Once 'Top Heavy As S T', Cavaliers Now Showing They're More Than LeBron, Big 3

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James watches the fourth quarter from the bench during the team's NBA basketball game against the Boston Celtics in Boston, Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018. The Celtics won 102-88. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Dwyane Wade stood solemnly at his locker answering media questions, his soft voice sounding more like a preacher's than a professional athlete's.

His Cleveland Cavaliers had just lost a home contest to the Atlanta Hawks, who at the time entered the night an NBA-worst 1-8 overall.

"It's no secret in this locker room, but our first unit, we've got to start off better," Wade said with a laugh that sounded more like a cry for help. "I want one time for the first unit to get on the second unit because we blew a lead. I'm waiting for that day to happen."

Wait, what?

Here was a 35-year-old Wade, demoted to a reserve role for the first time in his career, calling out a unit that consisted of three All-Stars and two MVPs. Apparently LeBron James, Kevin Love, Derrick Rose, J.R. Smith and Jae Crowder weren't good enough to build a lead against the lowly Hawks?

As it turns out, Wade was right and has continued to be. On a team that has long collapsed the instant James steps off the court, the opposite has been true this season.

This all comes less than one calendar year after James went on a postgame tirade, ripping the team's lack of depth after a 124-122 loss to a New Orleans Pelicans team that was without an injured Anthony Davis and hadn't yet traded for DeMarcus Cousins.

"It's like when you don't have bodies. It's tough," James said at the time, per ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin. "The f--king grind of the regular season. We're a top-heavy team. We have a top-heavy team. We top-heavy as s--t. It's me, (Kyrie Irving), (Kevin Love). It's top-heavy."

No one could argue with James at the time. The Cavs had no backup point guard following the sudden retirement of Mo Williams and free-agent departure of Matthew Dellavedova. J.R. Smith missed 41 games with a thumb injury, forcing DeAndre Liggins to start 19 games at shooting guard after spending the two previous seasons in the D-League.

In no way was the team's lack of depth more exposed than in the Finals. Facing the Golden State Warriors for the third straight year, the Cavs' starters actually outplayed their Western counterparts. Cleveland's starting unit outscored the Warriors' 482-463, shooting 49.7 percent from the field and a blistering 44.4 percent from behind the arc.

Unfortunately, things began to crumble whenever the second unit was called in.

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 12:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors passes against Deron Williams #31 of the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 5 of the 2017 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 12, 2017 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknRonald Martinez/Getty Images

Cleveland's bench of Richard Jefferson, Kyle Korver, Deron Williams and Iman Shumpert was outscored 145-92 in the five-game series, shooting just 30.6 percent to the 50.8 percent converted by the Warriors' reserves.

At 36, Jefferson was the Cavaliers' best sub and was even being asked to guard Kevin Durant for stretches. Williams was so awful (five total points on 2-of-15 shooting) that he played himself out of the league at age 32.

What was Cleveland's biggest weakness has become one of its most surprising strengths.

Since Wade volunteered to come off the bench just three games into the season, the Cavs' reserves are scoring 40.6 points per game, good for fifth overall in the NBA. They also possess the third-highest net rating (plus-6.8), trailing only the Warriors and Houston Rockets. Last season, Cleveland's bench finished the year 28th overall in scoring (29.1 points per game) with a net rating of minus-1.3.

Wade has embraced a position change, moving to point guard for the first time since his rookie season in 2003-04. Joining him in the revamped second unit are Jeff Green, Tristan Thompson, Korver and Channing Frye. Rose and Shumpert (injuries) could eventually factor into the rotation as well.

Wade has proven to be the steady hand and second-unit playmaker James begged for last season. Korver will go down as one of the NBA's best three-point shooters of all time and is currently connecting at a 44.3 percent rate. Thompson cleans the glass while Green has resurrected his career with 10.8 points on 48.0 percent shooting.

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 6:  Jeff Green #32 of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Kyle Korver #26 of the Cleveland Cavaliers help Dwyane Wade #9 of the Cleveland Cavaliers up after a fall during the game against the Sacramento Kings on December 6, 2017 at QuickeDavid Liam Kyle/Getty Images

"I've been on championship-contending teams before, but I've never been on a team this deep," Green told Bleacher Report earlier this season. "You've got Hall of Famers, All-Stars and champions. This is a one-of-a-kind team."

Cleveland's three-headed bench monster of Wade, Korver and Green carries an impressive net rating of plus-10.6. That's a higher mark than the Boston Celtics' Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown and Al Horford (plus-10.1); the Minnesota Timberwolves' Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Jimmy Butler (plus-9.8); and the Toronto Raptors' Big Three of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Serge Ibaka (plus-7.4).

This season, the Cavaliers bench has outscored opponents by 102 total points, the third-highest total in the NBA. The starters, meanwhile, have bested their counterparts by only one total point in 38 games.

This is a shocking turn of events for James, whose MVP candidacy may be hurt by how well the team performs without him.

James' on/off rating since he returned to Cleveland has remained steady at plus-16.8, plus-16.5 and plus-17.0 from 2014-17. Now, in 2017-18, James is posting the first negative on/off numbers (minus-1.2) of his career.

Jeremias Engelmann @JerryEngelmann

Pictured: LeBron's ON-OFF rating over his career This season seems a little concerning, even when factoring in that the Cavs bench is playing very well this season https://t.co/fhuhfE1AJV

This number should rise as the season progresses now that Isaiah Thomas is back and set to join the starting lineup alongside James, Love, Crowder and Smith. For now, it's almost weird to look at.

Not a single member of the Cavs' starting unit has a positive on/off rating, while Wade (plus-8.0), Green (plus-8.0) and Korver (team-high plus-17.7) are thriving.

While it may hurt some of James' advanced stats in the process, having such a reliable bench will be a blessing for both the 33-year-old and his teammates over the next few months.

Last season, James averaged 38.2 minutes after the turn of the new year, including a whopping 43.1 ticks per game in April. His presence was greatly needed on a team with plenty of holes and a glaring lack of depth. James had no choice but to log heavy minutes down the stretch when he should have been preserving his body for the postseason.

Early indications would show James may actually have that luxury this year: Over the past seven contests, he's down to 36.4 minutes a night. He also played just 33 in Thomas' season debut, a 17-point victory over the Portland Trail Blazers.

CLEVELAND, OH - JANUARY 2: Isaiah Thomas #3 listens to LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the first half against the Portland Trail Blazers at Quicken Loans Arena on January 2, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowleJason Miller/Getty Images

At any given time, the Cavs can run their offense through Thomas, Love or Wade while James needs a breather, a move that could pay dividends for Cleveland's future. While James has remained silent on his summer free-agency plans, it doesn't appear he's interested in carrying the torch alone no matter where he ends up signing.

"I just know me, personally, I don't got no time to waste," James added after calling for a playmaker and criticizing a top-heavy roster last January, per McMenamin. "I'll be 33 [next] winter, and I ain't got time to waste. That's what I'm talking about."

While a team like the Los Angeles Lakers will scramble to add experienced talent to its young core to lessen the load for James, the Cavs can already pitch him on a roster that's full of veterans who've proven capable of carrying the team and actually increasing leads while he sits. That's huge, especially come playoff time.

Last season, a top-heavy roster ultimately doomed Cleveland in the Finals—and the chance for James to add a fourth championship to his legacy.

If they once again come up short, this time it won't be the bench's fault.

                 

Greg Swartz is the Cleveland Cavaliers lead writer for Bleacher Report. Stats provided by NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.

Source : http://bleacherreport.com/articles/2752525-once-top-heavy-as-s-t-cavaliers-now-showing-theyre-more-than-lebron-big-3

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