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NBA 2015-16 Season Preview: Cleveland Cavaliers look to take final step and win NBA title

It doesn't figure to be smooth, but the Cavs are back to challenge for a championship

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

This was supposed to be the year of the juggernaut Cavs. The year the death star was fully operational. The year all of the concerns about fit and contract status went away. The year the Cleveland Cavaliers put aside the drama and came out on all cylinders. One mission, one focus, and everything was the prelude to May and June when they would get their shot to finally bring home their first NBA championship.

And let's be clear, that last part still rings true. This team is and will remain heavily favored to come out of the Eastern Conference and play in the NBA Finals. This team will build and work towards that moment. Kevin Love isn't going anywhere. Kyrie Irving's max contract is just kicking in. LeBron James re-signed this summer with little fanfare or intrigue. This team will be damn good.

But let's be clear about the first part. This will not be a boring regular season. The Cavs will face adversity. Some of it will be because Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are working back from injury. Some of it will be because Anderson Varejao and Timofey Mozgov and Iman Shumpert are coming back from injury. It'll also be because this franchise can't do it any other way. Whether it was Anthony Bennett or Dion Waiters or Andrew Bynum, this team does drama. Last year they did drama and they did wins. They aren't mutually exclusive.

Buckle up. There will be some speed bumps. The coach will say things that makes you scratch your head. LeBron James will say things that make you scratch your head. You'll wonder what the deal with Kyrie Irving's injury is. And it'll be okay. The turbulence will come with 50-some regular season wins and the chance to bring Cleveland it's first major sport professional title since ... well, you know. Let's get to it.

kyrie ot

Team Name: Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Year's Record: 53-29
Key Losses: Shawn Marion, Mike Miller
Key Additions: LeBron James, Kevin Love

Okay, that was last year. Still feels relevant. Mo Williams, Richard Jefferson, and Sasha Kaun will have to suffice this year.

1. What Significant Moves were made during the off-season?

Kevin Love re-signed for five years. Everyone asked you last year, "So what's the deal with Kevin Love? Is he going to go to LA? Does he get along with LeBron? I can't believe he would stay."

And then you patiently explained that he's been kind of hurt, and is really good, and that the NBA salary cap allows the Cavs to offer more money than anyone else, and all he's said is that he was planning on coming back, and ... yeah, you know how it went. There was ultimately very little drama, and Love re-signed quickly. Now that he's in Cleveland long term, the Cavs know they have Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, and Love locked up for the foreseeable future. That's a contender with complementary pieces around the three.

The Cavs should have just that. Iman Shumpert signed an expensive four year deal to be a versatile wing defender, and we continue to wait on Tristan Thompson to sign an expensive four year deal to be a versatile defender at the center and power forward positions. Get those signings wrapped up, and it's hard to see a serious challenger in the East arising in the next two or three years.

2. What are the team's biggest strengths?

Scoring basketballs. Lineups involving Irving, Love and James with either Timo Mozgov or Tristan Thompson scored at levels that would break historical records were it sustained for an entire season. They did it over a big sample of minutes last year, and the level of talent among the three would indicate that it wasn't a fluke - and is repeatable. The pairing of James and Irving in particular put defenses in a no-win situation last season. Irving was a dead-eye spot up shooter, and he ranked as one of the best (if not the best) isolation scorers. According to, the only other player in the league with a usage rate over 24%, an assist to turnover ratio of 2:1, and a true shooting rate of over 58 was Stephen Curry.

Offensively, it's a collection of supremely gifted scorers and passers in Irving, Love, and James with tremendous Pick and Roll finishers in Mozgov and Thompson, and dead-eye shooting from J.R. Smith. Shumpert doesn't shoot well, but does do enough where he isn't dragging down your offense. Richard Jefferson and Matthew Dellavedova should be able to both knock down open three pointers and keep the ball moving while maintaining low usage. That last part is important: the more possessions for James, Irving, and Love the better.

kevin love

3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?

Can they play championship level defense? LeBron's losing a bit of his all-world athleticism. Kevin Love slipped from a season of average defense in Minnesota to something less than that. Tristan Thompson teases skills, but doesn't consistently protect the rim at a level you'd expect from a center. Timofey Mozgov does, but fouls a lot and can be schemed off the court. He's never played more than 26 minutes per game for a season. Kyrie Irving took steps forward, but has not shown himself to be a capable defender yet.

Now, they'll score enough for it to not matter until deep in the playoffs. But when you are looking for 16 playoff wins, the line between a title and nothing is razor thin. Shaving tenths of a point off of what they give up per possession becomes something worth poring over. Many won't believe the Cavs can do it until it actually happens. It's fair. But they may do it all the same.


5. What are the goals for this team?

The Cavs employ LeBron James. There is only one goal.

6. What can Anderson Varejao provide for the Cavs?

I worry about lineups where Varejao is in the frontcourt with Mozgov or Kevin Love. There just isn't enough foot speed or mobility there, and with today's league rewarding driving and active and mobile power forwards, being able to move your feet is more important than ever. Varejao can spread the floor with his money midrange jumper, but it's hard to see that being a much better offensive option than the Big 3, and if Love is on the floor there's a ton of spacing anyway.

But perhaps the Tristan Thompson pairing could work for the Cavs. There's no rim protection, but Thompson can guard stretch fours and let Varejao hang back near the rim. He still won't protect it, but taking charges could be an outcome that works. He can make up for Thompson's lack of range and provide spacing for drives. Neither Varejao nor Thompson will start. Perhaps Varejao will step on Thompson's offensive toes going for rebounds like we say before LeBron James' return. But it may be the only way.

Do check out Andrew Schnitkey's Cavs preview over at Waiting For Next Year. He's been breaking down the Cavs better than anyone else for much longer than anyone else.