It’s understandable that all of the preseason talk has been about Kevin Durant’s move to the Golden State Warriors. With KD dominating the discussion since the offseason, the buzz around the defending champion Cavs has been relatively nonexistent.
But oftentimes, it’s not just the big free agent acquisitions where general managers assemble and reinforce championship squads, but also the under the radar moves and late draft picks that can make a huge difference.
So while its obvious to point towards KD moving to Oakland, Al Horford relocating to Boston, Derrick Rose coming to New York and Dwight Howard’s homecoming in Atlanta, it takes a little more effort to look at the nuts and bolts of why some teams will improve this year.
In the case of Cleveland, look no further than LeBron’s young boys who’ll be coming off the bench in guards Jordan McRae and Kay Felder.
McRae popped on the national radar during his junior and senior seasons at the University of Tennessee. As a freshman, he averaged less than two points while appearing in only ten games. Three years later, he was putting up nearly 19 points, four rebounds and three assists per game.
In the 2014 NBA Draft, he was selected in the second round with the 58th overall pick by the San Antonio Spurs and subsequently traded to the Sixers. Despite scoring 21 points per game in the 2014 NBA Summer League, he played in Australia before being signed to the D-League.
McRae was on the 76’ers preseason squad last year but was waived in late October as the season tipped off. He took his frustrations out in the D-League, fighting to prove that he belonged in the NBA. Nothing provided more evidence to that than the single-game league record of 61 points he posted against the Canton Charge in late January. He also snagged 11 rebounds and dished out seven assists in that game as well.
The Phoenix Suns promptly signed him to a ten-day contract, and he responded with 12 points and four assists off the bench in his first NBA game against the Knicks. After earning another 10-day deal, he bounced back to the D-League.
His perseverance was rewarded when the Cavs signed him to a ten-day contract in late February last season, which he subsequently parlayed into a multi-year contract. He earned a ring while observing LeBron and Kyrie put on one of the most spectacular championship series performances in becoming the first team ever to come back from a 3-1 deficit when Cleveland defeated the heavily-favored Warriors in the Finals.
Seemingly inspired by the afterglow of the championship run, McRae got busier than a horny rabbit in the 2016 NBA Summer League in Vegas, pumping in 24.3 points per game and being named to the All-Summer League First Team.
If his performance last night in the Cavs preseason rout over the Orlando Magic is any indication of what he plans to bring to the team dynamic this year when the bright lights come on, LeBron might have found, along with the rookie point guard Felder, who I’ve famously drooled over during his amazing college career, some fresh new toys to have some fun with.
McRae scored a game-high 20 points, connecting on 8 of his 13 shot attempts, to augment his seven rebounds and five assists. His definitive statement of the evening was the emphatic two-handed dunk he delivered in the grill of Bismack Biyombo.
Hardcore Cavs fans have high hopes that McRae will add an element of surprise to their roster after seeing him score 36 points in last year’s regular-season finale.
LeBron knows, after his experiences with maintaining organizational excellence for a multi-year run in Miami, how important fresh blood is to a team’s construct.
“It’s a boost … This team is built to grow, which means that we have to find another level,” said James in the locker room after last night’s exhibition. “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.”
LeBron believes that when things heat up later this year, McRae and Felder might have something to enhance Cleveland’s championship dynamic.
“If they’re put into the lineup, if they need to play, then we feel like they can make some contributions,” James told the media last night. “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.”
With the team having to replace Matthew Dellavedova, Timofey Mozgov and Mo Williams, look for a surprising infusion of young blood in Cleveland that will help keep the Cavaliers machine humming.