Last season: Kyrie Irving became the youngest All-Star since LeBron James, but the Cavaliers were decidedly awful throughout the year, finishing 24-58. Only the Bobcats were worse both offensively and defensively, Injuries took a major toll (more on that below), but the season never looked promising at any point, regardless.
On the bright side, Dion Waiters made the All-Rookie first team and Tyler Zeller the second team. It was the second-straight season Cleveland received such honors with Irving (first team) and Tristan Thompson (second team) doing it the year before. Plus, per recent custom, the Cavaliers made a big splash during the playoffs by winning the lottery.
Signature highlight from last season: Maybe, someday, Irving’s best game-winners won’t come against the Bobcats and Raptors. But this one would have been awesome against any team. [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5XcQmOQO78Q&w=560&h=315]
Key player changes: With the No. 1 pick and gobs of cap space, the Cavaliers were primed for a huge offseason, and they certainly took advantage of their position. Cleveland drafted Anthony Bennett (No. 1) and Sergey Karasev (No. 19) and signed Andrew Bynum, Jarrett Jack and Earl Clark.
Rotation-types Omri Casspi, Marreese Speights, Shaun Livingston and Wayne Ellington left in free agency. The incoming players are better than that group, but it’s worth pointing out the Cavaliers lost at least a little talent.
The Cavaliers also hired Mike Brown, whom they fired just three years ago. This is the NBA’s coaching circle at its best.
Keys to the Cavaliers’ season:
1) Who stays healthy? Kyrie Irving missed 23 games last season, Andrew Bynum 82, Anderson Varejao 57, Dion Waiters 21 and Earl Clark 23. Even Anthony Bennett missed pre-draft workouts with a shoulder injury. If they stay completely healthy – an unreasonable standard for any team, but we’re talking in hypotheticals – the Cavaliers should easily make the playoffs. Whether they reach the postseason in reality could very well come down to just how severe of injuries their injury-plagued players suffer this season.
2) Can Mike Brown make them good defensively? The Cavaliers went from No. 7 to No. 29 in defensive rating after firing Brown. Obviously, losing LeBron James had something to do with the drop, but Cleveland is hopeful Brown can instill sound defensive principles in ways Byron Scott never could.
To review how the Cavaliers fared before, during and after Brown defensively (the Brown years in wine and other years in gold):
It should probably give Cavaliers pause that their defense regressed in Brown’s first season compared to the year prior.
3) Just how good are Cleveland’s young players? Kyrie Irving is somewhere between a superstar and very good starter. Dion Waiters is somewhere between an above-average starter at his position and a gunner whose team would be better if he accepted a reduced role. Tristan Thompson is somewhere between the hustle starter every team needs and a player who’s overmatched unless a backup. Andrew Bynum is somewhere between the NBA’s best center and a complete zero in terms of impact. Anthony Bennett is somewhere between Larry Johnson and Michael Olowokandi.
All those players are young enough to have a wide range of future outlooks, and where they fall on the spectrum will determine not only Cleveland’s season, but its future.
Why you should watch the Cavaliers: Kyrie Irving alone is worth the price of admission, an offensive star at the position where a player can have the greatest offensive impact. If defense and rebounding is more your style, Anderson Varejao is a madman (in a good way). I’m curious to see why Anthony Bennett shot up Cleveland’s draft board, too.
Most of all, Andrew Bynum’s hair.
Prediction: 41-41. Simply because of injuries, Cleveland has one of the higher variances in preseason projections. I think most prognosticators have a firm grasp of what this team could be, but it’s nearly impossible to predict injuries. The Cavaliers seem to be competing with the Wizards, Pistons, Hawks and Raptors for the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spots. Cleveland certainly has the talent to make it, but how much time that talent spends on the court is a different question entirely.