2017-18 Preview: Cleveland Cavaliers

By Bryan Crawford #26

Think about this: Since 2011, LeBron James has appeared in every NBA Finals. That’s seven straight for those of you counting, and eight in all. Meaning that for more than half of his career, LeBron has put his team — and himself — in position to win an NBA Championship. Whether you’re a fan of LeBron or indifferent about him, that’s quite an amazing accomplishment for one of the games all-time great players. With the Eastern Conference being weaker than it’s ever been, and without the otherworldly services of his superstar wingman in Kyrie Irving, LeBron and the Cavs are in a great position to once again be one of the League’s best teams, and a tough out for anyone who has to face them come playoff time.

Cavaliers 2017-18 Ballhandlers Wings Bigs
Returners Kay Felder LeBron James, JR Smith, Iman Shumpert, Richard Jefferson, Kyle Korver Tristan Thompson, Kevin Love, Channing Fry, Eddy Tavares
Newcomers Isaiah Thomas, Derrick Rose, Jose Calderon Dwyane Wade, Jae Crowder, Jeff Green Kendrick Perkins
Gone Kyrie Irving, Deron Williams James Jones, DeAndre Liggins, Derrick Williams, Mike Dunleavy Jr., Jordan McRae Chris Andersen
David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

Offense: Kyrie Irving’s trade request over the summer caught the basketball world by surprise. Why would one of the NBA’s most feared scorers and one-on-one players, coming off three straight Finals runs while playing with the best player in the game ever want to leave a situation like Cleveland? The panic that set in around Cuyahoga County knowing that a four-time All-Star and 25-PPG scorer wanted out, was assuaged somewhat when the Cavs traded Kyrie to the Celtics for Isiah Thomas—another All-Star point guard and 29-PPG scorer. That was the good news. The bad is that IT is dealing with a hip injury, specifically, a right femoral-acetabular impingement, complete with a torn labrum, a loss of cartilage and arthritis. The team doesn’t expect him to be ready until January, leaving LeBron James—who’ll be 33 by that time—to once again carry the bulk of the team’s offensive load. But LBJ does have some help. Derrick Rose, who signed with Cleveland as a free agent after a quiet redemption season with the New York Knicks that saw him average 18 points last season, will assume starting point guard duties and give the Cavs a much needed offensive weapon. There’s also Kevin Love, who has almost become an afterthought in Cleveland, despite averaging 19 points and 11 rebounds last season, who now play a bigger role. Jae Crowder, who came over in the Kyrie for IT swap, will also be asked to be a little more offensive minded this season, and Kyle Korver and Channing Fry’s three-point shooting prowess will come in handy when it comes to stretching the defense. Interestingly, Cleveland also signed another Chicago kid in Dwyane Wade, LeBron’s former teammate in Miami where the duo won two titles together in four years. Wade, like Rose, also averaged 18 last season and could play a key role either as a starter or off the bench. The loss of Thomas will be a factor, but nothing that LeBron can’t rectify, especially in a watered down Eastern Conference.

David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

Defense: Any team with LeBron James is going to be competitive on the defensive side of the ball because he’s going to demand it and knows full well that you don’t make the Finals seven straight times without guarding. Few players are smarter than James, but his advancing age coupled with the Cavs’ need to have him carry the offense while Thomas is out will take a toll. It’s also not a good sign that the Cavs were in the bottom 10 of the League in points given up to opponents and in defensive rating last season. The silver lining again is that the Cavs play in the East, which means most nights the Cavs’ defense doesn’t have to be championship caliber. But if things play out as expected and the Cavs and Warriors meet again in the Finals, Cleveland will once again have their hands full. Rose isn’t an exceptionally strong defender. Neither is Love, or Tristan Thompson, and Wade’s best days on the defensive end are way behind him. When Thomas—whose lack of height has always made him a defensive liability—returns, how his hips respond to lateral movement will be anyone’s guess. Crowder and Shumpert are both solid perimeter defenders, but they can’t guard everybody all at once. And even with new personnel, Cleveland still isn’t good enough to outscore a team like the Warriors four out of seven times without putting up a strong defensive effort. So, head coach Tyronn Lue will need to impress upon his squad repeatedly all season long on the importance of competing for 48 minutes on defense.

Upside: Make no mistake, the Cavaliers are built to win now. With Kyrie already gone and LeBron’s impending free agency decision next summer looming over the franchise, nothing the team has done (the lone exception being Brooklyn’s No. 1 pick in 2018 that they got in the Irving trade) suggests there is a plan in place for the future. To that point, the only real upside for this Cavaliers squad is they have a real opportunity to make a fourth straight Finals appearance. What happens after that is anyone’s guess. All told, the Cavs are in “we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it” mode. There hasn’t seemed to be much planning for the future in Cleveland, which certainly limits any upside the team could legitimately have.

Michael J. LeBrecht II/NBAE via Getty Images

Durability: The injury history of Rose, Wade, Love and now Thomas, is well documented. Not to jinx it, but it’s beyond remarkable that in 14 seasons, LeBron hasn’t had anything more than a broken nose and a sprained ankle in his career, neither of which kept him off the court for any considerable amount of time. Still, if Cleveland can remain relatively healthy with respect to key guys, then fans should be satisfied with that outcome.

Synergy: This is generally not a problem for LeBron’s teams, mostly because as the primary ballhandler, facilitator, distributor and the onus of accountability, he makes the game easier for everyone on the court (the very same reasons can used to theorize Irving’s departure). This is not to suggest there won’t be growing pains along the way, but expect this team to jell quickly because it’s a veteran-laden outfit and everyone knows what’s at stake and what the ultimate goal is.

Experience: There isn’t a more experienced team in the Eastern Conference than the Cleveland Cavaliers. LeBron has seen it all, done it all and been through it all. So has Dwyane Wade. Former MVP Derrick Rose was the best player on an Eastern Conference Finals squad, as was Isaiah Thomas. In short, each of these guys has experienced both individual and team success, and they understand the grind of a long regular season and what it takes to prepare to make a deep postseason run. This team is full of veterans who understand what winning at the highest level means for a franchise and a city.

Win Frame: 55-58 wins

2017-18 HOOP Season Preview

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