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Are the Cavaliers Ready to Take the Next Step?

Cleveland has a chance to contend without LeBron for the first time in over a decade. But first, the new-look Cavs need to figure out how one of the NBA’s best starts has given way to a five-game skid.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In the first game of their recent West Coast swing, the Cleveland Cavaliers confronted their past.

It’d been more than four years since LeBron James had departed Cleveland for a second time, and since then, the Cavs had lost every game against their former superstar. But a new-look Cavs team, headlined by the offseason pickup of Donovan Mitchell, rolled into Los Angeles looking to turn the page.

James helped the lowly Lakers, with just two wins on the ledger at the time, to a six-point halftime lead. But Mitchell, the Cavs’ newest star acquisition, took over, finishing the evening with 33 points and leading his new team to an eighth straight victory.

After the game, Mitchell was asked about the victory’s broader significance.

“There’s so much history with the Cavs organization and LeBron James, as you well know,” a reporter said. “When you win a game like today against him, does it in any way feel like a turn-the-page moment for the organization?”

“I think for us as an organization, I believe we’re all appreciative of a championship. We have it in the banner, we have nonstop things about it, and you know, you can only appreciate greatness,” Mitchell answered. “And for us, it’s just looking to build our own different culture.”

James’s presence still looms large in Northeast Ohio. The 2016 title banner he helped raise hangs high above the court at Cleveland’s Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. But a new crop of Cavs are trying to build their own legacy.

In the past month, the team has shown signs of progress, winning eight of its first nine games and briefly reaching second in the Eastern Conference standings. After trotting out the 20th-ranked offensive unit last season, the team gained needed scoring balance with Mitchell’s arrival to accompany a superb defense. And young stars like Darius Garland, Mitchell’s backcourt mate, and Evan Mobley have the Cavs front office believing the current squad can be a contender for years to come.

But a dismal stretch to start November has stalled Cleveland’s ascent. Wednesday evening’s 113-98 loss to Milwaukee plunged the Cavs’ record to 8-6, one game worse than last season’s start. Cleveland has now lost five straight games, with the league’s worst defense over that span.

Cleveland took a big swing last summer by trading the rights to five first-round draft picks plus players for Mitchell, with eyes on perennial Eastern Conference contention. But now, as their fast start gives way to adversity, they’re experiencing the growing pains required to achieve that goal.

Kevin Love could sense a change brewing 13 months ago, during the first few weeks of the 2021-22 NBA season. After an 0-2 start, the young Cavs won seven of their next nine games.

“We went on the road, and we won in Toronto and in New York,” Love said. “I was like, ‘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 joined the Cavs via trade in 2014, and streamlined his game to fit in next to James and Kyrie Irving, helping Cleveland to four straight 50-win seasons and a title. “I had two primary ball handlers that are savants in their different ways, in Kyrie and LeBron,” he said. “But in order for us to be great, I had to be able to space the floor for them.”

He also stuck around during the fallow years, when the Cavs never got beyond 22 wins. Frustration mounted; in January 2020, as Collin Sexton dribbled at the top of the court for nearly 10 seconds, Love memorably beckoned for the ball and then rocketed a pass at Cedi Osman.

In recent years, Love has evolved into the Cavs’ elder statesman. When Evan Mobley was in Los Angeles last offseason, Love would occasionally join him for workouts at USC. And when the 34-year-old was asked to come off the bench last season, he obliged. Much like he did to help those LeBron teams, he’s slowly accepted the role his team needs. And with another chance to contend, Love is excited for the journey ahead.

“It’s gratifying more than anything,” he said. “Just knowing that through all of it, good and bad, I was able to stick it out and see it through. I mean, it’s something that I don’t think a lot of people expected, maybe even including myself.”

JB Bickerstaff, the coach tasked with overseeing the Cavaliers’ renaissance, also got to this point by doing things the hard way. A basketball nomad, he toiled around the league for a decade, including three instances in which he took over as head coach during the season, including in Cleveland. In past stops, Bickerstaff obsessed over the job to a fault. “I made myself miserable,” he said last week. “Worrying about every single thing, and you put records on yourself that are nonexistent. And you can make this job, which is, in my mind, the greatest job on the planet, miserable.

“And there was a point where I made my mind up that I wasn’t going to let that happen anymore. Whether it was the ups and downs, wins or losses, I wasn’t going to do that to myself anymore.”

Now, Bickerstaff is building a locker room that prioritizes selflessness. As the Cavs were struggling through a 6-10 stretch after last year’s All-Star break, the team introduced the “Junkyard Dog chain”—a bedazzled necklace featuring an oversized Cavs “C” logo pendant that is given to the scrappiest, most impactful player of the game. After the win in Los Angeles last week, the players awarded the coveted piece to Bickerstaff, in honor of a fiery halftime speech that motivated Cleveland’s second-half run.

“He’s the leader in all this,” Garland said last week. “So whatever we put out on the floor, I think that’s a reflection of him. So when we do bring our toughness and bring that grit, we know in the inside that that’s JB Bickerstaff.”

But in the days following the win over James’s Lakers, the team began to face adversity. The next evening, 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 leading scorer, didn’t receive the ball in the final moments.

“There’s no way that we can allow that to happen again,” Bickerstaff fumed the next day.

In Sacramento two nights later, Mitchell scored 38 points and helped erase a 15-point deficit, but the Kings prevailed. The game highlighted Mitchell’s new teammates’ persistent habit of gawking at his exploits instead of following individual assignments. “Guys believe in him to the fullest level, where they feel like he can pull them out of anything,” Bickerstaff said after the loss in Sacramento. “But when we play the way that we played tonight, that does a disservice to him.”

Shortly after Mitchell was acquired, he traveled to Nashville for a team minicamp organized by Garland so that the backcourt mates could get acquainted with each other. Two months later, the partnership remains a work in progress. Garland missed most of Mitchell’s scoring binge to start the season due to an eye injury. His own breakout game—a jaw-dropping 51-point effort against Minnesota on Sunday—happened as Mitchell cheered in street clothes. And when Mitchell and Garland have missed time with injuries, the Cavs’ lackluster bench hasn’t picked up the slack. Against Milwaukee, Mitchell and Garland both scored 23 points, but the Cavs as a whole didn’t crack 100.

“We got kind of a fat-cat mentality,” Bickerstaff said. “We went out and won eight games in a row, everybody was giving us love and praising us, and we got really comfortable.”

Still, there are signals that the Cavs can make a run. Even after Wednesday’s loss, Cleveland remains among the leaders in net rating, a stat that measures a team’s point differential per 100 possessions, and has one of the league’s best point differentials.

Plus, history suggests Cleveland’s recent troubles aren’t uncommon. When James returned eight years ago, the team began the season losing seven of its first 12 games 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 is preaching championship,” Caris LeVert told me. “I’ve been around a lot of teams, and it’s a long season. A lot of things happen within the season. So I think for us, just staying focused on the day-to-day, getting the most of each day, trying to maximize our potential each and every day will take care of all the rest of the stuff.”