CLEVELAND — LeBron James played only 13 minutes in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ preseason opener Wednesday, a 117-102 rout of the Orlando Magic. But even though his on-court performance was limited, he still made a memorable contribution in the postgame locker room.
As a crush of reporters surrounded second-year guard Jordan McRae to interview him about his game-high 20 points on 8-for-13 shooting to go with seven rebounds and five assists, James serenaded the Cavs’ young talent from across the room.
“Movin’ on upppp, to the east siddeeee, to a deluxe apartment in the skyyyy,” James sang, belting out the theme song to “The Jeffersons.”
The entire team relished in the moment, cheering on McRae for the sudden media attention, just like they did during the third quarter when McRae unleashed a vicious dunk all over Bismack Biyombo — a postseason nemesis of the Cavs back in May with Toronto. Biyombo signed with Orlando in the offseason.
It didn’t constitute a welcome-to-the-NBA moment for McRae — he scored 36 points in Cleveland’s regular-season finale in April, after all — but it was certainly a sign that he might have some staying power.
Besides, there was another player in that locker room who truly had his NBA baptism on this night: rookie point guard Kay Felder, who played his first pro game, exhibition or not.
Felder gave reporters good reason to flock to him, too, scoring 14 points on 7-for-11 shooting, adding four rebounds, two assists and two steals.
While both McRae and Felder’s minutes were more than they can expect to see in the regular season — getting extended run with Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson having the night off; Kevin Love, Iman Shumpert and James being limited on purpose; and J.R. Smith still in the midst of a contract holdout — they showed enough to make you wonder if they can actually carve out consistent rotation minutes eventually.
“If they’re put into the lineup, if they need to play, then we feel like they can make some contributions,” James said. “There’s going to be times when they make some mistakes and that’s OK. You’re a young guy and we expect that, but it’s how they learn from their mistakes. We’re a team with big aspirations, but we want to continue to get better, and we’ve got time. We’ve got time to get better every single day and especially with the young guys, J-Mac and Kay.”
Championship teams are never brought back completely the same, even one that kept its core intact like the Cavs did. And sometimes even when the personnel is identical from year to year, the dynamic will adjust based on a whole heap of factors ranging from who got paid and who didn’t, who has his home life in order and who doesn’t, etc.
Cleveland decided it couldn’t afford to keep Matthew Dellavedova and Timofey Mozgov, proven veterans who were reliable. And Mo Williams, another vet that Cleveland knew what it would be getting with, retired.
Despite going into training camp with the oldest roster in the league, guys like McRae, Felder and even DeAndre Liggins — who started at point in place of Irving on Wednesday and put up six points, three assists, a steal and two blocks — could pan out to be game-changers.
“It’s necessary, it’s young blood,” said James Jones, who observed a similar process of integrating young guys such as Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers into a veteran-laden team when he played for the Miami Heat. “It’s a boost … This team is built to grow, which means that we have to find another level. When you have a group of veterans, the levels we can reach, the jumps are incremental. The jumps aren’t as vast or as big as a young guy that you can infuse into this rotation. Our jumps aren’t as big as theirs can be.
“So for guys like Jordan, Kay, DeAndre, they allow us to kind of transfer — transfer knowledge, experience to guys that have a great skill set with a little more energy, a little more athleticism and a deeper gas tank. You have to do it because those guys are actually guys that will challenge us as veterans every day in practice to be better, so that we never get complacent.”
Complacency is a very real challenge for this team. Even before they had won a championship, the Cavs appeared bored at times during the past two seasons, showing their best only when adversity struck.
The other challenge, it would appear, is depth. While Cleveland’s top four players remain stellar and arguably as strong as Golden State’s top four in Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green, the question is whether they have the backups to make a repeat run at a title.
At the very least, they have shown they have the requisite athletes and alchemy, so far.
“Having those two young guys added to our old mix,” said Cavs coach Tyronn Lue, “is pretty good for us.”