With the Kevin Love trade now official, the Cleveland Cavaliers posses one of the best trios ever assembled in NBA history1. With Love going into his prime, LeBron James currently in his, and Kyrie Irving on the brisk of becoming one of the best point guards in the league, the Cavs have a trio that will contend for championships for years to come.
While Cleveland will be a force this upcoming season and for seasons to come, winning that championship definitely won’t be a cakewalk. Question marks on the defensive end, chemistry issues, lack of playoff experience and the strength of other teams in the league, are all roadblocks that the Cavs are going to have to overcome in their pursuit to bring the city of Cleveland their first title in 50 years.
Defense: Last season, despite hiring defensive-minded coach Mike Brown, the Cavaliers fell well short of the defensive expectations placed on the team. Last season, the Cavaliers had a defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) of 104.8, which ranked 17th in the league, which isn’t bad but certainty isn’t the mark that a championship-aspiring time should aim for.
Out of all the NBA champions since the 2002-2003 season, only one team2 has finished outside the top 10 in defensive rating for the respective season they won the championship. Even though the NBA is molding into an offensive minded league, the famous saying ‘defense wins championships’ still rings true.
The Cavaliers believed they had solved part of their defensive issues when they selected an ultra-athletic rookie, who ‘wants to make first team defense’ in Andrew Wiggins. But as everyone knows, Wiggins was the key piece in bringing Love to Cleveland. While James is still an elite level defender, he has already started to slow down a bit on that end of the floor and as it seemed James got a but lazy on the defensive end this past season, there is reason to believe that trend could continue as he gets older. That being said, James, along with the newly signed Shawn Marion, will provide the Cavs with some very solid, and possibly even above average defense on the perimeter this season. Perimeter defense won’t be the biggest issue on defense for the Cavs this season though. It’s when opposing players get to the rim is when the Cavaliers are going to be faced with major challenges.
Last season, the Cavs allowed opposing teams to shoot 53.2% at the rim, the 20th best mark in the league. For comparison, the champion Spurs allowed teams to shoot 50.7% at the rim last season and the top 8 teams3 in that stat were all playoff teams.
Now lets take a look at the three main big men who will be getting major minutes for the Cavs and look at their defensive numbers last season:
Kevin Love: 0.5 BPG, allowed opponents to shoot 57.4% at the rim last season
Tristan Thompson: 0.4 BPG, allowed opponents to shoot 59.1% at the rim last season
Anderson Varejao: 0.6 BPG, allowed opponents to shoot 54.2% at the rim last season
As you can see from the numbers, the Cavs are lacking that shot blocking/rim protecting big man that they so desperately need. Brendon Haywood4 is on the roster but whether he can stay healthy and get major minutes is a question mark, while Alex Kirk, Dwight Powell, Malcolm Thomas and Erik Murphy are all expected to spend more time in Canton then in Cleveland.
ESPN is reporting that the Cavaliers are interested in acquiring Emeka Okafor5, which would help on the defensive end but like Haywood, whether Okafor would be able to stay healthy is a major concern.
As it stands now, the Cavaliers posses an average at best perimeter defensive team and a horrible rim protecting team. If Cleveland is legit about winning a championship this upcoming season, defense is an area that needs to be dramatically improved.
Chemistry: A whole lot more things are needed then just talent to win a championship in the NBA. While the Cavaliers roster includes three of the best talents in the NBA right now, the three have never played a game of basketball together. No matter how good the team looks on paper or how devastating a James/Love pick and roll could be, it still doesn’t change the fact that Cleveland’s ‘big 3’6 have no chemistry with one another.
The main example that comes to mind is the first season of the James/Chris Bosh/Dwayne Wade era in Miami. That particular group started that season 9-8 and was losing to bad teams. The media attention was on them everyday, with ESPN breaking down every single thing they did. If they lost, the sky was falling. If they won, they were title contenders again. Sure, the Heat eventually turned their season around,7 dominated the rest of the regular season and Eastern Conference playoffs but they ultimately fell to a Dallas team that had built great chemistry.
While it may be cheesy, the saying “a champion team will always beat a team of champions” still rings true in sports. Right now Cleveland is a team of champions. Only time will tell if they evolve into a champion team.
Experience: Like I have previously stated, it takes a lot more than talent to win a championship in todays NBA. Along with chemistry, experience is a key element of championship teams in the league.
Two thirds of the Cavs big three (Irving and Love) have never played in the playoffs. Not one second of playoff basketball shared between the two of them. You must also consider that neither Love or Irving have played on playoff-worthy teams before and while it isn’t necessarily either players fault they haven’t made the playoffs, they will still be in for a major reality check when they make the playoffs for the first time. While the two may have had some stellar regular seasons, the playoffs are a completely different beast. Defense becomes much more important, the intensity picks up, entering another teams building becomes much more intimidating and the attention from the media becomes global.8
This kind of experience simply cannot be brought (while signing veterans can help, it isn’t a panacea, as I well talk about later). It can only be taught when players actually live and play through the playoffs. You can’t just pick up experience in the playoffs, as everything about them is different then the regular season. As we saw in this years playoffs, the more talented Toronto Raptors fell to the less talented but much more experienced Brooklyn Nets. While talent is obviously important in the playoffs, experience is just as, if not more vital, then talent.
The Cavs have improved the experience of the roster by adding veterans like James Jones, Mike Miller, Marion and possibly Ray Allen. While these players will definitely be positives influences on Irving and Love in the locker-room (James can be included in that group as well), as the players will help guide Love and Irving through the tough times the team is bound to face this season, they cannot teach the duo playoff experience.
Strength of Other Teams: Although Cleveland is now one of the NBA’s powerhouses; they definitely aren’t the only one. San Antonio, Oklahoma City and the LA Clippers will be the major threats to the Cavs if they manage to make the NBA Finals, while the old-rivalries, rough and tough Chicago Bulls9 will be the one team in the East strong enough to stop Cleveland’s quest for a championship.
The Spurs are the title favorites right now, no matter what Las Vegas says10. They are fresh off dismantling James’ former team in the finals and I’m sure Gregg Popovich and Co. would be licking their chops if they had a chance to do it again. With basically the exact same roster as last season, there is absolutely no reason to count out the Spurs this season and the Cavs/Spurs match-ups will be one of the league’s most intriguing this year.
Oklahoma City has been on the brink of a championship for years now and there is no reason to believe the Thunder won’t be up there again this season. With the addition of deadeye shooter Anthony Morrow, the Thunder will possess one of the best offensive teams in the league, along with a rock-solid defense. With the Thunder’s “Big Three” of Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook/Serge Ibaka heading into another season together, OKC will be hoping to grasp that ever-evading title this season. Oh, and King James V Durant is always fun.
Coming off a successful but extremely bizarre postseason, the Los Angeles Lakers Clippers will be hoping to bring a championship to the other LA team this season. The Clippers will be led again by the best point guard in the league, Chris Paul, and Blake Griffin will evolve his game even more this season, as the league continues to find out he is more than just a dunker. While the Cavs/Clippers games will be full of highlights this season, the Clippers will pose a serious threat to Cleveland if they manage to meet each other in June.
The defensive-minded Bulls, led by one of the best defensive coaches in the world, Tom Thibodeau, taking on the offensive-minded Cavaliers, led by David Blatt, an offensive genius out of the Euroleague, will provide us with the best games of the season. Contrasting styles, championship contending teams, a mouthwatering point guard battle11 and a simple hatred of each other will lead to some furious battles. The Cavs ultimate goal will be to win the championship of course but to make the finals, they will need to get through the intimidating Bulls first.
Defense, chemistry, experience and several other teams in the league, are all major roadblocks that the Cavs will need to overcome if they hope to win a championship this season. While the new “Big Three” in Cleveland will provide us with some unforgettable moments, it won’t happen without some growing pains first.
1While the Cavs may never reach the heights of the MJ/Pippen/Rodman Bulls or the Russell/Cousy/Heinsohn Celtics, the effect they will have on the league will be felt for years to come.
2The 2006 NBA Champion, Miami Heat finished that season with a defensive rating of 89.4, best for only 17th in the league that season.
3Pacers (45.9%), Thunder (48.5%), Warriors (48.7%), Trail Blazers (49.2%), Bobcats (50.3%), Bulls (50.3%), Spurs (50.7%), Rockets (50.8%).
4While many people expect Haywood to be traded due to his unique contract, it seems like the Cavs seem more interested in using him this season then trading him.
5The Marc Stein report also states that Okafor has received interest from “roughly half of the NBA’s teams.” So the Cavaliers may have some major competition if they’re serious about acquiring Okafor.
6Remember when the words ‘big 3’ meant a team was on another level then the rest of the league? The term is thrown around so lightly and frequently these days, it seems to be said when talking about almost every playoff team.
7And what a coincidence it is that the turning point for Miami that season was when they blew Cleveland out of their own building on that infamous December night at the Q.
8Living from Australia, I see first hand how much more attention the NBA receives during playoff time. It becomes one of the nations most talked about sports.
9I really hope the Cavs/Bulls rivalry heats up again. The battles between the two teams in the late 2000’s and early 1990’s were awesome and with long-term rivalries slowly dying in today’s NBA, to see two old foes battle it out again will be amazing.
10Seriously, how the Cavs become instant favorites when James returned is beyond me. Betters can really be stupid sometimes.
11Can James and Love take a step-back this game so we can finally have the Irving V Rose match-up we have so unfairly been robbed off?