2016-17 record: 51-31. 2nd in the Eastern Conference. Lost in the NBA Finals to the Golden State Warriors in five games.
Transactions: Every single thing that the Cleveland Cavaliers do has to be on the basis of one question: Does this bring us closer to the Golden State Warriors?
That has to be the sole focus on the team as long as LeBron James is on the team because as long as the King is at the height of his powers and in Cleveland, the Cavs are going to be in the NBA Finals and the Cavs had to be thinking first and foremost about a fourth consecutive match-up with the Warriors as the clock wound down on their season in game five of the NBA Finals.
Full disclosure: I believe in LeBron so much that I talked myself into a Cavs upset. Even against probably the most stacked team in NBA history. If anyone could solve the impossible problem that was facing off against the two men who won the last three MVP awards, it was LeBron.
That obviously didn’t happen despite an all-time great performance that saw him average a triple double (33.6 points, 12 boards, and 10 assists) on 56.4% shooting despite being on a team that was hopelessly outmatched and outgunned at every turn. LeBron is the only player in the history of the NBA to average a triple double in the Finals. To me it’s those kind of performances even in the face of certain defeat that cement LeBron as the greatest player ever to step on a basketball court.
But I digress.
Certainly the objective for the Cavs was clear. Address the weaknesses in the team. Tighten up that defense and add some talent to the bench. The team’s net rating craters to a horrifying -16.7 whenever LBJ isn’t on the floor. The Cavs biggest need was to add to their supporting cast.
Or so we thought.
Due to off-season intrigue, the biggest question facing the Cavaliers changed. It was no longer a matter of how to add pieces around LeBron to challenge Golden State, but now a question of whether or not this would be the King’s last year in Cleveland. There had been rumours about a west coast move that gained more traction around the NBA Draft.
It was shortly before the draft that Cavs owner Dan Gilbert announced that the organization would not be renewing the contract of GM David Griffin who had been in the position since March 2014 which was just a few months before LeBron James returned home.
LeBron responded by tweeting out a message of support for Griffin where he stated that he always appreciated him and thanking him for everything he did in his three years as GM. It’s not really a secret that James had a good relationship with the departing exec. Nor is it a secret that Griffin left the Cavs because Dan Gilbert refused to pay him what he was worth.
It’s also no secret that Dan Gilbert is a colossal piece of shit who famously wrote a comic sans diatribe that sounded more like a pissed off plantation owner than anything else when LeBron took his talents to South Beach in 2010. Gilbert also deserves a special place in the depths of hell for being close friends with the current racist, homophobic, xenophobic general bottom feeder of a human being that holds the office of President of the United States who James has been increasingly vocal in his opposition to.
Gilbert is quite frankly a complete idiot. LeBron James returned to Cleveland, brought the Cavs to three straight finals and delivered the only championship in franchise history. Instead of investing in the organization and ensuring a solid foundation for future success by retaining top personnel, he’s cutting corners in a way that would make his orange friend in the White House proud.
To add insult to injury, Griffin was reportedly in talks for a multi-team deal that would have delivered Paul George to the Cavs. A move that would have greatly increased their ability to compete with the Warriors and would have brought on board another superstar who is also friends with LeBron.
Needless to say this was not the start to the off-season that the Cavs wanted and the fact that the it seemed increasingly likely that their biggest star was going to walk in a year made things even worse.
The initial moves didn’t do a lot to instill much confidence in terms of gaining any ground on the Warriors either.
Instead of the rumoured deal for Paul George, the Cavs signed Jose Calderon and Jeff Green.
I like Calderon a lot. I really do. At 36 years old isn’t what he was, but he’s still an excellent play-maker which is something Cleveland lacked off the bench and definitely something Deron Williams failed to provide them (which is why Williams and the Cavs have parted ways). The problem, though, is that on a team that lacks defense off the bench, Calderon is also a defensive liability. It’s not like the Cavs aren’t used to hiding point guard on defense, however, and even at his age, the Spaniard is just one season removed from being a starting point guard with the Knicks and I really want to see what he can do with LeBron. I’m actually kind of giddy about it.
Jeff Green is coming off a season where he averaged single digit scoring (9.2 points per game) for the first time in his career in Orlando. He also shot only 39.4% from the field and 27.5% from three point range in 22.2 minutes per game with the Magic. All career lows. The Cavs are only into Green for $2.3 million the Cavs aren’t into Green for a lot and there’s every reason to believe that he will bounce back and be a value add in the rotation. Even with the inefficiencies in his game, he’s still an athletic talent and gives them some length on defense and can play power forward in small line-ups.
The Cavs brought back sharpshooter Kyle Korver – who they’d acquired from the Hawks last season – on a 3 year, $22 million contract. At first consideration, bringing back Korver seems like a no-brainer. He’s hit 2049 career threes and is a career 43.1% three point shooter. When you’re looking to be facing off against the best three point shooting team ever assembled in the Finals for the fourth time, you need shooters in your arsenal and even at 36 years old, Korver remains one of the best. He hit 48.5% from downtown for the Cavs in 35 regular season games and 39.1% in the playoffs.
Korver is 36 and starting to show his age. He can still space the floor and will get a lot of open looks when on the court with LeBron, but became unplayable in a lot of situations in the Finals due to his inability to keep up on defense. He does bring a much needed skill to the Cavs with his sharpshooting which shows no sign of diminishing.
Joining the team this coming season isn2015 second round pick Cedi Osman of Turkey. The 22 year old brings a lot of energy to the squad and has the potential to be the first true hustle guy in the Cleveland rotation since Matthew Dellavedova left for the Bucks in 2016. Osman is a 6’8 wing with great length who runs the floor like a man possessed. He will earn his minutes as a slasher and finisher at the rim and is also a skilled and unselfish passer. His youth and uptempo play could be just what the Cavs need as they often looked disinterested at points during a rather lackadaisical 51-31 season.
Osman averaged 16 points a game on 40% shooting and 36.7% from three point range in Eurobasket and has to be making Cavs fans salivate with not only his offensive play but his ability on the back end as well. He had seven steals in a single game against Russia and has routinely been stifling opponents with chase down blocks reminiscent of a certain one that Cavs player had on Andre Iguodala in the 2016 NBA Finals.
As much as these acquisitions may add to the Cavs, they certainly didn’t put them in a better position to knock off Golden State. Although even that goal seemed hopelessly out of reach when reports surfaced in late July that Kyrie Irving was demanding a trade.
Rumours of a James-Irving rift followed and all kind of speculation ran wild.
Combined with the Griffin exit and an inability to be in on either Jimmy Butler or Paul George, and the rumours of an impending LeBron James departure, the Cavs looked to be an organization falling apart.
The signing of Derrick Rose in the days to follow did little to quell the rumours.
Cleveland brought in the 2011 MVP in coming off the best season he’s had since missing almost two full campaigns after following a horrible ACL tear in the 2012 playoffs. In his first and as it turned out only season with the Knicks, Rose averaged 18 points per game on 47.1% shooting and added 4.4 dimes and 3.8 boards. While he couldn’t possibly have replaced Irving, D-Rose could potentially have a bounce back year playing with LeBron James.
He’s a poor defender and can’t shoot threes consistently (career 29.8% and 21.8% last season). But Cleveland’s offense is built on spot up shooters surrounding penetrating ball handlers and with Rose on the floor with LeBron there are suddenly two options to fill that role in Rose and James.
Rose’s signing was a low cost move and one that offered insurance with Irving’s trade demand. As it turned out that wouldn’t matter and now Cleveland can surround D-Rose with spot up shooting on the second unit – at least when their new starting point guard is healthy. It’s hard not envision Rose finding success off the bench surrounded by Kyle Korver or Channing Frye.
D-Rose will remain the back-up because Cleveland managed to trade Irving for a package that included a new starting point guard.
Remember how it seemed like a foregone conclusion that LeBron would leave? Remember that Dan Gilbert is terrible human being and deserves it?
I’ve got bad news for you. The Cavs pulled off a trade miracle that is often reserved for the likes of Masai Ujiri. They moved the best player in a deal but somehow didn’t lose it. In fact, the haul that Cleveland got for Irving seemed even larger and more of a win given the poor returns that Jimmy Butler and Paul George got the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers, respectively.
In an incredibly rare case of the two top seeds in a conference doing business with each other, the Cavs sent their all-star point guard to the Boston Celtics for their all-star point guard, Isaiah Thomas, wing Jae Crowder, 20 year old Croatian centre Ante Zizic and the first round draft pick in the 2018 that the Celtics are owed by the Brooklyn Nets that will likely be in the lottery. The Cavs also got the second round pick in 2020 that the Celtics are owed by the Miami Heat due to concerns about Isaiah Thomas’ hip injury.
Cleveland really did well here.
Trading a 25 year old all-star whose best years are ahead of him could be a franchise destroying move. Instead the Cavs received a 29 year old all-star who just had a better season than Irving ever has (although Kyrie likely has even better ones ahead) in Isaiah Thomas; the wing defender they desperately needed to even begin to compete with the current Warriors line-up in Jae Crowder; a 7’0” tall, 250 centre with a 7’3” wingspan who can play the modern game in Zizic and the most important piece of all – the Nets’ pick.
With that pick the Cavs have the flexibility to react to either LeBron scenario. If he leaves, the pick can be likely be used to draft a player who can be the future face of the franchise. If he doesn’t the pick can be traded for an asset to play alongside him. That might actually be a something that management might consider doing preemptively to try to convince the King to stay in the East where he has a pretty clear path to the Finals as long as he is at the height of his powers.
Thomas’ contract also gives the Cavs increased flexibility in terms of reacting to LeBron’s impending decision. He’s a free agent after this season. If things don’t work out, they can let him walk. If they do, well the back and forth between Cleveland and Boston over just how damaged a good he is – totally unfair to Thomas and completely unprofessional on the part of the Cavs for making those concerns so public – likely have adversely impacted his career to the point where he may not have the negotiating power a player who will have been one year removed from being the best 4th quarter player since the NBA began tracking the stat (10.5 points per 4th quarter) should have. Thomas is eyeing a max, but with the weak point guard market this off-season combined with doubts about his long-term health – he may not get it.
I hate to say this, because I hate him and everything he stands for, but Dan Gilbert had the last laugh.
2017 NBA Draft: The Cavaliers did not have any picks in the draft.
Outlook: Cleveland is dealing with a great deal of uncertainty in the immediate future is the condition of Isaiah Thomas’ hip. There are conflicting reports that have him missing the first few weeks of the season to being out until the all-star break.
Thomas for his part insists that he’s fine, is not damaged and will return the player he was. He’s also stated his hurt and disappointment at the Celtics for trading him away.
Who can blame him?
This is the same player who was third in league scoring last year with 28.3 points per game, the same player who dropped 53 points in a playoff game for the Celtics and the same player who suited up for Boston in the playoffs just one day after the death of his younger sister. During his three years with the Celtics, Thomas gave them everything he had and became one of the elite point guards in the NBA.
He was repaid by being traded after the best season of his career.
IT has every right to be angry and it’s the mindset that will only benefit the Cavs upon his return. This is a player who has made a career out defying the odds and proving his doubters wrong. At 5’9” nobody expected him to amount to much of anything. He was the last pick in the 2011 draft and now he’s been traded for man who was drafted first that year.
Thomas will have revenge on his mind when he suits up and he will have every opportunity to get it in Cleveland.
He was in the 95th percentile in isolation plays and averaged 1.12 points per possession in isolation – the same number as Kyrie Irving coincidentally enough. But where Irving had 419 isolation plays with the Cavs, Thomas had 248 with the Celtics. Tyronn Lue will allow Thomas free reign in isolation by comparison. The Cavs relied on Irving to exploit one-to-one mismatches in opposing defenses and will allow Thomas to do the same. He will thrive in those situations.
Isaiah is also an excellent spot up shooter which will allow him to fit in nicely on the floor with LeBron James. He was in the 92nd percentile in spot up jumpers last year with 1.22 points per possession and hit 46.3% from the field and 60.9% effective field goal percentage in spot up situations. Those numbers are going to increase with James drawing in opposing defenders and Thomas getting better looks as he no longer has to focus on being the number one offensive option or the primary facilitator.
At 5’9” Thomas will absolutely have to be hidden on defense. But it’s not like Kyrie was a defensive asset for Cleveland. The problem now is that neither is either back-up point guard option. Given that Thomas will be out for a while, starting Rose will pose some problems for Cleveland.
Most importantly, LeBron recognizes the significance of Thomas’ predicament and the sleight that the trade was to IT. You can guarantee that he will do everything in his power to ensure that his new point guard has an incredible season and makes good on his quest for vengeance especially when the Cavs new point guard is back in the line-up for games against his old team.
Derrick Rose can’t really do much without the ball in his hands. He’s not a cutter, he’s not really a guy who sets screens and really Cleveland will lose all the off-the-ball work that Irving did so well and Thomas is capable of continuing while Rose starts. It will be a huge adjustment for them – especially for LeBron James who will likely have to play off the ball more to adjust to Rose’s game. LeBron is more than capable of it, but Rose as primary ball-handler is going to everyone else – from JR Smith to Tristan Thompson to Kevin Love – to adjust to Rose as well and the new reality that opposing defenses won’t be challenged as much by him when he starts at the point.
The longer that Thomas is out, the more the Cavs offense will have to adjust and find new ways of coping. Luckily this is an incredibly talented team lead by a player with the highest basketball IQ on the planet in LeBron James.
New addition Jae Crowder should make an immediate impact on the Cavs in terms of bolstering their defense and helping conserve LeBron James. He’s a reliable and tough defender who is capable of taking on tough perimeter assignments. He’s a guy the Cavs can stick on a Gordon Hayward or Giannis Antetokounmpo and also gives them the answer they were lacking in the Finals last year of who to put on Kevin Durant.
Crowder provides the Cavs with defensive flexibility that they lacked last season while also freeing up James from those difficult assignments while will allow LeBron to play the free safety role that he needs to in order for Cleveland to have any success against the Warriors. He’s also an excellent rebounder with an ability to finish around the basket and a 39.4% three point shooter. His 6’6”, 235 pound frame allows him to play either forward position and gives Cleveland an increased ability to spread the floor.
His impact will likely be felt immediately on his new team. When Crowder was on the floor for Boston last season, they outscored opponents by 7.8 points per 100 possessions and when he wasn’t, they were outscored by 3.9 points per 100 possessions. With that kind of value, it can be argued that Crowder could have the biggest impact of anyone involved in the trade.
It’s conceivable that Ante Zizic could play for the Cavs this season and the member of Croatia’s “Golden Generation” brings with him an ability to dominate the glass on both sides and a soft touch inside with a lightning quick drop step and an ability to finish with either hand in the paint. He’s got great hands and has shown an ability to catch short passes and finish with an emphatic dunk at the rim.
Zizic has a very physical game and runs the court with reckless abandon. At only 20 years old, he and aforementioned young Turkish star Cedi Osman could combine to bring a lot of energy, enthusiasm and a much needed spark off the bench for Cleveland this season. One that seemed to be missing as times last year.
On the other side of the age equation, vets Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye will continue to offer stability, spacing and leadership off the bench in what could be both of their final seasons.
JR Smith will hopefully bounce back from what was an injury plagued and inconsistent season last year and continue where he left off in the playoffs last year where he shot an incredible 50% from three point range and was absolutely lights out. Smith personifies one of the Cavs greatest strengths – their ability to force opponents into a basketball math problem of trading twos for threes and falling into a hole that they can’t get out of. His shooting, however, takes on elevated importance in the potential Finals match-up with Golden State where the Cavs find themselves potentially on the wrong end of that problem.
Kevin Love – too often the scapegoat for any of Cleveland’s shortcomings and the continued target of trade rumours – will find himself once again in the position of having to prove his worth to his doubters. This is a really unfair position for Love as he is coming off his best season with the Cavs since being traded there in the off-season with 19 points and 11.1 boards per game. He followed that up with a playoff performance that saw him average 16.8 points and 10.6 boards and shoot 45% from three point range.
As much as Love is invaluable on the offensive end for his ability to stretch the floor and his incredible outlet passes, he gets ripped for his defense. Now that is somewhat unfair because Love has improved as a defender but did look out of place against the positional mobility of the Warriors, which many people focus on rather than the fact that he is coming off his best playoff run yet. Despite his critics, Love has value to the Cavs, but is also the first name mentioned in every Cleveland trade rumour.
Tristan Thompson will continue to have a value to the Cavs far beyond his numbers – especially in the playoffs – due to his ability to add physicality up front and his elite ability to get offensive rebounds and create second chance scoring opportunities. Thompson is also very gifted athletically and is agile enough to guard perimeter players on switches – a skill which makes him particularly invaluable to the Cavs.
I’m of the opinion, though, that Cleveland isn’t done dealing. There are rumours of shopping the Nets pick and also that Iman Shumpert has asked out. There’s also an impending buy out in Chicago of Dwyane Wade and there are fewer destinations that would make more sense for him than a reunion with LeBron. The Cavs can use all the fire power they can get in what should be another showdown with the Warriors in the NBA Finals.
I’d argue that this Cavs team is much deeper and more versatile than last year’s squad. If completely healthy, I think they have the ability to push Golden State more than they were able to last year.
The real question is though: can they beat them?
I can’t bring myself to say no. Even though it’s unlikely.
As long as Cleveland has LeBron James, nothing would seem impossible. He’s the greatest basketball player I’ve ever seen in my life and despite nearing 33 years old (insert Christ allusion here) is still at the height of his powers. He is seemingly capable of anything and will make every piece around him better and adjust his game to suit his teammates.
As much as you can look at the changes and various pieces of this team, LeBron is the engine that drives it. As long as he’s on the team, it’s hard to imagine any scenario where the Cavs go anywhere but the Finals and once they get there – well, anything is possible.
Just like last year, there will be times in the regular season when the Cavs look disinterested and lose a game or two that they shouldn’t, but just like last season, don’t be fooled. Don’t buy into the narrative that they’re ripe to be upset in the East or that they’ve lost a step, because the King is still there and he knows that the regular season is just a tune up for the bigger battle ahead.
They probably won’t finish the regular season at first in the East because they don’t have to. It’s the playoffs that they’re getting ready for.
Any measure of the Cavs success will be how they fare against Golden State. And in that sense they are much closer to them than they were in the Finals last year.
That has to be considered a victory already.
Prediction: 53-29. 2nd in the Eastern Conference. A Finals rematch with the Golden State Warriors.