Way Too In Depth Cleveland Cavaliers Season Preview
I’m starting my full NBA season preview, team by team. Starting with the Central Division of the Eastern Conference. Please note that at time of writing it is entirely possible that some roster situations do change, I’m going based on the current roster unless change is imminent. (like the Jimmy Butler thing) ALSO, I USE THE OVER/UNDERS PURELY AS A MARKER OF PUBLIC OPINION THIS IS NOT IN ANY WAY BETTING ADVICE.
Line: 30.5 wins
About Last Year:
It was the year from hell in a lot of ways for the Cavaliers. Kyrie Irving demanded a trade before the season and it all went downhill from there. The team struggled all season with only brief moments of positives as bad locker-room culture, injuries, and the looming shadow of LeBron’s free agency made for a very sour team.
They finished the season with exactly 50 wins at 50-32 which was good for just the 4th seed. In the Eastern Conference this didn’t really matter as Lebron James put in one of the greatest playoff runs by an individual player in history and dragged a very poor team to the finals where they were once again stomped by the Warriors.
Last season has as little to do with this coming season with the Cavs as it does with any team in the NBA. LeBron is gone, and for the second time the franchise must adjust to life without the greatest player to ever do it.
Colin Sexton (rookie)
Once again, Lebron left for LA which you know. Other than that, the biggest changes for the Cavaliers is that they brought Channing Frye back to Cleveland after he was part of the big trade last season and they drafted Colin Sexton. They also retained Rodney Hood who was a restricted free agent. After not getting a whole lot of interest on the market he was brought back on the qualifying offer of 1 year for $3.4 million. They also extended Kevin Love so that his contract will run all the way through the 2023 season. (more on that later)
This is, by and large, the same team that finished last season just they no longer have LeBron. That is not a good thing.
The Good news:
The best news is that other than the time he spent hurt (Love played just 59 games last year), Kevin Love looked really good in the post-Kyrie Irving world. His numbers got dragged down a bit by the end of the season but he put up just under 18 points and 10 rebounds per game while shooting 41.5% from deep on high volume. That isn’t Minnesota Kevin Love (which is likely never coming back) but it is a rock solid player.
It will be interesting to see how Love does without LeBron. On one hand, the easy diet of spot-up looks that made up a decent amount of his shot attempts from the last four years will be almost totally gone, but on the other hand he will get the ball back in his hands more often which should benefit him and his still wonderful passing skills.
Regardless of exactly how good he is, the Cavs have at least one guy on the roster who is, at worst, a rock-solid borderline all-star player. How good he is this season will have a large say in how successful the team is, but at least they have something.
Beyond Love, its pretty bare. Colin Sexton looks like he will be fun but young, rookie guards are almost always bad and he isn’t likely to be an exception, Cedi Osman has looked promising in his limited minutes but he probably tops out as a solid starter, Kyle Korver is still very good but he’s so old you have to wonder if he has enough left in the tank for another season. The problem is that a bunch of guys on this roster beyond Love had career-bad years last season, and for some of them it doesn’t make much sense as to why.
So with that in mind, the main reason for hope with the Cavaliers has to be that a number of players on the roster could well bounce back from terrible seasons. George Hill was probably the 3rd or 4th best player on a 50+ win Jazz team two years ago, JR Smith was one of the most prolific three-point shooters in the NBA in his previous time with the Cavs, Tristan Thompson has been a rock-solid role-playing big man. Rodney Hood was seen as one of the cornerstone pieces for the Jazz at this time last year. Sam Dekker was an important rotation player on a great Rockets team two years ago, Jordan Clarkson was, well, Clarkson was actually still useless.
Basically, whether it was just bad luck, fatigue of playing so much, (which happens to a lot of guys who have so many deep playoff runs in a row) the media circus that surrounds LeBron finally getting to some guys, whatever. A bunch of guys who have been good NBA players in their careers had terrible seasons last year. If they can get back to being something other than terrible then the Cavaliers may have a real team.
If we went back to this time last season and made a theoretical team with a starting lineup of Hill/Smith/Hood/Love/Thompson with Osman, Nance, Korver, Frye, and Dekker come off the bench. (This doesn’t even include Sexton of course) We would’ve said that’s a team that may be fun and sneaky-good. So logic would assume that if some guys can have bounce-back seasons this team could be sneaky-good this year and potentially a lot of fun.
As much as it is fun to be optimistic about these things. This team was absolute garbage beyond LeBron and Love last year. Assuming Love doesn’t re-find his form from his Timberwolves days and is just a very good borderline all-star player, there will be little he can do to drag this roster to any sort of success or fun.
Two of the guys listed before, JR Smith and George Hill, may have been bad last year because they are just too old and are now over the hump. JR Smith is 33 and has never been known as someone who takes great care of himself, and George Hill is 32 and has had some injury issues the past few years. Toss in Kyle Korver, who is 37 and was probably the Cavs 3rd or 4th best player last year, and it is not unreasonable to think that those guys won’t bounce back.
As for the other guys, Jordan Clarkson has never been worth much, Larry Nance is a decent player but was probably always overvalued because he was on the Lakers. Rodney Hood is an interesting option to bounce back but he has always been seen as not the strongest mentally so who knows. Tristan Thompson was a solid role player but never a lot more and without an elite ball-handler to feed him lobs he isn’t likely to have a great comeback. Thompson’s defensive abilities have also been consistently over-stated. And their pair of young guys, Osman and Sexton, Osman may be Ok but he’s never really played real minutes before, and athletic but raw guards like Sexton pretty much always suck out of the gate.
With all that said, even if we assume some sort of bounce-back for Hood, who is young and will be playing for a contract, and say that both Sexton and Osman are at least playable. This team is still not good if the other players repeat last season. Kevin Love is really good and if Hood gets back in form he is a solid tertiary offensive option but you are still really lacking an offensive hub. And worse than that, how on earth can they hope to find any sort of defense with their possible lineup options. Kevin Love has come a long way on defense but he’s still a net neutral at best. Thompson could get back to being pretty good but he’s still undersized as a center and struggles to protect the rim. George Hill has been a good defender in his career but he was a shell of himself last year and is only getting older.
Essentially, this team could very easily be a total and complete disaster. Last year, LeBron, Kevin Love, and Kyle Korver were the only consistent rotation guys who were actually good. George Hill was mostly Ok, but not anything beyond that. A borderline all-star in Love is not enough to drag a team of bad players to anything worthwhile.
What about Tyronn Lue?
I’m a bit split on Lue to be honest. On one hand, he has shown some smart coaching chops at times in the playoffs with the rotations and the way he hunts mismatches. I remember back in the year that the Cavs played the Pistons in the first round, the Pistons backup point guard was Steve Blake and their backup center was Aron Baynes.
Steve Blake was a corpse who couldn’t guard anyone, and while Aron Baynes is obviously a good player, he isn’t worth much defending on the outside against talented scorers. And in that 4 game sweep, almost every time that the Pistons put Blake and Baynes in the game Lue immediately inserted Kyrie Irving and moved Love to center. They then had Love screen for Irving repeatedly and for a few minutes in each game the Cavs scored at will.
That may not be a terribly complex thing of course, and I’m not saying Lue is some genius of a coach. But he did have a knack for recognizing some of the obvious advantages on the floor and going at them.
That said, it is always a bit hard to say how much of the lack of creativity on offense was his fault. When you have LeBron and Kyrie it makes sense to just have your offense be “Hey guys go score” and that is also the way LeBron tends to prefer. Lue also has generally seemed to have a decent hold of his players respect more often than not. So while I am not going to say that Lue is an especially good coach, I will want to see how this season goes before tossing him in the pile of terrible coaches that so many want to put him in.
What’s the biggest wild-card for this team?
Most people have said Kevin Love, thinking of the possibility that he returns to his form with the Wolves. That is wrong. Even if it is was in a tough Western Conference, that Wolves team had a decent roster beyond Love and they still won just 40 games and missed the playoffs and that roster wasn’t totally useless beyond Love. If other players don’t bounce back from last year Kevin Love can get all the way back to that form and they are still headed for a 30-some win season. More importantly than that, it’s foolish to think Love will return to those heights. It was five years ago, he’s reformed his game and his body and doesn’t have Rick Adelman as his head coach. Love is probably going to be something around 20/10/3.5 per game and that’s fine.
The biggest wild-card is probably a combination of Rodney Hood and George Hill.
Hood is still so young that there is every reason to believe he can bounce back from a terrible time with the Cavs last year, and once again, he showed great promise with the Jazz. If he can become the player with the Cavaliers this year that we thought he was going to be with the Jazz then Cleveland will have a decent 1-2 punch of offensive creation and shooting, they would also have a young piece to retain long-term to try and actually build the future team around.
Hill is similarly as important as Hood though. He’s had injury problems and is on the wrong side of 30, but Hill is just 32 and just two years ago was awesome for the Jazz. Although the real thing with Hill is that if he doesn’t get back to being at least a solid starter the Cavaliers may feature some of the worst point guard play in the NBA.
IF Hill and Hood get back into form then you have the outline for a decent offensive team. Love is the fulcrum, facilitating at the elbows and from the post with at least decent spacing around him. Hood is a secondary ball-handler and scorer who is, along with Love, a good enough shooter to be useful even when he doesn’t have the ball. And Hill can fill in the ball-handling duties as a point guard that Hood and Love can’t do while still being effective off the ball.
If at least one of those two players don’t get back into form, this team is probably going to be very, very, bad.
Best Case Scenario: 44-38
Love comes out in strong form, Hood, Hill, Smith, and Tristan Thompson shake whatever caused them issues last year and Colin Sexton looks like the steal of the draft. Tyronn Lue also gets to flex some creative muscle that he wasn’t really able to do in the past seasons.
The result is a fun offensive team with a ton of shooting on the floor and Kevin Love back to doing all the fun things he can do with the ball in his hands. They even manage to scrape out a decent defense with a smart scheme and good effort. They make the playoffs, and while they are clearly a limited team who isn’t going to really win anything worthwhile, they are popular locally and the fact that they managed to have a competitive team after losing LeBron means a great deal to the franchise. Kevin Love also becomes a cult-hero in Cleveland sports.
Worst Case Scenario: 20-62
There is no revival or bounce-back for anyone. The team that was terrible beyond LeBron last year is exactly what you would expect when they no longer have LeBron. Kevin Love does what he can and helps them win a couple of games. But injuries remain a problem for him and even when he does play he is a lone column of competence on what is otherwise the league’s worst roster. The front office tries, and maybe even succeeds in making some sort of panic trade at the deadline because other than some sort of trade they have no way to get better until after next season. Also, this is basically what happened last time LeBron left sooooooo.
So what’s the final Verdict? Over/Under is 30.5
This is one of the harder over/unders for me to predict. I think a ton hinges on Hood and Hill getting better. If they don’t they will be much worse than 30 wins and if those two guys get into form and people stay healthy they should be much better than 30 wins. If I had to guess I would probably take the under since so many guys were terrible last year. But it is begrudgingly that I would go under. There is an outline for this Cavs team to be pretty good and fun and I would love to see Kevin Love find even some minimal success with the Cavs after all the crap he’s had to deal with over the last four years.
In the end, the simple fact that they need like the entire roster to be not terrible after being terrible last year is just too big a leap of faith to make. It’s possible, and it would be fun to see, but in the grand scheme of things it isn’t terribly likely.
What are your thoughts on the Kevin Love extension?
A bit conflicted but I think it is mostly the right move. For the Cavs, whether they retained Love or not, they have no way to improve their team for two years, so may as well do something to make your best player happy. By picking him up long-term it allows them flexibility, on one hand, if things do turn around and work out this season then they have their center-piece in place. If things don’t work out but Love still balls out then they already have him locked in long-term for a theoretical re-tooling after some of their terrible contracts come off the books. And if they decide to tear it all down they would probably find someone who would take him in a trade even if they didn’t get a ton back. Essentially, keeping Love long-term allows them to have some sort of base for the team in this period immediately after LeBron.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that Kevin Love, for all his flaws, is a borderline all-star player who is still in his prime. Those are guys you want to keep more often than not.