NBA back! To prepare for a new season, we’re breaking down one team per day, each day, until tipoff on October 17.
Team: Cleveland Cavaliers
Coach: Tyronn Lue (second—full—year)
Last Season: 51–31 (second in Eastern Conference)
Notable Additions: Isaiah Thomas (trade), Jae Crowder (trade), Derrick Rose (free agency)
Notable Subtractions: Kyrie Irving (trade)
Vegas Over/Under: 53.5
Best-Case Scenario: Cleveland could end up being better because of the Irving trade, but it needs a lot to fall in line. Put aside Isaiah’s hip injury, which could keep him out until at least midseason. First, the Cavaliers need to find the old version of Kevin Love. With Thomas on ice, Love’s opportunities should increase significantly. It’s easy to forget Love was a multifaceted scorer in Minnesota; he pummeled smaller players inside, scored off the bounce, zoomed by slow-footed bigs, stroked 3s, and passed as well as a big man does.
Love can still be that player. When Irving was off the floor last season, Love averaged 27.4 points and 14.5 rebounds per 36 minutes, per NBA.com/stats. Those numbers came off a small, 363-minute sample, but they at least provide some evidence the ability is there. But Love’s shot distribution needs to change. Lue can’t settle for feeding him more post opportunities and pick-and-pop 3s. In Minnesota, Love excelled when he and his teammates were cutting, slicing to the rim, and whipping the ball around the floor. The Cavaliers ranked 16th in tempo and 26th in passes per game last season; they must get quicker to unlock the 29-year-old forward.
Even if Love grows in their system, they’ll still need Thomas to return healthy. If Thomas is the same guy who scored 28.9 points per game on a ludicrously efficient 54.6 effective field goal percentage for the Celtics last season, or at least something close to him, then Cleveland will have enough scoring diversity to beat any opponent. Love would gain confidence and renewed comfortability until Thomas returns, while LeBron would be his same old dominant self. They’d finally have their 3-and-D player in Jae Crowder. Who knows—maybe Jeff Green contributes and Rose, reinvigorated in a new environment, finds a second wind to his career.
The only way the Cavaliers are beating the Warriors in the NBA Finals is if they're able to bolster their anemic defense, while shifting their antique offense toward a modern motion system. Maybe LeBron realizes that staying in the East is the best option for the next few seasons. It’d help if the Nets bottom out—being gifted a top-three draft pick could be the key to acquiring another star who becomes available next summer.
Worst-Case Scenario: LeBron souring on the franchise once again and leaving would be an obvious choice. But even though there’s a strong possibility that LeBron bolts next summer for the Lakers, Cavs general manager Koby Altman must resist the temptation to trade the Nets’ unprotected 2018 first-round pick in a desperate attempt to make Cleveland’s roster more appealing to their star player. Trade offers will come the Cavaliers’ way that help them in the short term, but if the Nets are bottom-feeders, it’s unlikely a deal can match the high value of the pick. The 2018 draft features five possible superstars; the Cavs should keep their pick and hope to get their hands on one.
The story will change slightly if the Nets are competitive and the value of the pick declines. Then you maybe look to swing it for a Marc Gasol or DeAndre Jordan. But that’s a scary path, too. Even if the Nets are only the eighth-worst team in the NBA, they could still win the lottery or draft a quality player in that position and maintain a good core of Love, Crowder, Thomas, and the player drafted. Passing on that opportunity for the hopes of keeping LeBron is too short-sighted.
A host of other hazards could make Cleveland’s future even grimmer. Thomas could suffer a setback or not be the same player after returning. Rose might play as poorly as he did for the Knicks. Lue might fail to make necessary tweaks to the system. Love might not be able to elevate his play to the level they need him to. The Nets could pull a fast one and end up being competitive. All would lead to LeBron’s departure.
TL;DR: The Cavaliers need to treat the season as one last hurrah with LeBron James, but they shouldn’t lose sight of their future.