"Everything has changed! The attitude! Look at this man! Look at what he's doing! You don't see this! You haven't seen it all game! Until he started doing it! Now everybody's energy level is picked up!"
That's Austin Carr on Nov. 20, 2013, gushing about the defense of Matthew Dellavedova during an otherwise punchless Cavs performance vs. the Washington Wizards. Fred McLeod couldn't get a word in edgewise because Carr was so transfixed by Delly's intensity off the bench.
It was something of a coming-out party for Delly, the undrafted Aussie guard who'd set beaucoup school records at St. Mary's in California before impressing Cleveland coaches in training camp enough to nab a roster spot. (Godspeed, DeSagana Diop.) Up until the Nov. 20 game, though, he'd played a total of 53 minutes, few of which were consequential.
On that night, team defense looked even more sluggish than usual, and Mike Brown's throat was ragged from imploring his players to look if not engaged, then at least alive. In the second quarter, at his wits' and rope's end, Brown gazed at the apneatics huddled on his bench and called Delly's number (which at that time was 9).
Delly didn't disappoint. He played hard all game — the only man who looked like he wanted to win, according to Brown — and soon became Kyrie Irving's regular backup, earning consistent rotation minutes for the defense-first coach who spent an entire season trying to coax defense out of a team that never cohered on either end of the floor.
Delly never needed coaxing. He's always been a scrappy defender, a guy whose hands and feet seem to reside in the faces of opponents, whose motor runs at precisely one speed. Mosquito is the oft-cited spirit animal. Bradley Beal, the Wizards guard who had to deal with Delly on Nov. 20, later identified him as one of the three best one-on-one defenders in the league.
And that defense isn't going anywhere this year, even though Delly's minutes will likely be reduced due to some key roster additions this offseason (wink wink). Delly continues to honor and deploy the same defensive principles he's been honoring and deploying since his teenage days at the Australian Institute of Sport, where his home nation's top youth athletes converge for serious training.
Now, as then, it doesn't matter who he's guarding.
Take the pre-season game against the Dallas Mavericks, for instance. Delly got caught on a switch and was forced to match up with the seven-foot offensive magician Dirk Nowitzki. Delly's arms shot skyward. He stood his ground, even as Dirk toyed with him, baiting him with the ball above and behind Delly's head. Undeterred, he kept his hands in Dirk's face and forced an awkward shot, which Dirk missed.
"Make it hard for him to get a catch," Delly says, explaining his defensive priorities in a phone conversation the day after the preseason finale against Memphis. "Show your hands. Just try to stay between them and the basket and contest without fouling. Guys in the NBA are so good that they're gonna make shots no matter what, so you've just got to make it as hard as possible."
MIKE-it, he says. MIKE-it as hahd as possible.
If you haven't heard Delly speak, it's worth doing some YouTube perusing. Even though you know he's Australian, the deep register still comes as a shock. It's a voice infused with vowels that look ridiculous when spelled phonetically — dan-undah, you cawl thayt a noyf, etc. — and a voice which certainly has endeared him to the bartenders and waitresses at Town Hall, Momocho and Lucky's Cafe, Delly's favorite Cleveland haunts.
The fact that Matthew Dellavedova even has favorite Cleveland haunts, let alone that he can identify them readily, or that while he trained here this summer he "hired a bike and explored Edgewater Park and Whiskey Island," is just icing on the cake for fans.
Because Delly — isn't it obvious? — already has most of the on-court ingredients of a basketball player Clevelanders are in many ways pre-programmed to fall in love with. And not in the same way locals pay enormous material and emotional fealty to LeBron. It's more like the deep-tissue joy we feel for a kid brother who's finally getting his chance. He's the workhorse-type, the "team player" with what GMs like to call "limited natural abilities" (their code for White). Delly is the latest in a string of pale knights for whom Clevelanders tend to reserve their most personal affections. Price, Sura, hell, even Luke Walton.
For a huge swath of primarily white, grandson-of-immigrant, son-of-steel Cleveland sports fans: You worship LeBron, but you love guys like Delly.
Is this off base?
Clevelanders are fond of using "blue-collar" to describe the ethos of the players and teams they hold in highest regard. And I'd suggest that that fondness is not acci- or incidental. It's the projection of a region's values on its biggest (and in some cases, only) celebrities.
We think of ourselves as grittier and more physical and more willing to get our hands dirty than our counterparts on the coasts. So it seems natural that we'd gravitate not toward a quote unquote "effortless athlete," but to a guy who is visibly working his ass off to keep up.
The "visibly" thing is key.
"I'm just trying to get my feet quicker," Delly says, when asked about the areas of his game where he could stand to improve. "And I'm always working on my three-point shot."
But professional athletes, in general, work way harder behind the scenes than most fans realize or appreciate. The physical rigors of the NBA season require levels of focus and discipline and dietary restraint that most fans would consider mentally insane. It's not like Delly's blue-collar-ness correlates in any direct way to his hours in the gym (though it's true there's nothing fans love more than players who "arrive early and stay late"). The thing that inspires so much affection for Delly is how hard he seems to work on the court, and thus on television, how unnatural he often appears, — never mind the appeal of the huge, dorky mouthguard — how he's forced to compensate for low-ceiling athleticism with hustle and heart.
Basketball-wise, he is something like the anti-Durant. He's not quite graceless as he lumbers at great speeds from bucket to bucket, leading with his nose in pursuit of much faster guards, but his every movement requires extra effort. And it's worth noting that no one would ever characterize Durant's satiny jumper — or the crisp, calculated, practically executive passing offense of the San Antonio Spurs — as "White Collar."
Moreover — and Delly's very much like LeBron in this respect — he's a high-energy off-court presence. The anti-Shurmur, if you will. He's forever leaping out of his chair on the bench to celebrate dunks or timely threes, greeting players with high-fives and words of encouragement as they process, hands-on-hips, to the bench for time-outs. When he's playing point, at every dead ball he's communicating with teammates, patting an ass or clarifying an offensive set. He's a guy who is known to care very little about individual statistics and whose team-first mindset reveals itself in pace-setting over/under numbers. Sometimes it's like he's not just a blue-collar player; it's like he's a blue-collar fan
Cleveland's emergence as the center of the basketball universe doesn't faze Delly, though he admits it's a change of pace. He was born in a rural town of 8,500, two hours from Melbourne.
"I've never seen anything like it at all, actually," Delly says of the hoopla. "LeBron's obviously the best basketballer in the world, and it's crazy how much attention the media pays. LeBron always has people asking him questions or a camera rolling on him."
Is it distracting?
"It certainly makes the locker room a bit more crowded before and after games," Delly says. "Especially at home games, I make a point to take a quick shower before the media mob."
But Delly's not worried about media frenzy dismantling (or stalling the development of) team chemistry. After a 10-hour flight to Rio for a preseason game against the Heat — Delly sat next to Brendan Haywood — and a successful preseason campaign, Delly says the Cavs have learned a lot and know they have to work hard every day to keep improving.
He says there's not much active talk of the post-season in the locker room, but it's on everyone's minds. Everyone knows what the goals are, where they're headed and (at least in theory) what it will take to get there:
"Hard work. That's what it takes," Delly says. "There are other teams who have been playing together for years who already have that chemistry. We have to keep working hard to get the system down and to get used to playing with each other."
Delly knows hard work. His ethic last year set the emotional tone for the team for long stretches. (And to reiterate, he was the backup point guard.) This year, he won't need to. His efforts — as flashlessly consistent as iron ore — will likely get drowned out by highlights from bigger stars.
But blue-collar players are like blue-collar workers. They're not in it for the accolades. They're just doing their job. And as long as the Cavs keep winning, Delly and his fans will consider it a job well done.