For the first time in this website’s history, and for the first time in many Cleveland fans’ lifetimes, we have all spent this offseason thinking about how to defend a Championship.
We’ve been doing these season previews for the Cleveland Cavaliers for almost a decade now, and they have always focused on one of two things. It has always been about either figuring out how to get over the rebuilding hump or else how to get over the Championship hump. When the Cavaliers erased a 3-1 deficit to beat the Golden State Warriors and erase a 52 year Championship drought, the entire state of Ohio has spent most of the summer celebrating and basking in the glow of Championship hangover ecstasy.
Now that training camp is here and preseason basketball is getting underway, though, the focus has to shift. The cigar smoke is thinning, the smell of champagne had faded, the Warriors Blew a 3-1 Lead meme has run its course. It’s time to move on and prepare for a new season. A season unlike any other in franchise history. A season in which the Cavaliers have to learn to find new motivation. A season in which we call the Cavalier “Defending NBA Champions”.
As fans, I’m not sure we’re ready for this next step. Watching the Championship unfold, particularly in the manner in which it did, it’s hard to fathom anything ever topping that moment. I don’t particularly want to close this chapter and move on to thoughts on defending and playing another season. It still feels like Game 7 happened just a couple weeks ago.
Fans can afford to hang on to the celebration for as long as they want to. But for the players themselves, the days of celebrating are over. The players have no choice. The next season is upon us, and the focus must shift from celebration to defending the title. So here we are, previewing a season in which we no longer have to guess what the Cavaliers must do to win a Championship. But now we have to try to do something new and figure out what it takes to defend a Championship. It should be a fun and exciting new challenge, so lets let go of the party and move on to the work ahead. Lets take a look at the upcoming season for your defending NBA Champions!
Last Year’s Record: 57-25 (16-5 in the postseason, Won the NBA Championship)
Key Losses: Matthew Dellavedova (free agent), Mo Williams (retired), Timofey Mozgov (free agent), Sasha Kaun (retired), JR Smith? (maybe?)
Key Additions: Mike Dunleavy (trade), Chris Andersen (free agent), Kay Felder (draft)
For the Cavaliers, defending their title meant mostly bringing the same team back. LeBron James finally broke his recent trend of signing only year deals by locking in for two years with a player option for a third. With Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving still locked in, the Big Three will be staying together. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t changes.
Of key contributing players, the Cavaliers really had two free agents (other than LeBron, who was essentially a lock to come back): JR Smith and Matthew Dellavedova. Delly was given a nice contract by the Milwaukee Bucks and the Cavaliers chose not to match. JR Smith still remains unsigned. While most people expect a deal to be done and JR to be back, noting is a given until the paper is signed.
In other moves, Mo Williams retired while Richard Jefferson agreed to return despite initially claiming he was going to retire. The Cavaliers traded for Mike Dunleavy to give them some more shooting, they signed Chris Andersen for another big body when they need it deep off the bench, and they drafted PG Kay Felder to replace Mo Williams. Without question, though, the biggest move of the offseason will be whatever happens with JR Smith.
Offense in general should continue to be the biggest strength of this team. With still two of the best rim attackers in the league in LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, and shooters galore to spread around them, the Cavaliers should be able to continue to exploit matchups and get the shots they want.
The Cavs offense wasn’t always the prettiest last season. Despite offensive talent at every spot in the lineup, the Cavaliers are capable of slowing the offense to a grind. It can be frustrating to watch LeBron and Kyrie take turns pounding the ball into the floor with little movement off the ball. But even at its ugliest, the offense still works. Despite being 27th in pace last season, the Cavaliers still finished 8th in points per game.
For all their frustrations within the offense, it works. Mostly, it works because of the shooting. With shooters at almost every spot around LeBron, the Cavaliers can make opposing defenses have to make hard choices about who to leave open, lest they simply allow LeBron and Kyrie to get into the lane at will.
The Cavaliers also have two of the best rebounders in the league in Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love. Tristan uses his incredible offensive rebounding prowess to keep possessions alive while Love uses his defensive rebounding to set up the Cavaliers in transition going the other way. Both players use rebounding to serve the offense, which is another strength of this team overall.
It’s easy to look at the Cavaliers and just assume that defense will continue to be a weakness for this team. But really, the Cavaliers played pretty darn good defense in the second half of the season last year and when it mattered in the postseason, the Cavaliers defense stepped up in a big way. Consistent defensive focus, particularly in the regular season, will probably be somewhat of a weakness for this team, but I don’t see defense as the biggest weakness for this team anymore.
Point guard depth will likely be an issue all season for this team and could very well be the biggest weakness on the team. With Mo Williams retiring and Matthew Dellavedova going to Milwaukee, Kyrie Irving is suddenly the only PG with experience on the team. With Irving playing for Team USA over the summer and earning a gold medal to go along with his NBA Championship, the Cavaliers will likely try to go easy on Kyrie’s minutes in the regular season. Meaning, there is a giant hole at the position.
Obviously LeBron can always step in and play PG. Although LeBron has been lowly ceding control of the offense over to Kyrie, LeBron will likely have to play the point and initiate the offense even more this season. Rookie Kay Felder may be pressed into service earlier than expected, too, out of necessity.
While the Cavaliers will make it work, the scary truth is that any injury to Kyrie Irving suddenly would leave the Cavaliers with a massive problem at PG. Last season when Kyrie started the year out with injury, Mo Williams filled in capably and bridged the gap to Kyrie’s return. Dellavedova was a player the coaches could trust to play heavy minutes when needed. The Cavaliers were ok without Kyrie. This season, they have no such luxury.
When you win a Championship, there is one goal and only one the following season: defend the title. There’s nowhere to go but down. There is no “lets just try to improve and have a better season than the last”. There is nothing that can be better than last season.
Sure, individual players can have better seasons. The team could have a better record. The team could improve statistically. But none of that matters in the big picture. This season is about only one thing, and that is defending their title. Winning one is fun, but after that you become one of two things. You either become content and you rest on your laurels, or you become hungry for more and you obsess on how to win more titles. The latter is the goal for this team, and there really aren’t any other goals to achieve.
Yes. He has to be. The standoff between the Cavaliers and JR is unfortunate, but it’s business. Everyone knows the Cavaliers want JR and JR wants to be on the Cavaliers. It’s simply a question of using that knowledge and figuring out how to get the right deal done when both sides of the negotiations are calling the other’s bluffs.
If we’re measuring leverage, though, JR Smith likely holds a little more than the Cavaliers. Who knows what deal is out there for JR besides Cleveland, but that’s not the kind of leverage JR has. JR’s leverage lies in the fact that the Cavaliers’ cap situation is such that they can’t get a replacement for JR. If they lose JR, they are losing an integral part of their success and one of the major reasons they won a Championship last season. There will be no replacing JR Smith. Both sides know this, and that is why I believe a deal will eventually be done.
By the end of last season, something seemed to be changing with Kevin Love and his relationship to this team. For the first time in his two seasons in Cleveland, Love seemed to be developing a deeper chemistry with his teammates. His play on the court began to reflect that. March and April of last season saw Kevin’s numbers rocket back up, close to levels where some expected all along. Shooting, scoring, rebounding, you name it. Everything seemed to be clicking for Love.
Kevin carried that spark into the postseason where he put up some incredible performances early in the postseason. When the NBA Finals came around, however, Love once again had a somewhat frustrating series. Perhaps that’s just going to be the reality of Kevin Love in Cleveland. Moments of brilliance followed by moments of frustration.
I do believe chemistry matters, though. And I’m encouraged by the obvious chemistry that has developed over the last year between Love and the rest of the Cavaliers. I think Kevin’s familiarity and comfort levels in the offense continues to grow and I actually think Love might have his best season yet as Cavalier. Cleveland has indicated that they want to be mindful of not overworking Kyrie Irving. We know LeBron James is always mindful of saving something for the postseason. This creates real opportunity for Love to take on a bigger role in the offense. It’s unlikely Kevin Love will ever reach the same level of performance that he did in Minnesota was he was the #1 option in the offense, but there’s also no reason to think his steady improvement with Cleveland can’t continue either.
We don’t want to talk about it, but we know it is coming. LeBron is 31 years old and will be turning 32 in December. When Michael Jordan turned 32, he started the second three-peat of his career, so there’s no reason to think LeBron James doesn’t still have plenty of championship-level basketball in him. But 32 years old also marked the beginning of MJ’s decline in efficiency and overall performance. In hindsight, we selectively forget the decline and instead remember the three Championships he won after his return. But age was unquestionably catching up to MJ in that run. Jordan had an incredible season at age 32 as the Bulls went 72-10 and ran over the rest of the league. But from that season on, MJ was slowly succumbing to father time.
LeBron James has the luxury of advances in technology in fitness, nutrition, and performance that have helped him sustain such a high level of basketball for so long. LeBron may be the same age as MJ was when he returned from baseball, but LeBron has also put a ton more minutes on his body than MJ had at the same age.
The Cavaliers are aware of this, LeBron is aware of this, and Ty Lue is aware of this. I would be surprised if the Cavaliers pushed too hard in the regular season. I wouldn’t be surprised to see LeBron take a few more nights off than we’re used to seeing. This is the preservation stage of his career. LeBron is still at the top of this league, but that window is closing faster every season. The slow decline is going to start for LeBron sometime very soon. It may not be this season, but it’s something we, unfortunately, will have to keep an eye on.
The Golden State Warriors are the obvious answer here. But before we get to that, there are two other serious issues that could derail this Cavs season. One would be not finding a way to sign JR Smith. It’s hard to imagine the Cavaliers hanging on to their title without everything JR brings to the team, namely his shooting and his ability to play lock down defense on the perimeter. The Cavaliers need JR back.
The other potential pitfall is an injury to LeBron James or Kyrie Irving. Injuries always go without saying, but the way this Cavs team is built, those two players need to be there to drive the offense to increase the value of players like Channing Frye, JR Smith, Mike Dunleavy, and Richard Jefferson. The Cavs have great depth in shooting, but they lack depth in offensive creation.
But yes, externally, the Warriors still look to be the biggest threat to everyone in the NBA. Teams in the East like Toronto, Boston, Indiana, Detroit, Atlanta, and Chicago are worth paying attention to, but a fully healthy Cavaliers team is probably still too much for any other team in the East. But the new look Kevin Durant-led Warriors are going to be such a tough matchup for everyone, Cavaliers included. The same two teams have never played each other in three consecutive NBA Finals, so history says one of these two teams won’t be there. But on paper, it feels like an inevitability.
It’s hard to guess how the Cavaliers will matchup with the new look Warriors, but it’s worth noting that LeBron has more or less dominated Durant’s teams in the past. JR Smith did a better job sticking with Steph Curry in the Finals last year than anyone else I saw last year. Beating the Warriors in a best of seven series will be a difficult challenge, of course, but I’m not ready to just concede the title to the Warriors just yet and I doubt the Cavaliers are either. I’m hoping for this matchup because I think it will be incredibly fun to watch. But if someone wants to knock the Warriors out early, I’m certainly ok with that as well.
A lot of this preview has been spent looking backwards at last season. There are a couple reasons for that. One, this is mostly the same team as last year. We can learn a lot about the future by studying the past, particularly when the variables are largely constant. Second, as mentioned in the opening, moving on is hard. It’s tough to want to look forward when the immediate past is pretty much the best thing ever. This has been such an incredibly fun summer for Cleveland fans, and it’s a little hard to face the reality that it’s now time to let go of the certainty that the Cavaliers are NBA Champions and embrace the uncertainty of whether that will still be true next summer.
This is fine for fans, but it’s a dangerous trap for players. So much of this season is going to be about preserving everyone’s health for the postseason, but not resting too much on the past to the point where the team can’t get it going when they need to. There are so many reasons why repeating as Champions is so hard, but the biggest reasons tend to be internal and mental in nature.
This is going to be a fun season no matter what. A banner is going to be hung in the Q and nothing will ever take that away from us. But life goes on, and so does basketball. It’s time to shift gears and get ready for another season of watching the best collection of talent in Cavalier history try to defend their title.