“What could possibly go wrong?” The famous last words of the overconfident. If everything goes as we generally expect it to, the Cleveland Cavaliers should win the East without a whole lot of difficulty. Though as I’m sure I don’t need to remind Cleveland fans, the unexpected can often cause things to go awry. As confident as the Cavs should be at making a return to the Finals, their fans won’t forget that Murphy’s Law can derail even the sturdiest of trains, and this Cleveland team is hardly the sturdiest around.
Injuries are the most obvious way the Cavs could falter this season. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love’s absences were deeply felt last postseason, and with Irving and Love’s timetables to return remaining uncertain, concern’s about the team’s health as a whole are very real. (Not to mention Iman Shumpert is already out for three months, while Timofey Mozgov and Anderson Varejao are coming back from their own injuries.) Irving and Love both have rather lengthy injury histories, so there’s a decent chance they get banged up again. If those two miss considerable amounts of time, Cleveland becomes LeBron and a bunch of other guys, and from what we saw during James’s last tenure in Cleveland, that’s not enough to get the job done.
Of course, the Cavs’ success hinges on LeBron more than anything else. James and a team of D-Leaguers would probably still be a contender in the East, and he was the difference between Cleveland playing Finals games last year and winning the lottery the year before. If he gets hurt, or is for any other reason unable to play, the Cavs can kiss their Finals dreams goodbye. However, as mentioned, Cleveland can’t just rely on LeBron to do all the work even if he’s healthy.
With Tristan Thompson’s contract unresolved, the Cavs are getting closer and closer to starting the season without him on the roster. It’d obviously be better to have Thompson on the team because he’s a good player, but you also have to wonder if there’d be any acrimony in the locker room. Chemistry and morale are important in basketball, so there could be some issues there, although you’d hope there’s enough leadership and professionalism to get over it. On the other hand, Thompson just not signing at all and running his holdout deep into the season would unquestionably be an even bigger problem.
The Cavs are also counting on the rest of their players to keep up their play from last season. J.R. Smith is going to have to step up even more with Shumpert recovering from wrist surgery. Matthew Dellavedova will also likely find himself in a larger role to limit strain on Irving returning from his knee injury, even with Mo Williams around to help at point guard. Smith has never been a paragon of consistency, and Dellavedova is still a limited player despite some big playoff games. If those backcourt players struggle, Cleveland’s depth is significantly weaker.
I’d never doubt LeBron’s ability to carry Cleveland through the East as it stands now, but if the issues above all come to fruition, it wouldn’t be surprising if a team like the Bulls stepped up and took advantage of the Cavs stumbling. Every team has pitfalls it needs to avoid, but while the Cavs can afford more missteps than others, they still could fall short of the Finals if things don’t break the right way.