Despite missing Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, the Cleveland Cavaliers came within two wins of winning the 2015 NBA championship. That, certainly, is a testament to the greatness of LeBron James—the man who has appeared in five consecutive NBA Finals. Despite making it to the Finals six times, James has walked away with the Larry O’Brien trophy just twice. As the Cavaliers enter the 2015-16 season as the hands-down favorite to win the Eastern Conference, the world will watch to see if James can deliver the elusive championship to the fans of Cleveland.
Basketball Insiders previews the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2015-16 season.
The 2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers will go down in history as a “what-if” unit. What if Kyrie Irving wasn’t hurt during Game 1 of the NBA Finals? What if Kevin Love wasn’t knocked out of the playoffs in the first round? What if LeBron James had one more teammate able to help him out offensively in the NBA Finals versus the high-powered Golden State Warriors? The good news for Cleveland is that the crew is back for another run and head into the training as the runaway favorites to emerge out of the Eastern Conference.
1st Place – Central Division
The Cavaliers are poised to return to the top of the Eastern Conference standings this season. Coming off an NBA Finals run, the LeBron James-led Cavs now have a season of playing together under their belts. The same goes for David Blatt, who completed his first campaign as an NBA head coach. The Cavs will be getting three key members back from injuries at points during the season: Kevin Love, Anderson Varejao and Kyrie Irving. Even if they miss some time, the Cavs have enough talent to get by during the regular season while they recover. It is important for the team to have them healthy in the playoffs, not in the early months. Tristan Thompson’s contract situation will be a major storyline for the Cavaliers until it is resolved. The key will be for the players to not be distracted by it. The roster is constructed with veterans who have been to the top before and know what it takes to get back. Expect the Cavs to jump out atop the conference early in the season and hold on to that number one seed.
1st Place – Central Division
In case you’ve been hiding under a rock somewhere and haven’t realized: I can be long-winded. Fortunately, even for me, there are some things that can be stated succinctly. The Cavaliers are the cream of the crop in the East. Rather than calling LeBron James “the best player on the planet,” we should refer to him as an “all-time great,” because he is. And if you have that guy, along with this supporting cast, the only drama that awaits is whether the rest of his troops can defy attrition the way he has.
1st Place — Central Division
As the Tristan Thompson contract stalemate looms, the Cavaliers still enter the season as the favorites to win the East, mostly because they did so this past summer without the services of Kevin Love who, coincidentally, plays the same position as Thompson. Regardless of how that works out, LeBron James is still healthy and dominant, and has two star teammates in Love and Kyrie Irving. Those three, with a year of experience together, make this team a dangerous one. The bench is still thin and kind of geriatric, but that doesn’t matter. As long as the Cavs can pace themselves through the regular season, they’ll be nasty in the postseason.
1st Place – Central Division
The Cavaliers were obviously one of the top teams in the NBA last year and I expect them to be even better this season. In year two, their star-studded core will have a season of experience together, which should help them a lot from a chemistry standpoint. That first year is always tough for super-teams since they’re getting acclimated, but they typically click in the second season. David Blatt will also have a year of NBA coaching experience under his belt, and his players should be more comfortable with him and his system. LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love form one of the best trios in the NBA, and the Cavs did a great job re-signing Love this summer since there was no guarantee he’d be back. I also liked the addition of Mo Williams, who gives Cleveland a very good veteran point guard who can provide scoring off the bench or step in for Irving when he’s injured (as he will be to start the season). The Williams addition also means the Cavs will rely less on Matthew Dellavedova, which is good since he’s a scrappy player but not someone you want playing a huge role. I like this Cavaliers team a lot and I think a second straight trip to the NBA Finals is inevitable, barring major injuries.
1st Place – Central Division
Top of the List
Top Offensive Player: LeBron James
LeBron James is not only the best offensive player on the Cavaliers, he is the single driving force behind everything that the team does and hopes to accomplish. It seems like such a long time ago that James was renowned as being a poor shooter. Although most teams still play off of him and go behind screens in hopes that he will settle for a jump shot, that is more the result of a play on the percentages than it is a belief that he cannot score efficiently from the outside. Last season, James shot a respectable 35 percent three-point range, and also converted about 38 percent of his midrange shots. Those percentages are a bit lower than in his Miami HEAT days, but they are still above average. Even as he approaches the ripe age of 31 years old, there is no more explosive force in the league than James. He may not be perfect, but with his still-improving post game and his ability to finish in the paint, he is one of the most dominant forces in the league and certainly the top offensive player on his team.
Top Defensive Player: Anderson Varejao
Yes, one could certainly argue that LeBron James is the top defensive player on the Cavaliers, but aside from him, it is Anderson Varejao who is the vital defensive cog. While both Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov are plus-defenders, Varejao is far more nimble and adept at playing out on the perimeter than either. With his speed and agility, a fully healthy Varejao provides substantial resistance to opposing offenses, as there is almost no advantage in putting him in pick-and-roll situations. He is one of the strongest rebounders in the game, as evidenced by the 12.6 rebounds per-36 minutes that he hauled in over the course of the last four seasons. What is most appropriate to wonder about Varejao is whether he will actually be able to continue to be as impactful as he has been to this point. He managed to play just 26 games last season after rupturing his Achilles tendon in December, and overall, has missed 238 of a possible 410 games over the past five years. Staying healthy has been his biggest issue.
Top Playmaker: LeBron James
That LeBron James has seemingly done so much with so little is a testament to his ability to make plays not only for himself but also for his teammates. Long before he brought the 2014-15 Cavaliers to within two games of winning the title, James helped to lead the HEAT to victories, despite enduring long stretches that saw him play without Chris Bosh and/or Dwyane Wade. And long, long before that, he led an underwhelming cast of running mates in Cleveland to a franchise-record 66 wins back in 2009. The following year, the Cavs won 61 games in a season in which James averaged a career-best 8.6 assists per game. With all that he is required to do on the offensive and defensive ends of the floor, James has an impressive 6.9 assist-per-game average over the course of his career, and although Kyrie Irving is officially listed as the point guard in Cleveland, at this point, he can only dream of being the playmaker that James currently is.
Top Clutch Player: LeBron James
When one thinks of clutch LeBron James moments, his buzzer-beater that defeated the Chicago Bulls in Game 4 of their second-round playoff series last spring may come to mind, but one could certainly argue that James was at his finest during the waning moments of Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals. Although Ray Allen will always be remembered for hitting one of the biggest shots in NBA Finals history, it is James who single-handedly kept the HEAT around long enough for Allen to even have the opportunity to make that difference. Any player who comes up huge in the Finals has our respect, as the stakes will never be higher. Once upon a time, James was thought to lack the courage and fearlessness required of a top clutch performer. Today, the same argument cannot be made, and without reciting his long list of game-winning and game-clinching shots, anyone would be hard-pressed to argue against this assertion.
The Unheralded Player: Tristan Thompson
Tristan Thompson is just one of many young Canadians making an impact in the NBA today. He has dominated the post-July headlines across the NBA, as it was recently reported that Thompson and the Cavs are at an impasse as it relates to his next contract. Thompson is reportedly looking for a five-year maximum offer from the Cavs that would pay him $94 million total, while the Cavs have refused to offer more than $80 million. While it is arguable that Thompson is not worth that type of investment, the fact of the matter is that he is an incredibly gifted athlete. Thompson’s unique blend of athleticism, power and agility enables him to stay in front of smaller offensive players, yet still battle bigger players at the rim. The staff in Cleveland loves his motor and work ethic and at just 24 years old, Thompson’s ceiling is nowhere in sight. What will get him to the next level is becoming a more versatile offensive player. He is not a threat from the perimeter and still seems to lack the overall poise, patience and balance of a dominant low-post threat. Still, limited as he may be, Thompson has proven that he can be a meaningful player on a winning team and he has shown that he can fit in with LeBron James and the other shot-happy Cavaliers. He fits in quite nicely, but may be overlooked since he doesn’t make the highlight plays in Cleveland – opting instead to do the important dirty work.
Best New Addition: Mo Williams
Because this past summer was marked by the Cavaliers deciding to re-sign their own players, Mo Williams almost wins this label by default. However, over the course of last season with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Charlotte Hornets, Williams was very effective. With the Wolves, he scored a career-high 52 points. Then, after being dealt to the Hornets, he remained productive. Although he was not able to help the Hornets qualify for the playoffs, Williams gave them 17.2 points per game and looked pretty good during various spurts. Now, he returns to Cleveland having unfinished with LeBron James. At this point, Williams’ ball handling is still respectable, but it is his off-the-dribble shooting ability that will continue to help him find minutes at the NBA level. Last season, he converted 34 percent of his three-point shots, and this season, with open looks created by playing off of both James and Kyrie Irving, that number may increase. Williams also provides the Cavs with another ball handler who can score when given the opportunity, certainly solidifying the point guard rotation that proved incredibly weak when Irving went down over the course of the 2014-15 season.
Who We Like
Kyrie Irving: Despite a lack of post-high-school basketball experience, Kyrie Irving entered the NBA with high expectations that we have seen crush some of his predecessors. Despite the pressure, he has hit the ground running and, like Damian Lillard, has already become one of the top point guards in the game. Best of all, he is just 23 years old and is already a three-time All-Star, averaging 21 points per game over the course of his young career. The 23 points, seven rebounds, six assists and four steals that Irving racked up in Game 1 of the 2015 NBA Finals before his postseason ended showed the type of all-around, dominant performance he is capable of having on a daily basis. This season, we will be watching intently to see if he can continue to thrive and progress, despite somewhat being in LeBron James’ shadow.
Iman Shumpert: Iman Shumpert fell out of favor with New York Knicks fans and management after his attitude and demeanor deteriorated. As a rookie, Shumpert opened eyes across the league as he quickly earned a reputation for being a top-flight defender and explosive athlete. It certainly seems as though the trade to the Cavs rejuvenated Shumpert and helped him refocus on being a pesky on-ball defender. It seems that is the skill and talent that will help him remain in the league for many years to come. He needs to continue to work on his shooting, though, as his field goal percentage dipped to just 36 percent during the course of last year’s playoffs. Still, Shumpert filled a major void for the Cavs last season, and with championship expectations and a brief taste of success, we believe that Shumpert can re-tap some of the potential that had him among the NBA’s most talked about rookies back in 2011.
Kevin Love: After trading Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love, it would have been nothing short of an unmitigated disaster for Love to have taken his talents elsewhere this past summer. Fortunately, for the Cavaliers, that didn’t happen. Although Love seemed to have issues fitting in with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving last season, his re-signing in Cleveland is an obvious indicator that the trio is intent on making their partnership work. In theory, Love’s skills in the low-post and proficiency from behind the arc should fit seamlessly with the diverse skill set that James possesses and many continue to believe that it is merely a matter of time before the two figure out how to work together more proficiently. Now that James knows that Love is all in, expect whatever tension that existed between the two before to dissipate and for them to be fully focused on winning.
Sharing the ball is a strength for the Cavs. Despite having three of the most offensively gifted players in the NBA, the Cavaliers were 10th in the league in assists per game last season with 22.1 a night. With increased chemistry and familiarity, that could easily rise this year. Another advantage for Cleveland is their experience. Their roster features many players with postseason and championship experience. Also, losing to Golden State in last year’s Finals may ultimately be good for some of the younger players on the roster – as a learning experience and team-building opportunity. Sometimes, suffering heartbreak in the Finals can draw a team closer and allow them to dig deeper in trying moments. The experience of coming up short against the Warriors is one that the Cavaliers are, no doubt, thinking about quite often. But with proven leadership and a talented core, the experience of reaching the 2015 NBA Finals should be a positive for this team as they attempt to join the 2014 Spurs, 2012 HEAT and 2009 Lakers as teams that won the championship after losing the Finals the previous year.
It has been said before, but it’s worth repeating: health is going to be the major concern for the Cavs during the 2015-16 season. As we saw their hopes for a championship thwarted, we were collectively served a stark reminder that having all the talent in the world at your disposal won’t help you win if it isn’t on the court. All eyes will be on Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and Anderson Varejao to stay healthy this season given their injury histories.
The team’s big men rotation and rebounding are also weaknesses. Last season, the Cavaliers ranked a mediocre 18th in the league in rebounds, with just 43 boards per game. Because of the team’s lack of reliable big men last season, coach David Blatt opted to play smaller lineups and often depended on players who were undersized to help out with rebounding the basketball. If Varejao can remain healthy this season, he will go a long way toward helping to cure these ailments, but as it stands, the Cavaliers did not address the apparent need for another dependable big man. In the end, that could end up haunting them.
The Burning Question
Can the Cavaliers win the 2016 NBA Finals?
In a word, the answer here would be “YES!” Had Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love each been 100 percent healthy for the entire postseason last year, the Cavs may very well be entering the 2015-16 season as the defending NBA champions. With those two stars returning and Anderson Varejao (hopefully) becoming a difference maker on the floor once again and the addition of Mo Williams, the Cavs should be able to fix some of the weaknesses that were exposed last season. When you have one of the best players in history on your roster and one of the best young point guards in the NBA playing as his second option, you do not need very much to be a good team. That the Cavs have an awesome supporting cast to play off of their three superstars makes them the clear-cut favorite in the Eastern Conference and should give them a legitimate opportunity to defeat any team that survives the gauntlet that is the Western Conference. If the Cavs earn home-court advantage in the Finals and if they can remain relatively healthy as a unit, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them win it all. Those are big ifs, but this team appears to be on the cusp of greatness.
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