The Cleveland Cavaliers haven’t received this type of media attention since LeBron James’s erroneous decision to depart Cleveland by means of a primetime television special. For those of you thinking that once the impeding Love trade goes through that the spotlight will move on to some other story, well do I have a song for you: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8XZWgHNcUeA.
The cost of having the NBA’s four-time MVP on your team is the subsequent media frenzy. The Cavaliers had some four games televised on ESPN this past season; the number this time around is 10 on ESPN, five on ABC and 10 more on TNT. Which means you’d better prepare yourself for the 24/7 coverage of all things LeBron by a certain World Wide Leader In Sports. The only thing more annoying than the soon-to-be storyline of “Did LeBron James deny Andy Varejao’s timeout bro-hug?” is every video I see of Lil Terrio on Instagram (seriously though…I woke to a post of Terrio eating salad with the caption of OOH Killem Calories!, this needs to be dealt with). But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some real story lines to keep an eye out for this upcoming season.
1. The Adjustment Period
With Kevin Love officially wearing wine and gold next season, the Cavaliers are throwing out their own version of the “Big 3” (does that make Dion the Cavaliers version of Mario Chalmers?). Even the original Miami version went through growing pains in their first season together as Wade, LeBron and Bosh learned to play together. Fans tend to forget the sacrifices Wade and Bosh made in order to win (Wade gave up the role of alpha dog, albeit slowly and with hesitation, and Bosh went from a 24.0PPG scorer in Toronto to the third option in Miami). Are the Cleveland Cavaliers one of the most— if not the most— talented teams in the NBA now? There’s no doubting that, but it’s foolish to expect this team to come together immediately. The addition of Love, Marion, Jones, Miller and possibly Ray Allen in addition to James only raises expectations to another level. Bringing in those types of veteran players means this team is immediately a front runner for title contention, and unlike the days of the pre-Wiggins deal, which featured a team of LeBron and all young players (which in theory would allow them some time to develop before a title was expected), this new veteran-laden squad is seemingly “all in” for a title ASAP. This team will face the same issues the 2010 Heat did: Will Irving and Love, both premier scorers in past seasons, accept a secondary role offensively next to James? Which player(s) will make the most concessions for the good of the team (i.e. Who becomes Chris Bosh)? While it took the Heat two years to fully realize their most successful style was as a fast-paced, spread-the-floor-three-point-shooting team, the Cleveland Cavaliers have already set themselves up as such. Whereas Chris Bosh didn’t attempt over 100 three-pointers until last season, Kevin Love has jacked up 100 or more in four of his six seasons (and had 92 attempts in a mere 18 games in one of them). At first Dwyane Wade fit awkwardly next to James because of his inability to play off the ball and reliably knock down a three-pointer (a career 28.9 percent 3PT shooter), but Irving, although known more for his dribbling, is a career 37.8 percent shooter from downtown. One of the biggest story lines once LeBron announced his intentions and adding Kevin Love was a foregone conclusion was the adjustments that star point guard Kyrie Irving and up-and-coming two guard Dion Waiters needed to make to play alongside James (and Love). Irving isn’t a point guard in the traditional sense; instead he’s a part of the New Age PG because he is a lethal scorer and a respectable set up man too. Irving averaged 6.1 APG last season, which put him squarely in the top 20, but a far cry from Chris Paul’s league leading 10.7. According to an ESPN MAG article, James (who averaged 6.4 APG himself last season) and Irving both assisted on 31.1 percent of their team’s field goals, which would make them the highest two-man combo in the NBA (http://espn.go.com/espn/feature/story/_/id/11292706/how-lebron-james-fit-cleveland-espn-magazine). Irving, who should benefit from the FIBA USA experience this summer, admitted recently to not being a leader in past years and is set up to have himself an incredible year. Although the addition of two top 10 scorers to the mix threatens to lower his scoring, expect Irving to put up relatively similar scoring numbers, with a definite bump in assists. Although he’s been less than spectacular knocking down jump shots in the past, let’s assume that was due to the fact he was the teams first, and often times only, option offensively. Playing alongside a much stronger group of teammates should open the floor more for Irving, and we could see a player more similar to the NBA All-Star Game MVP, than the inefficient Cleveland Cavaliers version.
Waiters similarly faces a challenge, as he will have to adapt the most to playing less with the ball in his hands (presuming he gets the nod starting). James obviously meshed well with another ball-dominant guard in Miami, and Waiters has said he’s taken a look as to how he can be effective a la Dwyane Wade. Guards playing alongside James have to be able to knock down open jump shots (Waiters knocked down 41.9 percent of his catch-and-shoot shots last season. For comparison, league leader Klay Thompson made 44.2 percent), and drive to the rim (Waiters was 15th in the NBA in drives per game last season with 7.3). In theory, Waiters has all the makings of an effective partner in this offense. Only time will tell how they actually perform with the unit.
It might take sometime for David Blatt to develop a defensive scheme where the team can effectively protect the rim given their lack of a proven shot blocker, but Erik Spoelstra was far from a proven coach their first season. The early stages will be a feeling out period with plays that show you just how incredible this group can be. Remember Wade’s full-court “oop” to LeBron? Can you imagine one of Love’s patented outlet passes to Kyrie Irving, who then tosses an alley-oop to James?
2. Can David Blatt Coach this Team?
Think back once again to the 2010 Miami Heat. Spoelstra was in just his third year of head coaching and many critics called for team President/overlord Pat Riley to come back and coach the Big Three. While there is no Pat Riley character in the stands for Cleveland Cavaliers games, first-year head coach David Blatt faces tremendous expectations with the group of players joining him. Thought to be one of the best basketball minds in the world, Blatt has a lot of supporters. Brooklyn Nets forward Andrei Kirilenko, who played under Blatt for the Russian National Team, said he believes Blatt is a better coach than Phil Jackson (http://www.nj.com/olympics/index.ssf/2012/08/blatt_in_olympics.html). While that might be a slight exaggeration due to his national pride, the point remains the same: Blatt knows basketball. It’s safe to say Blatt, who has the Princeton system engrained in his membrane (he played for legendary Princeton offense creator Pete Carril while running the point at Princeton), will run an offense that uses his former coaches tendencies. How Blatt manages the minutes on this veteran-laden squad is essential to the team’s postseason success. But tailoring a system specifically for the group on the roster right now that takes advantage of their strengths, while also covering their weaknesses, isn’t going to happen overnight.
James apparently became frustrated with Wade’s minute and game restrictions during the regular season (http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/2014-06-15/sports/sfl-miami-heat-michael-beasley-s061514_1_miami-heat-michael-beasley-heat-coach-erik-spoelstra), but with a portion of the roster over 30 (which by midseason will include LeBron), controlling the minutes on certain players (Varejao coming off of multiple injury-plagued seasons, LeBron reportedly wants to start managing his minute totals, Mike Miller will be hobbling by game 10, etc.) is necessary to keep the roster fresh for June. Blending so many different players, who for the majority have yet to play together, is also a task. Given Blatt’s history of success and backing by numerous coaches and players, we can assume he’ll be up for the challenge, but that doesn’t mean he too won’t face a tough stretch putting it all together.
3. How Will The Team Defend at the Rim?
Last season the Cleveland Cavaliers allowed an NBA-record three-point attempts per game, packing the defense into the paint instead of sticking close to their individual defenders. With an improved group of defenders and more importantly a higher level of effort demanded from each player, guarding on the perimeter shouldn’t be a weakness of the 2014-15 Cavs. Instead, the one glaring, if you want to go that far, weakness of the team is the lack of a rim protector. With the roster looking near set, it doesn’t appear as though the team is actively hunting for a shot blocker, but it’s safe to assume David Griffin is keeping his ears open to the rumor mill. The hope is that Haywood, who hasn’t played a meaningful game since 2012, can put together a decent year given his only job will be to redirect the occasional shot in the paint (quick tidbit on Haywood: For those of you expecting him to be a roster cut when the season rolls around, don’t get your hopes up. Haywood’s salary jumps to $10+ million next offseason— with most of it being unguaranteed— making him a great asset for an easy salary match for a trade that could net another player. Expect him to stay around). A rumored return for Zydrunas Ilgauskas floated around the rumor pool last week, but even if he did return he can’t be expected to play more than 10 minutes a game (and that’s being nice). Blatt will have to be creative with his defensive schemes and create units that hide the inefficiencies of Kevin Love (and to a degree Kyrie Irving, who looked like James Harden-level of terrible on D last season, but looks average playing for Team USA). Love is an awful help-defender, and allowed the 11th most shots at the rim last season, according to NBA.com. Varajeo is a bundle of energy and effort, but has never himself been known as a rim protector. This could be the Cleveland Cavaliers Achilles’ heel, but given only a select few teams have real post-threats offensively, this should be something strong team defense can cover.
4. Who’s Top Dog in the East
The easy answer to this question is Cleveland, but Chicago in particular would beg to disagree. Assuming former MVP Derrick Rose returns to form and has no pain in his knee come October (Rose looks stellar for Team USA, but has sat out practices and scrimmages with knee soreness, and is playing limited minutes), a Bulls team that swapped Boozer for Gasol, and added sharpshooters Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotić to the mix, will contend for the top spot as well. These teams are clearly the cream of the crop in a still rather lackluster Eastern Conference, especially given the Pacers misfortune with Paul George (only Washington and Toronto kept their key players this offseason). The Bulls-Cavaliers games will be a battle of opposites: Chicago is home to one of the stingiest defenses in the league, and has a strong core of forwards and centers to impose their will physically on the Cavs. The Cavs, by contrast, look to be more of a fast-paced, offensive juggernaut. These games will determine who represents the East in the Finals this year. Expect games to be intense and closely contested when these two teams match up.
5. Next Year’s Contracts
Yes, this season hasn’t even started yet and we’re already going to be hearing about next summer. With Tristan Thompson (who shares an agent with LeBron James) entering the last year of his deal, the Cleveland Cavaliers face a tough call with the young big man. Assuming Love and James will lock back in long term (remember LeBron can opt out after this year, but mostly so he can continue to collect the max if the cap rises), and with Irving’s salary rising to $15.5 million (up from $7,070,730) cap space will be even tighter next summer. Add in Dion Waiters, who has a team option for next summer ($5,138,430), and you have two young players who’ll both be looking for a raise. Thompson has been involved in some rumored trades already, and the Cavs will face some tough calls as the deadline nears. Remember part of the reason the Cavs were so attractive to LeBron is the young talent on the roster— not just Kyrie Irving— and simply allowing both Waiters and Thompson to leave for nothing would lead to a similar predicament the Heat faced this offseason.
Fortunately, with the “Big 3” hopefully locked up, the Cavs have the foundation for a playoff team every season.