that LeBron wrote, when he left Wiggins out of the future puzzle discussion.

Then he was dealt.

Loving this team was literally like wandering through a not-so-Fun-House.

LeBron is the player, and the coach, and the GM, or maybe he's not. Griffin did pull of the flurry of trades while LeBron was in search of Ted Williams frozen head. But we all know being a GM for a LeBron team is a no-win situation, unless you have an ego the size of Pat Riley. Being a coach is similar.

And Blatt can coach. He did win a bazillion championships in Europe. We all know it's a different game, but at the same time, it's still basketball, and Blatt is clearly a leader of basketball men. I'm just not sure how many basketball "men" are actually NBA players, and that's really the question here.

San Antonio seems like a team of men, while the rest of the league seems something less. That's probably to broad a stroke there, but we can at least agree that many of these players in the NBA, while fantastic at the game they play, are clearly trying to figure out the game of life in a very public sense. Some do it well, and some don't, but making the money they do, while performing on TV nightly at their age can often stunt their off-the-court growth.

Golden State clearly found a bit of the Spurs magic, and perhaps that was the major difference between Mark Jackson their coach prior to this year, and Steve Kerr, their new coach.

Jackson carried that "school-yard, I-used-to-play-with-you-in-the-league" sorta mojo, while Kerr didn't, even though he used-to-play-in-the-league.

Jackson was an NBA starter, former rookie of the year, and one of the best point guards in the league. I'm not saying he's a bad coach, he's not, but you could tell when he was doing color all year that these players are more his pals than his players. It's just a different sort of mentality.

Kerr was a piece-of-the-puzzle-player, a three-point marksman, who never averaged more than 25 minutes, or nine points a game.

If you want to have some fun sometime, find a youtube with Kerr as the color commentator, then put it side-by-side with Jackson. Both have insight, but they are brought together in a much different manor.

Kerr has been highly sought after for years as a head coach, and it's likely because of his hoops IQ, and his pure ability to lead.

I honestly don't know where Blatt fits in here. His IQ is high, and he's clearly an outsider to the NBA (he's even admitted that this offseason), but he's also pretty highly thought of. His other choice as an NBA coach? Steve Kerr had already offered him his top assistant job.

Smart guys hire smart coaches.

The point here is that the Cavs were largely talented, and largely confounding to figure out, because of the reports coming from the writers, and the comments coming from the players, combined with their performance on the court.

It never seemed to fit, even while they were winning.

Imagine a maze created by someone who can't see. That was your Cleveland Cavaliers through much of last season.

Sure, we'd like to believe that once LeBron returned and Kevin Love joined the roster, that they were #AllIn, but the reality is that it's hard to "buy in" until you bond. In San Antonio, you bond into the "Spurs Way" when you sign on the dotted line, that's a given created by a very strong organization. The front office, coach and personnel have been in place for years, and when you win consistently, the transition is easy.

The Celtics were the first case of that in an era gone by, and many teams molded themselves after those early Celtic teams, led by the patriarch, Red Auerbach. I could go on-and-on, and all of those great organizations had a lightning rod in the middle, that begat other lightning rods.

Yeah, Pat Riley was one of them, but he needed a great organization (and player) to get him there, in the Los Angeles Lakers. Without Magic Johnson demanding a move, Riley never becomes coach of that team, but this piece isn't about delving into other organizational make-ups.

In Cleveland with LeBron, it's always going to be a bit more complicated. LeBron wants to win basketball games. LeBron also wants control. This isn't an odd scenario. Yes, the Chicago Bulls had Phil Jackson, a great coach made "greater" by his players, but we all know that Michael Jordan ran that team in a very forceful manner.

LeBron is on an immortal NBA pedestal. That's just the way it is.

LeBron does want control, and he's likely earned it. What that control is though, is hard to figure out. Here's what I know. At the end of the playoffs, the organization bought into that "control," and they almost won an NBA title, but that was the end of the playoffs.

The Cavs, heading into the playoffs, were a great team, but they weren't a "great team." This was a group that had Irving and Love and of course, LeBron, and that talent alone would take them to the finals. Most "experts" thought it was possible, but not necessarily probable.

Many said the Bulls were a better team.

Many said the Hawks were a better team.

Many said that both "teams" could beat the iso-driven Cavs and their "Big Three."

Their first round match-up against the Boston Celtics was easy, and not easy at the same time. The Celtics were nowhere near as talented as the Cavs' ten-man rotation, and while Brad Stevens is a brilliant coach, it was his first foray into the NBA playoffs.

Yes, the series proved that the Cavs were a force to be reckoned with, but it wasn't until they faced their biggest loss, that this team started coming together.

Even deeper than that, this team started to become a true part of Cleveland. We all saw the "Together" commercial that LeBron and Nike put together at the beginning of the season. We all watched, and held hands, and sang "kumbaya," followed by a single tear, but it never really felt quite like that, did it? Not until there were 5 1/2 minutes left in the first half of Game 4 during that first round series against the Celtics.

Yes, I'm referring to Kelly Olynyk nearly yanking Kevin Love's arm off of his body in that clinching game.

There were a few moments there, when Kevin Love was running straight to the locker room after the "Olynyk-yanking" in which the collective city of Cleveland launched off of their seats, whether it be at Quicken Loans, at a local watering hole, or on the couch in the living room. The Cavs bench was furious, the fans wanted blood, and in these few moments, something changed.

I don't know how internal this was, but it certainly was an external change. As odd as it sounds, Kevin Love's arm became a living-and-breathing martyr, and the Cavs and their fans rallied around that left arm like we were Storming the Bastille.

In the middle of all of this, coach David Blatt was strangely calm. While the media likely thought it was some dire consequence of being detached to his players, it was the exact opposite. Blatt bided his time, then put Kendrick Perkins into the game, to exact some justice.

Kendrick did.

The Cavs won the game and swept the series, and even without Love, were likely the most talented team in East, in the playoffs. But if there was a belief they couldn't win against Chicago or Atlanta with Kevin Love, it certainly became the talk of the NBA-town after the injury.

But fans were friggin' resilient. Doubt seemed to go away on social media for the most part, and for the first time all season, there was a different feel. I'm not talking "team of destiny" here, or anything like that, but things changed.

I almost wish I could mold Love's arm, and make it into a "Christmas Story" lamp to put in at the top of the Terminal Tower. It's the arm that changed, at the very least, the perception of this team to the locals.

But from that one Kevin Love moment, this team was different behind the scenes as well, and it was visible. This team, which seemed to work from behind a firewall all season, were suddenly and believably #AllIn for the city of Cleveland. Sure, they wanted a title, what NBA team doesn't. But now you could feel it.

But, for the first time all year, the team felt less aloof, and more as a unit.

Kyrie Irving refused to come off the court, and only sat at the end of the bench when he was shackled. He played to his own detriment, but for the first time in his career, cemented himself as a true leader. Prior to the coming of LeBron, many respected "insiders" knew for a fact that he hated playing in Cleveland, and that he'd be leaving after last season.

He didn't, adding to the misconceptions that this team has had for years, before exploding this year under the media scrutiny of the LeBron return.

That this team was a force to be reckoned with after Love is easy to say when you have two of the top ten players in the game on the court, with one of those two players arguably in the "best ever" conversation. But this team began to carry the Cleveland flag everywhere. I'm not sure what they were behind the scenes, but when they walked out of that locker room, they resembled a grizzled unit, coming together at the right time.

No, they weren't/aren't the Spurs, but they were playing as a team. King James was the constant (and boy was he constant), while different soldiers stepped up from game-to-game.

Love's injury changed things, and even losing Kyrie Irving for some of the Chicago series, and most of the Atlanta series, and virtually all of the Golden State series didn't change that outward direction.

The Cavs took the Bulls in six games, watching multiple players step up around LeBron, including Smith and Shumpert and Kyrie.

Then the Cavs swept the Hawks, with Kyrie missing two full games.

Throughout all of this, Coach Blatt made mistakes, and the rhetoric from the press continued, pointing to players "not paying attention" to Blatt in the huddle and at halftime, and Love not attending away games (even though he wasn't cleared to fly there). There was even a report that Lue was ready to take over the team, regardless of when the season ended, even if they made the finals.

But on the court, and from the horses mouths, came a different tale. Love said again, that he was coming back to Cleveland. Blatt made a timeout mistake, but clearly made brilliant coaching calls throughout the playoffs, against coaches considered much better than him in all three series, that would suggest he was much better than the "experts" thought.

All of that is 'White Noise" though. This team...became ours.

They lost that final series to the Golden State Warriors, but not before more players stepped up, including Mozgov and Matthew Dellavedova. Delly literally spent a night in the hospital, after utter exhaustion after Game 3 of the playoffs. Shumpert was there throughout, but was playing with one arm, and just refused to come out of games.

LeBron was LeBron, only better. It may have been his most exquisite performance in any playoff series. Some said he'd win the finals MVP if the Cavs won, or if they lost, but that was pointless. We all knew the LeBron won the Cavs MVP for life once he returned.

And this is just a sidenote, while I'm thinking of it. You're allowed to be a hypocrite. Real life doesn't lock you into love or hate, the way some people want you to believe. It doesn't make you a good person, or a bad person, when we're talking about a basketball team. It's sports people, and deciding, after burning your Bron jersey in 2010 that you're fine following him again in 2014 doesn't make you horrible. To those that compare sports to Supreme Court decisions need to get a life. The good guy is always the player on your team. The bad guy is always the player who isn't. The fact that LeBron became both in exciting ways only enhances that belief.

Seriously...it's a Cleveland thing. People outside Cleveland don't get it. Let them hate Cleveland...

Who. Freakin'. Cares.

You can write any sort of narrative you want there. It can be fun, and focus on the fact the LeBron "wanted to learn how to win from Riley," before bringing it back home. It can be business, based on LeBron wanting as much control as possible. It can be simple, because his wife "wanted him to come home." Hell, it was likely simply because the Heat lost in the 2013-2014 finals, if you're to get right down to it.

Who cares.

This team became a lot more easy to read after Olynyk took Love out of the playoffs. Perhaps it was simply perception, but I doubt it. It bonded this team in a way that made them underdogs, and forced them into a foxhole together.

In moments of hilarity to me, Love, looked longingly from behind the bench, and then, so did Kyrie. These were guys that wanted to be a part of this thing. It was, and is, special. LeBron coming home, and all the moves made during the season were the framework for a great team.

The playoffs were the structure.

Once the offseason began, of course the questions started cropping up again. That's just the way things are in today's world. The first volley came, supposedly by the LeBron camp, stating that "LeBron wouldn't recruit Love anymore."

Days later, photos surfaced of Love and LeBron at a pool, getting ready to talk shop. Tell me that didn't make you chuckle. I'm sure it made LeBron and Love chuckle.

It screams of a team laughing in the face of the media, doesn't it? While Love opted out of his contract, and so did LeBron, but that's what was always going to happen. It was just a matter of time they rejoined their team...our team.

Love did so right away, and didn't mince words. His five-year deal was exactly what most media outlets said he wouldn't do. Many speculated that he would either pick up his one-year option, or opt out and sign a one-year deal, so he could reap the benefits of a much higher salary cap next year.

Instead, Love was #AllIn. Aloof or not, Love is our aloof-y, one-armed bandit now. Albert Belle taught us that you just had to be good to be loved. Hell, Love is already 4/5ths there.

Iman Shumpert also re-signed, and man, that hair. That hair is #AllIn, even if you aren't.

But it didn't stop there, of course...the doubt that is.

It was then reported the LeBron wouldn't sign until he was assured the rest of the team fit his model, including Tristan Thompson, who is represented by LeBron...er...LeBron's agent and friend, Rich Paul.

Then LeBron signed, and it was clearly nothing more than dotting i's and crossing t's, even though the rest of the nation looked much more into it. LeBron's home folks...deal with it.

Special.

Adding Mo Williams just seemed to cement everything together. There wasn't a player more Cleveland than was "Mo Gotti" after LeBron left. Perhaps the greatest moment of that season, of any season between 2010 and 2014 was when Mo ignored LeBron's pat on the back, and told him to "Shut the *&*%" when he came over to say hello.

Now we are waiting for Thompson to sign, and perhaps Delly and J.R. Smith. We're waiting for a possible trade utilizing Brendan Haywood's expiring contract, and perhaps a European 7-footer signing on the cheap.

But none of that matters at this point. Gilbert is #AllIn. Griffin is #AllIn. LeBron is #AllIn. Kyrie and Love are #AllIn.

Hell, we all are.

The Cavs are a season into a fantastic championship project. In year one, without really coming together until two main pieces were hurt/gone, they came two games away from an NBA Championship.

Now comes the window when most thought they'd contend...

...and they will.

Your Cleveland Cavaliers, ladies and gentlemen... 
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