Despite an offseason marred by chaos and drama, the Cleveland Cavaliers will enter the 2017-18 campaign in full title contention mode. You can make a very strong argument that the Cavaliers have significantly closed the gap against their rival Golden State Warriors. Of course, the Warriors should still be considered the favorites in any potential matchup until proven otherwise, but the Cavaliers appear stronger and much deeper on paper.
The problem with this theory, is games aren’t played on stacks of loose-leaf.
This past summer, the Cavaliers introduced a new general manager and their franchise player, LeBron James, immediately spoke out praising the departed David Griffin. The team’s summer also involved a trade which shipped an emerging superstar in Kyrie Irving to a conference rival. Despite this turmoil, the argument can be made Cleveland got stronger.
One of the areas that severely plagued the Cavaliers last season was their lack of playmaking outside of the Irving and James duo. At the very least, the roster now is filled with guys that can create their own off the bounce and are threats to collapse defenses in order to facilitate offense for others.
The addition of Isaiah Thomas from the Boston Celtics in the Irving deal added scoring pop and another dynamic offensive threat. The free agency signings of former league MVP Derrick Rose and All-Star guard Dwyane Wade is an area that is really intriguing about the new look Cavaliers. Rose and Wade are two established scorers. Although both guys are no longer the threats they were in 2010, don’t confuse that with a lack of ability. The duo has established throughout their careers the ability hit big shots, generate offense and be solid playmakers.
Now let’s not confuse scoring with playmaking.
The Cavaliers did a decent job last season getting buckets, but in pivotal situations during the NBA Finals this past June, the team lacked the ability to create offense and this ultimately doomed them in their repeat bid versus the Warriors.
Veteran forwards Jae Crowder (also acquired in Irving deal) and Jeff Green provide head coach Tyronn Lue with multiple perimeter options and even more bodies to throw at reigning NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant.
Crowder is known as a solid defender and a tough-as-nails competitor, while Green has only averaged less than 10 points in a season just once in nine campaigns as a professional. These two guys aren’t going to win a lot of popularity contests, but they provide tremendous depth and push rotational guys such as Richard Jefferson and Iman Shumpert deeper down the bench. The addition of Wade at shooting guard pushes two guys that would start on a lot of teams around the league, J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver, deeper down the bench.
Simply put, the Cavaliers are a very deep and intriguing unit. But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. Cleveland has plenty of questions entering the season. The currently constructed lineup has the feel of an all-or-nothing type of unit – a “for a limited time only” vibe.
Free agency questions will dog James in every arena he steps foot in this season. James’ commitment is the team’s biggest mystery and the future of the franchise hinges on him being in the uniform long-term. The Cavaliers have a veteran group and the core of this unit will undoubtedly push back against any talk of potential distractions, as they should, but the future of James and the impact if he opts to bolt in free agency looms heavily on the franchise.
Rose and Wade have both been injury-prone in recent years. Wade is nearing retirement and in many ways, Rose is a shell of his once explosive self. Creaky knees have been the culprit in both cases. Adding more to the uncertainty for Rose and Wade is the fact both guys are free agents at the end of the season. So is the recently signed Green. Most importantly, so is the newly-acquired Thomas.
Thomas was in the MVP discussion the majority of last season and although the guard is coming off a hip injury, he will enter free agency next summer looking for a mega deal – especially if his body is able to return to form.
It seems inconceivable that the Cavaliers will be able to keep the quartet of James, Rose, Wade and Thomas together after this season. For instance, Rose is coming off a season where he averaged 18 points per game and believe it or not he still hasn’t reached the age of 30. Rose may not be content to sit behind Thomas on the depth chart long-term. On the flip side, Thomas may not be inclined to play minutes hovering in the low thirties as he enters his prime with Rose behind (or ahead of) him in the rotation.
Outside of the huge task of dethroning the Warriors, the Cavaliers must also navigate questions about their future while trying to gain chemistry on the fly if they want to convince management to keep the current band together. This isn’t even taking into consideration any potential James slippage from Father Time or the future of Kevin Love for instance, a free agent in 2019.
However, before we get too ahead of ourselves let’s reset and evaluate the Cavaliers for what they are heading into the current season: Cleveland is the favorite to once again emerge out of the Eastern Conference. The team would also be favorited head-to-head versus the majority of potential Western Conference foes.
But the boogeyman in the Warriors seemingly still reign supreme. This may be true, but the Cavaliers have closed the talent gap since this past June – on paper at least.
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