MEMPHIS, Tenn. — There’s two schools of thought when it comes to self-improvement. Some say that one should identify strengths and nourish them, ignoring the rest. Others insist that in order to become well-rounded, it’s imperative to work on the weaknesses until that label no longer applies.
The Cleveland Cavaliers took the latter approach this summer. They focused on bolstering a bench that ranked dead last in the NBA in scoring last season at 23.8 points per game, rather than simply being satisfied with being a top-heavy team that came awful close to winning a championship with little depth.
And, man, did it ever show in the Cavs’ 106-76 win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday. Cleveland’s bench outscored the Grizzlies’ reserves 50-29, fueling the rout. It came a night after the Cavs’ bench scored just 20 points in their season-opening loss to Chicago, but even in that game, Cleveland’s second unit was instrumental in helping to chip away at the Bulls’ early double-digit lead that they established against the Cavs’ starters.
“I think that might be a record for us, at least in my time here — 50 points off the bench,” Blatt said. “They were terrific. Terrific.”
That might be an understatement considering that so far two of Cleveland’s players that will be relied upon as substitutes this season, Mo Williams and J.R. Smith, have been filling in as starters for the injured Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert.
“Coach is going to have some problems on his hands, good problems to have, especially when Shump and Ky come back,” said LeBron James, whose scoring total of 12 points against the Grizzlies was matched or exceeded by three bench guys, Richard Jefferson, Matthew Dellavedova and Jared Cunningham. “We’ve got 12 guys, if you look at it, that’s played meaningful basketball for our team. And then you add the two guys in Mo and RJ, we have so much depth that no one has to play big minutes if need be. Coach can decide what he wants to do and be confident in everyone who’s on the floor.”
Minutes are always a big topic of discussion when it comes to this point in James’ career. Even though he ended up playing a career-low 36.1 minutes per game last season, some of his scheduled breaks were cut short when he felt compelled to check back in the game because the Cavs’ understudies failed to protect a lead without him out there.
“We were talking about it on the bench today,” Smith said. “This is the first time we’ve got somebody who can come in and actually give ‘Bron a rest when he needs to instead of him coming in the game because we’re losing the lead or something like that.”
That somebody is Jefferson. No spring chicken himself either at 35 years old, he scored 24 points through the first two games, making nine of the 13 shots he has taken.
“Right now [James] does so many things, so when I get the opportunity to give him a break I just try to keep up the defensive intensity,” Jefferson said. “Obviously I stretch the floor a little bit and help everyone out.”
Blatt stuck to a strict eight-man rotation for most of the second half of last season when the Cavs made their run. It came back to bite them in the playoffs when Irving and Kevin Love went down and Cleveland was left with few replacement options because the players at the end of Blatt’s bench had been collecting dust for months.
Jefferson was asked if Blatt made him any promises while recruiting him to the Cavs, to let him know that he wouldn’t end up like Mike Miller, Shawn Marion and Kendrick Perkins did last season — accomplished veterans like Jefferson, who sacrificed to come to Cleveland and ended up cut out of the rotation.
“No, no, no,” Jefferson said. “Nothing is assured in this league, ever. My job is to come here and try to earn every minute I get, earn every shot, earn every time in the rotation. Nothing is guaranteed. That’s the mentality everyone has to come and I think everyone was competitive and everyone fought in training camp. We’re starting to see the fruits of that work right now.”
And the Cavs’ offseason efforts to address their depth figure to appear even more fruitful when the team is at full strength.