NBA Central Preview: Cleveland Cavaliers

By Robert Magobet

Odds to win the 2015-2016 NBA Championship: 5:2

2014-2015 Record: 53-29 (Lost in game 6 to Warriors in NBA Finals)

Key Offseason Additions: Mo Williams, Richard Jefferson, Jared Cunningham

Key Offseason subtractions: Kendrick Perkins, Mike Miller, Shawn Marion

Projected starting lineup:

PG: Mo Williams

SG: J.R. Smith

SF: LeBron James

C: Timofey Mozgov

PF: Kevin Love

2014-2015 season in review:

The Good: From a top-tier playoff perspective (2nd in the East last year and Eastern Conference Champions), there’s only one mantra – “All In!” The good news is the Cleveland Cavaliers are immutable because the nucleus is still very much talented, commandeered by a blossoming coach in David Blatt (53-29 a year ago). Kevin Love didn’t play most of the playoffs and Kyrie Irving played in just one game of the NBA Finals (injured in game 1 of overtime); yet the Cavs actually came very close, losing in game 6 to the explosive Warriors. One flaw: A lack of offensive production missing from the point guard position. What did the Cavs do?

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The Cavs signed point guard Mo Williams to his second stint with the team. Williams was on two competitive Cavs teams in LeBron’s first stint with the team. After he left the Cavs the first time, Williams became a career journeyman who played for the following teams: the Utah Jazz, Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers, Minnesota Timberwolves, and the Charlotte Hornets. He began his career as a starting point guard—in recent seasons Williams has come off the bench as a point guard. Last year he averaged 17.2 points and 6 assists with Charlotte. His career averages are 15.4 points and 4.4 assists.

This is a huge pick up for the Cavs as Kyrie Irving broke his kneecap in game 1 of the NBA Finals. Even before this injury, Irving has only averaged 64 games played a year; however, last year, he played 75 games, the most he’s ever played in. Still, Williams adds consistent scoring from his array of intuitive moves.

The Cavs picked up long time veteran, small forward Richard Jefferson. Jefferson was once a valuable component on a very good Jason Kidd led New Jersey Nets team that went to back-to-back NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003. In 2002-2003, the second time in a row the Nets went to the NBA Finals , he averaged 15.5 points and 6.4 rebounds. His best year in New Jersey he averaged 22.6 points and 4.2 rebounds. In a very competitive year in 2003-2004, he averaged 18.5 points and 5.7 rebounds. Jefferson, a player that could slash and crash the boards, was often a compliment to Jason Kidd. What’s more, he is a very smart, hyperactive basketball player. Certainly this was the case for New Jersey, but continued success transpired for the Bucks and Spurs as well. The Cavs look to Jefferson for a contribution, whether it be defensively or offensively, when LeBron rests, as well as provide playoff and championship experience. Look for the Cavs to use Jefferson when LeBron is in the game as well.

Finally, Kevin Love is back after having his arm ripped out of its socket by Kelly Olynyk in game 4 of the first round Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Playoff Series. Love, with his rebounding, three-point shooting and low-post scoring, was very much needed in the NBA Finals as he was widely considered the best power forward in the game before his arrival in Cleveland (Blake Griffin may have had something to say about that).

The Bad: Kyrie Irving’s injury caused Cavs management to ferment their demands for more guard production—they didn’t stop once Mo Williams agreed in principle over the summer. Jared Cunningham agreed to a deal with the Cavs in the summer. Cunningham was originally drafted by the Cavs in 2012, only to be dealt for Tyler Zeller. In 66 career D-League games, he averaged 17.2 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 3.7 assists. Last year he played at the point guard position for the Clippers and did well, but he didn’t play much once the season started. However, the Kyrie Irving injury and Matthew Dellavedova’s lack of consistency on the offensive end in the NBA Finals have made the Cavs management into an inquisitive bunch. Simply put, guard depth is a key.

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Not to mince words, but Kyrie Irving will not suit up early in the Cavs season, and that flat out doesn’t bode well. Yes the Cavs went out and brought in depth for the bench, which in turn will help them in the long run, but the Cavs need to have an exceptional regular season record to take home court advantage throughout the playoffs, and that means your best players have to play.

According to The Plain Dealer, the Cavs are looking at bringing back Irving slowly, in order to have him 100% for the playoffs.

“I’m honestly not putting a date on anything,” Irving said to The Plain Dealer. “People are going to put a date regardless. I’m just continuing to be on the journey I’ve been on, and that’s continuing to get better every single day and rehabbing my leg.”

Because of the aforementioned depth the Cavs have acquired, realistically, the Cavs do not need Irving at this juncture. However, Golden State has exploded out of the gate with eight straight wins. Oakland’s beloved looks primed to repeat success earned in 2015—times two. In other words, it looks like they will seriously try to compete with the Chicago Bulls 1995-1996 72-win regular season. Logically, you would think a team needs all their horses to stay afloat with Golden State; however, maybe this acquired depth can keep up with some of the top teams in the West record wise, after all, the Cavs are 7-1 right now.

The Ugly: The ire of critics has clamored how much of an impact injuries have affected the Cavs. Yet another injury for the Cavs has happened, this time to guard Iman Shumpert, who suffered a ruptured muscle on his right wrist during a workout. Shumpert is expected to miss 12 to 14 weeks. The box Phenom is a defensive stopper who was highly valued throughout the 2015 playoffs. In the NBA Finals, he neutralized Klay Thompson, who averaged 15.8 points, a drop off from his 2014-2015 average of 21.7 points. Shumpert can also hit the three if left open. There were a multitude of times he contributed a big three in the playoffs or the NBA Finals, whether to keep the Cavs in the game or to expand on a Cavs lead.

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Seven general observations from the early season:

  1. Mo Williams is as advertised. It’s a tough job to fill in the shoes of Irving, a 3-time All-Star who averaged 21.7 points and 5.2 assists last season. But Williams (2009 All-Star), who is starting in place of Irving, has done a really good job averaging 16.5 points and 5.5 assists. More importantly, he is leading the Cavs offense to quick offensive sets and making the right plays.
  2. Richard Jefferson is producing more than what is expected. And this is breath of fresh air seeing as though bench players Mike Miller, Kendrick Perkins, and Shawn Marion, were quite frank, liabilities last season, especially on defense. Jefferson (LeBron’s backup) is having his best season since his Spurs rendezvous, chipping in 9.3 points a night off the bench. He is also playing well on the defensive end—moving, sliding, and creating havoc where needed.
  3. The Cavs still count on Mr. Old Reliable: defense. In two of the more recent games played (Sixers and Knicks), the Cavs were down late in the game. But their defense kept them in it leading to the offense moving the ball well on the perimeter or via pick-and-roll, oftentimes leading to a wide open shot or layup/dunk. Give credit to LeBron and Mo Williams orchestrating the team in productive offensive sets.
  4. The bigs have been great for the Cavs. Tristan Thompson still fights for every loose ball and snatches a lot of offensive rebounds. Timofey Mozgov plays well off of the pick-and-roll many times receiving an alley-oop pass from “Delly” or Mo Williams. Anderson Verejao does a great job in setting screens, moving without the ball, and hustling for loose balls.
  5. J.R. Smith has been an abomination thus far, averaging 5.2 points, a huge plummet from his career average of 13.2 points. A shooting guard’s job is to score, so score. Luckily the collective effort of the Cavs on the offensive end has picked up the slack. To the defense of Smith, he did get hurt in the first Sixers game. Still a lot of season to go.
  6. LeBron is running the Cavs like Peyton Manning. He calls the plays, but then strategizes where they need to be virtually all the time. He plays incredible defense. Then when it’s time to score, he puts his head down and drives to the rim—simply remarkable art. Having an entire team, let alone a city on your back has got to be excruciating, but if anybody can do it, LeBron can.
  7. Through the first eight games, the Cavs have had a swagger about them. Yes they came within a field goal of tying the Bulls, in what resulted in their first loss of the season, but the Cavs have regrouped quite nicely and look to circumvent “the prisoner of the moment,” Golden State Warrior frenzy, and are very much focused on the ultimate goal.
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2015-2016 Season Projection:

57-25

Top 2 in East

NBA Finals

Stats taken from http://www.vegasinsider.com/nba/odds/futures/

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