PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:
What could keep Cleveland from a return trip to the NBA Finals?
Cleveland is the class of the Eastern Conference. And it’s not all that close.
Sorry to be so blunt to the fans in Chicago, Washington D.C., Toronto and Miami, but if everything plays out according to plan and the Cavs perform anywhere near their potential Cleveland will win the East again. Comfortably. They have the best player on the planet in LeBron James, two other top 15 guys in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, plus they added some depth to a roster that made the Finals last season and is just getting comfortable with one another. This is going to be a better Cavs team.
Three things can keep the Cavaliers from a shot at a ring in June.
1) Health. This is the only of the three possibilities I would consider realistic.
LeBron has been an ironman through his career, he doesn’t miss many games due to injury. He played in 69 games last season, missing 13, but remember eight of those were for his mid-season sabbatical to get his head and body right. You can be sure coach David Blatt will give him some rest during the season, but the bottom line is the Cavaliers need LeBron — their offense was 12.2 points per 100 possessions better when he was on the court last regular season, their defense 4.6 per 100 better. Come the playoffs, he had to carry a ridiculous load but the Cavs still outscored opponents by 3.9 points per 100 possessions when he played. If he were out, the Cavs are not near the same team.
The Cavaliers can reach the Finals again without Irving or Love — two guys with lengthy injury histories — but they are not going to beat whichever team comes out of the West without them. Also, they will need Timofey Mozgov, Mo Williams, Iman Shumpert and the rest of the supporting cast come June. Already the Cavs are battling injuries as Irving and Shumpert will miss the start of the season due to injuries, but what matters is they are right come the playoffs.
I believe the Cavaliers are going to be better this season, in part because it’s their second season with this core lineup under David Blatt, but to finally bring a title to Northeast Ohio they are going to need all hands on deck come the Finals.
2) Chemistry issues. Could the Tristan Thompson holdout situation become something that festers among the roster and starts to turn LeBron off (we all remember how he played before he left in 2010, right)? Could Love become unhappy with how he is being used and start to pout his way through games? Could J.R. Smith’s Phunkeeduck antics start to frustrate guys in the locker room and cause a division?
Probably not. In fact, it’s highly unlikely. LeBron is focused on the ring and is going to keep his teammates on that track this season. But one can imagine a scenario where things start to go sideways in the locker room and Blatt doesn’t have the ability to reign it all in. It’s not impossible that these Cavaliers self-destruct. I wouldn’t bet on it.
3) Another team in the East makes a blockbuster trade. While the Cavaliers sit atop the conference on a level all their own, there are five teams in the second tier in the Eastern Conference — Chicago, Washington D.C., Toronto, Atlanta, and Miami. Those five could finish in any order 2-6 in the East and I would not be surprised.
But what if one of those teams pulls off the unexpected mid-season trade for a superstar? What if they make the serious “Lakers nab Pau Gasol” kind of upgrade? Then that team may well be able to challenge Cleveland.
This is the least likely scenario that keeps Cleveland out of the Finals, just because those kinds of deals are hard to pull off and have become increasingly less likely to happen during the season. We don’t know of any franchise changing players up on the trade block, and even if they were it would be difficult for some of these teams to pull off a deal without shredding their core. Bottom line, don’t expect Oklahoma City to move Kevin Durant at the deadline. (That would only happen if he told OKC there is zero chance he would re-sign with them, and KD’s too smart a business man to close a door like that.) But it’s not impossible, so we list it.
Which is how I feel about any scenario that keeps the Cavaliers out of a return trip to the NBA Finals — it’s not impossible, but I wouldn’t bet money on it.