If the Cleveland Cavaliers had mailed out a collective Christmas card, it would have shown them scratching their heads and searching their souls. Around Yuletide, center Brad Daugherty branded the Cavs "a team in recovery" from injuries and recent personnel changes. Coach Lenny Wilkens, citing the gradual comeback of point guard Mark Price from knee surgery, tabled all discussion of Cleveland's prospects until January. General manager Wayne Embry vowed that his high-priced bench would pay dividends someday. And team owners George and Gordon Gund lined the players' lockers with black-leather jackets in a gesture of generosity and, maybe, symbolism. Says Price, "They might have been saying something about our image."
But the days of the recuperating, reticent, dubiously deep and frequently meek Cavaliers have been tossed aside with the Christmas wreaths and shelved with the tree ornaments. With blue-collar efficiency and black-leather ruggedness, the Cavs, as of Sunday, had ripped off 11 straight wins since Dec. 20, roaring to a 24-9 record and establishing themselves as a serious threat to their most formidable Central Division rival, the NBA champion Chicago Bulls. Eight of those victories came against playoff-caliber teams, and the average winning margin was 12.8 points. By beating the Philadelphia 76ers 108-102 last Saturday, Cleveland ran its record to 15-1 at Richfield Coliseum. "I like this team," says Wilkens, typically sotto voce. "I like it very much."
Wilkens's measured stewardship is reflected in the Cavs' balance. When they blasted the Miami Heat 148-80 on Dec. 17 to set an NBA record for margin of victory, no Cleveland player scored more than 18 points. Since that game, the Cavs' bench has emerged as a force, out-scoring the opposition's subs by an average of 15.6 points. The bench has been so effective that seldom does a Cavalier starter play more than 40 minutes or score more than 30 points.
The emergence of the reserves, led by guard John Battle, has helped Cleveland carve out a reputation for unrelenting unselfishness. Sharing time and the ball seems second nature to the Cavs, an easygoing bunch raised mostly in down-home, count-the-stoplights towns that Barney Fife could have covered on foot patrol. "Everyone has similar backgrounds, the same values," says Nets center Chris Dudley, a former Cavalier. "They don't care who scores, who doesn't. Everyone helps out on defense. They get along really well, and they play together well as a team."
The latter has been made easier by the return to action in mid-November of Price, who is about 80% fit after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee 14 months ago. When Price, who came back six weeks ahead of schedule, led Cleveland to a 110-103 win against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 2 with 22 points and seven assists in 32 minutes, Knick coach Pat Riley labeled him one of the handful of franchise players in the league. Through Sunday, with Price in the lineup, the Cavs were 30-12 over the last two seasons; without him, they were 27-46.
However, Price's brilliance as a playmaker may be less pivotal to Cleveland than the sustained dominance of the 7-foot, 265-pound Daugherty is. "This team's really built around Brad," says sixth man John (Hot Rod) Williams. "Mark controls it, but Brad is the focus."
Consider that after 33 games this season Daugherty had outscored the opposing center 29 times. On the first through ninth days of Christmas, Daugherty got the best of five future Hall of Famers: Moses Malone, David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing and Robert Parish. At week's end Daugherty was scoring a team-high 22.2 points and pulling down a team-high 10.3 rebounds a game while shooting 57.3% and leading the league's pivotmen in assists with 124.
Daugherty, 26, already has five seasons—three of them as an All-Star—under his steadily shrinking belt, and he continues to add more skills to his repertoire. This season, for instance, he is on pace to block a career-high 104 shots. "I feel like I'm at a five on a scale of one to 10," he says. "I've gotten halfway; I know what to do. Now it's just application, application, application."
Daugherty's game has always been an unassuming blend of finesse and strength. On offense he can back down on the dribble, bury a righthand hook from either side of the lane, hit a floater in transition, square up from 15 feet and drill a jumper or pump fake and power dunk. With his ability to see the floor and his willingness to spread the wealth, doubling down against him is a dangerous gamble.
His strength was not always easily discernible. When he came out of North Carolina as the No. 1 pick in the 1986 draft, 16% of his total body weight was fat. Some observers considered him soft; others, just wide. "I remember being behind him in college and thinking he was three people," recalls Cleveland forward Danny Ferry, a Duke graduate. "But he's country strong. That's probably the biggest compliment you can give him."