Every year, basketball fans and writers alike believe they have a grasp on how the upcoming NBA campaign is going to go. Every year, we are consistently proving one thing: We don’t know anything.
The truth is that the season-long unpredictability is every bit as exciting as the sport itself. Last season is as good of an example as any. At this time a year ago, who thought Steve Kerr would lead the Golden State Warriors to 67 wins and an NBA championship in his first season as head coach? How about Russell Westbrook becoming a human triple-double machine in Kevin Durant’s absence or the Atlanta Hawks having the Eastern Conference’s best regular season record?
With the 2015-16 season approaching, this is typically the time where recent trends, preseason play and gut feelings manifest into bold predictions. The target of today’s brand of wild speculation is the Cleveland Cavaliers: a team filled with both talent and question marks.
1. LeBron James’ Body Will Start To Show Signs of Breaking Down
LeBron James is the closest thing the basketball world has to a human cyborg. For 12 years, King James made witnesses of us all with his unique blend of speed, power and athleticism. However, in the midst of racking up MVPs, championships and gaudy offensive numbers, James also put a ton of miles on his basketball odometer.
While 31 is usually an age when most players are still in the primes of their career, James is different from the norm. Including the playoffs, he’s logged a little over 43,000 minutes (43,330, to be exact) on the court. To put that number in perspective, Vince Carter, who is entering his 18th pro season and will turn 39 in January, has accrued a combined 43,078 minutes. Assuming Cleveland makes it to the Finals again this season, it will be James’ sixth-straight appearance and his seventh overall. Tim Duncan, who hasn’t missed the playoffs in his entire 18-year career, didn’t make his sixth Finals appearance until he was 37. Michael Jordan never made seven trips to the Finals, let alone six in a row. Kobe Bryant made his made his seventh Finals appearance in 2008-09 at age 30, and he’s played just one full season ever since.
Meanwhile, things are already looking rough for James. On top of having to bow out of the preseason early with a back injury, he will open the new year with both members of his starting backcourt sidelined for months and two starters up front coming off major offseason surgeries. That means Cleveland will likely have to lean on James early and often until the team is back at full strength. While LeBron is still a safe bet to put up MVP-caliber numbers, there’s a good chance we look back at this season as when the cracks in his seemingly titanium armor started to show.
2. Tristan Thompson Will Average A Double-Double This Season
Tristan Thompson spent the summer and most of the preseason trying to convince fans as well as the Cleveland brass what he already believed: that he’s a max player. After months of haggling over numbers, the two sides came to an agreement on a five-year, $82 million deal just days before the start of the season.
Now, it’s up to the 24-year-old forward to prove he’s worth all of that cake.
Thompson has flirted with double-double seasons most of his career. He averaged close to 12 points and nine boards in both his second and third pro seasons. Last year, while taking a backseat to Kevin Love and making only 15 starts, he averaged 8.5 points and eight boards.
While it will take an injury for him to crack the starting lineup, the big man from Texas should still see heavy minutes, especially early on. Love is still working his way back from offseason shoulder surgery and just made his return to the court on Oct. 18. Meanwhile, center Timofey Mozgov admits his surgically-repaired knee is still giving him grief.
“My knee is not — I wish it could be like it’s not bothering me, but it is what it is. It’s bothering me, but we’re still working on it. Not before the first game, but in the close future, we will be good.”
Already one of the game’s premier rebounders, Thompson’s scoring will also benefit from his tenacity on the glass. With his fellow bigs ailing and pressure to justify his new deal mounting, the opportunity is there for Thompson to have a career year.
3. Kyrie Irving Won’t Be Back Before February
One of the Cavaliers’ biggest unknowns this season is the return of star point guard Kyrie Irving, who is recovering from offseason surgery to repair a fractured kneecap he suffered during Game 1 of the NBA Finals. While the club doesn’t have a specific timetable for when Irving will be back on the court, recent reports have the former Duke guard making his debut sometime in January.
However, that seems to be a bit generous. For starters, both Irving and the club have shown a willingness to take things slow. Here’s what Irving said back in July:
“I’m honestly not putting a date on anything. People are going to put a date regardless. I’m just continuing to be on the journey I’ve been on and that’s continuing to get better every single day and rehabbing my leg.”
This is general manager David Griffin in September:
“I think you’re going to see us bring those guys along very slowly, very intentionally.”
Second, Irving’s fragility throughout his career makes it necessary for the team to treat this latest injury with kid gloves. The former No. 1 overall pick has never played a full season in the pros, and he’s coming off finishing third in minutes played per game last year.
Lastly, while not the elite talent that Irving is, Mo Williams and Matthew Dellavedova are both quality fill-ins. Williams can be an electric scorer when he gets hot, while Delly had his moments filling in for Irving during the Finals.
The risk of bringing Irving back too soon far outweighs the reward of having the team’s No. 2 scorer from last season back in the lineup. The Cavs aren’t playing for the first half. They are playing for the long haul. While there’s a chance he’s back sooner than expected, don’t be surprised if he doesn’t suit up before the All-Star break.
4. The Cavaliers Will Finish Among The Worst Defensive Teams In Basketball
This isn’t as big of a stretch as you might think. As seen by the chart below, the Cavs didn’t fare very well in several defensive categories last season.
This time around, injuries to key defenders threaten to make the unit even worse. Iman Shumpert, the team’s best perimeter stopper, will miss three months following wrist surgery. The Cavs allowed 105 points per 100 possessions when Shumpert was off the court as opposed to 99.2 when he’s on it. Mozgov, Cleveland’s best rim protector, isn’t fully 100 percent while oft-injured big man Anderson Varejao is coming off Achilles surgery. Then, there’s James, whose defensive rating dipped to a career-worst 105 the past two seasons on top of dealing with back troubles. That leaves Love, Williams and Dellavedova among the team’s main rotational players. None of those guys are particularly good defenders, and Irving won’t boost the team in that area when he returns, either.
Cleveland will have the luxury of an elite offense to compensate for its defensive shortcomings, but this could be a potentially fatal flaw going forward.
5. Cleveland Won’t Win The 2015-16 NBA Championship
It’s tough to call this last prediction bold since the team hasn’t won a championship in its 45 years of existence. However, the expectation going into this season was this was the year Cleveland finally brings a title back to Northern Ohio. In fact, according to a recent survey, 53.6 percent of NBA GMs expect the Cavaliers to win the title this year.
While the Cavs certainly have the talent to win it all, there are factors that stand in the team’s way. First, it’s tough to trust this team to stay healthy, especially given the early bumps in the road and the track record of some of the team’s key players (Love, Irving, Shumpert, Varejao). Second, unless someone steps up, or the team manages to stay at full strength, the defense could be a glaring weakness all season. If Mozgov’s knee continues to be a problem, who will step in to protect the paint? Thompson and Love aren’t shot-blockers. Varejao can’t stay on the court. Sasha Kaun is unproven. The same goes for the perimeter, where James will have to hold down the fort until Shumpert returns. Even then, how much faith do you put in Shump staying healthy?
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there’s serious competition coming out of the West. The Warriors kept most of their core from last year’s title team intact. The San Antonio Spurs added LaMarcus Aldridge and David West. The Clippers brought back DeAndre Jordan as well as signed Josh Smith, Lance Stephenson and Paul Pierce. The Oklahoma City Thunder will get Kevin Durant back while Ty Lawson joins a Houston Rockets team that came within three wins of making the Finals.
The Cavs are still head and shoulders above the rest of the East, but it’s tough to like their chances once they do battle with the best of the West.