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Best Case, Worst Case: Cleveland Cavaliers

The no. 22 team in The Ringer’s preseason rankings will try to prove that there’s life without LeBron James

Collin Sexton and Kevin Love Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Break out your Ben Simmons hand trackers—the NBA is back. We’re counting down the days until the 2018-19 season tips off on October 16 by taking a hard look at the floor and ceiling of every team in the league. This year, each Best Case, Worst Case capsule is also accompanied by The Ringer’s preseason ranking, our staff’s best guess about where that team will finish this season. We look forward to your emotionless, considered responses.

Ringer Preseason Ranking: 22

Last Season: 50-32

Notable Additions: Collin Sexton (draft), Sam Dekker (trade), Channing Frye (don’t call it a comeback!)

Notable Subtractions: Um ...

Vegas Over/Under: 30.5

Team MVP: Kevin Love

Best-Case Scenario: We should acknowledge that any best-case scenario for the Cavaliers isn’t really the best case of anything. The true best-case scenario would have involved LeBron James buying more property in the greater Cleveland area and staying put for the remainder of his career rather than purchasing a second Brentwood mansion, moving to Los Angeles, joining the Lakers, and going full Hollywood. In LeBron’s second tenure, the Cavs made four straight Finals and won a long-awaited championship—the first title of any kind that parade-starved Cleveland had enjoyed in 52 years. That’s a best-case scenario. Whatever this is will be … not that.

But! That does not mean that there aren’t some interesting story lines and prospects here. For starters, there are high hopes for Collin Sexton. The Cavaliers grabbed the point guard with the eighth pick in this year’s draft (a.k.a., the prize of last year’s Kyrie Irving deal). The former Alabama star should get plenty of run because of talent and necessity. If LeBron were still around, he’d be the de facto point guard, and Sexton’s role would be different. With the King gone, the Cavs will need Sexton to command the court. George Hill, who averaged 2.8 assists per game a season ago, is the team’s top returning passer. Since this is the best-case scenario section, we’ll say that represents a great opportunity for Sexton—provided the score-first point guard improves on his passing and playmaking.

LeBron’s absence also opens up an opportunity for Love to be the main man again, something he hasn’t been since leaving Minnesota four years ago. The Cavs big man reupped with Cleveland during the offseason, signing a four-year extension worth $120 million. With the Cavs, Love has averaged 17.1 points, 10 rebounds, and 2.1 assists while being deployed as one of the team’s primary 3-point shooters (37.7 percent from distance on 5.7 attempts per game). It was a different role than he had with the Timberwolves, where he averaged 19.2 points, 12.2 rebounds, and 2.5 assists while shooting 36.2 percent from 3-point range (on 3.3 attempts per game). If any of the old Love still exists, and if Tyronn Lue can adapt his system to highlight him, the Cavs could be better than expected.

Cleveland should also have some highly motivated complementary pieces. Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. didn’t acquit themselves the way the Cavs hoped after they came over from the Lakers at the trade deadline. The same can be said of Rodney Hood, whose value dipped so significantly that he had to take the one-year qualifying offer worth $3.4 million. All three players should have ample opportunity to improve their production and alter their individual narratives.

If all that comes together in Cleveland—Sexton shines, Love returns to form, the ancillary pieces step up—the Cavs could be pesky in a still-watered-down Eastern Conference. And who knows, maybe they’ll even pull off a big trade and get unexpected reinforcements.

Worst-Case Scenario: You were in love. But after some good times, things changed. You and your significant other realized it was time to move on and go your separate ways. It happens. Naturally, you decided to take down all the pictures of your ex, because that’s what people do. Then it rained.

As symbolism goes, that was on the nose. Getting rid of LeBron’s memory and moving on won’t be easy for the Cavaliers. He reinvigorated an otherwise moribund franchise—twice. Last season was perhaps his heaviest lift of all. James led the Cavs in points, assists, steals, and blocks per game. He also played all 82 regular-season games and 22 postseason games, and led the league in regular-season and playoff minutes. That’s a lot to replace.

Between the injuries to his teammates and the massive roster turnover at the trade deadline, James carried arguably the worst supporting cast he’s ever had to the NBA Finals. Without him to bootstrap the Cavs, it’s not hard to imagine Cleveland struggling. If Love, who just turned 30, can’t reboot his career and be the no. 1 option again on offense, the Cavs could struggle mightily at that end of the floor.

Meanwhile, even with LeBron, Cleveland had serious defensive struggles. The Cavs were 29th in defensive rating last season (only the Suns were worse). It didn’t get much better in the playoffs, when they were 10th out of 16 teams in defensive rating, according to Without LeBron menacing opposing players and threatening chase-down blocks, defense could get ugly for the Cavs.

If Sexton doesn’t develop quickly, Love can’t return to form, Clarkson and Nance don’t contribute more, Hood spends too much time fantasizing about a new contract, and the defense doesn’t improve, it could be a long season in Cleveland. The Cavs might have a lot of ping-pong balls in their future.

TL;DR: The King is dead; long live the King.