What a crazy few months it has been. Game 5 of the NBA Finals, on June 12, was just 128 days ago, or, basically four months. For the Cleveland Cavaliers, so much has changed since then.
It was a trying offseason for Cleveland in so many ways. When Cleveland walked off the court in Oakland that June night, many Cleveland fans expected more or less the same team to come back and try it again this year. Apparently, so did LeBron James. As Kyrie Irving waited for James in the hallway leading to the locker room, the two superstar teammates shared a warm embrace as LeBron calmly told Kyrie, “We’ll be back.”
On July 24, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst rocked the NBA landscape when he reported that Kyrie Irving had asked for a trade out of Cleveland, presumably to specifically get away from LeBron James. It was a stunning moment for fans of the team who just one year previous were praising Kyrie for hitting the biggest shot in team history. It apparently came as a pretty big surprise to the players on the team as well.
Sure, a lot had changed already with the Cavaliers. GM David Griffin was escorted from the building as he and owner Dan Gilbert decided they could no longer work together. Nevermind that Griff was working on a potential deal to get Paul George to Cleveland. The team had signed Jose Calderon, Jeff Green, and Derrick Rose. Clearly, some things were going to be different. But nobody realized just how different Kyrie would force things to be.
Koby Altman was eventually named the team’s GM after a lengthy and embarrassing weeks-long chase for Chauncey Billups which eventually ended with Billups turning down the job. Luckily for Cavs fans, Altman stepped into the role ready to go. Surely trading Kyrie Irving wasn’t the way Altman envisioned the start to his GM career, but Altman showed patience in waiting for the best offer he could get. In the end, landing Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and an unprotected first round pick via Brooklyn was an absolute king’s ransom. But it also signaled that few things were going to be the same in 2017-18.
With the eventual signing of Dwyane Wade, leading to the trade of Richard Jefferson, the overhaul was complete. Of the 15-man final roster, only seven were on the roster last season, and only six played the entire 2016-17 season with the Cavaliers.
So if there is a one-word motto for the 2017-18 Cleveland Cavaliers, it would obviously be ‘change’. Change doesn’t just refer to the players on the team, but it can also refer to the goal of this team, as they look to change the outcome from last season.
Last Year’s Record: 51-31 (Lost in the NBA Finals 1-4)
Key Losses: Kyrie Irving (trade), Richard Jefferson (trade), Deron Williams (free agent), Derrick Williams (free agent), Kay Felder (trade), James Jones (retired)
Key Additions: Isaiah Thomas (trade), Jae Crowder (trade), Dwyane Wade (free agent), Derrick Rose (free agent), Jeff Green (free agent), Ante Zizic (trade), Jose Calderon (free agent), Cedi Osman (overseas)
1. What significant moves were made during the off-season?
Obviously the trade of Kyrie Irving is the biggest and most significant move. Swapping Kyrie for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the unprotected Brooklyn pick was certainly pretty good return. It was better return than many Cleveland fans were expecting, anyway. But the question over Thomas’ hip is still lingering. Thomas is the most Kyrie-like replacement on the roster, but until he returns, the Derrick Rose reclamation project will be in full effect with Jose Calderon serving backup duty. The addition of Wade is the real question mark here. Can a healthy and rejuvenated Wade bring back the spark he and LeBron shared in Miami? That’s the question Cleveland fans are most anticipating.
2. What are the team’s biggest strengths?
Cleveland’s biggest strength in the regular season might be its depth. This is a very deep regular season team. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Love, Derrick Rose, Jae Crowder, JR Smith, Tristan Thompson, Kyle Korver, Channing Frye, Isaiah Thomas, Iman Shumpert, Jeff Green, and Jose Calderon all bring a ton of experience and quality seasons. Ante Zizic has a little experience as well. Cedi Osman is the only player without any NBA experience. Being able to constantly rotate in guys with real NBA experience should allow Ty Lue some freedom to make sure nobody plays too many minutes on a team that is creeping up there in age. It also provides insurance against injuries. This is the kind of quality depth you need to make it through an 82 game season. The question will be whether there will be playoff depth, which is a completely different animal.
With LeBron, Wade, and Rose the team has three players who love to attack the lane. Spacing will be the obvious question mark. With the starting lineup now with only Crowder and Love to really space the floor, how well James, Wade, and Rose gel will be a big question mark. But it does create an opportunity for a strength. This is not a popular opinion among most basketball observers, but if some on-floor chemistry can develop between those three attackers, there’s a chance for Cleveland’s offense to be much more dynamic than it has been in recent seasons where it simply relied on drive and kick opportunities.
It’s kind of hard to predict what this team’s strengths will be simply because it’s such a different team from what Cleveland has been the last few years. Plus, with LeBron nursing a bum ankle for most of the preseason and Isaiah Thomas still recovering from his hip injury, we haven’t even seen what the team will ultimately be come postseason time. It’s all the great unknown.
3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?
I think taking Kyrie Irving out of the starting lineup and adding Jae Crowder can in some ways make the team better capable of defending, but I still think team defense overall will be a pretty big weakness. Kevin Love moving to center is going to be extremely interesting on the defensive side of the ball. Of course, the center position today is a good deal different from what we grew up with, but still, it will be a big adjustment for Love.
Floor spacing, as mentioned previously, is going to be a big question mark as well and a potential glaring weakness. This is particularly true while Derrick Rose is starting at PG for the injured Isaiah Thomas. Rose, Wade, and James all have the same idea with the ball in their hands, for the most part.
Crowder showed last season he can be a decent three-point shooter, but really, Kevin Love is perhaps the most reliable three-point shooter in the starting lineup. This seems crazy to say based on the way this team has played the last two years especially, but three-point shooting, especially with the starting unit, has potential to be a serious weakness. Not to say Cleveland will be a bad three-point shooting team, per se, but they will certainly be more spotty than they have in recent seasons.
4. What are the goals for this team?
The goals for LeBron James-led basketball teams never change. Winning the NBA Championship is the only goal for this team, no matter how overwhelming of a favorite the Golden State Warriors are. There are no moral victories to be had in Cleveland.
5. How can this team overcome the loss of Kyrie Irving?
The biggest key to overcoming the loss of Irving is the health of Isaiah Thomas. While Thomas may not shoot the three quite as well as Kyrie has and he may not have the circus-like finishing touch, he still might be the most Kyrie-like PG in the NBA. Kyrie shot above 40 percent from three-point range in two of the three seasons he played with LeBron. Thomas has never shot 40 percent from three. When healthy, though, it will be interesting to see if Thomas also experiences a shooting efficiency bump, the so-called LeBron Effect. Either way, if Thomas can fully recover and be even close to the player he was last year in Boston, the Cavaliers will suddenly have a similar PG with the added piece of Jaw Crowder.
It seems counterintuitive to think you can lose Kyrie Irving and overcome it, but if any team can, honestly, it’s a LeBron James team. Credit to the Cleveland front office for doing pretty well in the Kyrie trade, but now it’s up to Ty Lue to assemble all these new pieces into a lineup that can top what the Cavaliers were last season. It’s a tall order, but it hinges so heavily on Thomas’ health. If he’s never back to even close to 100% this season, the team will probably feel the loss of Kyrie all year.
6. What can Cavs fans realistically expect from Dwyane Wade?
For all the question marks surrounding the addition of all these new pieces, the one positive is the bond LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have. Not only are they best of friends off the court, but they have very real on-court chemistry as well. After a slow first season adjusting to playing beside one another in Miami, LeBron and Wade went on to have some of the best seasons any teammates have ever had together. That chemistry together will be a huge benefit in getting Wade acclimated to playing in Cleveland.
I don’t think anyone expects an MVP-caliber resurgence from Wade this season, but I’m higher on Wade’s potential value to the Cavaliers than most others that I’ve read. For one, I think Cleveland’s depth will allow them to limit Wade’s minutes as much as they want or Dwyane needs. Second, playing with other offensive threats like LeBron, Rose, and Love should free up Wade. When playing with Jimmy Butler last season in Chicago, so much was expected of Wade and perhaps his age was showing in his inability to carry a franchise anymore. But he doesn’t need to carry this franchise. He simply needs to be himself and do what he’s comfortable with, which is finding holes in the defense and attacking with power. I actually think this is going to be a very good season for Dwyane Wade.
7. Will the Cavaliers make any big moves in the season?
The unprotected pick the Cavaliers got from Boston via Brooklyn is going to be fascinating to watch. Koby Altman is going to have some options here. If a big impact player becomes available at the trade deadline and it can make the Cavaliers better and give them a better chance to topple the Warriors, will Altman pull the trigger? Or will he be required to sit on the pick as collateral in the event that LeBron James leaves after this season?
David Griffin was always extremely active in the trade market. While we don’t know what kind of GM Altman will be, it’s hard to imagine he didn’t learn more than a few things while working under Griff. Meaning, I think Altman will be aggressive and proactive in the trade market to address concerns. But with the Isaiah injury delaying things, the Cavaliers might be more patience than they otherwise would be. It’s possible that rather than reacting to immediate concerns, they could instead choose to wait and see how Thomas’ return impacts the team.
Smaller moves could definitely happen. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Iman Shumpert and/or Channing Frye traded at some point this season. Kendrick Perkins agreeing to a G League contract with the Canton Charge tells me he’s staying close in anticipation of a trade opening up a roster spot for him.
But the big thing will be whether or not the Cavs try to do something with that draft pick this season. It seems unlikely, as the insurance against LeBron leaving is probably too valuable, but if the right player becomes available, the Cavaliers will have to make a hard choice on whether or not engage in trade talks using it.
8. What happens to Road Trippin’ now that Richard Jefferson is gone?
This is probably one of the biggest questions. Road Trippin’ was an absolute delight last season. It added so much and made things so much more fun. While RJ was just one of the personalities on the podcast, quite frankly, it’s heart to imagine Road Trippin’ without him. While everyone loves Channing Frye, it was RJ who typically drove the conversations. While Allie Clifton is great as a host and can certainly do her best to drive the conversations and keep things in line as much as possible, it was RJ’s insights into the athlete experience that allowed him to always seem to know the right follow up question that fans wanted answered.
I’m not sure if they will try to do the podcast without him or if RJ will try to bring the podcast to his new team, the Denver Nuggets, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we only have a couple episodes this season. Mainly, only when the Nuggets play the Cavaliers. It’s going to be a huge loss to the fans.
9. Is this LeBron James’ last season with the Cavaliers?
Unfortunately, this question is going to be in the back of everyone’s mind all year. And it’s going to be in the front of the mind and the mouths of the media as well. And yet, the funny thing is, there’s a pretty reasonable chance LeBron himself doesn’t know for sure what he’s going to do.
Oh, he certainly has thought about it. He has to be leaning one way or the other in his mind and in his heart. But speculating before the end of the season is such a waste of time and energy. How this season plays out will almost certainly be one of the larger factors in how LeBron is feeling at that time. If the Cavaliers gel, come together, and win another title, it’s hard to imagine LeBron walking away. If things turn out disastrous and the team falls apart, LeBron probably won’t be able to get away from the Cavs fast enough.
I hate guessing things like this, but I’ll just say this. Based on absolutely no inside information, I think in a perfect world LeBron would love to finish his career with the Cavaliers. But he’s not just going to stay for the hell of it. Koby Altman needs to prove he can keep putting talent around LeBron. Not just talent, but talent that fits. The team needs to show they can be a serious threat to the Golden State Warriors and not just a distant second-best team in the NBA.
Forced to guess, my gut tells me this is probably LeBron’s last season in Cleveland. But so much can happen between now and the end of the season that I’m simply not worrying about it right now.
10. Any final thoughts?
As previously mentioned, this season is one of changes. And with changes come so many questions. And there are a lot of questions with this team. But there’s also some real excitement.
Last season felt so much like status quo. It felt like waiting for the inevitable. It was one of the most boring and annoying regular seasons in recent memory. There’s a more tangible sense of excitement for this season because we don’t know just how good this Cavaliers team will be. Or won’t be, even.
There are new players to learn to love as fans, guys playing new positions, new offensive weapons to get used to, a new offensive system of sorts, and a different looking defense. There’s a lot of excitement in the newness of things.
Above all else, though, just enjoy this season, Cavs fans. Do not take this team for granted, Do not take the joy of watching LeBron James play basketball for granted. This could be the last season we get to watch him play every night. I hope it’s not. I hope he’s in Cleveland for years to come. But if this really is his last season in the wine and gold, I hope to enjoy it all one last time.