It’s not very often that a team vaunts itself from having earned the No. 1 pick in one season to instant championship contender in one offseason, but that’s what has happened with the Cleveland Cavaliers thanks entirely to the summer signing of LeBron James and subsequent trade for former Minnesota Timberwolves star Kevin Love.
Whether or not the Cavaliers win the ring this year, they’re definitely the league’s most intriguing team heading into the 2014-2015 NBA season.
Basketball Insiders previews the 2014-2015 Cleveland Cavaliers.
Five Guys Think
LeBron James is coming home. There isn’t much else to write. That fact alone immediately puts them in the conversation for this year’s championship, but the addition of Kevin Love makes it even more inevitable that this team will delve deeply into the 2015 postseason when the time does ultimately come. Concerns about Love and Kyrie Irving never having played an NBA playoff game are kind of overblown, mostly because James has been to four straight NBA Finals and has won two of them. James Jones and Mile Miller won rings with the King in Miami, and Varejao has experience going deep into the playoffs, as well. In other words, this isn’t a locker room devoid of championship experience, so two major stars (one of whom has an Olympic gold medal) shouldn’t have much problem adapting. Except for maybe the Chicago Bulls, it’s hard to envision any other team representing the East in this year’s Finals.
2nd Place – Central Division
In the Summer of 2007, Danny Ainge had Paul Pierce, the fifth overall pick in the draft and a platoon of youngsters that he had hoped would amount to something worthwhile. Seemingly overnight, he built the eventual 2008 NBA Champion by managing to put Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett beside his rock, Pierce. In July 2010, Pat Riley pulled off one of this generation’s most talked about heists in pairing LeBron James and Chris Bosh with Dwyane Wade. After four consecutive Eastern Conference titles, those days in Miami appear to be over. LeBron James’ decision to return home to Cleveland all but assures it. And now, with the impressive summer that the Cavaliers have turned in, their Summer of 2014, at least at this point, can be compared with the 2007 and 2010 summers of the Celtics and HEAT, respectively. Whether it will eventually lead to championship glory is another question, all together. But today, it is one that can be seriously pondered in Cleveland. With James deciding to return home, the Cavs were blessed with winning the first overall pick in June’s draft and eventually used Andrew Wiggins to acquire Kevin Love. James and Love joining a team with Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters yields a team that is arguably as talented as an Cavaliers team that has taken the court since Mark Price, Larry Nance and Brad Daugherty were contending in the Eastern Conference in the early 1990s. With Shawn Marion, Mike Miller and James Jones joining, the Cavs have a great balance of young studs and seasoned veterans, and if the underrated Anderson Varejao can stay healthy, he could help put them over the top out East, even if they are undersized. The major concern for the Cavs will certainly be their ability to get important stops and defend. They are not nearly as athletic or defensively gifted as James’ HEAT team was, but talent-wise, they are near the top. The Cavs may have trouble battling some of the league’s bigger teams, but fortunately for Team LeBron, there is a dearth of those in the Eastern Conference. Out East, so long as the Chicago Bulls remain relatively healthy, it should be a two-horse race for the conference crown. In the end, James may lead his team to a fifth consecutive NBA Finals appearance. With Love and Irving by his side, anything is possible, even if they will have obstacles to overcome. One thing that has been completely overlooked is David Blatt and the challenge he will face in his first NBA head coaching gig. The Cavs are not a sure thing, but until we see the Derrick Rose of old, it would be foolish to bet against them.
1st Place – Central Division
– Moke Hamilton
The Cleveland Cavaliers have resided in the league’s basement ever since LeBron James took his talents to South Beach during the summer of 2010. So it comes as no surprise the Cavaliers are now one of the favorites to compete for a title with James back in the fold, seemingly for the long haul. Not only did Cleveland manage to secure James’ autograph in free agency this past summer, the franchise also swung a deal to acquire All-Star forward Kevin Love to pair alongside emerging guard Kyrie Irving. If the chemistry is tight from day one, Cleveland would undoubtedly be the team to beat in the Eastern Conference with only two or three true threats in the West. However, games aren’t played on paper so we’ll see how this plays out over the full 82.
1st Place – Central Division
– Lang Greene
What the Cavaliers did in the last few months was downright incredible. Remember, entering the summer, Cleveland was without a permanent general manager and head coach, they were back in the lottery and Kyrie Irving was reportedly disgruntled. Then, in the course of a few weeks, they removed David Griffin’s interim tag and hired David Blatt (two guys who are very respected around the NBA), won the lottery to select Andrew Wiggins, signed Irving to a max extension, signed LeBron James, traded Wiggins and Anthony Bennett for Kevin Love and filled out their roster with quality veterans like Mike Miller, James Jones, Shawn Marion and Brendan Haywood (with more possibly to come). It doesn’t get much better than that. Cleveland went from being a lottery team with issues to arguably the best team in the league. All eyes will now be on the Cavs to see if they can live up to that label (but that James guy, who is pretty good, will certainly make that easier).
1st Place – Central Division
– Alex Kennedy
This offseason simply could not have gone better for the Cavaliers, who went from the team drafting No. 1 overall to now fielding a team with the best trio in the league in LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. There seemed to be some reluctance to let go of Andrew Wiggins, who does have a lot of potential, but Love is beyond great return for him. And, most importantly, he’s ready to help the Cavaliers win now. From top to bottom, this year’s Cavaliers team has the potential to be better than any team James won a championship with in Miami. Plus, there’s enough youth and depth on the team to where he won’t have to carry the same kind of load that he had to in Miami. Growing concerns about how the overwhelming burden he was carrying was going to affect him long-term had to play a big part in driving him back to Cleveland, where the work load is much less significant. Aside from a first-year NBA coach in David Blatt and Love and Irving being unproven in the playoffs, there’s really not much to nitpick this Cavaliers team about. They’re absolutely loaded and definitely capable of winning it all this season.
1st Place – Central Division
– Yannis Koutroupis
Top of the List
Top Offensive Player: Most teams have one, perhaps two dominant scorers that are responsible for carrying their teams offensively on any given night, but the new Cleveland Cavaliers are a completely different animal altogether. Obviously LeBron James, who finished third in the league in scoring last year, is one of the most versatile and efficient scorers in the NBA, having scored 27.1 PPG last year on a blazing .567 field goal percentage, comfortably the highest of any player among the top 25 scorers last season. But Kevin Love finished fourth in the league in PPG last year with 26.1 PPG, and Kyrie Irving finished 14th at 20.8 PPG. Obviously all three of those guys won’t post numbers quite that high since they’ll be splitting the load, but that’s as many as 74 points a night from just three players. These three guys will be the most potent scoring trio the league has seen in quite some time.
Top Defensive Player: Back in 2013, when LeBron James was narrowly edged out by Marc Gasol for Defensive Player of the Year, he really wasn’t happy about it, lambasting the vote and making a strong point that he had been robbed. “I mean, I guard everybody on the floor,” he said back in April of 2013. “I don’t know if there’s one player NBA history who’s guarded one through five (positions).” Of course, James also didn’t make the All-Defensive First Team last year for the first time since 2008, and his defensive statistics did drop a bit. However, he’s still a tenacious defender that really can guard anybody on the floor, and that’s something he’ll need to be even better at this year considering the defensive deficiencies of his high-profile teammates.
Top Playmaker: If you watched the All-Star game last winter, you know that Kyrie Irving can do pretty much anything he wants to with a basketball in his hand, and with the additions of James and Love this season, the floor should be more spaced out than ever before, allowing Irving to do his thing and cut through traffic at will. LeBron can handle the ball, too, but in the last four years in Miami he never came close to playing with a point guard this good. Irving being as creative as he is with the ball takes a lot of pressure off of James to do all those other things that make him the most gifted all-around basketball player alive.
Top Clutch Player: According to Michael Beuoy’s Win Probability Added metric, LeBron James put up an effective field goal percentage of 72.6 percent in clutch situations in last year’s playoffs, obviously better than any other player in the league. He has long since put away any questions about his ability to score big baskets when it matters, and when games matter this year in Cleveland, it will be LeBron who decides what to do with the ball.
The Unheralded Player: When James put out his “I’m Coming Home” letter in Sports Illustrated, he specifically mentioned Anderson Varejao, the only player remaining from his previous stint with the Cavaliers, and actually Varejao should be a pretty good fit alongside the current batch of superstars heading to Ohio. He’s an apt scorer but doesn’t need the ball, and he certainly is big enough and tough enough to clean up the boards when his high-volume shooting teammates are having bad nights. He is coming off a foot injury that cost him the bulk of last season, but once he’s healthy (and if he stays that way), he’s going to be a big help for Cleveland. He’d better be, at least, as the Cavs don’t have much behind him at the center position.
Best New Addition: It’s not every offseason that a team acquires two of the league’s top-ten players in a single summer, but James and Love, for the myriad reasons outlined above, have made this team a title contender just by showing up.
– Joel Brigham
Who We Like
1. David Blatt: With all the hubbub surrounding LeBron James and Kevin Love this summer, the signing of new head coach David Blatt really hasn’t received the attention it deserves. A championship head coach at essentially every level short of the NBA, Blatt is a really brilliant guy and would have been a terrific find for the Cavaliers even if James and Love hadn’t have ended up in Ohio. While he’s new to the NBA head coaching ranks and a lot of the players on this team haven’t played together yet, the kinks will eventually work themselves out, and by year’s end we may be talking about Blatt the same way we did Tom Thibodeau after his first full year coaching the Chicago Bulls.
2. Shawn Marion: All offseason, one of the biggest questions about the Cavaliers has been how they’ll fare defensively, but the addition of Marion—still a strong defender even at 36 years old—should help keep opposing second units from running rampant over Cleveland’s middling bench. He was a great bargain for them in free agency and should fit in nicely with this star-studded lineup.
3. Tristan Thompson: As a sure-fire reserve this year, the pressure is off of Thompson, who now can just focus on using his athleticism to grab rebounds and hit easy shots around the rim. While it’s possible he’ll be traded at some point this season, the reality is that this former No. 4 overall pick never has quite lived up to his draft spot, but he should fill a nice role on the second unit this season.
4. Mike Miller: This team is going to shoot the lights out from deep, in part because of Miller. Having both him and James Jones aboard provides some measure of continuity for James, who is very familiar with both having played with them at various times over the course of the last four years, but it also puts guys in that locker room who understand what it means to make the NBA Finals and win a championship ring. Irving and Love have never even played an NBA playoff game. Having that veteran experience in the locker room could go a long way, and the fact that Miller can shoot the way he does is definitely an added bonus.
5. LeBron James: He’s the most physically gifted player alive, and he’s made the decision to go back home. There isn’t a single thing not to love about that.
– Joel Brigham
Obviously, the Cavaliers are going to score a ton of points, as spelled out in glorious detail above, and with so many strong shooters they’ll probably be among the league leaders in three-pointers attempted next season. To call offense a strength for these guys actually feels like underselling it, and that combined with the star power in the starting lineup will be enough to intimidate a lot of NBA teams. It worked for the Miami HEAT the last four years, so there’s no reason that a better, deeper Cavaliers team shouldn’t also get some wins through intimidation alone.
– Joel Brigham
While James is a perennial guest of honor at the All-Defensive Team voting party, and role players like Anderson Varejao and Shawn Marion both have earned reputations as solid defenders, the reality is that this could be a rough year for Cleveland defensively, thanks in large part to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, two guys that will be on the floor a lot yet often fail to properly defend people. Love simply cannot protect the rim, and last season, Tristan Thompson was even worse. This team is mostly comprised of players that haven’t historically put much effort into the defensive end of the basketball court, and that, if anything, could be Cleveland’s undoing.
– Joel Brigham
The Salary Cap
The Cavaliers have certainly transformed from an Eastern Conference also ran to a potential NBA Finals contender. The team dropped under the salary cap to sign All-Star LeBron James. The team also acquired Kevin Love via trade and made Kyrie Irving their designated player, inking the point guard to a five-year extension (player option on the final year). Cleveland used their Room Exception on Mike Miller. Anderson Varejao’s $9.7 million deal is only $4 million guaranteed, but the team is committed to keeping the veteran. That leaves two spots for the team’s four non/partially-guaranteed players (John Lucas, Malcolm Thomas, Erik Murphy and Alex Kirk).
– Eric Pincus
The normal MO in these previews has been to examine the team’s 2013-14 performance and attempt to determine what might be better or worse the next year. For the Cavs, this is of course a useless exercise. With the additions of LeBron James and Kevin Love alongside Kyrie Irving, Cleveland has the talent to be one of the best offenses of all-time.
Perhaps a more interesting exercise is trying to figure out how to stop this team. Pick and pops involving with Love as the screener for James or Irving should be a staple of this offense, although coach David Blatt will no doubt have some inventive sets that will get the ball moving side-to-side as well. I think the best option for all but the best defensive teams will be to switch a lot of actions and force Cleveland to score one-on-one while helping off Anderson Varejao, Tristan Thompson, or Shawn Marion. While the Cavs certainly have the talent to score individually, they will be at their toughest when moving the ball and scoring off an advantage created on the other side of the court. I think we will especially see a lot of switches off Love, inviting the Cavs to waste time moving him from the perimeter to the post and then engaging in a deliberate postup. Love is certainly capable on the block, but he has never been amazingly efficient down there. However, Cleveland could also become one of the rare great offenses in recent years to feature great offensive rebounding with Varejao, Thompson, and of course Love. Too much switching could open up the offensive glass with a guard trying to box out someone like Love. Nonetheless, I think a lot of coaches will pick their poison with that instead of getting beat by threes created by conventional help schemes.
Everyone knows the Cavs’ weakness right now will be defense, as only James and Anderson Varejao among the starters is a plus defender, and the latter will likely be limited to around 25 minutes per night during the regular year. It remains to be seen how much James has left in the tank defensively, as he was unable to assert his will on that end last year in Miami and he is reaching the point where his otherworldly energy and athleticism has begun to decline. Thus, it will fall to Blatt to install solid schemes and obtain greater effort from the young players on the roster to offset the lack of a shot-blocker on the back line. Cleveland’s championship hopes will likely depend on it.
The offense is as good as everyone expects, and then some, combining a historically unmatched combination of spacing, dribble drives, postups, and offensive rebounding. James has a bounce-back year defensively, while players like Irving, Dion Waiters, and Love are more engaged playing for a contender. Varejao stays healthy all year, and the Cavs make a trade mid-season (perhaps using the protected first-rounder they own from Memphis) for another rim-protector on the backline. They cruise to the number one seed.
Cleveland ends up with the same record as Miami a year ago. This Cavs team, on the surface, would appear to be more talented. But that Miami team was probably a better defensive squad on paper with the presence of Chris Bosh, a year-younger Lebron, and an effective scheme the players had been running for years. Bosh also could play center defensively, creating a true five-out style that Cleveland will likely be loathe to play with Love at center due to his athletic limitations. The Cavs end up third in offense.
Under this scenario, Varejao can’t stay healthy, James plays only about 34 minutes per game, and Irving misses time with his yearly injury. Blatt cannot get the young guys to improve their effort and recognition, while veterans like Marion and Mike Miller fall off a cliff. The Cavs fail to add another big man, and are only slightly above league-average defensively.
– Nate Duncan
The Burning Question
Does the lack of playoff experience for Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving really matter?
Depending on who one talks to, the Cavaliers are either set to be the best team in the Eastern Conference or the second-best team in the Eastern Conference. Those choosing Chicago over Cleveland site continuity and defense and, perhaps most importantly, several shared playoff experiences by the team’s core players. The Cavaliers, obviously, have none of those things, but citing a lack of playoff experience as the reason why they’ll fall short of the Finals is pretty silly considering both have been playing in high-profile games their whole careers. Both went to huge colleges with respected hoops programs, and both have international experience that have put them against tough competition on a pretty huge stage. The Bulls may ultimately be the better team, but it won’t be because of Cleveland’s lack of postseason experience.
– Joel Brigham
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