In the next two weeks, the Armchair crew will be taking on the NBA Regular Season preview. We will be taking on each team individually and looking into what to expect from each.
Last Season: 53-29, lost in Finals (Warriors in 6)
Key Additions: Mo Williams, Richard Jefferson, Sasha Kaun, the ability to bench J.R. Smith in crunch time
Key Losses: Shawn Marion, Kendrick Perkins, all the cap space ever.
To their six-game elimination at the hands of Golden State in the NBA Finals, the Cavaliers have responded by going all-in: LeBron James, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson (eventually), Matthew Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith all re-signed with the team, pushing the Cavs well into luxury tax territory and landing them with a $170 million-plus in payroll. Injuries to Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving depleted their squad during the playoffs last season, meaning they simply could not compete with Golden States’ free-flowing three-hitting offense – even with LeBron putting up truly historic numbers in the final.
The message from ownership, coaching, and LeBron is clear: anything less than a championship will be considered a failure on this team’s part. The evidence from last season suggests they could do it: the Cavs went a ridiculous 35-3 in the final 38 games that Love, Irving, and James played together, and at times seemed to be simply swatting the Eastern Conference aside on their way to the finals. On paper, this team is stacked with even more talent than last year: a healthy Anderson Verejao will give much-needed depth at centre; Tristan Thompson is a machine against the offensive glass; Mo Williams and Sasha Kaun add valuable depth that ensure they can leave J.R. Smith on the bench and minimize the damage his propensity to chuck 3s does. This team has seemingly everything, from the functional role players (Thompson, Williams, Smith), to the scrappy white guy (Dellevadova), to the defensive wings (the stats on Shumpert’s perimeter defense are borderline ridiculous). That’s all before you forget that they have Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, and the best basketball player on the planet. Vegas currently has them as favourites to win the title; there’s a reason the best-case scenario for most of our other Eastern Conference teams is “lose in the Conference Finals to Cleveland.” Nor does seeding particularly matter – if any team can afford to sit their superstar for a dozen games, it’s the Cavaliers; come playoff time, they will be really difficult to stop if they are firing on all cylinders.
There are, however, concerns about some of those pieces: Kyrie Irving is as injury-prone as they come, and Kevin Love is a) still recovering from shoulder surgery in the aftermath of the East Playoffs last year; b) susceptible to defensive lapses that simply won’t be acceptable against the top talent that the West will throw at them in a potential final. David Blatt is similarly difficult to judge: his offense was never fully implemented last year in the face of poor results, injuries, and resistance from LeBron, and the sheer number of options his roster gives him will mean difficult tactical and strategic decisions will have to be made*. With Irving, Shumpert, and Love out for at least the first month, this team could struggle in the beginning of the season. LeBron will have to sit at some point for 10-15 games to ensure he has enough gas left in the tank come Finals time, and you can never really know which version of J.R. Smith you’re going to get or when he’ll go on a rogue four-day bender. To say that this team is balancing on the precipice of doom would be a gross overstatement, but there are definitely things that could derail Cleveland’s long-suffering aspirations for a title.
Plausible best-case scenario: the Cavs win the title, LeBron gets his third ring, the city of Cleveland dies of happiness after finally winning something.
Probable worst-case scenario: The Cavs lose in the finals, Lebron falls to a 2-5 record in NBA Finals.
Plausible worst-case scenario: poorly-timed injuries to Irving and Love leave a depleted Cleveland being knocked out in the Conference Finals; LeBron James contemplates leaving in free agency.
*Serge and I have a theory that, with Rick Carlisle’s contract in Dallas expiring at the end of this season, a sub-par performance in either the regular season or playoffs could see Dan Gilbert dump Blatt for the smartest coach in the NBA not named Gregg Popovich. If that happens in 2016, pray to your gods.