It’s been far too easy to forget that the Cleveland Cavaliers are the reigning NBA champions. It’s been far too easy to gloss over the fact that they became the only team in history to come back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals, against the first ever 73-9 team, no less.
It’s also been too easy to forget how magical LeBron James’ Finals performance was as he led such a comeback, claiming his third championship and throne as the King of the NBA again.
Well, that’s what happens when that 73-9 team signs one of the best scorers in league history in Kevin Durant.
We have ourselves a new super team, but it’s not like LeBron and the Cavs have just rolled over and surrendered at the sight of the new “Death Star Lineup.”
J.R. Smith hasn’t re-signed yet, Matthew Dellavedova is in Milwaukee, Timofey Mozgov may have left for L.A. on his unsightly four-year, $64 million deal, yet the reigning champions have largely maintained their championship-winning roster. LeBron still has a great supporting cast. And while they may be on a level below the Warriors, they’re always a threat with their talent level and, more than anything else, having LeBron at the helm.
That doesn’t mean we won’t see a change from the Cavs in 2016-17, though. Primarily, it’s the rotation of those running the point and the pressure on Kyrie Irving that will be shifting.
Delly, as a notably pesky defender, improved passer, and 46.9 percent marksman on catch-and-shoot threes last season, is a real loss to the Cavs. Sure, they didn’t exactly hesitate to let him go, and LeBron shot out of the gates to congratulate him on Twitter before the Cavs had a chance to match the Bucks’ offer.
Delly essentially fell out the rotation late into the playoffs and the Finals, too. But he contributed last season overall and was a dangerous catch-and-shoot threat at the very least when playing alongside point-forward LeBron.
The point guard who edged past him in the postseason rotation, providing a steady hand running the point and capable shooting, is now gone, too.
Mo Williams, just five days after announcing his return to the Cavs, has decided to retire. At only 33 years of age, news of Williams’ retirement emerged Monday at media day. And with that, the Cavs’ point guard rotation was dwindled down to Irving and insanely explosive 5’9″ rookie Kay Felder. Backup point is now the most obvious weakness of the team, talent and underrated potential of Felder aside.
Head coach Tyronn Lue spoke to Chris Fedor or Cleveland.com after the Cavs’ first practice on Thursday about how the team will address the situation:
“We have to do it by committee. I thought (DeAndre) Liggins looked really good today. Did a great job. Kay (Felder). I think we can play Jordan (McRae) a little backup point, we’ve got Shump (Iman Shumpert) who can play a little backup point and having LeBron on the floor with him will help him out. We just have to do it by committee until we figure it out.”
Fedor has also reported that the Cavs have contacted Norris Cole, Mario Chalmers and Kirk Hinrich as possible additions.
A committee approach is necessary given the current status and depth of the roster. Felder, who’s scoring ability, drives, floaters, and passing (24.4 points and 9.3 assists per game at Oakland last season) is easily overlooked due to his small (yet chiseled) stature, will have a chance right now to impress at camp and fight for minutes.
But there’s only so much a rookie will ideally be responsible for with the reigning champions, and there’s only so much you want two guards (or inexperienced point guards) shifting out of position. Though, as Lue mentioned, having LeBron to orchestrate the offense obviously alleviates some of the pressure.
This isn’t the only change, though. Specifically when it comes to LeBron and how his young sidekick Kyrie will need to step up.
Lue told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin that limiting the minutes of stars in preparation for the playoffs is vital. He mentioned LeBron first, and you have to think that maintaining him at the 38,478-minute mark of his career (no matter how remarkable his athleticism and durability is) is the priority:
“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.”
Coming off the best season of his career in a weakened backcourt rotation, not to mention being the youngest of the Big 3, you have to think Irving is facing some pressure. We know what LeBron does for the team at both ends. We know that Love is still a talented offensive post player and shooter, albeit one who’s used tentatively in Cleveland.
We know that Kyrie is young, on the rise, and likely up for a challenge, especially if he can seek to improve the weaknesses in his game.
One thing Irving won’t do is shy away from a challenge. He was brilliant throughout the playoffs, averaging 25.2 points, 4.7 assists, 1.7 steals and 0.6 blocks per game with 47.5 percent shooting and a 44 percent three-point shot. He was at his best yet. He delivered again in the Finals, averaging 27.1 at a 46.8 percent rate with 26 in Game 7.
Remember the breathtaking shot in the final minute over Stephen Curry? Of course, you do. He helped seal the championship for Cleveland. And now, heading into another challenge after his biggest opponent in Golden State just got so much more formidable, Irving has another occasion to rise to.
(I had to include the clip. The shot is too enjoyable. But I promise I won’t make any, “the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead jokes.”)
With Lue looking to limit LeBron’s minutes whenever possible, despite the stubbornness of James to play whenever possible, Irving embracing more responsibility to both score (as per usual) and spread the ball around when he isn’t sharing the floor with James him will be key.
It’s never been in Irving’s nature as a scorer, and that’s still what he is. He has a dangerous three-point shot, lightning-quick handles, a smooth shot off the dribble and artistic acrobatics to contort his body and put spin on the ball to finish past taller defenders. He does so much so well.
As a passer, though, things are a little different.
Numbers aren’t overly necessary to point it out: Irving isn’t a floor general. Watch him play, watch him score, check his career average of 5.8 assists per 36 minutes and that much is clear. Of course, LeBron takes over and commands such a role for the Cavs, but it’s still not a defining part of Irving’s nature when he’s controlling the floor by himself. Irving also registered an assist on only 9.2 percent of his passes last season, placing him 60th in the NBA among players averaging at least 20 minutes a night.
The Cavs need Irving’s buckets, and LeBron assists on 36 percent of the team’s scores when he’s on the floor, so it’s not surprising to see Irving’s numbers when understanding his role. Either way, though, everyone knows spreading the ball around and creating looks for others is an area he could improve on. Along with the improved defensive intensity, he showed at times in the Finals, it’s what the Cavs will be looking for Irving to work on.
It’s the expectation that Kyrie will deliver at such a high level again next season. He’s had the best year of his career and a magical spell to end it, and he’ll want it to continue from the summer to winter and beyond, beginning what should be another trip to the Finals to compete with the terrifying Kevin Durant led Warriors.
With a weakened point guard rotation and Lue looking for LeBron to sit out the odd game and monitor his minutes more often, the young Irving stepping up and further into his own gives him a new challenge. One that will be absolutely vital for the Cavs’ hopes of coming close to repeating as champs.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com.