BDL's 2015-16 NBA Season Previews: Cleveland Cavaliers
By Eric Freeman
Every LeBron James team carries lofty expectations, but it's difficult to call the Cleveland Cavaliers' 2014-15 a disappointment despite early struggles, plenty of controversies involving LeBron James and his new friends Kevin Loveand David Blatt, and a general feeling that the team did not fulfill its massive potential. As usual, postseason success answered a lot of questions. Outside of a brief challenge in the conference semifinals, the Cavs received little competition in the East over three rounds despite playing without Kevin Love vs. both Chicago Bulls and the Atlanta Hawks. While the NBA Finals Game 1 injury to Kyrie Irving robbed the team of its best chance to win a title, wins in Games 2 and 3 reminded everyone of the power of LeBron and exceeded anything most observers felt possible against a side as strong as the Golden State Warriors.
The expectations should be much less fungible in 2015-16. With every key player save Tristan Thompson back, in-season additions like J.R. Smithand the now-injured Iman Shumpert able to be around the franchise for a full season, Love healthy, Irving on his way to a full recovery, and LeBron still in his prime, anything short of a championship will come as a massive disappointment. There is too much talent on hand and continuity in place to set goals any lower.
It's a fair expectation, too, because the Cavs are probably going to be really, really good. This roster is loaded, full of capable players at every position with relatively well defined roles and responsibilities. If an otherwise just "good" defensive team can match its postseason performance, when they were good enough to have ranked among the top two or three in the league, then they should coast through the East and meet a battle-tested but potentially exhausted West champion in the finals. The Cavs are a title favorite if for no other reason than that they have a much wider margin of error than any of their primary competitors.
That's not to say that this season will be a walk in the park. The Blatt-James relationship should dominate headlines for as long as the two don't win a ring together, and the concerns over Blatt's fit for the job and LeBron's willingness to let him define it on his own terms are not entirely unfounded. For that matter, the team's ongoing injuries could prove to be more than just bad luck.
However, no team goes into a season without problems — the Warriors have proven that even a lack of adversity can become a reason for concern. The Cavs were very good last season and do not seem close to their ceiling. The rest of the league should be worried.
2014-15 season in 140 characters or less:
Yes, despite one glaring exception. Restricted free agent Tristan Thompson appeared to reach an agreement on a five-year deal worth more than $80 million on the first day of free agency, but that offer was not accepted as Thompson and his agent Rich Paul looked for something closer to the $94-million maximum. Most observers assumed that a contract would be signed in the following few weeks, but Thompson is still unsigned and already passed the deadline to ink the qualifying offer that would have made him an unrestricted free agent next season. Unless the sides reach an agreement in the next two weeks, the Cavs will enter the regular season without one of the league's best offensive rebounders and a key member of their playoff run. LeBron could get progressively more frustrated with the situation, as well.
The good news for Cleveland is that everything else went according to plan, albeit at a high financial cost. The man who starts ahead of Thompson, Kevin Love, exercised his option to become an unrestricted free agent but very quickly agreed to come back to the Cavs on a five-year, $110-million contract. His commitment should put an end to any questions about his willingness to adjust his game to the needs of a title contender. Iman Shumpert re-upped for four years at $40 million on the same day, although he is now dealing with a serious wrist injury that will keep him out for about three months.
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Like Love, J.R. Smith opted out of the final year of his contract to become a free agent. Unlike Love, he languished on the market for more than a month before signing in late August for a salary less than what he would have made if he'd stayed put. The extremely streaky Smith remains easy not to take seriously, but his glaring lack of production in the NBA Finals belies the fact that he is one of the best bench shooters in the sport when properly motivated.
The Cavs filled a need by adding veteran guard Mo Williams on a fairly cheap two-year deal. The former Cavs All-Star (look it up!) figures to start as Irving continues his recovery and will ensure that Matthew Dellavedova is not counted on to provide offense at any point in the playoffs. Elsewhere, 30-year-old Sasha Kaun will make his NBA debut seven years after the Cavaliers traded for the Kansas product's rights on draft night. The longtime CSKA Moscow center will be fellow Russian Timofey Mozgov's backup. Cleveland also brought in veteran wing Richard Jefferson, an ageless vampire who loves to dunk.
All that activity has turned the Cavs' long-term cap situation into a potential nightmare, but we imagine that owner Dan Gilbert will consider the cost worth it if the team brings home the franchise's first-ever championship.
Go-to offseason acquisition:
The Cavs learned the hard way that a LeBron James team without several effective spot-up shooters can see its offense turn stunningly one-dimensional. Yes, the circumstances of last June's NBA Finals were bizarre, but even the healthy Cavs sometimes lacked backcourt options. Enter the 32-year-old Mo Williams, a good player LeBron dragged to the All-Star Game in 2009 who has spent the last few seasons of his career as exactly what Cleveland needs — a bench player who can go on scoring streaks. Although his efficiency numbers were not stellar in a 2014-15 spent between the Minnesota Timberwolves and Charlotte Hornets, Williams should slot in as an effective backup and spot starter for Kyrie Irving with LeBron taking on the bulk of playmaking duties. Just don't expect any 52-point nights from him in wine and gold.
Few contenders get so unlucky as to see their second and third-best players go down in the same postseason. But the Cavs' injury problems did not end with Love and Irving, the latter of whom could be out for more than a month of the regular season. Starting shooting guard Iman Shumpert will now miss several months with a wrist injury, and the ongoing maintenance of LeBron James's oft-taxed body could require another midseason vacation. For that matter, Irving's knee was already hobbled before his finals exit and has dealt with various ailments and injuries throughout his career.
Evidence is scant, but it is possible that what looks like bad luck could just be a feature of the Cavs roster. As Cleveland learned last spring, a team this talented is often best limited by the unforeseen absence of important players. If more Cavs miss long periods of time this season and postseason, they could fall disappointingly short of their championship dreams.
Contributor with something to prove:
It is fair to say that David Blatt entered the NBA unprepared for the particular demands of its cultureand environment. At the same time, though, he had it pretty good. Very few coaches are handed a roster this loaded in their first job, to the point where Blatt could make some borderline embarrassing mistakes and still escape from disaster due to the greatness of his players. Falling two wins short of a title is very different from failing to challenge for a playoff spot. sure, it's tough to coach LeBron James, but it's still pretty nice to get to be part of the success of a LeBron James team.
Potential breakout stud:
Can a three-time All-Star and Most Improved Player winner with career averages of more than 18 points and 11 rebounds break out? It is fair to say that Kevin Love finds himself in an odd spot in his second year with the Cavaliers. The massively productive Love often appeared out of place in his first season with the team, sticking to the perimeter like a very famous Channing Frye and putting up just 16.4 ppg on 43.4 percent shooting from the field. Love saw nearly six fewer FG attempts and nearly four fewer FT attempts than he did in his final season with the Timberwolves, a somewhat predictable but nevertheless jarring drop in production for someone who had been a statistical superstar. Worse yet, Love did not appear to learn new skills to transition into that role as well as Chris Bosh had under LeBron and Dwyane Wade in Miami.
This season should be more comfortable for Love, in part because he is back in town on a long-term contract that should answer any questions about how much the Cavs value his presence. James has talked up Love as taking on more offensive responsibility, too, which should help to make the Cavs' attack more fearsome. Love doesn't have to return to his gaudy Wolves production to succeed with Cleveland, but he will need to make an impact that has not yet been seen.
Everyone injured returns at full health, no one else misses serious time, LeBron sees no drop in form and wins his fifth MVP, Love finds a workable role and thrives in it, Thompson re-signs on a long-term deal before the start of the season, Blatt gets along with everyone and shows new tactical abilities, Irving makes a leap to superstardom, and the Cavs handle a very tired West champion to capture their first-ever NBA title.
If everything falls apart:
Irving and Shumpert look hobbled upon their return, others struggle with both serious and nagging injuries, Love looks as uncomfortable as he did in 2014-15, LeBron is merely great instead of super-human, Thompson holds out for the entire season, Matthew Dellavedova bites a fan while diving for a loose ball, Blatt only gets more unpopular, and the hobbled Cavs lose in the conference finals to an upstart contender.
Kelly Dwyer's notoriously unreliable crystal ball:
54-28, first in the East.