We stand a full quarter of the way into the NBA season, and there has been no shortage of storylines. It's the year of the small forward, as Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James put up what would normally be MVP numbers. The Cleveland Cavaliers, as expected, are on top of the Eastern Conference. The Golden State Warriors, as expected, are on top of the Western Conference. Of course, that obscures what has happened early on.
The Warriors are playing historic basketball. Steph Curry is putting up shooting numbers heretofore unseen at usage levels of his kind. They have lineups that are getting nicknames, and seem very much interested in breaking the Bulls record of 72 regular season wins. They are the reigning champs, and seem keen to prove that's no accident. At the same time, the Cavs are just 8th in the NBA in net rating. Since an early season blowout win over Memphis, the wins have been hard fought. ESPN's Vegas Rankings put them fifth in the NBA, behind even the Miami Heat in projecting who might be favored in prospective head to head matchups.
Is the sky falling? Is another season of LeBron James' dwindling prime a lost cause? Will the rise of the Warriors doom Cleveland's best chance at a major professional championship? It's too early to say, but there is reason to believe the Cavs are still in good shape. The West is tough, and the Warriors might not even make it through to the Finals. Either way, here's why the Cavs can still feel confident.
The roster is full of versatility
The Warriors are filled to the brim with shooters and defenders and passers. Steph Curry puts a ridiculous amount of pressure on defenses, and Draymond Green provides just enough shooting to stretch defenses and complement his next-level passing ability. Whether the Cavs can or can't match up with the Warriors will have to be decided later on, but there isn't another team in the league with the type of offensive firepower and versatility to counter what the Warriors can bring to the table.
It starts with LeBron James, who is playing excellent defense and can guard five positions on the floor. Scoff at the idea of James at center if you want, but it's something the Cavs can go to in spurts if it is indeed the Warriors they meet in the Finals. He has an all-around offensive game. His combination of size, speed, passing, and finishing ability, with just enough shooting, is amongst the most unique in the history of the game. Only Oscar Robertson joins him in the top 25 of points and assists in NBA history.
Next to him will be Kyrie Irving, who positively impacted James' performance in a big way last season. Irving scores in isolation with the best players in the league, giving James the ability to rest offensively without the team skipping a beat. It draws defensive attention, and we saw James thrive in Irving's drive and kick situations last year. Irving provides an outlet for James drives as well; few point guards shoot the ball like Irving in spot-up situations.
The Cavs will likely put Irving and James in more pick and rolls when Irving comes back, in some ways emulating the Warriors. With the ability to surround them with shooters like Matthew Dellavedova, J.R. Smith, and Kevin Love to go along with James' extraordinary passing ability ... well, teams around the league can't be all that excited. LeBron James passing out of potential four on three situations with shooters around him just isn't fair, and while Irving can't do what Curry does, defenses can't let him get moving to the basket and he has the ability to hit that pull-up three.
Did someone mention Kevin Love? The Cavs have been, albeit inconsistently, using the power forward more creatively, better taking advantage of his prodigious offensive gifts. He can facilitate, he can move, he can shoot. There are few skills he doesn't bring to the table offensively. In the NBA playoffs, it gets increasingly difficult to hide guys who are completely incapable of scoring. Love gives the Cavs another elite option to bend defenses and make life easier for Smith, Shumpert, Dellavedova, and Tristan Thompson.
Those role players are just that, capable of filling roles. There isn't anything defensively that Thompson is bad at, and Iman Shumpert has defensive versatility as well. Shooters never go out of style, and spot up roles for Smith and Dellavedova are right in line with what they can do. Whether Timofey Mozgov bounces back is an open question, but it's hard to believe he will continue to play this poorly. If nothing else, he provides a rim protector the Cavs can deploy in spot situations. We've seen him be much more valuable than that, though, and 21 games is too early to write him off.
The Cavs still have go-to lineups that run teams off the floor
Even without Kyrie Irving or Iman Shumpert playing a single minute, the Cavs have found lineups that have wrought destruction on opponents this season. Last season, the Cavs Big 3 lineups + Tristan Thompson or Timofey Mozgov scored at will and played effective defense. When it came to bench production, Dellavedova, Shumpert, LeBron James, and Tristan Thompson lineups extended leads.
This year it's familiar names in slightly different packaging. Matthew Dellavedova, LeBron James, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson have outscored opponents by 39.3 points per 100 possessions in 143 minutes. This comes a year after a similar lineup swapping out Delly for Shawn Marion outscored opponents by 25.1 points per 100 possessions in 147 minutes. It also comes a year after a lineup swapping out Delly for Kyrie Irving with James, Love and Thompson outscored opponents by 21 points per 100 possessions in 402 minutes. In other words, we have a ton of evidence that these types of lineups run roughshod over the league. I assume a nickname is forthcoming.
Getting away from specific lineups, the Cavs are playing very well when the potentially hobbled Mozgov sits:
Cavs traded for Mozgov last year to fix the defense. This year, they’re a top 3 D….as long as Mozgov doesn’t play. pic.twitter.com/RrDGHQOjUb— Conrad Kaczmarek (@ConradKaz) December 9, 2015
Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert are waiting in the wings, but the Cavs have already isolated groups that work and sustained solid defensive play.
I'm not sure James is the best player in the world anymore, but he still does more things for an organization, and has a larger, broader skillset, than anyone else in the NBA. He's desperate. He needs more titles. He needs one for Cleveland. He needs one if he wants to catch the legacy of Michael and probably even Magic. You know it's Cleveland because a James title for the city feels both inevitable and out of reach all at once.
James didn't have much help last season, and the Cavs still pulled out two wins in their series with the Warriors. Bizarrely, losing that series is likely to give LeBron and company confidence should the teams meet again. If the Cavs make it to the Finals and have all their horses, they'll be intent to prove they are on the Warriors' level. Or maybe even a notch above.
Editor's note: This article was edited to reflect a better understanding of ESPN's Vegas ranks.