The Cleveland Cavaliers might not have been the kind of team likely to suffer from a championship hangover, anyway. Having LeBron James around — a four-time NBA Most Valuable Player, three-time NBA champion and three-time NBA Finals MVP; a player who now freely discusses the fact that his present is all about chasing the ghosts of GOATs past to establish himself as the future face of greatness — tends to focus a squad.
“We’re still pretty much uptight,” James recently said, according to Tom Withers of The Associated Press. “We’re not satisfied with what we did.”
But whatever the Cavs’ approach might have been after winning the first NBA championship in franchise history, and Cleveland’s first pro sports title in 52 years, the bet here is that things tightened up on July 4. (Well, maybe not for everybody.)
As soon as Kevin Durant announced he would join the Golden State Warriors — the team that had just posted a record-setting 73 wins, and the foe the Cavs had just knocked off to win it all — Cleveland had a new mountain to climb, a new dragon to slay, a new quest to complete.
The challenge: not just to repeat as champions, but to do so by taking out what looks poised to be the biggest, baddest super-team ever.
“It will not be easy, and it shouldn’t be easy,” James recently said of the back-to-back bid, according to the AFP. “In my two years here, it’s never been easy, and in my 13-year career, so far nothing has been easy. So I look forward to the journey and the work that lies ahead.”
It’ll be a long journey, the 14th of an illustrious career that has seen James shoulder an unprecedented workload that, as he nears age 32, makes him the game’s most fascinating “walking science experiment.” But he won’t have to walk alone.
He’ll be joined by Kyrie Irving, the one-on-one marvel the Warriors could not stop last June, the assassin who threw the dagger that felled the Dubs, the author of a reputation-making Finals finish and recipient of an Olympic gold medal.
He’ll be joined by Kevin Love, who adjusted to and produced better in his tertiary role last season than he did during Year 1 with the Cavs, whose 14 rebounds and title-sealing stop in Game 7 helped mute the static that’s scuffed his Ohio tenure. Love’s come out the other side a better, tougher player, thanks to a “dose of humility” … and a reminder that he’s “a bad m—–f—–.”
He’ll be joined by Tristan Thompson, “the heart and soul of our team,” the glass-dominating, space-defending, above-the-rim-finishing center who’s played his best under the sport’s brightest lights. He’ll be flanked by a phalanx of shooters — Love, J.R. Smith, Channing Frye, Richard Jefferson, new addition Mike Dunleavy Jr. — capable of incinerating opponents (like Detroit, Atlanta, Toronto, Golden State and whoever else wants a taste) with catch-and-shoot jumpers created by their All-Star tablesetters’ drive-and-kick game.
Once again, the Cavs boast one of the NBA’s most lethal offenses. Once again, they enter the season heavily favored to win the Eastern Conference, seemingly on a collision course for a rubber match with the revamped Warriors. Once again, they’ll be underdogs in that anticipated rematch.
It’s not often that you get to win the title, turn around and claim nobody believes in you, and be more or less right in that assessment. But that’s where the Cavaliers find themselves as they begin their journey, confident in their abilities and reloaded with all the motivation they need to give Cleveland another reason to believe.
2015-16 season in 140 characters or less:
— Cleveland Cavaliers (@cavs) June 20, 2016
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) June 20, 2016
J.R. Smith, ladies and gentlemen. pic.twitter.com/VILj1X5e35
— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) June 20, 2016
LeBron sporting the Kermit/tea hat + Ultimate Warrior shirt means he gets to be first active player in the HoF right pic.twitter.com/bqmpPgw9l4
— Sam Laird (@samcmlaird) June 20, 2016
Did the summer help at all?
Off the court? For sure. LeBron got to take a nice, long rest, and a long-overdue elevation to the rank of the highest-paid player in the game. Love got to go through his first full, healthy offseason as a Cavalier, and to finally exhale. Irving got to cap a year for the ages with Olympic gold.
Interim-no-longer head coach Tyronn Lue got paaaaaaaaaid. J.R. added to his peerless legacy as a people’s champion, got married, opened up his own shoe store, got a new dog, signed the richest contract of his career and is expecting his second child. Life, in general, was sweet.
[The 2016-17 BDL 25: The key storylines to watch this NBA season]
On the court, though? That remains to be seen.
The champs did lose a few contributors. Talisman-of-scrap combo guard Matthew Dellavedova joined the division “rival” Milwaukee Bucks on a four-year, $38 million contract. First-integral, then-peripheral center Timofey Mozgov struck it exceedingly rich in Los Angeles. Mo Williams decided to retire, after all. (We think.) The Cavs return more than 76 percent of their 2015-16 minutes, though, and eight of the nine players to log at least 100 minutes in the postseason, highlighted by the entire title-winning starting five.
Replacing Dellavedova — a capable backup point guard with the size, defensive toughness and shooting skill to slide over a spot and play the two, and who appeared in three of the Cavs’ top four lineups to log at least 50 minutes last season — could be a bit dicey. Second-round pick Kay Felder (dubbed “the most exciting player you may not have watched [last] season” by The Dagger’s Jeff Eisenberg) has the scoring touch and playmaking panache to be able to overcome his 5-foot-9 stature and make an impact on the NBA level. But Lue and general manager David Griffin want to reduce the workload on their two ball-handlers during the regular season, and don’t seem keen on handing the primary backup job to a rookie, with reports circulating that the Cavs would like to deal for a more veteran hand.
If they can’t find one worth a deal before Tuesday’s opener, Lue might have to get a little weird with lineups that don’t feature a traditional point guard. Are you ready for Point J.R. or Primary Ball-Handler Iman Shumpert? Hey, why not? Might as well introduce some uncertainty in Cleveland’s widely anticipated romp through the East, right?
Dunleavy, imported from Chicago when the Bulls chose to make a move for LeBron’s pal Dwyane Wade, figures to help ease the loss of Dellavedova’s shooting and ball-moving. The 36-year-old forward has shot 38 percent or better from 3-point range in each of the last six seasons, and should fit well in Cleveland’s ball- and player-movement-heavy offensive scheme.
While he’s lost a step after 14 pro seasons, he has the length to be able to handle multiple defensive assignments on the wing, the size to pitch in on the glass, and the basketball IQ and shotmaking ability to feast on the steady diet of drive-and-kick looks he’s likely to see when sharing the floor with James and Irving. Remember how important Jefferson wound up being for Cleveland in last year’s playoffs? Well, now the Cavs have two of him. One can only imagine what kind of social-media revelation the guy behind this outfit might wind up being.
Another former James associate, Chris
“Birdman” “Birdzilla” “Grizzilla” back to “Birdman,” we guess? Andersen, joined up to take Mozgov’s place behind Thompson and Frye. He’s 38 years old, though, and has dealt with multiple injuries in recent seasons — he’s played more than 45 games just twice since 2010 — while seeing his rebounding, shot-blocking and shooting percentages plunge. It’s unlikely Bird will offer significant per-minute production as an interior deterrent, which could leave the Cavs once again trying to piece together enough rim protection to avoid having to just outgun teams throughout the 82-game slate before cranking up their defense for the playoffs. Still, he figures to add energy and some pick-and-roll thunder in limited minutes, and make the Cavs just a bit more colorful in the process.
Potential breakout stud:
Um … none? [looks around] Is it OK if I say none?
I’m not trying to throw shade on the Cavs’ young dudes. Felder’s really fun, and 25-year-old shooting guard Jordan McRae is a confirmed bucket–getter. I just doubt that either’s going to get enough playing time in Cleveland to be a “breakout” performer. It sounds like Felder could be relegated to the bench as soon as the Cavs can find a suitable veteran backup for Kyrie, and it sounds like McRae — already behind James, Smith, Shumpert, Dunleavy and Jefferson in the wing rotation — might be the chip being dangled to find that suitable veteran backup.
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Outside of them, everybody on the Cavs roster has at least five years of NBA experience under their belts; we already know who they are and what they can do. I guess technically, in a “Steph Curry finishing fourth in Most Improved Player voting the year after he won MVP” sense, you could slot Irving in here, under the premise that he could take another leap forward in his sixth season and vault himself into contention for the title of the NBA’s best point guard.
To do that, though, he’d probably have to, like, win MVP. And with LeBron around, that’s probably absurd.
— Herd w/Colin Cowherd (@TheHerd) October 20, 2016
I like where you head is. I think Ky believes he the best pg already, he doesn't need gas but it always helps. https://t.co/x6VWmbHuwQ
— JR Smith (@TheRealJRSmith) October 20, 2016
Everyone stays healthy. Kyrie and Love carry more of the load throughout the season, allowing LeBron to stay fresh for springtime. Griffin’s able to pull off another trade-deadline acquisition to give the Cavs more firepower, depth and defensive versatility come the postseason. No member of the East’s second tier mounts a serious enough challenge to prevent a third straight Finals trip. The Cavs write a fitting sequel to the greatest story in Cleveland’s basketball history, vanquishing the KD-outfitted Warriors to win their second straight NBA title. An enterprising internet artist begins to sketch a Crying Jordan’s Ghost.
If everything falls apart:
LeBron finally suffers an injury that puts him on the shelf for a significant period, because nothing gold can stay. The Cavs sputter in his absence, calling into question whether Kyrie and Love can handle sliding up a spot in the batting order. Losing LeBron for a chunk of the regular season knocks Cleveland down the Eastern playoff bracket, and with James still not at 100 percent come the postseason, the Cavs don’t have enough juice to knock off a strong higher-seeded opponent on the road. For the first time since 2010, the NBA Finals don’t feature LeBron James. We’re forced to wonder if we’ve just witnessed the beginning of the end.
Kelly Dwyer’s Best Guess at a Record:
54-28, No. 1 in the Eastern Conference.
Read all of Ball Don’t Lie’s 2016-17 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Hornets • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors • Washington Wizards
Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Golden State Warriors • Houston Rockets • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Minnesota Timberwolves • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Utah Jazz
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