Things were supposed to be different this year for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
After injuries robbed one of the most talented rosters in basketball from reaching its potential last season, Cleveland spent the summer getting the band back together for another shot at immortality. LeBron James, Kevin Love, Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith all re-signed during the offseason, while veterans like Mo Williams and Richard Jefferson agreed to offer a helping hand. With the club’s elite talent and depth combined with a weak Eastern Conference, a trip back to the NBA Finals should be a cakewalk for the Cavs.
Instead, Cleveland’s season of redemption is getting off to a rocky start. Injuries continue to be an issue as the team struggles to survive the preseason in one piece. It started with Love (shoulder), Anderson Varejao (Achilles) and Timofey Mozgov (knee) all working their way back from offseason surgeries. Then, Shumpert needed surgery to repair a ruptured muscle in his wrist and is expected to miss up to three months. Next, the team might shut down James for the rest of preseason after the superstar needed an injection to help with soreness in his back. Scrappy point guard Matthew Dellavedova is also dealing with a bum ankle. This is all in addition to the unknown status of star point guard Kyrie Irving after he underwent surgery on the broken kneecap he suffered in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
As if that entire paragraph wasn’t troubling enough for the Cleveland faithful, the team has been embroiled in a contract dispute for months with restricted free agent and postseason breakout star Tristan Thompson. After the two sides failed to come to an agreement on a contract extension, Thompson declined to sign his qualifying offer and remains a holdout from the team.
While each of these issues are concerning in their own right, the sum of all these setbacks doesn’t bode well for Cleveland’s defensive prospects. Last season, the Cavaliers posted a defensive rating of 99.2 with Shumpert on the court, the best of any Cavs player. When Shump sat, that number ballooned to 105, which was third-worst on the team. Williams, Irving’s replacement until the former No. 1 overall pick is cleared to return, has never been much of a defender as he’s allowed an average of 110 points per 100 possessions during his 12-year career.
You throw in James’s bad back as well as Mozgov recently admitting his knee won’t be 100 percent for the start of the season and you get a unit that will struggle to get stops. If the Cavaliers were 20th in defensive efficiency last season, how will they fare this year with its best perimeter defender missing most of the first half and its top rim protector essentially playing on one good leg?:
I asked Timofey Mozgov if there's enough time to get to 100 percent before the opener: "There's never enough time."
— Chris Fedor (@ChrisFedor) October 16, 2015
James’s recent back problem is also troubling. While he’s managed to avoid serious injuries throughout his career, James is also entering his 13th NBA season and will turn 31 in December. As evidenced by the chart below, he’s accrued plenty of mileage over the years. It’s not unfathomable to start wondering when Father Time will start catching up to him:
As for Thompson, the detrimental impact of his absence is two-fold. First, without him on the floor, the team will be forced to lean on Love, Varejao, Mozgov and newcomer Sasha Kaun in the frontcourt. The first three each have their share of durability concerns, while Kaun is unproven. Coming off a serious Achilles injury and having played more than 25 games just twice in the past five seasons, Varejao is an especially risky play. Mozgov is also a gamble coming off knee surgery and never averaging more than 25 minutes per game at any point in his career.
Additionally, Thompson played a huge role in Cleveland’s solid work on the boards last season. The team finished tied for sixth in offensive rebounding percentage (26.8 percent), thanks in large part to Thompson, who ranked 11th among all NBA players at 14.4 percent. If the big man’s holdout leaks into the regular season as expected, who’s going to fill that void?
The good news for the Cavs is Love is expected to make his triumphant return to the court against the Toronto Raptors on Sunday. It’ll be his first time on the floor since separating his shoulder in Game 4 of last season’s first-round series with the Boston Celtics. Fans should also remember that the team started off slow last season, going 19-20 in its first 39 games before finishing 53-29 and coming two wins away from an NBA championship.
Still, this season was supposed to be different, but the rocky start is looking all too familiar.