NBA

Cleveland Cavaliers 2016-17 Season Preview

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The Cleveland Cavaliers ended their city’s 52-year championship drought in remarkable fashion, overcoming a 3-1 deficit against the star-studded Golden State Warriors to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy.

LeBron James was incredible in the NBA Finals, averaging 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals and 2.3 blocks while shooting 49.4 percent from field and 37.1 percent from three-point range. James led all Finals players in total points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks – becoming the first player in NBA history to do that in any playoff series. He also made a number of signature plays that will show up in highlight reels for years, such as this insanely clutch chase-down block against Andre Iguodala.

Kyrie Irving was also excellent against the Warriors, averaging 27.1 points, 3.9 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 2.1 steals while shooting 46.8 percent from the field, 40.5 percent from three-point range and 93.9 percent from the free throw line. He also turned over the ball just 2.6 times per game despite being asked to create on offense quite a bit. Irving outperformed unanimous league MVP Stephen Curry, who averaged 22.6 points, 3.7 assists and 4.3 turnovers and shot just 40.3 percent from the field in the series. Irving also came up huge down the stretch, hitting a crucial three over Curry in the final minute of Game 7.

Now, Cleveland brings back largely the same roster in an attempt to defend their title. The Warriors won the offseason by adding Kevin Durant, but the Cavaliers are hoping they have enough to take down Golden State should we see the two juggernauts face off for a third straight time in the NBA Finals.

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

FIVE GUYS THINK

“The champ is here!” The Cavaliers pulled off the unbelievable by surviving a 3-1 series deficit in the NBA Finals and rallying to win the title with three consecutive clutch victories. What makes Cleveland’s triumph even more impressive is the fact the Golden State Warriors had just pulled off a historic NBA regular season and were being led by the first unanimous MVP in league history. The unfathomable Finals win proved All-Star forward LeBron James is still the best player on the planet despite getting deeper into his 30s. Expect more of the same this season, as the Cavaliers should be competing for another title next June for the third straight season.

1st Place – Central Division

– Lang Greene

As long as LeBron James is still reasonably healthy and employed by the Cavaliers, they’re going to be the best team in the Eastern Conference, regardless of whatever else is going on. The fact that in this case, “whatever else is going on” includes having Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and arguably the league’s best offensive rebounder in Tristan Thompson around him means the Cavs have as good a shot at toppling the Golden State Warriors this year as anyone. We’ll have to see if the defending champs are able to re-sign J.R. Smith, but it’s not like there’s a market for the guy outside of Cleveland. Assuming he’s back, the Cavs look primed for another big year, but that might mean scaling back LeBron’s regular season minutes a bit. This season is the Cavs’ victory lap, which they earned, but they’re going to have to work even harder if they want to earn a second straight title.

1st Place – Central Division

– Joel Brigham

There’s the Cavaliers, and there’s everyone else in the Eastern Conference. So long as LeBron James and Kyrie Irving are alive and kicking, the Cavaliers will be head and shoulders above every other contender in East. Instead of asking yourselves who will win the Central Division, ask yourself which team will earn the right to challenge the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals? Also, ask yourself what kind of accomplishment would it be for LeBron James to compete in seven consecutive NBA Finals? Barring an unforeseen injury, that’s obviously where this is all headed, no?

1st Place – Central Division

– Moke Hamilton

As I’ve stated in some of our other team previews, I think there’s a large gap between the Cavaliers and every other team in the Eastern Conference. Teams like the Celtics and Raptors are very talented, but I’d be surprised to see any team other than Cleveland representing the East in the NBA Finals this year. The Cavs are ridiculously talented and, even though they weren’t very active this offseason, that’s probably for the best because chemistry and continuity are important in the NBA. Ty Lue will continue to get better as a head coach as he gains experience and this group will only improve as they become more and more familiar with each other. Many NBA fans don’t want to hear this, but I’m predicting round three of Cavaliers versus Warriors in this year’s NBA Finals.

1st Place – Central Division

– Alex Kennedy

The Cavaliers pulled off an incredible comeback in the NBA Finals last season. LeBron James was incredible and Kyrie Irving came up clutch when his team needed him most. The Cavaliers are bringing back roughly the same roster as last season and have a direct path to returning to the Finals this season. There are other Eastern Conference teams such as the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics who could make things interesting, but the Cavaliers are the clear favorites at this point. However, assuming the Cavaliers return to the Finals, they will likely have to face the Golden State Warriors, who added Kevin Durant this offseason. The Cavaliers will have to maximize their talent, hope that James, Irving and Love are healthy and find a way to slow down perhaps the most talented team on paper in in NBA history. Beating Golden State last season was tough enough, but doing so again with Durant now wearing a Warriors uniform will be the toughest challenge in James’ career.

1st Place – Central Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Kyrie Irving

LeBron James could obviously be listed here as well, and he actually led Cleveland in scoring last year with 25.3 points per game. However, James will get plenty of love throughout this preview and Irving deserves credit for his impressive offensive contributions. Irving is the better shooter and ball-handler of the two players, and he excels at creating his own shot.

During the postseason, Irving showed why he is such a terrific offensive weapon for Cleveland when he averaged 25.2 points and hit 44 percent of his three-point attempts. And, as previously mentioned, his 27.1 points per game during the NBA Finals were absolutely huge for the Cavs. The one-two punch of James and Irving is incredibly hard to stop, especially since the two players complement each other so well. Perhaps the scariest thing about Irving is that he’s still just 24 years old, so his best basketball is very likely still ahead of him.

Top Defensive Player: LeBron James

James’ defense may not be as dominant as it was several years ago (when he made five straight All-Defensive First Teams), but he’s still very, very good. We’ve seen that he can flip a switch and become a defensive monster when needed. Anyone who can average 2.6 steals and 2.3 blocks during the NBA Finals and lead all players in rebounds, blocks and steals is a freak of nature. James makes his presence felt all over the court on defense and continues to be a match-up nightmare with his size, strength, speed and skills.

Last season, James ranked first among all NBA players in Real Plus-Minus (9.79), 11th in Defensive Plus-Minus (3.30) and 12th in Defensive Win Shares. Also, during the postseason, James averaged three deflections per game, which ranked seventh among all players. It is worth noting that James will turn 32 years old in December (with a lot of miles on his odometer), so who knows how long he can continue to be an elite defender? But for now, he gets the nod in this category.

Top Playmaker: LeBron James

James is a terrific point forward who is at his best when he’s running the offense and facilitating for his teammates. His court vision and basketball IQ are incredible, and good things typically happen when the ball is in his hands. Not only did James lead the Cavaliers in assists per game (6.8) last year, he ranked eighth in the NBA. James also finished 11th among all players in assist percentage (36 percent), and he was the only non-guard to finish in the top 20. There’s no question that James is one of the best playmakers in the league and that isn’t going to change anytime soon, especially since he’s surrounded by talented scorers.

Top Clutch Player: Kyrie Irving

Again, Irving and James are both clutch and deserve to be mentioned here. James’ chase-down block was a jaw-dropping play and we’ve seen him take over in many late-game situations. However, Irving gets the top billing here because of that amazing three-pointer over Steph Curry in the final minute of Game 7 and the fact that he hit the exact same shot late in Team USA’s August victory over Australia in Rio. No moment is too big for the 24-year-old Irving, and he has proven that time and time again.

The Unheralded Player: Channing Frye

Acquiring Frye from the Orlando Magic last year was a very underrated move, and the stretch-four ended up helping Cleveland on and off the court. He gave the Cavs some more frontcourt depth and spaced the floor with his shooting. He hit 37.7 percent of his three-point attempts during the regular season, and then hit a ridiculous 56.5 percent of his threes during the playoffs. Also, Frye is a terrific glue guy. In talking to people in and around the organization, he brought the team together after landing in Cleveland. He’s very inclusive and loves to bond with all of his teammates, so he was responsible for getting rid of some of the cliques that had developed behind the scenes. Suddenly, the whole team was hanging out and enjoying each other’s company, which helped them on the floor. Not to mention, Frye is a consummate pro who works extremely hard, brings a smile to work every day and exudes optimism. On a star-studded team like the Cavs, he doesn’t get much attention, but there’s no question that he was an integral part of this group’s success. Oh, and he’s on a great contract that will pay him $7,806,971 this year and $7,420,912 next year.

Top New Addition: Mike Dunleavy Jr.

The Cavaliers weren’t really active this offseason, choosing instead to re-sign their own free agents and prioritize continuity over marquee moves. The team did add 38-year-old big man Chris Andersen, who will provide interior defense, and 5’9 rookie point guard Kay Felder, who could eventually emerge as a spark off of the bench. However, Dunleavy Jr. will likely make the biggest impact this upcoming season with his ability to space the floor and make the right basketball play more times than not. Dunleavy Jr. was a full-time starter for the Chicago Bulls over the last two years, but now he’ll be a quality reserve for Cleveland. Last year, he averaged 7.2 points and hit 39.4 percent of his three-point attempts. He battled some injuries over the last two years, but Cleveland hopes he can stay healthy and contribute in a more limited role. Cleveland’s roster is full of savvy veterans, and the 36-year-old Dunleavy Jr. is another.

– Alex Kennedy

WHO WE LIKE

Ty Lue

There have been plenty of jokes about how LeBron James is the head coach of the Cavaliers, and that always bothers me. Lue did a fantastic job as the team’s sideline general and deserves credit for his hard work. Lue was an upgrade over former head coach David Blatt because he held his stars accountable, utilized his players better and motivated the group. When Lue took over, there was plenty of drama behind the scenes and he had a ton of pressure on him since he would’ve been blamed had things gone wrong. However, he did a fantastic job and helped lead Cleveland to the title. When his team was down 3-1 in the NBA Finals, he kept them believing and made adjustments to climb out of that hole (which was unprecedented). As he continues to gain experience on the sideline, Lue will only get better as a head coach and I believe Cleveland is in very good hands with him at the helm. Yes, it’s always easier as a head coach when you have studs like James and Irving on your side, but let’s not take away from Lue’s success. It’s also worth noting that coaching so many stars means one must manage egos and get their players to sacrifice, which Lue also did in Cleveland.

David Griffin

Like Lue, Griffin doesn’t get enough love for the job that he’s done as general manager of the Cavs. James obviously played a role in recruiting and attracts players to Cleveland, but Griffin has done a very good job of assembling this team as well. When he took over the job, he was expecting this to be a rebuilding effort. Then, when James joined the Cavs, he had to shift into win-now mode and did a terrific job transitioning to that approach. He has acquired pieces like Kevin Love, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Timofey Mozgov, Mo Williams, Channing Frye and Mike Dunleavly Jr. to give this squad an impressive supporting cast that works well together. He also did a great job of re-signing his own free agents – from Irving to James to Love to Tristan Thompson (and Smith is likely next, at some point). People on Twitter like to joke about LeBron running this organization from top to bottom, but Lue and Griffin are very good at what they do and shouldn’t be overlooked.

J.R. Smith

It may seem strange to have Smith listed here, since he’s currently an unrestricted free agent. However, the general consensus is that the veteran shooting guard will be back with Cleveland next season. The two sides continue to discuss a deal, and it seems like only a matter of time until Smith is back with the team. Smith is listed here because he played some of the best basketball of his career with the Cavs last year. He averaged 12.4 points as the team’s starting shooting guard and shot 40 percent from the three-point line. He also drastically improved as a defender, which was very important for Cleveland on the perimeter. In the playoffs, Smith averaged 11.5 points and shot 43 percent from three. He became an important part of Cleveland’s supporting cast and it’s hard to imagine the Cavs letting him go, especially since they’d have a very difficult time replacing his production given their cap situation.

– Alex Kennedy

SALARY CAP 101

The Cavaliers did not dip below the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap this summer, instead using a portion of their Mid-Level Exception to re-sign Richard Jefferson, without triggering a hard cap at $117.3 million.  Instead, the Cavaliers are free to spend, albeit with a potentially hefty luxury tax bill to come.  The team currently has 12 guaranteed players, with a spot open for the yet-to-be-re-signed J.R. Smith.  The presumption is that Smith and the Cavaliers eventually agree to terms, but that has yet to happen and training camp is here.

If Smith signs for $10 million for the coming season, and the Cavaliers keep two minimum-salaried players, the team would be looking at nearly $25 million in luxury taxes.  At $15 million, Smith would push Cleveland’s tax bill to about $40 million.  With Smith, the Cavaliers have two available roster spots for DeAndre Liggins, Jordan McRae, Cory Jefferson, Markel Brown and Eric Moreland.  Looking ahead to next season, the Cavaliers do not project to have any space under a $102 million salary cap.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Cleveland’s star power is their biggest strength, as some teams just don’t have the talent to match-up against LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and company. There will be nights when a rebuilding team simply won’t have a chance against the Cavs because they just aren’t ready to seriously compete with a juggernaut that can dominate on both ends of the court. On offense and defense, Cleveland is effective and efficient. Last season, the Cavs had the NBA’s fourth-best offense (scoring 108.1 points per 100 possessions) and 10th-best defense (allowing 102.3 points per 100 possessions). They also ranked third in rebound rate (52 percent) and third in effective field goal percentage (52.4 percent). In addition to stars, Cleveland has an experienced supporting cast of veterans who fill their roles perfectly and know what it takes to win (especially now that all of last year’s players now have a title on their resume).

– Alex Kennedy

WEAKNESSES

A number of Cleveland’s players are somewhat injury prone, including key cogs Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Injuries and general decline are also a concern because the team has a ton of veterans. Eight of the Cavaliers’ players are at least 31 years old – and some are significantly older such as Chris Andersen (38), Mike Dunleavy Jr. (36), Richard Jefferson (36), James Jones (35), Channing Frye (33) and Mo Williams (33) among others. Head coach Ty Lue is around the same age as a number of players; he’s just one year and two months older than Andersen, for example. One other weakness is the wear and tear on this team. Not only are they defending champions, many of these players have been to the NBA Finals for several years straight, which can run guys down. Managing minutes will be very important, especially since Cleveland can likely coast through the regular season and still win the East if all goes as expected.

– Alex Kennedy

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the Cavaliers repeat as champions?

When you have a payroll that may be as high as $116,494,181, it’s championship or bust. Winning back-to-back titles is extremely difficult, but it’s even tougher when the team you just beat in the Finals adds an MVP-caliber player who makes them one of the scariest teams on paper in NBA history. Cleveland has shot to repeat as champs, but it certainly won’t be easy. Still, that’s the only goal for the Cavs entering this season. The curse has been lifted, and now Cleveland wants to add to their trophy case.

– Alex Kennedy

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