While the face of the franchise hasn’t changed, the Cleveland Cavaliers who take to the court on Tuesday night will look very different than the one that has graced The Q over the last few seasons. A new logo, new uniforms, and a freshly designed court will change the outward appearance of the Cavaliers, but it’s the loss of Kyrie Irving that will change the identity. In his place, the Cavaliers have brought in a bevy of new players — six to seven rotation players including three starters — who will change the entire DNA of the team.
Irving was as much the Cavaliers as LeBron James. LeBron took the franchise to new heights during his first tenure with the Cavs, but after The Decision it was difficult not to keep him at arm’s length. The young, dynamic point guard who had given fans hope after James left was a fan favorite. He was the pillar. He was the bridge that let Cavaliers remember the bad times and appreciate the good. With Irving gone, there is a bit of soul searching going on, both within the fan base and with the product on the court.
The loss of Irving is only one element. His absence will be the most obvious change, but the roster has gone through a massive overhaul in other ways as well. The Cavaliers have three new starters this season — four if you want to count Kevin Love moving to center — upending a lineup that had dominated the conference for the last three seasons. Dwyane Wade is a sure-fire Hall of Fame player. Derrick Rose is a former MVP. While their play no longer reaches those levels, they will take up a lot more space, both in their personality and roles on the court. The bench, too, will look drastically different, with former starters looking to find their place and some veterans looking to carve out their own. J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson will need to learn how to take on larger roles, while Jeff Green explores ways to let more come to him.
Last season, one third of the minutes played by Cavaliers were played by Iman Shumpert, Richard Jefferson, Channing Frye, Deandre Liggins, Kay Felder, and Jordan McRae. Those were heavy minute loads for players who don’t have the skill, the intelligence, or the youth to contribute in meaningful ways. That’s not to say they were not helpful players, but their limits strain what is asked of others on the court.
The Cavaliers are a deep, veteran team. One that is built perfectly for the regular season.
But there is another shift going on with the Cavaliers. For years the philosophy with LeBron James has been to surround him with shooters. We saw this in his first stint in Cleveland, in his vacation to Miami, and in an extreme way in his return home. David Griffin was a master at acquiring the most sought after asset in the league: Elite three-point shooters. When looking at the current roster, suddenly that’s an area in question. Rose and Wade provide little shooting in the starting unit. Crowder is average to slight above depending on the year in question and spot on the floor. On the bench you will receive little shooting from Thompson or Green. A team that used to really only employ one not shooter in Tristan Thompson, suddenly has a roster full of them.
For that reason, it will take this team time to gel. There are rotations to figure out, spacing to understand. If it’s going to work it can’t be the traditional LeBron offense of attacking and feeding shooters. The Cavaliers will need to move and cut and pass. They’ll need to stay aggressive. These are not attributes anyone would have used for this team in the past. For all of LeBron’s intelligence and the ways he’s added to his game, he’s never accepted the idea of running an offense that wasn’t just the LeBron offense. Of course, that offense was guaranteed to be top five in the league, so his incentive was never really there to change. This will be a major test of that.
There is a silver lining, however. We saw in small flashes last season with Derrick Williams that showed if his teammates make smart cuts and stay aggressive, LeBron can find them with a pass. Williams, marginally an NBA player, had flashes of success in this role with LeBron. If guys like Wade, Crowder, Thompson, and Green can work for the ball, they’re going to have much more success. The roster is full of smart players, guys who understand angles and how to play basketball. Maybe this roster ushers in a new LeBron offense where instead of simply surrounding him with shooting, you surround him with intelligence and savvy. Guys like Wade and Korver should thrive next to LeBron. Kevin Love’s spacing at center unlocks a lot of potential creases that present opportunities. This deep roster of simply solid, smart basketball players will unlock a new style of play that simply wasn’t needed when you could count on Kyrie and LeBron to score so easily.
It won’t happen overnight, and it won’t happen with every player. But this season creates the most intrigue in the style of basketball played than any since LeBron has returned. If nothing else, the depth and quality will make this team one that should thrive every night.