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In a preseason survey by NBA.com, the Cleveland Cavaliers were listed among “others receiving votes” by general managers asked to pick the winner of the Eastern Conference.
This is a team that overcame a 2-0 deficit to beat the Detroit Pistons in the conference finals last spring, but general managers ranked the Cavs behind the Boston Celtics, Pistons, Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat.
That put the 2007 East champs in the awkward position of defending their honor more than their title as they began a six-game Western Conference swing Sunday with a 103-92 loss at the Phoenix Suns.
“We don’t worry about what people think or say about us,” said coach Mike Brown. “I guarantee you nobody picked us to go to the Finals last year, except for everybody in our locker room.”
If LeBron James feels snubbed by the executive slight, he isn’t showing it. “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “We always surprise people.”
That was true last season, when, on the last day of the regular season, the Cavaliers jumped from a No. 5 playoff seed, which would have sent them on the road against Miami, to the No. 2 seed, where they drew a beaten-up Washington Wizards team.
They got hot at the right time, especially against the Pistons, but were buried in four games in the Finals by the San Antonio Spurs.
And this season?
“I think the jury is still out,” said Suns coach Mike D’Antoni. “They’ll have to improve, because the East has improved.”
Major contenders, notably the Celtics, improved with additions from the outside. The Cavs chose to improve from within, tweaking the roster with role players Devin Brown and Cedric Simmons.
But this isn’t the same team as last season. Although sharpshooter Sasha Pavlovic suited up Sunday after ending a contract holdout, the Cavs are still without Brazilian forward Anderson Varejao, who wants a deal worth about $9 million a year even though no other teams have offered the restricted free agent a contract.
Asked if the Cavs can improve from within, James said, “We’re going to see.”
Said Brown: “We feel we can improve on both sides of the basketball. There’s a lot of room for improvement.”
James carried the team in its only win in three games with a 45-point explosion vs. the New York Knicks on Friday. But the Cavs took a step backward against the Suns, yielding 65 points in the second half and playing passively on offense with 20 turnovers and only 12 free throws.
“We want to become an aggressive drive-and-kick team,” Brown said. They were neither against the Suns.
James, armed with a better jump shot after misfiring in the Finals and honed leadership skills following a summer with USA Basketball, isn’t deterred by the sluggish start and off-the-radar attention. “We’ve played pretty well,” he said. “We know we’re one of the best in the East. We just have to prove it.”