INDEPENDENCE — Coach Tyronn Lue came right out and said what all the Cavaliers’ offseason moves indicated.
Those were Lue’s exact words Monday at the team’s annual media day as the Cavs, for the second time in eight years, began life without LeBron James and all the national coverage he brought with him.
“We want to compete for the playoffs,” Lue said. “That’s our motivation.”
That’s in sharp contrast to James’ first departure in 2010, when the Cavs lost 26 games in a row and 36 out of 37 while finishing an NBA-worst 19-63.
That started a trend where Cleveland got the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft three times in four seasons — Kyrie Irving in 2011, Anthony Bennett in 2013 and Andrew Wiggins in 2014 — yet never sniffed the playoffs.
When James returned in 2014, it started a current stretch of four straight NBA Finals appearances, with a championship in 2016. That streak will almost certainly end this season, but this time the Cavs aren’t taking the get terrible to get better approach.
“We all have a new challenge in front of us,” 37-year-old sharpshooter Kyle Korver said. “Life’s going to be a lot different going forward.”
Unlike 2010-11, when guys like Christian Eyenga, Luke Harangody, Alonzo Gee, Samardo Samuels, Semih Erden, Joey Graham and Ryan Hollins were on the roster, the Cavs went out and added some young players with potential upside in guys like David Nwaba, Sam Dekker and two-way G League signee Billy Preston.
It’s highly unlikely all will pan out, but add rookie point guard Collin Sexton and young veterans like Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson, Cedi Osman, Larry Nance Jr. and Ante Zizic and Cleveland may be able to challenge for a playoff spot, especially in an Eastern Conference that is still very sketchy after Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto, Indiana and perhaps Washington, Milwaukee and Miami.
“We have a new challenge,” Lue said. “It’s a new chapter. ... I don’t see this as a rebuild.
“It’s not about wins and losses,” he added. “It’s about wins and lessons.”
Some of those lessons could be learned the hard way. The Cavs, even with James having a monster year and playing all 82 games, won just 50 games and were the fourth seed in the East last season, when the Pacers took them to seven games in the first round.
Now James is gone, as is all the national publicity he brought with him.
“With LeBron gone, the media circus is gone,” Lue said. “As far as what we want to do as a team, as coaches and players, that doesn’t change.”
Lue will likely do more hands-on coaching and be required to make more key substitutions and in-game adjustments than he did in any of his first 3 1/2 seasons as coach. He didn’t always excel in those areas in previous years, but he should benefit from several factors.
One, his new best player, power forward Kevin Love, wants and needs to be praised and encouraged and is as close to egoless as an All-Star can be.
Two, he has a lot of young players still trying to carve their niche in the league, and he holds the hammer when it comes to playing time.
And three, he no longer has to deal with Irving and James preaching about the importance of defense, then watching as Irving played very little of it or James didn’t even attempt to get down the floor while arguing a no-call at the other end.
Of course, Lue also no longer has James’ supreme all-around talent and ability to dominate a game, so how well those potentially good defensive habits and teamwork will translate into wins is uncertain.
“I keep talking about building something,” Love said. “I don’t know what overachieving would be for us, but we’re going to surprise a lot of people.”
The Cavs will have to do so as a team.
James and Irving are two of the most ball-dominant players in the league, but they’re also two of the most dominant scorers, period. Without them, the Cavs will continue to emphasize playing fast, but they are expected to feature, out of necessity, much more player and ball movement than in previous seasons.
“We’re going to play a different style of basketball,” Korver said. “If we don’t, we probably won’t be very good.
“We’re going to be playing new people, new lineups, new system,” he added. “There’s probably some old habits we’ve got to break.”
Korver emphasized he wasn’t criticizing James — “We went to LeBron because we were supposed to go to LeBron,” he said — but was adamant the Cavs will have to share the basketball a lot more now that he’s gone.
“Things are invented when there’s a need, right?” he said. “We just don’t come up with stuff when there’s no need.”
With James in Los Angeles with the Lakers, there’s definitely a need right now.
“It’s something different with LeBron gone,” Lue said. “We’re up to the challenge.”
Then, when asked if the four-time defending conference champion Cavs were still the team to beat in the East, Lue said, “We haven’t lost yet, have we?”
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