The Cleveland Cavaliers open the 2015-16 season in hopes of bringing its first NBA championship ever back to Northeast Ohio. With LeBron James, Kevin Love and the eventual return of Kyrie Irving, the Cavs have arguably the best trio of stars in the Eastern Conference.
However, the team’s quest to end a 45-year title drought doesn’t come without its share of hurdles already. It’s still unclear when Irving will return after undergoing surgery to repair a fractured kneecap suffered in the NBA Finals. Guard Iman Shumpert is expected to miss up to three months following wrist surgery. Additionally, Love (shoulder), center Timofey Mozgov (knee) and fellow big man Anderson Varejao (Achilles) all entered training camp recovering from offseason surgeries.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the drama surrounding Tristan Thompson’s contract situation looms over the season. Thompson is a restricted free agent seeking a max deal, but the club isn’t willing to budge from its five-year, $80 million offer. After letting the deadline pass without signing his qualifying offer, the talented forward’s future with the team is now in limbo.
If everything breaks right, the Cavs should be considered the favorite to represent the East in the Finals, but that’s becoming an increasingly bigger IF as the days pass by.
What Happened Last Year
After acquiring Love in a blockbuster trade last summer, the Cavaliers entered the 2014-15 season with high expectations and a ton of hype. However, the team sputtered out to a rocky start, going 19-20 in its first 39 games. Fortunately, the team bounced back by winning 14 of its next 16 before heading into the All-Star break. Cleveland also rounded out its roster with midseason trades for Mozgov, Shumpert and J.R. Smith.
The club hit the ground running in the second half, going 20-7 in the final months to finish the season 53-29 to earn the Eastern Conference’s No. 2 seed. Cleveland had the third-best offensive rating in the league after the All-Star break, as well as the fourth-best net rating, per NBA.com.
Unfortunately, just as it looked like the Cavs would steamroll their way to a championship, the wheels started to fall out. Love dislocated his shoulder after getting tangled up with Boston Celtics forward Kelly Olynyk during Game 4 of the teams’ first-round series and was lost for the rest of the postseason.
James and Co. were able to bully their way through the Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks, but tragedy struck again in the Finals. Irving went down with that fractured kneecap midway into Game 1 against the Golden State Warriors and quickly joined Love in the spectator section.
To his credit, James did his best to keep the Cavs’ title hopes alive by becoming a one-man wrecking crew against a 67-win Warriors team. He pushed the series to six games, finishing with a stat line of 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game. It was the first time in NBA Finals history a player led both teams in points, rebounds and assists in a losing effort.
What Happened This Summer
The Cavs spent the summer getting the band back together. James signed a two-year, $47 million deal that allows him to opt out after this season. Love re-signed for five years, $110 million. Shumpert received $40 million over four years, while Smith will earn $5 million this season with a player option for the same amount next year. Meanwhile, postseason hero/opposition antagonist Matthew Dellavedova re-upped for one more year at $1.2 million.
The team’s “major” offseason acquisitions were veteran swingman Richard Jefferson, former Cavalier Mo Williams and Russian big man Sasha Kaun. At 35 years old and entering his 15th pro season, Jefferson won’t be asked to do much except allow James to take a breather or two. Williams, a career 13.4 points per game scoring point guard, spent three seasons with the Cavs during James’s first run in Cleveland. With Irving sidelined for the time being, the 32-year-old should have an increased role as he splits time with Dellavedova. Kaun is intriguing as a 30-year-old rookie in a frontcourt ravaged by injuries and contract holdouts. He’s spent the last six seasons playing in Moscow, where he averaged 7.6 points and 3.6 boards.
The team’s biggest losses were Mike Miller, Shawn Marion and Kendrick Perkins. Miller was traded to the Portland Trail Blazers with Brendan Haywood and Perkins opted to sign with the New Orleans Pelicans, while “The Matrix” decided to call it a career after 16 seasons.
The biggest key to the Cavs’ title hopes is obviously James, but assuming he stays healthy, we can all expect his usual brand of other-worldly statistical greatness. Anything less than the King’s career average of 27.1 points, 7.1 boards and 6.9 assists should be considered a down year.
However, if we learned anything from last year’s Finals, it’s that even LeBron can’t do it all by himself. That’s why Love’s ability to regain the form that once made him arguably the league’s best power forward is the biggest X-factor to Cleveland’s upcoming season.
Love’s debut season with the Cavs in 2014-15 had its share of ups and downs. The good news is he managed to play 75 games, the third-highest total of his seven years in the NBA. The bad news is his stats were among the worst of his career nearly across the board. He contributed a modest 16.4 points per game, which was his third-lowest output ever. Last season was also the first time he grabbed less than 10 boards per game (9.7) since his rookie campaign in 2008-09. Also, Love’s 43.4 percent conversion rate from the field was the worst of any season in which he played more than 18 games.
Fortunately, Cavs coach David Blatt is committed to making Love a bigger part of the offense this season (via ESPN.com):
“No question, this summer we looked for and identified ways that we can take advantage of Kev’s unique skill set, and hopefully we’ll see that on the floor.”
With James and eventually Irving siphoning Love’s touches, it’s unrealistic to expect him to be the dominant offensive force he was with the Minnesota Timberwolves. However, with Irving hurt and James needing someone to take pressure off of him, the commitment to featuring Love more should cause an uptick in the big man’s offensive numbers.
Furthermore, with Thompson’s future uncertain and Varejao’s health always a question mark, the Cavs will need Love’s help on the boards more than ever this season. The team finished 18th in rebounding last season, mostly due to Varejao’s absence and not having Mozgov for a full season. Now, depending on how the Thompson debacle plays out, Cleveland will have one of the deepest and most talented frontcourts in basketball. There’s no reason why this team shouldn’t be among the best garbage men in the NBA, and that starts with Love bouncing back from both offseason shoulder surgery and last season’s down year.
The Cleveland Cavaliers should once again be considered the favorite to come out of the Eastern Conference, but the team isn’t without its share of question marks. The health concerns coupled with the uncertainty of Thompson’s future lowers the club’s overall ceiling.
However, even with all of these early setbacks, no team in the East can match Cleveland’s combination of depth and star power. James should find his way into the MVP conversation once again and 50 wins seems like a lock.
Furthermore, Cleveland now has a season under its belt to both get adjusted to Blatt’s philosophies and get the James/Love/Irving dynamic down pat. James was in a similar situation during his time with the Miami Heat. The team was able to make it to the Finals despite having a relatively inexperienced coach in Erik Spoelstra and “The Big Three” struggling to find a rhythm. Miami came up short in their first year together, but rebounded with back-to-back titles and a fourth straight trip to the Finals.
The same can happen in Cleveland this season. If James was able to keep things competitive against a dominant Warriors team last season, imagine what he can do if his supporting cast is healthy and on the same page.
Predicted Record: 57-27, Eliminated in NBA Finals