It’s that time of year again. The days grow shorter, the mornings a little crisper. That nip in the air is the reminder that NBA Basketball is about to return.
As we’ve done for the last six years, we are once again participating in the SB Nation NBA Blogger Previews hosted by the fine folks of CelticsBlog. The previews kicked off yesterday and today the Cavaliers are on the clock already.
What can we expect from this team? What should we expect? Is this the team that will finally stomp on that Championship curse and bring glory back to Cleveland? Or will the sting of bitter disappointment show its ugly face to mock us all once more? Lets dig into this team and find out just what we think we have on our hands for this season.
Team Name: Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Year’s Record: 33-49 (3rd in the Central, 10th in the East)
Key Losses: Everyone not named Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters, Anderson Varejao, and Matthew Dellavedova. More specifically, Luol Deng, Spencer Hawes, Jarrett Jack, Anthony Bennett, Alonzo Gee, Tyler Zeller, CJ Miles, Sergey Karasev, Carrick Felix. I’m sure there are others I’m forgetting about.
Key Additions: Kevin Love, Mike Miller, James Jones, Shawn Marion, Brendan Haywood, Joe Harris. Oh, yeah, and LeBron James. Almost forgot about LeBron there for a second.
1. What Significant Moves were made during the off-season?
Every move this offseason has felt significant. Anyone who went into NBA offseason hibernation is about to wake up to a wholly unrecognizable organization.
Let’s see, the Cavaliers officially made David Griffin the full-time General Manager. They fired head coach Mike Brown after one season. They then hired Maccabi Tel Aviv coach David Blatt, an NBA unknown but a legend in Europe. They won the NBA Draft Lottery and took Andrew Wiggins with the No. 1 overall pick. They offered Kyrie Irving a max contract, and Kyrie took all of two seconds to accept it. Then LeBron James made the unimaginable decision to come back to Cleveland. After that, the Cavaliers signed Mike Miller and James Jones. Then they traded Wiggins and last year’s No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett to Minnesota for Kevin Love. The Cavs also traded Carrick Felix to Utah for John Lucas III, Erik Murphy, and Malcolm Thomas. They then turned around and traded those three plus Dwight Powell and draft picks to Boston for Keith Bogans and draft picks. Then they flipped Bogans to Philadelphia for a trade exception.
It was an insanely busy offseason for the Cavaliers as the entire franchise was completely overhauled. And obviously for the better. But will it be enough to get the Cavaliers where they want to go this first season? We’ll have to wait and find out.
2. What are the team’s biggest strengths?
Offense and rebounding. This Cavaliers team is designed to score points. A lot of them. It’s hard to recall a more offensively gifted trio than LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love. Whereas last season so much of the focus on offense revolved on Kyrie vs Dion, this season everything should be so much more open, especially for Kyrie and Dion.
There will be plenty of opportunities to run pick and roll with Kyrie and Love, freeing up LeBron and Anderson Varejao to looks for gaps off the ball. It will be imperative in those sets that Kyrie continues to develop his floor vision. He showed glimpses of real growth there in the World Cup this summer. I continue to believe that Kyrie’s presence there will be a major positive factor for his development, as he now has some sustained experience playing on the floor with other elite players.
In recent seasons Anderson Varejao has had to work a lot harder for his points. He developed a decently reliable short-to-mid range jumper that he never really had the last time he played with LeBron. I expect Andy to find his points a lot easier once more, cutting to the rim behind double teams on Love and LeBron, both of whom are excellent passers who will be able to find Andy in space. But Andy’s ability to step back when needed will only make the offense more dynamic.
Perhaps the biggest question will be LeBron’s role in the offense. In Miami he developed a post game that he never really seemed to want in Cleveland. However, with his noticeable offseason weight loss, I wonder what, if any, effect that will have on his post game. By last season, LeBron had seen his role as dominant ball handler increased. Now that he has Kyrie around, will he be comfortable playing off the ball? LeBron is not a player that any Cavs fans need to worry about offensively. LeBron will be the focal point of the offense and he will handle that role with incredible efficiency. But he has new roles available to him and new teammates around him. The only question mark will be how quickly all these pieces are comfortable beside each other and what specific role LeBron plays in this offense.
As for rebounding, between Varejao, Tristan Thompson, Love, Brendan Haywood, and LeBron, the Cavaliers have no shortage of guys capable of hauling in misses off the glass. Tristan has been more opportunistic rebounder than consistent rebounder, and Varejao isn’t the same rebounder he once was either, but there are still plenty of bodies capable of rebounding duties. Haywood is cleared for practice and should be ready for the start of the season. The most important rebounder, though, will be Love, especially on the defensive glass. In a perfect world, LeBron won’t have to worry about defensive boards so much. Instead, Love grabbing the boards and using his outlet skills to find Kyrie and LeBron in the open court breaking the other way will be huge.
3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?
Defense and chemistry. Ideally the defense will be more of an uncertainty than a weakness. After being in the bottom five in defensive efficiency for three seasons under Byron Scott, the Cavaliers brought in Mike Brown to restore order on defense. And for all the problems of last season, I will give Brown credit for at least getting the defense back on the right track. The Cavaliers finished the season 19th in defensive efficiency and 16th in opponents points against. These aren’t good numbers by any means, but it was absolutely a marked improvement from the previous three years.
Now David Blatt has to get his team to buy in not only on offense, but also (perhaps more importantly) on defense. There are good defenders on this team. Anderson Varejao’s defense has slipped the last couple years with age and injury, but he’s still an incredibly smart defender who is always aware of positioning in the post. LeBron’s defense also slipped last season, but many feel that was largely a function of him needing to exert more energy on offense. Hopefully the offensive help in Cleveland will allow LeBron to get back to his All-NBA defensive potential. Shawn Marion is getting older but still is capable of being a plus defender. Guys like Love, Thompson, and Waiters all have potential for defense.
There’s plenty of reason to believe this team can defend. The question is whether or not they will. Kyrie Irving has been an enormous defensive liability in his time in Cleveland. Maybe he just lacks the lateral quickness to be a good NBA defensive PG, or maybe he just needs to show more awareness and effort on that end. If the Cavaliers don’t defend better than the teams we’ve seen in recent years, they will be just another fun, exciting regular season team that loses in the playoffs. The defense will be a huge part of deciding this team’s fate.
Another weakness, at least early in the year, will be chemistry. I’m not referring to the chemistry issues we saw last season. I’m talking about on-court chemistry. We’ve seen time and time again when these super teams are assembled, it takes them some time to really gel. That’s only natural. I expect the Cavaliers to have some struggles, especially early in the season as everyone learns how to play with each other. The question is whether this team will all be on the same page once the playoffs come.
4. What are the goals for this team?
Las Vegas has the Cavaliers listed as the favorites to win the Championship this season. For any team that finds themselves the favorites to win, you would think the goal would be Championship or bust. I do think winning the title is, indeed, the goal for this team, but it’s a little more complex than that.
The Celtics went from 24-58 to 66-16 when they added Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. They were able to win their Championship that first season together. However, when LeBron and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in Miami, that team failed to win in their first season.
So which one will the Cavaliers be? Well, the Celtics were able to keep a decent amount of the surrounding support cast around the Big Three. A lot of the team chemistry was already in place, and they were able to acclimate Garnett and Allen a little easier. They struggled a bit early, but by the end of the season, the team was rolling. The Heat overhauled their roster, bringing in a bunch of low priced veterans to surround the Big Three. It took them much longer to truly develop on-court chemistry.
The Cavaliers are a bit of a hybrid of the two. They kept some key support guys like Varejao, Thompson, and Waiters, but they also overhauled much of the roster, bringing in vets like Miller, Marion, and Jones. The Cavaliers are also the only one to also be adding a new coach to the team. Furthermore, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving have never been to the playoffs.
So can a team with a new coach, at least seven new players, and a Big Three where two of the three have zero playoff experience come out and win a Championship in their first season? Should that be the goal? The team has been slow to publicly list that as their goal. Cohesion seems to be their stated goal. But privately, behind closed doors, I find it hard to believe the players aren’t all working for one goal alone. And that goal is to win the Championship.
5. So was this team earned or given?
In LeBron’s letter, he said, “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.” This has stuck with me all summer. I don’t disagree with it, but I kind of think it applies not just to Northeast Ohio, but everywhere. If there’s a city or region where everything is just given, I may just want to look into moving there.
The reason why this has really stuck with me is because it has made me really think about the construction of this team. Has it been earned, or was it given? LeBron says you work for what you have. The Cavaliers certainly suffered for this roster, but did they work for it?
The first time LeBron was in Cleveland, that felt like a team that fought for everything they earned. Had they won a title, nobody could have said it was given. But with the way this team was put together, it really feels more given than earned. For now.
Which brings me to my point. For the Cavaliers to win a Championship, they’re going to have to face adversity and earn it. I think this season will be a roller coaster with so many highs and lows. But there will be some lows. Probably a decent amount of them. There will be times where everything will be questioned and doubt and uncertainty will creep in. Overcoming these issues is how the Cavaliers will fight to earn their goals. I fear there’s a creeping sense among many Cavs fans that this season will be nothing but fun and good times. And heck, after the last four years we’ve been through, this is all gravy. But I just hope everyone maintains some perspective when adversity hits. The tough times are just as much a part of the journey as the good times.
6. How will this new roster impact the development of Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson?
It’s been said quite frequently that the Cavaliers want to avoid becoming the Heat 2.0, which, is kind of funny because you could certainly do a lot worse than four straight Finals appearances and two Championships. But you can understand the point. There’s a sense that to some degree the Heat failed to live up to what they were supposed to be (“Not two, not three, not four, not five, not blah, blah, blah”).
I don’t know how many more years of prime LeBron has left in him. Eight straight seasons of playing 75-plus games (well, excluding the strike-shortened season in which he played 62 of 66 games) in addition to multiple playoff series will eventually catch up to him at some point. For the Cavaliers to achieve sustained Championship runs, they need to develop some players around LeBron beyond just Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving.
The Cavaliers have done a nice job maintaining as much cap flexibility as possible considering the salaries on the team, but it will be so important for Tristan and Dion to develop even further. Thankfully, this roster should help both of them immensely. It will allow both players to fall back into roles better suited to them. Tristan has been asked to be more of an impact player than he was designed to be, and Dion is the ultimate energy and scoring guy off the bench. Whether Dion starts or comes off the bench, he should be able to thrive if he’s able to pick his spots and continue to improve his decision making and shot selection.
For Tristan, I hope he’s seen a lot of tape of Andy’s role in LeBron era 1.0. Andy thrived by giving hustle and energy, crashing the boards, defending, being a nuisance, and cleaning up the scraps on offense. Tristan Thompson absolutely has the skills to become that kind of player on this team. With even less attention being paid to him on the offensive side of the floor, Tristan will have his moments where he can get wide open passes for uncontested dunks the way Varejao did. Tristan has to always be alert and ready, though. One of Andy’s underrated skills has always been his awareness and ability to handle passes in the post.
There will be an adjustment for both players as they adapt to what is being asked of them. But I hope they view it as a positive and embrace it. I think having less asked of each will only help them in their development. If they embrace this opportunity, they can be valuable, important role players on a Championship team.
7. What is your final prediction for this season?
I can’t put a number on wins and losses, I just don’t know how quickly things will come together for them. But I do think once the playoffs arrive, this team will be ready to go. With one caveat, they have to stay healthy. Kyrie, Love, and Andy all have extensive injury histories. Miller and Marion are getting older.
With so many unknowns, new players, new coaches, key players with no playoff experience, etc, I just can’t predict a Championship for this team this season. I think it’s going to take a year of figuring things out. I’m not saying a Championship is impossible, I’m just not predicting it. I think the Cavaliers can have the best record in the East, and I think they have a good chance of making it to the Finals. I’m just not sure they’re going to be ready now to overcome the West’s representative. I predict the Cavaliers fall just shy of their ultimate goal this year, before coming back to win it next year. As I always say, though, “Prove me wrong, Cleveland.”
8. Are there any other Cavaliers previews we should be reading today?
Of course! This is an SB Nation event, after all. They were just nice enough to invite us to participate. But you should definitely head over to SB Nation’s Cavs blog, Fear The Sword, and read my friend David Zavac’s preview as well.
And finally, we want to hear from you guys. So hit up the comments and tell me where you agree with me and where you think I’m an idiot that has no clue what he’s talking about. What are your predictions for this upcoming season?