Last season: A complete mess. The Cavaliers made well-intended moves in free agency in an attempt to make an immediate run at a trip to the postseason, but Earl Clark, Jarrett Jack and especially Andrew Bynum were of no help at all. Mike Brown had zero control of the team as head coach, which became painfully evident to Luol Deng once he got an up-close look at the team in the second half of the season. Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters bickered over their roles behind the scenes, and a miserable season ended with the Cavaliers finishing five games out of the playoffs in the dreadful Eastern Conference.
Signature highlight from last season: There were plenty of Kyrie Irving highlights to choose from, but I liked this particular play because it involved three players who should all figure somewhat prominently in Cleveland’s success in the upcoming season. Matthew Dellavedova uses an Anderson Varejao screen to perfection, then finds a cutting Dion Waiters with a gorgeous pass to set up an athletic, one-handed reverse slam dunk.
Key offseason moves:
Keys to the Cavaliers season:
The players: The Cavaliers undoubtedly made the biggest summer splash by overhauling things completely, adding superstar talent while still retaining the team’s core players. Once LeBron James committed to returning home to Cleveland, the team went all out to fortify the roster, trading unproven lottery picks for an established All-Star in Kevin Love, and then signing some key veteran role players to round things out.
Cleveland should be one of the best teams in the league offensively, with enough firepower to simply outscore their opponents most nights. But the defensive end of the floor is a concern, as is the lack of depth on the frontline. Once you get past Love, Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao, things get dicey fairly quickly, and Varejao, remember, has had trouble staying healthy for the bulk of his recent seasons. The Cavs will be looking at guys like Lou Amundson in training camp, who may have a shot to make the roster.
As for the positives, scoring should come fairly easily, with James, Love, Irving and Waiters all being capable scorers. It will take time to sort out the hierarchy of how the shots get distributed, and it will also take time for the young guys like Irving and Waiters to understand how to play alongside James without deferring too much. But there’s a long 82-game regular season for them to figure all that out, and simply from a pure talent standpoint, the Cavaliers have instantly become one of the favorites to take home the title.
The coach: Cleveland went in a different direction after the Mike Brown disaster of a season ago, hiring well-respected and experienced David Blatt, who built a pristine reputation and a long, successful career coaching overseas. It should be viewed as a huge positive that the organization hired a career coach with tons of experience, and one who is coming off of a championship season with Maccabi Tel Aviv — as opposed to an NBA retread who was fired from his last position.
Blatt has 33 years playing and coaching in Europe, and to a certain extent, basketball is basketball, so the transition shouldn’t be all that bumpy. But it is worth noting that he hasn’t coached in the NBA, where not only is the game different, but so are the player personalities. Blatt was hired before LeBron was confirmed to return, which obviously was a pleasant surprise. But he’ll be thrown into the fire quite quickly, and if things take longer than expected to come together, how he handles it all will be a key factor in the end result of this Cavaliers season.
The pressure: When LeBron left Cleveland to sign with Miami four years ago, the Heat immediately became rock stars. The media crush was palpable, and the team was expected to win on a nightly basis. There was talk of them surpassing Chicago’s record of 72 regular season wins, and every loss was met with an avalanche of criticism, along with questions of whether or not the team had what it took to ultimately become champions.
That Miami team was led by Pat Riley in the front office, and coached by his protege in Erik Spoelstra — both of whom had resumes full of previous championship experience. And, veterans like Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem were similarly there to help keep the panic in check and keep the team focused when there was nothing but constant hysteria surrounding them.
It’s very different in Cleveland. Not only is Blatt inexperienced with this type of situation in the NBA, but Love has never made it to the playoffs even once in six NBA seasons. The Cavaliers as a franchise haven’t been there since James was last on the roster, so it’ll be interesting to see how the team reacts to the circus-like atmosphere that is firmly in place now that LeBron, along with the championship-level expectations, have returned to town.
Why you should watch: LeBron James is the game’s best player, and he’s in the prime of his career. Add Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving to the mix, and you have essentially the makings of an All-Star team in the starting lineup every single night. If you’re not a fan, of course, there’s the potential train wreck factor — root for Cleveland to go on a three-game losing streak early on, and watch the ensuing chaos.
Prediction: There should be no reason that the Cavaliers finish anywhere outside of being one of the top two teams in the Eastern Conference. I think the Bulls have a chance to be better, especially on the defensive end of the floor, but a lot of that hinges on Derrick Rose, which hasn’t worked out all that well the past two seasons.
Cleveland could certainly compete for a title in its first season with all of these new pieces in place, which would make a ridiculous five straight trips to the Finals for LeBron James. I don’t see a championship for the Cavaliers due to a lack of depth and too many new parts needing to fit together seamlessly, but it’s realistic to expect that they get extremely close.