Preview: Cleveland Cavaliers

2017-18 Cleveland Cavaliers


Projected Record: 57-25 (1st in East)

Over/Under: 53.5

2016: 51-31 (2nd in East)


Key Additions:

  • G Isaiah Thomas
  • F Jae Crowder
  • C Ante Zizic
  • G Dwyane Wade
  • G Derrick Rose
  • F Jeff Green
  • G Jose Calderon
  • G/F Cedi Osman
  • 2017 Brooklyn First Round Pick (Unprotected)

Key Subtractions:

  • G Kyrie Irving
  • G Deron Williams
  • F Derrick Williams
  • F James Jones
  • G Dahntay Jones

Summary

Strengths:

  • LeBron
  • Improved depth
  • Versatility

Weaknesses:

  • Team defense
  • Uncertain offensive fit
  • Age

If nothing else, the Cleveland Cavaliers are the best team in the league at staying interesting.

The 2016-17 Cavaliers were an inherently flawed team that alternated between racing through a diminished Eastern Conference and limping through it. The offense was always there – as you would expect from a team led by LeBron James – but the defense took a notable step backwards, and they were simply unable to keep pace with a dominant Warriors roster. They simply looked old for much of the year, sporting a total of 11 players with 10 or more seasons under their belt on their roster at some point last season. The Cavs sported very little playmaking or shot creation beyond LeBron and Kyrie Irving, and struggled to keep pace with teams when those two needed rest.

It was clear a retool was needed if the Cavs were going to make a compelling case to keep LeBron beyond this season, and, well, retool they did. Newly minted General Manager Koby Altman made one of the best deals of the offseason in trading disgruntled point guard Kyrie Irving to Boston for the haul of Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the coveted 2017 Brooklyn pick. The Cavs also bought low on Dwyane Wade ($2.3 million) and Derrick Rose ($2.1 million), and picked up some roster filler in the forms of Jeff Green and Jose Calderon.

Cleveland’s most glaring need coming into the offseason was defense, and in that regard, I think they’ve scored only mixed marks. Jae Crowder is a great defensive player who will pair extremely well with LeBron, but beyond that, they haven’t helped themselves very much on that end of the floor. As much as I love him, Isaiah Thomas is one of the few clear defensive downgrades from Kyrie Irving. Ante Zizic has intriguing potential, but he’s very young, and it’s difficult for rookies to make a positive impact defensively. Jeff Green’s time as a productive basketball player is over (it barely existed to begin with), and Wade and Rose are hardly known for being defensive stoppers. Crowder will help, but this team still seems likely to bleed points.

The other need here was secondary playmaking at shot creation, and the Cavaliers certainly paid attention to this need – if perhaps a little too much. Dwyane Wade and, to a lesser extent, Derrick Rose will add some ability to create with the ball in their hands, and Isaiah Thomas is a better facilitator than Kyrie has been to this point in his career. All this means that less responsibility will have to be placed on LeBron throughout the year, and the fresher LeBron can be for the playoffs, the better for the Cavs.

The fit is awkward; Wade and Rose seem to be redundant with one another, and they’re inside-the-arc volume scorers joining an offense that loves the three-pointer. At this stage in their careers, they just aren’t going to become effective three-point shooters, so coach Ty Lue is going to have his work cut out for him to effectively integrate them into the offense. Starting Kevin Love at center is an interesting wrinkle, allowing Jae Crowder to start alongside LeBron and keep their starting lineup a little more flexible, but I would have opted for J.R. Smith over Derrick Rose while Isaiah Thomas is out – LeBron is going to be the point guard anyways, and Smith’s shooting and defense are far more valuable than anything Rose will bring.

There are plenty of things to nitpick, but it’s hard to argue with the price of these acquisitions; for a team as tight on money as Cleveland, options for reorganizing the roster are limited, and they’ve given themselves more flexibility than they had previously.


Most Valuable Player: LeBron James

This one’s obvious. LeBron is still the best player in basketball, and he put together one of the four or five best seasons of his career last season at 32 years old. He has to slow down eventually (I think), but I don’t think that time has come just yet. Look for the Cavs to be more careful than ever in limiting his minutes and getting him rest, though.

Look, there’s really not much to write about LeBron here. He’s LeBron, and he’ll continue to be LeBron this season. You know what’s up.

X Factors: Ante Zizic, 2017 Brooklyn First Round Pick (Unprotected)

Zizic is a player I had been excited to see in Boston; a large, strong, 6’11” center with great rebounding chops and the potential to become a positive overall defender and rim protector. He’ll turn 21 this season, though, and you can’t typically expect players this young – especially bigs – to provide positive value on the defensive end right away. He’ll have an opportunity on the Cavaliers’ bench, though, and if he can add something for a team aching for defense, it could really help this team.

The Brooklyn pick, meanwhile, obviously isn’t a player yet, but it’s nearly as valuable as one. It’s an asset that might be best served not staying with the team this season. It’s most likely going to be a high lottery pick, which could make the Cavs major players at the trade deadline if it looks like they have significant needs. It’s a tricky position for Altman, because if LeBron leaves, you obviously want to retain that pick, but trading it for an impact player could help swing his decision to stay. I’m glad I’m not the one who has to make that call.


Conclusion

In my opinion, the Cavaliers have certainly improved from last season. I don’t believe they’re particularly close to Golden State’s level, but nobody really is, and they’ve positioned themselves more effectively to represent the East in the Finals yet again.

Isaiah Thomas’s hip injury is a significant concern, but I believe we’re going to see a more motivated Dwyane Wade this year that is more willing to fit in with the team’s construction. Wade has existing chemistry with James and he still has some game left in him, he just needs to accept that he isn’t The Guy anymore and adapt to a more complementary, off-ball approach – and, to be certain, that is a lot to ask.

The biggest point in the Cavaliers’ favor is that the Eastern Conference managed to get even worse this year; there are a lot of really awful teams to pick on, which is why I’m predicting a six-win jump for Cleveland, record-wise. Boston and Toronto will provide a challenge, and the West is imposing, but improved depth and weaker conference competition will allow the Cavs to sleepwalk through the regular season in their usual fashion. How they perform in the Playoffs, though, will depend heavily on Isaiah’s hip and LeBron’s level of fatigue. They’re still the team to beat in the East, as any team with LeBron James should be.

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