At this time last year, things were very different for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Kyrie Irving was recovering from knee surgery. Kevin Love was working his way back from shoulder surgery after a summer of not being able to workout his upper body. David Blatt was still the head coach, and questions surrounding the center position with Tristan Thompson still unsigned and Timofey Mozgov looking like a shell of his former self.
Beyond the health questions and contract disputes, the Cavs had other concerning red flags last season. Their inability to care about the regular season caused many to question how invested players were in the success of the team. The optics weren't good, as speculation of players feuding and inner turmoil often received more focus than the games themselves.
The firing of David Blatt and promotion of Tyronn Lue removed some of the issues, but the team still seemed to lack effort at times in the regular season. That all changed as the playoffs neared. The switch was flipped, the team had fun and they rolled through the Eastern Conference with relative ease. When things got tough against the Golden State Warriors, the team didn't turn on one another as it had in the past, they dug deep, rallied and ultimately won their first championship.
With last year's team lacking effort with something to prove, it's reasonable to wonder if the focus will be there with this year's team. If the Cavs have a late night before a game in Atlanta or Toronto, is it really a cause for concern?
The obvious answer is no. This team knows what it takes to win and are fully grown men capable of making their own decisions. But there's reason to believe this team won't have the championship hangover many are predicting.
Because of that reality, the arrival of Kevin Durant to the Golden State Warriors might be a blessing to the Cavaliers. While it creates a nightmarish blend of talent and scoring ability in The Bay, it also creates a sense of urgency for the Cavs and helps focus their eyes on clearing an even higher bar than last season.
While social media was not kind to the Warriors this summer, one thing that has been fairly clear is that both Finals teams gained respect for each other. There wasn't the same trash talk of last summer, or even from midway through the Finals. Reports used to suggest that the Warriors felt the Cavs were a better team without Irving and Love, but it was clear that at least Irving gained the respect of the Warriors during the Finals. The Cavs understand how good last year's team was, and the challenge that is in front of them this season. Beyond preparing for the tall task of repeating, there are individual season goals that will help the Cavs keep their focus.
There also may not be a better chance for LeBron James to add another MVP to his collection than this season and as he goes, the Cavs go. With Durant And Stephen Curry, cannibalizing votes, the Spurs taking a step back, and players like James Harden and Russell Westbrook on teams that will struggle to get home court in the playoffs, James is in prime position to collect another MVP award. While he may not need to do much more than his usual 26/7/7, there's a few things that may contribute to him having a more efficient season.
The first is that he has reportedly working on his shooting form as his primary focus this summer. Back in July, David Griffin mentioned that James would work with Damon Jones to improve his shooting form. With the trust his teammates have earned over their championship run, it's likely that we will see James play off ball more and not feel the need to takeover in the same way he did in the past. James is at his most dangerous when he's able to pick his moments and let the game come to him. I expect him to return to that style of play this season.
The second is Irving's quest to prove himself as the best point guard in the league. While he isn't there yet, there had been several instances where it's been reported that Irving was motivated to prove that he is on the same level as the NBA's unanimous MVP. After missing the start of last season, Irving was not selected to the All Star game. Despite his incredible playoff run, most summer rankings have had Irving behind many of his peers like John Wall, Damian Lillard and Kyle Lowry. Irving's career has been filled with people doubting whether or not what he can do is sustainable. But it's clear that he is one of the top offensive players in the NBA. And at 24, he still has a lot to prove in the eyes of the basketball world. Even though he has accomplished more than most ever will. That chip will help fuel Irving throughout the season.
And then there’s Love. His exclusion from the All-Star game last season felt questionable, and many still question his fit with the Cavaliers. The absence of Mozgov should be a blessing for Love. The gap at backup center means he will get more time operating as a five, where he can operate out of the high post and maximize his abilities as a play-maker.
A lot of Love's success in Minnesota came off similar looks, and we've seen some of these actions implemented in the preseason. While he will still have to take on a minimized role next to Irving and James - especially in match-ups against the Warriors - out of necessity the Cavs will be forced to use him in ways that help get more out of him. While players that sacrifice for the good of the team are praised in most situations, Love seems to be repel that type of recognition. While his raw numbers will never be what they were in Minnesota, an increase in his role gives him the opportunity to try and change how he is viewed around the league. As well as prove what most that follow the Cavs already know, which is that he is essential to the success of this team.
So while there will be nights where the team isn't firing on all cylinders, this is a deep talented roster that still has plenty to prove. This likely will be the best roster the Cavaliers have ever put on a court, and look primed to deliver on the offensive fireworks that were envisioned when this roster was first put together.