CLEVELAND – Having the second-highest payroll in NBA history brings with it a lot of things: pressure, expectations and a challenge for the sales department to justify that financial commitment chief among them.
But the benefit, if the money is well spent, of course, is that the collection of high-priced talent gives the team that paid for it ample depth on its bench.
That is exactly what the Cleveland Cavaliers have displayed this season, particularly so in their last two games. With four of their top eight rotation players out – Kyrie Irving (left knee), Iman Shumpert (right wrist), Timofey Mozgov (right shoulder) and Mo Williams (right ankle) – the Cavs won both of those games against Milwaukee and Atlanta by a total of 27 points.
Matthew Dellavedova, filling in for Williams, had a career-high 13 assists against the Bucks, followed by 12 points on 4-for-6 shooting against the Hawks. Tristan Thompson, filling in for Mozgov, followed up an 11-point, 12-rebound double-double vs. Milwaukee with 16 boards, nine points and tied a career-high with five assists vs. Atlanta.
Dellavedova and Thompson were already established rotation players, however, raising their games as understudies turned starters during the Cavs’ run to the playoffs last spring. What really showed off Cleveland’s bounty of bodies was Anderson Varejao being dusted off the shelf to score 16 points in the two games and Jared Cunningham going from the fringe of the rotation to average 7.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists and one steal.
“I think that we went through a year last year where we put ourselves in a great position and had a tremendous season and a tremendous opportunity, then at the very end we fell prey to the lack of depth,” Cavs coach David Blatt said. “And we addressed it this summer. Obviously up to this point in the season, it’s really paid off for us because the guys that we brought in are major contributors and the guys that stayed obviously are high-level people and high-level basketball players.”
Blatt, who limited his rotation to just eight players in the second half of last season as the Cavs made their run, has vowed to expand that number to at least 10 this season once everyone is healthy. In the meantime, the Cavs are playing seemingly everybody but the mascot – don’t forget Richard Jefferson and James Jones have also been getting consistent minutes – and the team keeps winning, with its 10-3 record leading the Eastern Conference.
“If you want to be a top team, you have to have that [depth],” Blatt said. “Fortunately we do, and we’re missing a lot of guys right now. A lot of very, very significant players. But the other guys are stepping up and doing the job and not asking for any quarter; they’re not asking for any breaks. They’re just going out there and playing and I think that speaks volumes to the type of players and people they are.”
There just happens to be many capable people for Cleveland to lean on this time around.
“It’s next man up,” said LeBron James. “And no matter who’s in the lineup, we need to play Cavs basketball the right way.”