Cleveland Can’t Afford To Be Cavalier

— October 17th 2017

Last year’s Finals runner-up enters the season with more questions than answers.

It’s been a rough go of it for the wine and gold.

Perhaps no contending team in the NBA faces more questions than the Cleveland Cavaliers this season. From the dismissal of GM David Griffin to the trade demands of Kyrie Irving, their whole offseason has been tumultuous.

Now with the team fully reassembled and ready to go for the new season, it’s time to take a look at some of the ongoing questions and storylines that will inevitably crop up this year. Let’s dive in.

How will the backcourt work?

In preseason, Rose, Wade and LeBron shared the floor together for 21 minutes. This is obviously a very small sample size to work with, but in that time by pretty much every statistical measure, Wade was the third wheel. While LeBron and Rose scored efficiently, Wade seemed to struggle a bit.

Remove LeBron from the equation, which bumps the sample size up to 72 minutes, and Wade’s numbers come back to normal. This should surprise no one.

Rose, Wade and LeBron are all negligible shooting threats, doing their damage off slashing and cuts to the hoop. While Wade and James in particular are canny passers capable of doing damage in other ways, none of the three can help with the massive dearth of shooting on the floor whenever the three of them play together. Wade and James weren’t exactly perfect fits in Miami either, and made it work with effort, talent, and smart cutting. There’s less athleticism to work with now. The ceiling’s lower.

JR Smith was reportedly somewhat put out about his move to the bench, and he might well have a point. Wade still has a little gas left in the tank, but moving him to the starting lineup in place of Smith makes the whole lineup awkward. Even if you start Rose/Wade/James/Crowder/Love (more on that last one later), the floor isn’t spread nearly as much as it should be in a modern NBA offense. They need at least one more shooter on the floor. There are 3 ways to do that:

1: One of Rose, Wade and James becomes a credible threat from deep (unlikely)

2: Isaiah Thomas comes back from injury early, supplanting Rose as the starter (possible)

3: JR Smith gets his starting spot back (obvious and easy)

We’re not just dealing with Xs and Os on a clipboard here, either. There are very real chemistry and role concerns to be had coming into the season. Losing Richard Jefferson hurts the locker room, and JR Smith (and Tristan Thompson, for that matter) doesn’t seem very enthused about moving to the bench. But Rose and Wade still consider themselves starting-caliber players, and are on a lot of teams. Maybe even the Cavaliers. These guys are professionals, they take pride in their game, and there’s a certain amount of almost irrational confidence that it takes to make it in the NBA. Add to that LeBron’s reputation as being something of an overbearing teammate at times (similar to Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant or Chris Paul) and baby, you’ve got a stew going.

Wade’s name still carries weight, but the team would probably function better with him carrying the bench. Watch what Tyronn Lue does through the first part of the season with Thomas out. He has egos to manage and on-court needs to balance, and one of the two is going to have to give.

How will the frontcourt work?

The big news this offseason was Kevin Love’s move to starting center, replacing Tristan Thompson, who slides back to his bench role. Love is something of a casualty to the league’s trend towards small ball in recent years, as all over the league small forwards slide up a position to power forward and power forwards slide up to center. If you’re an NBA power forward who doesn’t have the strength and bulk to play center, you might want to start calling your agent and inquiring about overseas opportunities. When teams as traditionally devoted to two-big lineups as Oklahoma City and Memphis start downsizing, it’s not a fad any more. It’s how the game is played.

Offensively, Love is going to be tough to handle at center. He’s a gifted rebounder and has the quickness, shooting and post-up skill to be a tough matchup for most post players. He’s strong enough and bulky enough to handle himself. Defensively it’ll be more of a problem.

Love is better on defense than his reputation, but he’s still not the guy you want anchoring your center spot on the offensive end. He’s far from a rim protector, and though his defensive rebounding helps a lot, he’s not the kind of quick-footed defender you’d like on your back line.

Watch for teams to target Love in pick and roll throughout the season, and particularly in the playoffs. Moving him to center helps, but there’s really nowhere to hide on that end, and when you’re the guy responsible for cleaning up everyone else’s mistakes, there’s little margin for error.

Jae Crowder sliding into the forward rotation next to LeBron, though, is absolutely the kind of move Cleveland has to be jumping for joy about. LeBron’s best years in Miami were next to Shane Battier, a good analog for the role Crowder will play. Battier’s ability to take the toughest matchup on defense, make the smart play and knock down outside shots on the other end was the perfect complement to LeBron, and Crowder provides the same Swiss Army Knife skillset.

In fact, if you look at this Cleveland team, it’s perhaps closer to that last Miami team than anything LeBron has had since. If the Cavaliers wind up with a lineup of Isaiah Thomas/Dwyane Wade/LeBron James/Jae Crowder/Kevin Love, you can squint and see the offensive mirror universe counterpart to the defensively-minded lineup of Mario Chalmers/Dwyane Wade/LeBron James/Shane Battier/Chris Bosh.

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That really is the rub. Cleveland, whether or not they have spacing issues with the Rose/Wade combo, is not going to have trouble scoring. Their problem has been getting stops. Will moving Love to center and sliding Crowder into the lineup help? Possibly. Will LeBron devoting at least a speck of care to his regular season defense help? Probably (though that’s up in the air).

Will any of this matter?

The elephant in the room for the 2017–2018 NBA season is the Golden State Warriors, who cemented themselves firmly among the best teams in league history last year and only got better in the offseason. With the weakness of the Eastern Conference, there are few teams that can stand up to the Cavaliers in the playoffs, and odds are fairly good that we’ll wind up seeing a Finals rematch between the Dubs and the Cavs in 2018 (though the Celtics, Raptors and Wizards could provide some drama).

For LeBron and company, today begins an 82-game preamble to the real season: the postseason. With some old friends and some old rivals on board, the Cavaliers are going for another Finals. Will they make it?

Among all the questions the Cavs face this season, that’s the only one that matters. And with whispers growing about LeBron considering a move to greener pastures, it may matter even more than it has before.

Buckle up. It’s going to be a ride.

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