The 2015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers will start their season tonight, as they try to get back to the NBA Finals. Even though Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert are out with injuries, and LeBron James and Timofey Mozgov may still be injured, there is plenty to get excited about ahead of the tip against the Chicago Bulls. You can find Justin's breakdown of tonight's game here, and Carter has your massive season preview link barrage here.
But does the season really start if there's no Fear the Sword roundtable to give you adequate #hottakes before tonight's tip? David Zavac, Jack Zink, Mike Mayer, Justin Rowan, Conrad Kaczmarek, Ryan Mourton, and Trevor Magnotti are here to offer their last-minute opinions before the season starts.
LeBron James is a favorite for the league's MVP award. Who is the Cavs second-best player and why? Who is the second-most important player and why?
David Zavac (@DavidZavac): I'm not sure. Last year, Kyrie Irving was the Cavs' second-best player. There's not much more that you could expect from him offensively. His awareness in terms of setting up teammates will likely evolve, but there isn't a part of his game offensively that could be categorized as anything approaching a weakness. Kevin Love saw his offensive role change from when he was in Minnesota. With the Timberwolves, many thought of Love as a top 10 player in the NBA. His ability to spread the floor for James and Irving drives and Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov dunks was huge.
Without Love's ability to shoot and pass and score from the perimeter, the Cavs' pick and roll game would take a bit of a hit. With Thompson, though, the Cavs would have a formidable defense when he plays next to Mozgov. The Cavs have options and that's pretty fun. Without knowing what Mo Williams can provide, I'll say that Irving is more important this season.
Jack Zink (@Jackson_Zink): Injuries aside, Irving is their second best player, but not by much. A lot of why Love struggled last year was because of his discomfort in the offense and changes he had to make on that end, forcing him away from what made him successful in Minnesota. Irving, on the other hand, didn’t have to make a dramatic change on the offensive end, and that’s his numbers didn’t take a hit when Love and LeBron joined him in Cleveland. All together, it’s why Irving was an All-Star and Love was not.
On the other hand, that concept is what makes Love the more important player. The Cavs were a top-three offense with Love playing out of position and out of comfort -- just imagine how good they could of been if Love was used properly? With Irving missing anywhere from one game to a few weeks, it’ll be important how much Love grows (and how much LeBron lets him grow) within the offense. If Love can improve upon last year’s performance and at least show more than just flashes of his Minnesota days, the Cavs offense will become borderline unstoppable.
Mike Mayer (@MikeMayer64): I wouldn’t mind seeing Love play more of a role in the offense this season, but either way, the answer here is Irving. Last season, he had to adjust to playing with LeBron, but he did so quite well. He hit a career-high 41.5 percent of his threes, and averaged the fewest turnovers per 100 possessions of his career.
He is really good, and he is still only 23.
Justin Rowan (@Cavsanada): I think that Kevin Love is the Cavs second best player, but there is a possibility that Kyrie Irving overtook him last season, or will this year. It’s a lot easier to get a guard involved in the offense and with Love banged up last season, he really was a bit of an afterthought. There isn’t a single thing you would want offensively out of your power forward that Love can’t do. He’s probably the second most important player because of the opportunities his presence opens up for Irving and James. But if Love is healthy and himself again this season, if Irving overtakes him that’s a nice situation to be in.
Conrad Kaczmarek (@ConradKaz): The Cavs’ second best player is Kyrie Irving. You can’t really go wrong picking between him or Kevin Love, so it’s more a matter of personal preference. Kyrie is one of the most dynamic scorers in the league and might just be the second best non-specialist shooter in the league. His ridiculous ability to break you down off the dribble creates so many opportunities for his teammates, even if it doesn’t always show up in the assist column. Once Kyrie puts a dude on skates, the entire defense has to scramble to help. If an opposing team has nobody that can semi-reliably keep Kyrie out of the paint, it’s game over.
Ryan Mourton (@Ryan_Mourton): Last year, the answer to both of those questions was Kyrie Irving. This year will most likely be more of the same, with the caveat that the Cavs second most important player will be Kevin Love given the time Kyrie might be out.
Kyrie is one of the four most complete scorers in the NBA (Curry, Durant, Harden), and paired with LeBron and Love he is impossible to guard. His existence on the court and ability to score from anywhere and on anyone makes everyone else better.
Trevor Magnotti (@IllegalScreens): I think the Cavs’ second-best player this season is Kevin Love, and that’s why I also think he’s going to be most important this year behind LeBron. Love’s spacing and creating abilities are likely the best in the league of any big man, and that’s going to be particularly important for this year’s edition of the Cavs, simply because Love will be asked to do far more with Kyrie and Iman Shumpert sidelined with injury for parts of the first half of the season. The Cavs need to shift more of their offensive focus to Love this year, and his unique almost guard-like skills out of the high post will help relieve some of the burden from bench players who will have to step up in Kyrie and Shump’s places.
Outside of the Big 3, who is a player you are excited to see this year? What are you looking for from that player?
David: Excited may not be the word, but I’m curious to see what Timofey Mozgov does this season. What kind of minutes will he play? Is he ready to play 30 minutes a game and be a full-time starter? Is he healthy? If he is, the Cavs have a great chance to win a championship. He also might be looking at $80+ million next summer.
One thing that gets lost in these contract discussions: it’s generally a good thing that your players command a lot of money. It usually means they are pretty good!
Jack: Why not Tristan Thompson? His contract dispute was well-documented and even more criticized for what he did end up receiving. I’ve argued that this is a good contract him and the team, but that’s not the point. It’s gonna be hard for him to improve dramatically on the offensive end playing alongside the Big 3, but there’s still questions looming at large about his game: can he hit any sort of jumper? Is he a better finisher at the rim? If he doesn’t show any sort of improvement on that end, his contract critics will grow louder. If he does improve? Well, he’s only 24 and the Cavs have him locked up for five years.
Mike: Mo Williams, both because I’m a sucker for nostalgia, but also because it will presumably be fun to watch the Cavs score actual points when LeBron, Kyrie, and Love are on the bench.
Justin: I’m also going to go with Mo Williams. I think having Kyrie and Mo together at times will allow the Cavs to do a lot of fun things offensively with multiple playmakers. I also think his presence will allow the Cavs to stagger the minutes of the big three and play with Love as a featured player with a non-Kyrie/LeBron playmaker. Plus the nostalgia is real, I want to bring back all of the '09 Cavs to give them rings.
Conrad: I’m definitely excited to see how Tristan Thompson develops his game following a very strong season and subsequent enormous payday. Now, I’m not someone who gives a damn if a player is "overpaid" or not -- the contract negotiations are now mercifully in the past and all that matters is that Tristan will be a member of the Cavaliers for the long haul. Cleveland has a unique piece in Thompson, as we saw in the Finals. He’s one of the best big men in the league at switching onto perimeter players in the pick and roll. That’s a pretty powerful weapon if the coaching staff figures out the best way to harness that ability. I’m curious to see if they can use him as a Draymond Green-lite and be a little more willing to unleash him on bigger wings for extended portions of the game. All I care about with regards to Tristan is on the defensive side of the floor. Don’t care about a jump shot, don’t care about post moves. Just make that leap from solid defender to excellent defender.
Ryan: My first choice was Thompson, but others said him and basically gave the same reasons I would. There is a primal joy I feel watching him chase rebounds so relentlessly.
I’ll say J.R. Smith. If he is the player he was last year, it will be a ton of fun. His shooting and play making were both really enjoyable because they were only used in high leverage situations. More of that will be great to see. His half season numbers on spot up threes put him in the same breath as Klay Thompson and Kyle Korver. A full season of that might change some narratives.
Trevor: I’m actually most excited for Iman Shumpert, when he gets back from his wrist injury. I think Shump has the best chance of any Cav to make a leap, even ahead of Tristan. I think given another offseason to learn schemes and wash the Knicks off of him will lead to significant improvement on the defensive end, and that’s where the Cavs need him to get better, in order to both solidify his role and to take pressure off of the other Cavs wings who would be better served not defending the opponent’s best wing scorer. And given that Shump’s been forced to take some extra time to work on his off hand because of the surgery, I’m interested to see if Shump will be a better ball-handler this season, which would be very helpful as well, because another player who can bring the ball up the floor that isn’t Delly is always welcome. I think Shump could have a very good season, even if he only plays about half of it.
Who will come out of the Western Conference and why?
David: The smart bet is the Warriors, but I’m on the Rockets bandwagon a bit. They have great depth, got Ty Lawson for … not much at all, and perhaps this is the year Dwight Howard stays healthy. They have a frontcourt that can match just about anyone in the NBA (of course, I’m partial to the one in Cleveland) and James Harden finished second in MVP voting. I think they’ve got a great shot to get through.
Jack: Originally, I had the Los Angeles Clippers as my pick and felt fairly confident in it. Then I remembered that Kevin Durant is coming back with bad intentions, and that’s all I really needed to know to make my pick. Then again, the Thunder do have another top-five player in Russell Westbrook, who is equally as hellbent on destroying the Western Conference as Durant is. And they have one of the best interior defenders in the league in Serge Ibaka. And they have a coach who’s willing to let his top players play their games.
Here’s something: the Thunder haven’t lost a series since 2013 in which all three of those players are healthy. If (extremely large if) they’re healthy, they’re the best team in the West.
Mike: I have no idea. I’m just thankful Cleveland is located where it is so the Cavs don’t have to deal with that bloodbath. If I had to bet, I guess I’d put my money on the Warriors. Maybe that’s a boring pick, but they were by far the best team last year, and not much has changed. The argument against them seems to be some version of "Well they got lucky last year and that won’t happen again." I don’t know, maybe that’s right. Certainly there are a lot of other good teams gunning for them. But I’m not going to make my pick based on who I think will get lucky, I’m going to make it based on who has the best team.
Justin: It really is going to be dependent on the seeding. The Warriors are so fantastic, but I think I’m going to go with the Clippers coming out of the West. They added a ton of depth over the summer, and if Doc Rivers can maximize the talent he has and they stay healthy, I think they can be a major force in the West.
Conrad: It’s mostly impossible to know who will actually emerge, but the Warriors should be the favorite in the Western Conference. After what they did last season, they’re the best team until proven otherwise. That said, I’m picking the Thunder. Why? Because I always pick the Thunder. They have two top-five players and if they ever get some good luck with health, I think that’s too much to handle in a playoff series. You can make all the adjustments you want, but there’s no scheme that can account for a 7' tall cyborg designed in a lab to get buckets at small forward and an anthropomorphized jet engine at point guard.
Ryan: I’ll say the Warriors on the strength of last year's work. It’s a toss up, and maybe they’re due for a little bad luck on the health front though, after every other contender got stung last season.
Trevor: From a purely fan standpoint, I loved watching the Rockets last year, and I think they have a great shot to surprise people and advance out of the West. But let’s not overthink things. Kevin Durant is healthy, Russell Westbrook is still mad at everything, and their bench is actually pretty decent even with Dion. The Thunder are winning this thing if they stay healthy.
What’s an Eastern Conference team that intrigues you and why?
David: I’ll go away from the Pistons here: what’s going on with the Knicks? I like a frontcourt of Melo, Robin Lopez and Kyle O’Quinn off the bench. Arron Afflalo is an actual NBA player. Langston Galloway wasn’t terrible last year. They could, maybe, push for the 8 seed in the East. Or it could go terribly and then Carmelo Anthony is a potential trade piece again. Houston and Boston become options if that’s the case. It’d be interesting. Last year they were bad and boring and mostly sad. This year could be a little better.
Jack: What are the Miami Heat? They have some nice pieces, but I don’t necessarily know if they all fit. You have Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside who both want to get out and run, but then you have Dwyane Wade and Luol Deng who both want to slow the pace down. Chris Bosh is sort of in the middle of that. Will the Heat try to please Wade and slow it down? Or will they try to play with their roster strengths and increase the pace on both ends? The Heat have the biggest dispersion on where they could finish in the East -- I could see them finishing anywhere from second to seventh -- and a lot of that is due to the conflicting styles within their own team. I don’t know if they will figure it out, but if they do, they will be the biggest threat to the Cavs in the East. And hopefully we’ll get a LeBron-Wade playoff series that we’ve longed deserved.
Mike: The Chicago Bulls have been a perennial contender in the East; will that continue? There seemed to be some friction between Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler this offseason. Rose’s health will probably be a constant concern, as per usual. They’re also trying to rotate frontcourt minutes between four guys (Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah, Nikola Mirotic, and Taj Gibson). Oh, and they’ve got a new coach who has never coached an NBA game before.
I actually like Fred Hoiberg, and the East is so bad that Chicago will still probably be the second-best team. But I wouldn’t be shocked to see them take a step back.
Justin: I’m going to go with the Washington Wizards. They have a lot of players that are expected to take a leap and with them looking to make a pitch for Kevin Durant next summer, they really need more than just John Wall being a very good player to pry him away from Russell Westbrook and the Thunder. They need to sign Beal within the next year, so it’ll be interesting to see if he takes the leap now, or if they just have to sign him and hope next summer. Otto Porter has also shown flashes, but they have been few and far between. So it’ll be interesting to watch and see how much growth actually occurs with Wall, Beal and Porter.
Conrad: Can I say none of the above? Fine, if I have to pick one it’s the Boston Celtics. Not because I think they’re anything special but because I’m apparently missing something that makes everybody and their projection models love them. I’m just not sure what 11 average-ish NBA players gets you, even in the East. I think they’ll fall far short of 50..49...48...47 wins, but what do I know? If they’re not nearly as good as most people seem to think, I’ll enjoy strutting around on Twitter about being correct. And if they’re actually quite good, I’ll have some crow to eat (but no scorpions). I guess that makes them intriguing.
Ryan: I’m going Pistons. Mostly because I need to keep track of them. Justin, Chris, and Carter all are expecting to mock me all season because I said the Pistons would be better than the Wizards. The numbers with Reggie Jackson and Drummond together without Monroe were absurd. They have a mess of stretch fours in Ilyasova, Morris, and Tolliver ensuring one is always on the floor. Meeks and Caldwell-Pope were average on shooting threes, but a three-out pick and roll with Jackson and Drummond has serious potential. Stan has built his spaced, drive and kick roster around a dominant rebounder. We know how this goes.
I still don’t see why everyone is buying big on the Wizards all of a sudden, but it seems to happen every year. Maybe one of their two players coming off back injuries, Kris Humphries, or Otto Porter will suddenly make Randy Wittman a great coach. They’ll be good, but are they really better than last year’s team?
Trevor: The East is garbage for the most part, so it’s hard to pick a team that is particularly intriguing, but I’m kind of interested to see what the Bucks look like this year. They bring their core from last year’s surprise team back, get Jabari Parker back healthy, and I actually liked their two additions in Greg Monroe and Greivis Vasquez. Monroe gives them an interior scoring presence who fits nicely next to their army of stretchy dive men, and I’m excited to see how he plays defensively on a team that’s not a total cluster on that end of the floor. Meanwhile, Vasquez’s positives (three-point shooting, fast break passing) fill in for a lot of Michael Carter-Williams’s negatives, and playing them together seems like it will work, in theory. Plus, Giannis! Whatever that means, because I have no idea how to project him! I think they’re a year away from making a run at a top 3 seed, but they’re definitely a team I’m wary of coming out of the 4/5 matchup for the Cavs in the second round.