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Are We Sure … That the Cavs Will Bottom Out?

Cleveland may have lost the best player on the planet … again. But unlike in 2010, these Cavs have enough left over to stay relevant in the East.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The offseason established a host of new story lines across the NBA that require closer inspection. Throughout August, we’re giving second thoughts to the most intriguing ones.

Apologies to Cleveland, but for at least one more time, LeBron James—or at least his outsized, lingering presence—will be the most critical factor in the Cavaliers’ upcoming season. Perhaps there will be a moment of clarity when his ghost vanishes for good. Perhaps it’ll happen on a transition play off a missed shot: As the ball zooms into the frontcourt, Kevin Love will nestle himself in the right wing, his favorite zone behind the arc, expecting a trailer pass that never comes. Or maybe when Cedi Osman barrels into the lane but doesn’t draw defenders with him in the same way LeBron used to. There will be plenty of possessions that are just off, plenty of reminders of what no longer exists.

Professional athletes are monastically devoted to their routines, and it’s hard to imagine patterns as consistently reinforced as knowing where you’re supposed to be when LeBron’s on the floor. Throughout the course of James’s career he’s been the ultimate reducer, someone who takes on a lion’s share of on-court responsibilities, which in turn allows a team to compartmentalize the rest of the roster according to specific utilities. “When you play with LeBron, he does so much. Whether he likes it or not, it’s just him. Everyone else fits into a role,” Channing Frye told USA Today’s LeBron Wire. “You’re a scorer, you’re a passer, you’re a defender, you’re a shooter, you’re a rebounder.”

Suddenly, all of LeBron’s tributaries in Cleveland will flood with newfound responsibilities. Love, five seasons after recording one of the most statistically impressive seasons of the decade as the alpha and omega of the Minnesota Timberwolves, finds himself in a familiar position as the tip of a Midwestern spear. Collin Sexton’s peers may consider him a dark horse for Rookie of the Year honors, but, 2017-18 season excepted, rookie point guards don’t impact wins immediately. Veterans like Tristan Thompson and George Hill, who made perfect sense as low-usage soldiers under James, will be asked to be much more than bystanders. J.R. Smith might be trapped all season in an endless squint.

The team that LeBron leaves behind in 2018 won’t be as helpless as the atrocity of 2010-11, which featured a roster headlined by J.J. Hickson, Ramon Sessions, and 34-year-old Antawn Jamison. Those Cavs have the ignominious honor of the worst single-season dropoff in wins in NBA history, going from 61 wins in 2009-10 to 19 in 2010-11. (The post-Jordan Bulls technically had a 49-win dropoff in 1998-99, but that season was shortened to just 50 games because of the lockout.) Cleveland’s win projection over/under for the upcoming season is set at 30.5 wins, 19.5 wins below what the Cavs tallied last season.

The 2018-19 Cavs won’t see those same hellish lows because of the star who remains. The Cavaliers will be led by a five-time All-Star and a future Hall of Famer in Love, but it remains to be seen who Cleveland Love is in a LeBron-less context. Love has played 7,804 minutes in the past three seasons, including the playoffs. Only 15.1 percent of those minutes came with James off the court. (Love played without LeBron in only 8.4 percent of his minutes last season.)

In the spring of 2014, before being traded to Cleveland, Love was 25 and nearly unanimously considered in NBA front offices to be a top-10 talent. Four years later, and mere days before his 30th birthday, his standing in the league is much more uncertain. Love was at the vanguard of positional roles during his time in Minnesota: a historically great rebounding big who also happened to be an expert inside-out playmaker and a sharpshooter from 3. But in the intervening time, coinciding with the protracted, largely one-sided war between the Warriors and Cavs, most of his fellow prototypical stretch 4s have been phased out by stronger wings who can bring more speed and athleticism to the position. Love has been good enough at everything he does to survive the NBA’s paradigm shift, but it has also displaced him positionally. It was a concern when he was slotted next to an omnipositional LeBron during the past four seasons; it’ll only intensify now that he’s the primary option. The league is paradoxically trending smaller and bigger, with ball-switching wings capable of defending all positions, and the fledgling titans of the 2018 draft cementing the ideal of the 3-and-D center. Even if the Cavaliers manage to coax the old Kevin Love out from his shell, he’ll emerge into a vastly different landscape.

It’s bittersweet in a way: It felt like Love finally settled into the little joys of being a side attraction during last postseason. During the Cavaliers’ dismantling of the Toronto Raptors in May, ESPN’s Zach Lowe detailed the off-ball freestyling of Love and Kyle Korver, and how intermittent riffs off a basic pindown screen helped create new wrinkles to a Cavaliers offense that had seemingly become even more LeBron-centric than before. But Tyronn Lue and the rest of the coaching staff will have to figure out how to be creative without James as insulation; it’s harder to trick opponents away from the ball without a player who commands the attention of an entire defense by himself.

Of course, the baseline of success has changed. The Cavs are no longer perennial Finals contenders. Their goal, in the interim, is simply to land a playoff spot. Quicken Loans Arena is undergoing a series of renovations to modernize the decades-old space, which means Dan Gilbert will need to field a competitive team to fully eventize the arena’s upgrades once 2020 rolls around. Oddsmakers aren’t convinced that’s in the cards: At 30.5 wins, the Cavaliers would be the fourth-worst team in the Eastern Conference morass, below even the Orlando Magic (31.5). I’d take the over: At the very least, the Cavaliers have a legitimate All-Star, proven role players, and several young wild cards such as Sexton and Osman. That formula has been enough for a team like the Charlotte Hornets to net two consecutive 36-win seasons. That said, a season resulting in 36 wins might ultimately be worse than a 30-win season considering the Cavs owe the Hawks their 2019 first-round pick if it lands outside the top 10 (or their 2020 pick, should it not convey next year).

Projecting next season’s team is an impossible intellectual exercise, like imagining how blue whales would function on land if they had legs. It’s taking a team out of its element and into uncharted territory. We’ve seen these tidal shifts happen before, but not in this specific context—not with a Finals team more or less intact outside of the obvious. “When [LeBron] left the first time, it was a bunch of young guys and rookies and a different coach,” Frye said. “Now you got a championship coach with a championship pedigree team. We’re not just resetting the clock.”

Frye’s right. They’re not just resetting the clock. Without LeBron—even with everything else remaining in place in the vacuum of the NBA offseason—they’re resetting everything.