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2016-17 Season Preview: Cavaliers hoping to defend championship

Phil Masturzo/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire
Phil Masturzo/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

The 2015-16 season resulted in LeBron James’ team–in this case the Cleveland Cavaliers–winning the Eastern Conference. That’s  been the case for the last six years. In those six NBA Finals appearances, he’s often been regarded as the favorite, playing in the Miami Heat’s Big Three of himself, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

In the last two years against the Golden State Warriors, though, that hasn’t been the case.

But the Cavs clicked at just the right time last season: the playoffs. Sweeping the first two rounds before passing the Toronto Raptors 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Cavs proceeded to face the 73-9 Golden State Warriors in a series they should never have won.

Then, as Irving had the series of his life, the team played with exceptional intensity, LeBron had possibly the best individual Finals performance ever by leading both teams in all five major categories (points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks), and the Cavs pulled off the most miraculous comeback we’ve ever seen.

As for the Warriors, well, they showed us what it looks like when you see the first (73-9) team in NBA history blow a 3-1 lead in the Finals.

Sorry, had you heard that already? It couldn’t be helped in a recap.

How the offseason went

Key acquisitions: Kay Felder (hyper-athletic, 5’9″, rookie point guard), Mike Dunleavy (intelligent passer and sharpshooting small forward), Chris Andersen (highly tattooed, energetic center), J.R. Smith (at long last, the also highly tattooed and important impact of J.R. is returning for four years, $57 million).

Key losses: Matthew Dellavedova (point guard – signed with Milwaukee Bucks), Timofey Mozgov (center – signed with Los Angeles Lakers), Mo Williams (point guard – retired).

There’s a lot to like about the Cavaliers’ offseason. They didn’t overreact to Kevin Love’s poor Finals performance and defense by trading him for limited return. They re-signed LeBron James to a three-year, $100 million deal (even though he was never leaving) to cement their future even more.

There’s a lot to like about Felder as well, with his energy, athleticism, driving and passing giving him a chance to showcase what he can do in a shallower point guard pool.

As for trading the rights to Albert Miralles (in other words, nothing) for Mike Dunleavy, the Cavs made a brilliant move. Dunleavy may be 36, but he’s a reliable team defender who can dabble with a few minutes at power forward if the Cavs’ want to go really small with a flurry of threes. He’s a smart passer you can rely on to make the right play. And he can easily maintain (or improve) his 39.4 percent three-point shot from last season in the Cavs’ highly talented offense.

We’re already seeing the Cavs pick up where they left off with some of the fluid sets, off-ball movement and passing they showcased last season (that often doesn’t get enough credit), enhanced by the stellar shooting frontcourt that is Frye and Love and the newly arrived Dunleavy. Having the chance to play five shooters, including two dangerous shooting bigs, is a brilliant asset to have.

You can see it again here in the Cavs’ preseason game against the Orlando Magic with Frye using high hand-offs and screens to get Love good looks, and with Dunleavy driving across the lane, drawing additional defenders in from the arc, and waiting for the right moment to kick the ball out.

In short, the Cavs’ offseason went great.

To cap it all off, the signing of J.R. Smith finally happened in the midst of preseason. It took even longer to complete a deal than it did for Smith to put his shirt on after the Cavs’ championship celebrations. But all that matters is that he’s staying, beaming from ear to ear (and probably shirtless again) after getting the hefty salary he wanted.

Cleveland needs him, and he needs them staying in contention and surrounding  talent to showcase his abilities.

Sure, there are times when J.R. can go a little too J.R. and take shots from far out or fading away that aren’t always advisable. However, he shot an impressive 40 percent from three (the second-best mark of his career) with 2.6 makes per game last season (a career-high), and he was amazing for the Cavs at times, especially in the playoffs — those numbers rose to 43 percent and 3.1 makes for the postseason.

When he catches fire and provides a flurry of offense, the Cavs can gain the kind of momentum in a minute or two that most other players on their roster can’t offer. And after showing in the playoffs that (when he’s engaged) he can help their perimeter defense as well, it was a no-brainer to bring him back.

J.R. re-signing gives the Cavs a fairly easy to award A+ grade for their summer.

How will they manage the Big Three?

For an important Cavs question, I could easily say, “how can the Cavs beat the Warriors?” to jump straight to the daunting point. But that discussion is far too against the Cavs and far too in-depth to dive into right now.

So, I’m opting for a key component of their regular season push.

Exactly how head coach Tyronn Lue manages the minutes of his Big Three will show us how these players are maturing (whether they’re happy with slightly fewer minutes), how their team can embrace a Gregg Popovich-ian approach and focus on the only goal: a rested, healthy playoff run.

This team can coast along and win the East, anyway. And any additional rest they can save up before the Finals will be more than necessary to take a physical play style to Golden State.

As ESPN’s Dave McMenamin reported, Lue wants to play his guys with a hint of caution:

“My thing is just making sure guys are healthy, continue to limit LeBron’s minutes, and he was at an all-time low last year. Watch Kyrie [Irving’s] minutes because we know we’re playing for something big. We know when we get to the playoffs it’s going to require a lot of minutes, so with those guys and with Kevin [Love], just have to watch guys getting to the red zone.”

With this in mind and the Cavs knowing how tall an order their likely Finals opponent will be, we should see a change in LeBron playing almost 36 minutes a night as Lue ensures his stars aren’t overworked. This could well lead to the older LeBron handing a touch more scoring responsibility to Irving, too.

No, the Big Three won’t be playing less than 30 minutes a night to go full Pop. But going into cruise control at more stages of the regular season is something to watch for.

The worst case scenario for 2016-17

Multiple injuries occur, or a vital player such as Irving or Love is out for 25-plus games and the Cavs stumble slightly in the Eastern Conference standings, below the Toronto Raptors and/or Boston Celtics. With major injuries and a sudden spell of scorching hot shooting by their opponent, the Cavs are eliminated in the Conference Finals.

Realistically, though, providing the Cavs are healthy? Winning the East with 54 wins, returning to the Finals, but losing in a 4-0 sweep to the overwhelming Warriors’ offense seems like the real worst case scenario.

Love trade talks ensue once again and we hear hot takes that LeBron’s decline is accelerating and he has no chance of winning another title with the Warriors ruling the world.

It may not sound like a worst case scenario to say they’ll return to the Finals, but no one in the East is ready to overcome a LeBron-led team with this much talent — just as they haven’t been for the last half decade.

The best case scenario for 2016-17

The Warriors suffer injury to Draymond Green, Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant that removes at least one of them from the Finals, and the Cavs are able to surge with their momentum from the regular season and easier playoff rounds to clear the final hurdle.

The Warriors struggle with the loss of a star, the Cavs bruise through them with their physicality, Irving stays hot; LeBron goes herculean. And Cleveland adds another title to its already quenched championship drought.

To make the best case scenario even better, the Cavs yet again come back from the biggest deficit possible in the finals and the Warriors blow another 3-1 lead. They become the first team to blow two 3-1 leads in the Finals, Draymond loses it and kicks Durant in the groin out of frustration, and the Warriors fall into disarray.

Meanwhile, the Cavs sit back, slide on their championship rings and laugh, with LeBron at the top of the NBA world once again.

Sure, we can never know if the Warriors will battle injuries. Maybe that’ll be the case, and the Cavs capitalize with a ring. Either way, you can never count out LeBron; just look at what he did this year. But against Durant and the overall offensive firepower of this team, the Cavs taking the Finals to six or maybe seven games looks like a fairly honest ceiling for them if both sides are healthy.

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