As we sit during Week 15 in the NFL and Hot Stove season in Major League Baseball, we are one-third the way through the NBA’s regular season. Of all three teams in Cleveland, one has a chance to win a championship within the next seven months, and that is your Cleveland Cavaliers.
We here at WFNY thought it would be wise to take this time to discuss some of the major story lines that have hovered above as the Cavaliers have produced a 21-8 record through it’s first 29 games; good for second in the Eastern Conference and fourth overall despite a slow start integrating the new players.
How is the Kyrie Irving trade working out for the Boston Celtics? Has he done or said anything crazy? What about his play on the court; has he improved or regressed now that he isn’t playing with LeBron James?
Scott: Any time you can add an All-Star to your team, it’s bound to work out for you. The Celtics have been great, and Kyrie has been Kyrie. His box score statistics are about the same as they were when he was in Cleveland, but it’s the team-wide defense that has been a substantial difference. Irving’s dRtg has seen a massive improvement thanks to playing alongside one of the best five-man defensive units in the league. The good news is, as LeBron James and James Harden have stormed away from the rest of the league, all of the MVP nonsense has died down despite the best attempts of Boston media. And yes, he’s said plenty of crazy things, but once you say the world is flat, all of that pales in comparison.
Nom: Boston probably feels like they found a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. They have the league’s best record, Kyrie has been fantastic, and the pieces they gave up have failed to live up to the hype. In terms of his play, he’s Kyrie. He is taking more three pointers and getting to the free throw line a bit more, which has helped his efficiency, but his assist rate and usage are dead-on what he did last year. He still dribbles a bunch, scores a bunch, and doesn’t act like a traditional point guard. The biggest difference is that suddenly that style of play is being lauded instead of lambasted.
Joe: Kyrie Irving is the same Kyrie Irving. Through 28 games this season with the Celtics, Irving is averaging 24.0 points per game on 49.7% shooting, 4.9 assists per game, 2.3 turnovers per game and 1.4 steals per game. Last season with the Cavs, Irving averaged 25.2 points per game on 47.3%, 5.8 assists per game, 2.5 turnovers per game and 1.2 steals per game. So numbers-wise, he is averaging less this year in points and assists, but has improved his steals, turnovers and shooting percentage this season. But, all of these changes are just marginal and shows that he is the exact same player as last season. He is just highlighted as the main guy now on the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference.
Josh: As expected, the trade is working out quite well for Boston. Kyrie has led them to the best record in the East so far this season. While his numbers closely resemble what he did in Cleveland, the biggest difference in his game seems to be his defense. Just remember, some Boston media members are going to say and do things to make it seem like Kyrie has improved tremendously since his time in wine and gold, but that’s just not the case. Uncle Drew and the Celtics may look good now, but we’ll see just how good of a team they are once they can win a best-of-seven series in the postseason. He’s said some crazy things, but nothing will beat when he said that Earth is flat in 2016. I won’t mention anything else he has said because, like his flat Earth comment, he may just be saying it for attention.
Tom: Kyrie’s numbers are in line with his last few seasons in Cleveland and the Celtics lead the East despite losing Gordon Hayward for the season on Opening Night, so it’s hard to argue the trade has been anything short of a home run for Boston. As for how Kyrie is playing, a confession: Outside of their opener vs. the Cavs, I have mostly avoided watching Celtics games at all costs. I had become as emotionally invested in Kyrie as just about any other Cleveland athlete in my lifetime, and the thought of him playing for the Celtics of all teams makes me ill. It took me a couple years to become OK with watching Heat games with LeBron. I’m not there yet with Boston.
How is the return package from the Kyrie Irving trade working out for the Cavs? Has Isaiah Thomas played yet? If not, when is he scheduled to return?
Scott: It hasn’t really. Jae Crowder has had the toughest transition out of any of the Cavaliers’ new players, Isaiah Thomas is set to make his return in a few weeks, and Ante Zizic has simply played some spot minutes. The draft pick acquired has given Twitter plenty to deliberate about, but as it stands now, the team has little-to-no interest in moving it. But hey—tweets!
Regarding Thomas, he has already been traveling with the team and does his own pre-game routine before the layup line rolls out. Once the games have started, however, he’s been in street clothes cheering on his teammates. This should all change by Christmas. Get pumped.
Nom: The package doesn’t look as fancy as it did the day of the trade, but will likely improve as the season moves into the spring months. Jae Crowder has struggled to find a role, but the team is also asking him to play a half-dozen roles. Isaiah Thomas has yet to play, but when he does, it will not only boost what is already the third best offense in the NBA, it will likely let Crowder find a more defined role.
As for the Brooklyn Nets first round pick? It could go two ways. They are playing much better than nearly anyone expected, with the pick looking to be closer to the 8-10 range than top three. But the team lost D’Angelo Russell and Jeremy Lin to injuries and then traded away solid veteran Trevor Booker for the raw Jahill OKafor, so the Nets could easily backslide as the season wears on. And while the team is not looking to move the pick, if the Oklahoma City Thunder’s struggles continue, Paul George rumors will only get louder.
Joe: The only real impact from the Kyrie trade has been from Jae Crowder and his impact has been up and down this season. He has not really fit in perfectly yet and has struggled to be consistent with the Cavs so far. But, that was not unexpected for a player coming to a new team. Ante Zizic has played sparingly and is not a real rotational player at this point in the season and likely won’t be this season. Isaiah Thomas is reportedly set to return around Christmas, so we will get to see the real return of the Kyrie trade.
Josh: Due to Isaiah Thomas not playing yet and Brooklyn’s first-round pick obviously not being able to bring any talent (whether it be in a trade or via a draft selection) to the team quite yet, Jae Crowder and Zizic have had the only opportunities to prove themselves. While Crowder has struggled, I truly believe that is has something to do with his mom passing away. That became even more apparent last week, after he hit a clutch, dagger three-pointer to secure a Cavs’ win. Zizic on the other hand, has played very sparingly. With that said, it looks like IT could be back by (if not on) Christmas Day.
Tom: Given that Isaiah still hasn’t played as of the time I’m writing this (although all signs point to him playing within the next two weeks), it’s too soon to judge the Cavs’ return in the big trade. Jae Crowder’s shooting numbers are down across the board from last year, and he has struggled to find a fit within the rotation, although he seems to have a lot of support within the locker room. The Nets pick, considered the crown jewel of the deal, has lost some luster as Brooklyn is only below-average and not cover-your-eyes horrendous, as in past years. Still, the Nets have lost Jeremy Lin for the year, D’Angelo Russell is out for the foreseeable future, and there is a healthy dose of skepticism about how the recently acquired Jahlil Okafor will fit with this Brooklyn roster. Plus, the Nets’ schedule is about to get a lot tougher. TL;DR version: In time, that Brooklyn pick might end up looking pretty shiny after all.
What about all the old guys who used to be great that the Cavs signed? Is Derrick Rose or Dwyane Wade good this year? Are either of them starting?
Scott: The “old” guys are great in the context of their re-signing of Kyle Korver, their lack of trading Channing Frye, their signing of Jeff Green, and their adding Dwyane Wade for pennies. Together, this unit has provided some of the best four-man net rating numbers in the league. In fact, it’s those four players, top-to-bottom, who have the team’s best adjusted on-court numbers.
Rose, however, has been a bit of a different story. I’ll let Nom explain.
Nom: Derrick Rose is bad and should feel bad. He was the starting point guard for seven games this season and has a total of twelve assists, all of which I walked through in GIF form.
Dwyane Wade has been fantastic in his role as the backup point guard. He knows how to manipulate the defense and make the easy pass to the numerous shooters surrounding him. While his defense isn’t great, he is savvy and makes a lot of smart plays. He continues to be the best shot-blocking guard in history and has been good enough on that end to stay in games in crunch time.
Joe: Derrick Rose is hurt, which is not a shock, but sad for him as a player who has faced so many injuries in his once promising career. Rose is back with the team after stepping away to decide his next step in his career, but I believe we will not see him play much of a part for the Cavs the rest of the season. Dwayne Wade has been excellent ever since he moved to the bench after starting the season as a starter. He has been the leader of the bench mob, which ranks fourth in the NBA in scoring at 40.9 points a game and third in the league in plus/minus at plus three. Wade has been a complete player for the Cavs, impacting the defensive and offensive side of the ball. He is the leading scorer off the bench at 11.5 points per game.
Josh: I won’t even get into the Derrick Rose situation. While he’s legitimately hurt, he’s hurt this team when he’s on the court as well. As far as D-Wade, he’s been very, very good since asking Ty Lue to come off the bench. The veteran is leading the second unit and is one of the main reasons why the Cavs have had so much success lately.
Tom: After stumbling through the first few games of the year as the starting two-guard, Dwyane Wade has found new life leading an extremely productive second unit running the point. Derrick Rose, meanwhile, looks like he’s going to be the odd man out if/when he can resolve the bone spur in his left ankle that currently has him sidelined. In theory, Rose was brought in to anchor the second unit, but he never really got the chance, as he was pressed into starting duty with IT on the shelf. With Isaiah set to return soon, Wade building a little Sixth Man of the Year buzz as the backup, and Jose Calderon on call in case of emergencies, there really is no place for Rose, should he return.
Any other “new to the Cavs / old to the NBA” players fans should be aware are contributing?
Scott: It’s worth re-iterating how solid Green has been. While Korver has bailed the team out countless times, and Wade is getting Sixth Man love, but if I had to put Green in Tribe terms, he’s an older version of Jose Ramirez, able to play multiple positions and adding value at all of them. He’s guarded 2-through-5, filled in for LeBron in a way that others (Shawn Marion, Mike Dunleavy) have been unable to, and has allowed Ty Lue to get very creative with the second unit. Whatever advanced stats say about his value, it’s undershooting the true number.
Nom: I wrote a bit about them here but the veterans have been fantastic. Channing Frye has not only forced his way back into the lineup, he’s scoring around the rim and playing defense better than he ever has as a Cavalier. Kyle Korver continues to be an engine to get the Cavs’ offense moving, flying around the court and coming off screens that either open him up for a shot or let the screener dive toward the basket for a layup. Jeff Green is playing the role we all thought Derrick Williams could fill before he flamed out. He cuts, he’s athletic, he runs; he’s been a glue guy that has been invaluable. And last but not least, Jose Calderon, a signing I hated and was vocal about, has steadied the starting lineup. He doesn’t force shots, he doesn’t turn the ball over, he can hit open shots when needed. The team took off as he replaced Derrick Rose in the starting lineup, and it will be interesting to see what happens when Isaiah Thomas replaces Calderon.
Joe: Jeff Green has been great. He, along with Wade, has made the Cavs bench mob a formidable unit that can change the momentum of a game. Green brings athleticism to the second unit and a versatile player, who can play the 3, 4 and 5 positions if needed and can guard some guards too. Jose Calderon has stepped into the starting lineup after Derrick Rose and Iman Shumpert went down with injuries. He has performed well enough for the starting unit.
Josh: Rather than repeat what everyone else has already said, just take a look and read it all over again. There’s a reason why the bench unit has had so much success this season.
Tom: I bagged on the Jose Calderon signing as much as anyone over the summer, given that the Cavs had limited flexibility and they signed him on the very first day of free agency with plenty of seemingly better options available. Since being inserted into the starting lineup, though, Calderon has been reasonably competent and the team is winning. He makes shots, doesn’t turn the ball over and gets the team into sets. As a stopgap point guard until Isaiah Thomas plays, you can’t ask for much more. … Jeff Green has also outplayed expectations. He’s likely to see his minutes cut once some of the injured guys return to the lineup, but he’s earned the right to keep a spot in the rotation. … One player who isn’t new this year, but still worth mentioning: Kyle Korver, who re-signed over the summer. He’s excellent at running off screens to get freed up on the perimeter. (Really, the second unit in general has been great at moving without the ball, a major reason they’re so fun to watch.) Korver’s shooting touch is as good as ever, earning him significant fourth quarter playing time.
How about any young players? Do the Cavs finally have a young player contributing and developing or no?
Scott: Cedi Osman has shown some flashes, and while he hasn’t necessarily made a substantial impact, I appreciate his confidence. He’s occasionally handled the ball with the second unit, and is working incredibly hard behind the scenes to develop some consistency from long-range. Zizic’s footwork is the real deal, and he’s leading the team in blocks on a per-minute basis, but he’s very, very raw.
Nom: I am a Cedi Osman fanboy. What Scott said above is likely the correct answer, but I’m going to go all out. Cedi is quick, he moves his feet well, he can dribble a bit, pass a bit, shoot a bit. He hustles all over the court. But most of all, Osman knows how to play the game. Similar to what we are seeing with guys like Korver and Wade and Green around LeBron, if you have a high basketball IQ, LeBron will make you look good. Cedi seems to have that. He will do the little things like streak through the lane on a cut to force the defense to react and open up a LeBron James dunk or drive. Those things don’t show up in a box score but are a huge asset on an older team.
Joe: The only young player the Cavs have that is making somewhat an impact is Cedi Osman. Osman has been playing more as the last rotational player off the bench since the injuries to Rose and Shumpert. He is an energy player, who is still looking like he is a lot of work to do as he transitions to the NBA game.
Josh: Because Star Wars, The Last Cedi has been a nice addition. I love watching him play, but his reactions to the things LeBron does are my favorite thing about the rookie. Hopefully he can continue to develop and be able to play some key minutes in the postseason.
Tom: Cedi Osman, who became a cult favorite of Cavs diehards while playing overseas, has finally arrived in the NBA, and has held his own in limited action. It’s hard to see him staying in the rotation if the Cavs ever get fully healthy, but he can play. Ante Zizic, the 6-11 center who was also included in the Kyrie trade, looks like he’s a little further away development-wise.
Is LeBron James finally showing his age? Anything memorable happening with him this year?
Scott: What age? The guy is having the best season if his career while being days away from turning 33. It’s remarkable. Check out this chart of James’ current season as compared to the averages of his four MVP campaigns.
This is crazy. pic.twitter.com/A6UOB0Dc3h
— Scott @ WFNY (@WFNYScott) December 13, 2017
Nom: The only way he’s showing his age is if he’s an alien from another planet that reaches their prime at 33 years old. And that’s honestly not out of the realm of possibilities.
Joe: Actually he has somehow gotten better and is having what could be his best season in the NBA. In 28 games, his 28.2 points per game is the fifth highest mark in his career. His 8.2 rebounds a game is the second highest mark in his career and his 9.0 assists per game is the highest mark of his career. But, the most impressive part of his game is the improvement in shooting and efficiency. In 28 games, he is shooting 42.2% from three and from the field, he is averaging 58.3%. These are both career highs. James is the best player on the planet and their no sign of him wearing down or showing any decline. He has somehow improved at a point where most would be going backwards. It is just another remarkable season by the future Hall of Famer.
Josh: LeBron showing that he is 33 years old and in his 15th season? Huh, good one. The dude continues to be a walking triple-double. It’s truly insane that he is arguably playing his best season of his career so far this season.
Tom: In his 15th year, LeBron is putting up numbers better than his MVP seasons. It’s absurd. I beat this mantra into the ground, but I’ll say it again here: LeBron James is a once-in-a-lifetime talent. Whether he leaves next summer or finishes his career here, enjoy his performances as much as you can. One crazy angle to LeBron’s season: Two years after being pegged the worst shooter in the NBA, he is now shooting a career-best 41% from 3-point range through 29 games. (For reference, Steph Curry is at 38%.)
It is still a young season, but what does the prognosis look like for the Cavs in the Eastern Conference? What about in the NBA as a whole? Who are we worried about facing in the playoffs?
Scott: Barring injury, they’ll enter the Eastern Conference playoffs as the No. 1 seed. The Toronto Raptors are nipping on the Cavs’ heels (per usual) and the Wizards’ starting five ha one of the best net ratings in the entire NBA (tied with the Rockets heading into Thursday night), but it’s looking like it will be a Cleveland-Boston Eastern Conference Finals once again. It will be one hell of a series, full of countless story lines, but to say that fans should be worried would be overkill. It may take six or seven games, but the cream should rise to the top.
Nom: The East is certainly stronger than it has been in recent years. The Celtics are off to a blazing start, and while they will likely slow down at some point, they are going to be a much tougher out than last season. The usual suspects like the Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors will be around, but it’s younger teams like the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks that can provide a scare. Those teams pale in terms of talent comparison, but have unique and difficult match-ups that can sometimes cause headaches in a playoff series. I would expect the Cavaliers to make it out of the East without too much difficulty, but the Golden State Warriors are likely still too talented for the Cavs to feel confident in a Finals rematch.
Joe: I am really excited about the Cavs playoff chances with this new look team. Even with all of the injuries, the Cavs are playing really good basketball. With Isaiah Thomas coming back, this team could and should be better than last season. I think the defense is better and I think there are more players on the roster who the Cavs can count on to play meaningful minutes. This is the best bench James and the Cavs have had in their time together and probably is the best and most deep bench of James’ entire career. I think the East is still not good enough to put fear in the minds of the Cavs. Milwaukee and Boston are probably the biggest threats to Cleveland, but with LeBron, the Cavs are by far the favorites in the East. The NBA seems to be a four-team battle in my eyes. I think the Cavs, Warriors, Rockets and Spurs are the four legitimate title contenders. But in the end, it looks to be another Cavs versus Warriors NBA championship matchup with the Cavs in a better position than last year to take down Golden State.
Josh: LeBron James. Do I need to say anything else? In the East, the Cavs looked to be the best team, no matter what the records currently say. If the Cavs remain healthy, no one really scares me in the East in terms of the postseason. In terms of the entire NBA, the Rockets and (obviously) the Warriors are the two scariest teams out west, but we’ll worry about that when the time gets here.
Tom: Houston is interesting in the West, but, barring catastrophic injuries, I still have a hard time seeing anyone but the Cavs and Warriors meeting again in the Finals. Cleveland-Golden State fatigue is real, but make no mistake: Even if the novelty has worn off, the Warriors are still the favorites to win the NBA title. And as for the Cavs, we’ve been down this road before. Going back to LeBron’s Miami days, the Celtics, Pacers, Hawks and Celtics (again) have been heralded up as the team that is going to dethrone LeBron in the East. You would think after seven straight years, everyone would learn to stop doing this, but apparently not. Oh well. My advice: Ignore the noise and enjoy the greatest player of our generation continuing to do the unimaginable every night he takes the floor. (And, yes, keep your calendar clear for June.)