The NBA offseason has brought many changes to rosters, coaching staffs, and the list of championship contenders. As we draw closer to opening night, it's time to move our focus from the potential impact of each offseason event and onto the broader issues that figure to define this season. The BDL 25 takes stock of, uh, 25 key storylines to get you up to speed on where the most fascinating teams, players, and people stand on the brink of 2015-16.
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The best-case scenario we envisioned when the Cleveland Cavaliers pulled the trigger on last summer's No. 1 blockbuster — an unguardable ball-movement-heavy offense in which Love picked, popped and pounded defenses inside and out, stretching opponents past their breaking points trying to cover him, James and Kyrie Irving — never fully materialized. The coronation sputtered off the line, as Cleveland alternated hot and cold stretches for 2 1/2 months, capped by a six-game losing streak fueled by a fortnight of Odinsleep that left King and court sitting under .500 and taking heavy fire.
Things got better — like, much better — from there. LeBron got his bounce back, Kyrie found opportunities to take over, and midstream acquisitions Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert made major contributions. Cleveland went 34-9 from Jan. 15 through the end of the season, the league's best record, and fielded the NBA's most scorching offense (110.4 points scored per 100 possessions) during that span.
And yet, even as the Cavs were righting the ship and steamrolling toward the postseason, some static persisted. Love's numbers — shot attempts, rebounding, shooting percentages, assist rate, everything — were down. He was getting the ball less frequently and in different places on the floor than he had during his days as the Minnesota Timberwolves' top gun, and producing less effectively.
As the on-court awkwardness continued, so did the off-court drama — LeBron questioning Love's confidence, LeBron's "fit-out/fit-in" tweet, Love's absence from the "Clique up!" photo, Love saying he and James aren't best friends, reports that James was "frustrated by Love's inability, and in some ways unwillingness, to get with the program," etc.
Given all that smoke, it didn't seem outside the realm of possibility that — after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury during the opening round of the playoffs, watching the Cavaliers go the Finals without him before falling short, and deciding to opt out of the final year of his contract to enter unrestricted free agency — Love's gaze might wander. Maybe the 27-year-old preferred to spend his prime in a place where he'd get paid top dollar and receive the lion's share of the offensive opportunities.
And yet, on the first day of free agency, Love agreed to a five-year, $113 million contract to run it back with LeBron, Kyrie and company.
"We’re all on the same page and we’re all in," Love wrote. "We have unfinished business and now it’s time to get back to work."
By all accounts, Love's nearly ready to do just that. Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported two weeks ago that he'd heard Love "is making excellent progress from his shoulder surgery." Pluto's colleague Chris Haynes reported Monday that Love's expected to "be active" when Cleveland opens training camp next week, albeit "on a limited basis." Cavaliers swingman Joe Harris told SiriusXM NBA Radio on Tuesday that Love "looked really good" during informal team workouts in Miami.
When he does get back to live action, though, just what kind of work will Love be doing?
In the early going, at least, it's likely he'll get more opportunities to hunt his own shots and create for others. Cleveland could be without Irving — who fractured his left kneecap during Game 1 of the Finals, setting the stage for LeBron's remarkable one-man army act — until the calendar hits 2016. The prospect of two-plus months without an All-NBA-caliber point guard casts an awfully dark cloud, but there could be a silver lining; as our Eric Freeman noted, this opens the door to Love entering the season as Cleveland's clear No. 2.
General manager David Griffin brought back former Cav Mo Williams and playoff folk hero Matthew Dellavedova to spell Irving at the point, but neither can approximate Irving's playmaking prowess or offensive brilliance. Love obviously operates differently than Kyrie, but he's a much more capable option to assume the bulk of Irving's workload — Kyrie finished 26.2 percent of Cavalier possessions with a shot attempt, foul drawn or turnover, the lowest mark of his career but still the 26th-highest usage rate in the NBA — and help James keep the Cavs' high-octane offense running smoothly.
The precipitous decline in Love's assist rate last season (he notched dimes on just 10.7 percent of his teammates' buckets, down from 21.4 percent during his final season in Minnesota) mirrors his plummeting usage (from 28.8 percent in Minny to 21.7 percent in Cleveland). When he does have the ball, he remains a dynamite passer from both the elbows and the low block. He's also a top-flight post-up threat, ranking second in the NBA last season in points scored per possession among players with at least 150 post-ups, according to Synergy Sports Technology's game-charting.
Even in a down year, Love hit 36.7 percent of his 3-pointers, 24th-best in the league among those with at least 300 triple tries. He's a wide-bodied facilitator who can get teammates open with handoffs and screens, and a more-gifted-than-you-might-remember playmaker who can make good things happen after putting the ball on the deck.
He seemed to be starting to find his spots more smoothly late in the campaign, and had just turned in his best game of the playoffs — 23 points on 50 percent shooting, a 6-for-10 mark from 3-point land, nine rebounds and three assists in 37-plus minutes — in his last full contest before separating his shoulder. And even amid talk of his disappointing first season, it's worth remembering that the Cavs dusted fools with LeBron and Love sharing the floor, and kept rolling offensively even without Irving. Cleveland averaged 112.3 points per 100 possessions in 360 LeBron-Love-no-Kyrie minutes last season, according to NBAwowy.com, an offensive efficiency mark that would've topped the Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers' league-best units.
Love's capable of contributing an awful lot, and to hear Griffin tell it, he expects much more out of both his re-upped big man and head coach David Blatt this season.
“I think [Love] and Coach have had a lot of conversations about [his usage]," Griffin told Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal in July. "He and Bron have had conversations about that. Kevin enables us to have somebody else carry the mail when LeBron sits down once in a while. Kyrie was in a situation where he was clearly the one who was taking over when LeBron was out and I think we probably didn’t utilize Kevin enough to make Kyrie’s job easier. I think we have the ability to put him at the elbow and run offense through him a lot more than we did — some of the things he did really well in Minnesota.”
And maybe, after carrying an inhuman postseason workload for Cleveland without both of his running buddies, a more conservation-minded James — who'll turn 31 in December, and will likely both break into the top 50 in regular-season minutes minutes played and surpass 45,000 total career minutes this year — will "look to become even more of a facilitator to save his body from wear and tear in the regular season," as Hoops Habit's Will Reeve suggests, leading to "more looks and production for Love in 2015-16."
The two sat down to hash things out before Love put pen to paper — who can forget? — and early reports suggest that both parties came away eager to revisit their on-court dynamic, according to Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com:
"He wanted to have a sit down with me and talk about everything," James said about the meeting. "He wanted to talk about the season, what could happen with the team going forward. I was absolutely open to it. I was one of the people that wanted him there when we made the trade last summer. The fact that he committed to us let me know the type of guy we have." [...]
"We just talked everything out, and a lot of stuff was very honest, and we came to a really good place, and we agreed on a lot of things," Love said. "So I think that was also a very big deal when, you know, you're talking to the best player in the world."
This time last year, Love was the new guy in town, trying to acclimate to being a third wheel and playing in games that meant something for the first time in his professional career. Now, he's got a brand new contract, a taste for the postseason, a clear path (for now) to second-banana status and a hunger to prove that while his absence might've helped the Cavs win the East, his presence could've helped them win the title.
With Irving rehabbing and Tristan Thompson's contract situation still up in the air, this is Love's opportunity to remind all who clucked last season that he's one of the premier talents in the game, and to prove he's willing to happily play his role for a Cavaliers club that's spared no expense in its pursuit of the first championship in franchise history. Yes, the adjustment's rough. But as Bosh can attest, the payoff — in his case, back-to-back championships — can be pretty damn sweet.
Previously, on BDL 25:
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