CLEVELAND—It’s January, which means LeBron James isn’t worried about April, May, and June. Not yet anyway. That’s what happens when you’ve represented the Eastern Conference in the past seven NBA Finals and will probably make an eighth straight trip.
While Tuesday’s Cavs-Blazers game was just another January matchup on the NBA schedule, it was an important step for Cleveland and LeBron’s championship aspirations in 2018 because Isaiah Thomas, the electric point guard acquired by Cleveland in the blockbuster Kyrie Irving trade, made his debut. After seven months away from game action, Thomas played better than probably anyone could have expected.
There was certainly rust, but there were also moments where you saw the MVP candidate from the Celtics shine through in the Cavaliers' 17-point victory over the Blazers at Quicken Loans Arena. IT was able to get to his spots and put up 17 points in only 19 minutes.
“I didn’t think I would play as well as I did,” Thomas said after the game. He isn’t the only one. Expectations were Thomas would need a few weeks to fit into the Cavs’ system, and, you know, learn how to play with LeBron. Thomas compared the game to being a rookie again, and while there will almost definitely be a learning curve, he was all smiles in the locker room after the game.
“The easy thing is just going out there and doing it,” IT said.
Though only one game in, Thomas seamlessly fit into the Cavs rotation and showed some real chemistry with Dwyane Wade and Tristan Thompson. The Thomas and Wade connection could be vital for the Cavs going forward, as both can play off of each other while LeBron gets some rest, which has been a major issue in the past, even when Kyrie was on the team.
It’s likely that the Cavs’ eventual closing lineup will include Wade with IT, James, Kevin Love, and a fifth guy, but it will be interesting to see them all develop and gel going forward. Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue probably already has plenty of ideas for lineups with IT, but he wasn’t willing to share any after the game. Lue did say that he likes having a second ball handler beside LeBron to make things easier on the 33-year-old MVP candidate.
“It’s going to be a good balance. LeBron has the ball, Isaiah is going to have the ball, and just play off each other, that’s what I like. I like to be able to have two ballhandlers in that first unit that can create and score,” Lue said after the game.
Nobody is sitting here arguing that IT is a better basketball player than Kyrie, but it’s certainly possible that the results of the trade can make the Cavs even more dangerous as they head toward a fourth straight NBA Finals matchup with the Warriors.
With IT now in the fold, the Cavs’ dynamic bench will be supported by an even stronger starting lineup, which has featured Jose Calderon for much of the season. While the Cavs have historically struggled with LeBron on the bench, the issues have been largely at bay this season, with a great deal of credit going to Wade, who has steered that second unit. With Wade coming off the bench the Cavs have had a positive net efficiency rating of 2.7 points per 100 possessions while LeBron is on the sideline. Though that doesn’t seem like much of a bump, compare it to a negative 8.5 netrtg last season when LeBron sat.
The Cavs’ newfound depth along with the glimpse of the return to MVP form from Thomas shows how dangerous this Cavs group can be come April, May, and June. Nobody is sitting here arguing that IT is a better basketball player than Kyrie, but it’s certainly possible that the results of the trade can make the Cavs even more dangerous as they head toward a fourth straight NBA Finals matchup with the Warriors.
The Warriors will of course be the favorites again, but as we’ve learned in the past, if you give LeBron enough help he can pull off the impossible. Adding IT to the fray with the added depth on the bench is a wrinkle the Cavs have never had against the Kevin Durant Warriors. There’s a long way to go and the Cavs and Thomas will have plenty of hurdles along the way, but the path is a whole lot clearer for LeBron and company with “The Little Guy” back on the court looking like his old self.