The Cleveland Cavaliers: Are their chemistry woes really a thing of the past?

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Ever since LeBron James returned to Ohio to form a ‘big three’ with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, there have been endless chemistry struggles between them. 

Despite that, Cleveland found success and had been the team to beat in the Eastern Conference - something the Toronto Raptors has managed to do twice in succession at the Air Canada Centre recently in their conference finals series.

They were the first seed in the east from day one this year and found the regular season rather comfortable - albeit with a few bumps along the way.

In the playoffs, however, the Cavs seem like a different team. They had consecutive sweeps in the first two rounds of the playoffs and up until game three of their current series with the Raptors, were playing the best they ever have under these players. 

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It is actually hard to recognise that they are the same team as before but had the Central Division franchise simply been exposing the feebleness of their conference in the opening rounds or are their troubles now a thing of the past?

Will their two defeats in Toronto expose some of those on-court chemistry issues again or are they now in such a good place with one another that they can brush it off and come back better?

What was wrong in Cleveland?

When the ‘big three’ was assembled, the entire Cavaliers fan base exploded with optimism and expectation; LeBron was going to give Cleveland the major championship it was so desperate for. 

That was the plan, but the stars in Wine and Gold just hadn’t gelled on the floor and there seemed to be little to no connection between them, with LeBron and Kyrie's chemistry described as “basically non-existent” by one scout, via Chris Mannix of Yahoo

Their stars seem to just take it in turns to shoulder the offensive load, rather than play together.

“…when they are together, it seems that they expend more energy taking turns letting one of the Big Three carry the load, as opposed to everyone giving up a little something for the greater good,” Ken Berger said for CBS Sports.

No one seemed happy and Kevin Love often seemed excluded and “spent his entire first season in Cleveland miserable about his role and relationship with James,” according to Tyler Conway of Bleacher Report

Even Cavs general manager David Griffin noticed the “lack of spirit and connectedness” and this lack of team chemistry resulted in what Berger described as a “sometimes disjointed, always joyless brand of basketball.”

LeBron, for all of his on-court domination, had a questionable effect in publicly criticising his guys. It’s a legitimate way to be the leader, to acknowledge your shortcomings to instigate improvement, but his teammates just did not respond and, rather than being constructive, these comments seemed to hurt what little team spirit they had. 

Whether the onus is on the four-time MVP for making these comments or the team for not responding, it is possible that he was doing more harm than good.

“It's OK to call out your teammates, but you can only do that so many times publicly… I'm just not sure this approach is going to work,” James Herbert of CBS Sports argued.

What’s worse, though, is how James treated his coach, David Blatt, and the possible role James played in his departure. Marc Stein of ESPN saw this first hand:

“James essentially called timeouts and made substitutions. He openly barked at Blatt after decisions he didn't like. He huddled frequently with Lue, often looking at anyone other than Blatt.

“There was James, in one instance I witnessed from right behind the bench, shaking his head vociferously in protest after one play Blatt drew up in the third quarter of Game 5… which forced Blatt, in front of his whole team, to wipe the board clean and draw up something else.”

Regardless of whether The King approved of Blatt’s coaching decisions, this is not the way to behave. He needs to be the role model, not a disruptive influence who publicly shows up his coach. 

How could Blatt ever have kept the players with him when their alpha dog is competing with him for authority? 

The coach and players need to be on the same page to form an efficient and cohesive unit but it seems James prevented that from happening.

What has changed?

What hasn’t changed for Cleveland? Their record of 57-25 in the season is bettered by a 10-2 start to the playoffs and, before their losses to Toronto in games three and four of the Eastern Conference Finals, they had won a mind-boggling 17 consecutive postseason games against the East.

The supporting cast for the ‘big three’ has done a good job in the playoffs too and should be commended for playing their part for the team's improved form in the playoffs.

J.R. Smith has become a seriously important piece of the Cavaliers puzzle and the addition of sharpshooter Channing Frye has been key and GM Griffin deserves his fair share of credit for that pickup.

Frye - whose shooting and underrated defence has been a valuable asset - is hitting the three-ball at 59.2% and the ‘big three’ are all averaging over 16 points and when they are firing on all cylinders as a team, Cleveland is a match for anybody.

Being on good form, though, will not permanently improve the roster. Cleveland’s red hot shooting will, eventually, cool off - as evidenced in the two losses to the Raptors - but that is not to say that nothing has improved.

Those chemistry issues that were so well documented before may be forever fixed with many observers suggesting that the Cavaliers are now one of the association’s tightest teams. 

Off the court, Cleveland’s roster seems to really get on and that is perhaps responsible for their upturn in form. 

“All of a sudden, genuine off-court chemistry has emerged as one of Cleveland's most powerful characteristics,” Michael Pina of Fox Sports said.

“The solidarity this group has displayed on and off the court during this postseason stems from seeds that were planted throughout the regular season. 

"It consisted of players stepping out of comfort zones, breaking down barriers, being willing to listen, expressing interest in their upbringing and understanding what makes each unique,” Chris Haynes of said.

If there was any doubt about the new team spirit that Cleveland has, the players themselves have testified to its effects.

"We're playing good basketball and I think that's because we trust each other," Frye told Haynes. "We've built a bond and we're going out there doing the best we can in not only just playing basketball but to getting to know each other."

Is it real?

While their hot form is now starting to cool off, the Cavs have finally found a team spirit that is not easily disrupted. Solid team chemistry is the foundation to every good roster. 

It is what helped the Hawks to 60 wins last year, it is what propels the Warriors to the top and it is the thing that has given the Spurs unrivalled consistency in the league.

In turn, it could help the Cavs compete with the west’s elite and finally win that championship. If the Cavaliers are as tight as they seem, then this improvement, a solution to their chemistry issues, will be a permanent one.

Still, Cynics might say that the Cavs are not actually over the hump. They might argue that their continued troubles are simply masked by the weakness of the East but that can only be disrespectful to a very impressive Raptors team, if not the entire conference. 

Toronto pushed the Cavs all the way for the top seed in the regular season but a vast expanse opened up between them in the postseason because Cleveland was much improved. 

That appears to be changing now, however, as the Candian outfit has overcome a 0-2 deficit to level the series. 

The Cavaliers have begun to form something of an unbreakable bond and that can lead them to the top, where fans hoped and expected them to be.

Having now lost back-to-back games, though, that team spirit will need to come to the fore and help them react to the first moment of adversity James, Irving and Love have faced together in the postseason. 

With the series now heading back to Ohio at 2-2, the Wine and Gold must display a different side to their game and show a mental toughness and pass this test of character with flying colours to book a second straight appearance in the NBA finals.

Eastern Conference
Kyrie Irving
Cleveland Cavaliers
Central Division
LeBron James
Kevin Love

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