Editor's note: With the new NBA season around the corner, we preview the top five teams contending for the 2017-18 title in this series The Contenders. We continue with the Cleveland Cavaliers at number two.
The Cavaliers are in one of the most unique and precarious positions of any NBA team. The good news is that they feature one of the NBA’s finest players, have made it to three consecutive finals, were the only team to hand the indomitable Warriors a post-season defeat this summer, and have reloaded — on paper, at least — with one of the deepest rosters in the league. Once again, they are set to be one of the top contenders for the throne.
But when you’re a LeBron James team, being a ‘mere’ contender isn’t good enough. With sky-high expectations, anything short of a championship itself is a let-down. The gulf between them and Golden State was exposed in the finals last year. Now, they have reloaded by switching point guards with Boston and making a few more major roster upgrades. The season is slated to be one of conflict and drama with injury to Thomas, a new GM, new players, and LeBron’s future hanging over the team’s head.
LeBron has been to eight consecutive finals in Miami and Cleveland, and with his contract expiring next season, rumours are already circulating that this could be his last run with the team. For the past few years, LeBron teams have usually underperformed in the regular season before switching into high-gear in the play-offs. With Kevin Love, Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, and more around him, only a championship could silence the uncertainty in Cleveland. But will their talent and new team chemistry be enough to survive the improved Celtics and dethrone Golden State?
The story last year
Coming off the historic 2016 title, spirits were high in Cleveland, and led by LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love, the Cavs once again emerged as one of the strongest teams in the Eastern Conference. Alas, the team had major holes at the defensive end all season, and won ‘only’ 51 games for second-place in the East. The play-offs were, once again, a whole different story, as the Cavs ripped apart the East. But in their finals ‘threematch’ against the Warriors, they faced a foe stacked with talent rarely-ever seen in NBA history. LeBron’s heroics weren’t enough as the Warriors dismantled Cleveland 4-1.
The Cavaliers’ off-season was thrown off the rails first with the firing of GM David Griffin, and later, with Kyrie Irving’s trade request. It didn’t take them long to honour that request, sending Irving to Boston in exchange for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and an important 2018 First Round Draft Pick. Then, in an attempt to boost up their guard-play with a couple of grizzled veterans, Cleveland also signed Derrick Rose and LeBron’s old friend Dwyane Wade from Chicago. Role-players Jose Calderon, Kendrick Perkins, and Jeff Green also signed with Cleveland.
LeBron James, Isaiah Thomas, Kevin Love, Dwyane Wade, Tristan Thompson, Jae Crowder, JR Smith, Iman Shumpert, Derrick Rose, Richard Jefferson, Kyle Korver, Channing Frye.
They will win a title if…
LeBron continues to LeBron, Thomas gets healthy in time, and the surrounding pieces make for a perfect fit. On paper, Cleveland has one of the deepest rosters in the NBA. If most of their key players named above stay healthy, this is a dangerous and explosive offensive team. As seen in three consecutive finals, LeBron has no trouble playing at a historically great level against Golden State; but he will need the full contribution of the team’s auxiliary pieces to play at their best, too.
In the best-case scenario, LeBron will again play at a superhuman level, Thomas will be healthy in time and return to his explosive scoring ability of last season, Love will take up a larger role in the offense, Crowder will be an elite perimeter defender, Wade will be the late-game X-factor in big play-off moments, Thompson will man the paint, and their perimeter shooters will bomb down on threes.
Cause for concern
Irving has gone and his presence is expected to be fulfilled by the committee of new guards: Thomas, Wade, and Rose. But all three have question marks about their ability: Thomas will miss half the season and could have more long-term damage to his body; Wade is excellent in short stretches but can’t be relied upon for too much heavy-lifting at 35; Rose has a long history of injuries and has lost the explosive bounce of his MVP days.
The Cavs’ biggest problem last season was defence, and none of their new additions — except for Crowder — fulfils that shortcoming. Will LeBron’s future be a distraction? And even with all these changes, will they face deja-vu against the top-heavy Warriors who are still elite on both ends of the floor?
LeBron, Thomas, Love, Wade, and more should be enough (even in Thomas’ partial absence) to again carry Cleveland to a top-two finish in the East during the season. As usual, I expect LeBron to elevate his game and for this team to click offensively in the play-offs, and the new additions will make up for Irving’s absence in the East. All of their upgrades, however, will still leave them second-best in the league. The Cavaliers will make their fourth consecutive finals, but come up short to the Warriors again.
Updated Date: Oct 17, 2017 11:43 AM