When the expectations for your team are title or bust, it creates a level of anxiety for fans throughout a season. For the first two years of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ ‘Big Three’, this has frequently been the case.
With two coaching changes, consistent tinkering to the style of play as well as countless mid-season hiccups, it seemed fair to question if the team was ready to make a championship run.
If you have been living under a rock the last few months, the Cavs managed to learn on the fly and come away with the 2016 NBA Championship. While each round provided different heroes at different moments, there were some trends that emerged that the Cavs can learn from heading into next season.
Tyronn Lue’s adjustments to his rotation, most notably up front, propelled the Cavs to the next level in the playoffs. The effectiveness of these adjustments, as well as the obscene deal handed out by the Los Angeles Lakers, made letting Timofey Mozgov walk in free agency a no-brain decision.
Tristan Thompson excelled in a starting role last season and proved to be a crucial piece in winning it all. It’s fair to assume that he will continue to play in that role moving forward. Beyond that, the utilization of Channing Frye and Kevin Love at center showed us glimpses of the offensive potential of this team.
The Cavs have always been great with Thompson at center, but being able to sustain that level of production by elevating the offense to a level that makes up for the defensive drop off allows the Cavs to truly unlock the potential of this roster.
LeBron’s bench mob
Having LeBron James play with four shooters allows him to utilize his vision and put tremendous stress on the defense. The Cavs best lineups in the playoffs was often James with Channing Frye, Iman Shumpert, Richard Jefferson and Matthew Dellavedova. That lineup had a +36 Net rating in 77 minutes of play during the playoffs.
By subbing James out early and utilizing him as a power forward in a spaced out lineup, it allows Irving and Love to get into a rhythm offensively with the rest of the starters. Contending with the James-less starters to close out quarters keeps the opposing starters in the game deep into the quarter, as they are still a formidable duo to contend with. But when the subsequent quarter starts, teams simply did not have the depth to deal with James and the bench mob. The absence of Dellavedova will likely be felt, but the key to the success of those lineups was James functioning as the initiator of the offense with spacing around him.
That type of look could be replicated by inserting Mike Dunleavy Jr. into the bench mob lineup in place of Dellavedova. Mo Williams is another option if he is healthy. The most important part to making those lineups work however is Frye, due to his ability to space the floor.
Emphasizing the stretch five
The other look the Cavs used in the playoffs was Love at center, which featured a lot of the same benefits of the Frye lineups. A key difference in comparison to Frye is that Love is actually a fairly solid post defender. Love’s ability to cover centers like Andre Drummond, Al Horford and Andrew Bogut allowed the power forward - either Thompson or James - to cover the more mobile big men. Love’s struggles in the pick and roll are well known, but there are other ways to limit the amount of opportunities the opposition hunts him down using that play. Combine that with his ability to hold his own on the block and it presents the Cavs with a legitimate option at center for stretches of the game.
Love also possess great vision for his position, meaning he can be relied upon to make the right play with the ball and be an offensive hub. That ability carries more significance at the center position.
Part of why the Cavs traded for Love was because they knew he was capable of carrying a larger load as James ages. With James preserving himself in order to try and make a seventh straight NBA Finals, next year is the perfect time to start utilizing Love more in the regular season.
The sacrifices Love has made over the past two seasons have helped the Cavs play at their highest level possible. While maximizing him more in the regular season may not yield the best production possible with this roster, it’ll help reduce the load on everybody and keep the team in good shape to compete in the post-season. Who knows, it’s possible that the Cavs discover something that works with Love as an offensive hub and choose to keep it come playoffs.
A taste of what’s to come
Beyond the lineup adjustments, the biggest change in the playoffs was Kyrie Irving returning to form after his knee surgery. He returned to the level of play that Cavs fans have become accustomed to, then surpassed all expectations.
Shortly after his twenty fourth birthday Irving showed that he can be one of the most devastating offensive weapons in the NBA. His improvement moving forward likely won’t come in the form of dramatic leaps in efficiency or raw numbers, as he already brings that to the table. Rather, the improvements will come from a better understanding of the game. Knowing when to force the issue, when to rotate the ball and when to take over. The defensive end of the floor is obviously what many will point to, and rightfully so, but his greatest impact will come from his contributions on the offensive side of the floor. His mastery of that end will be what takes him from being a star, to a superstar.
Ideally, Irving develops into a solid team defender, similar to the way Steph Curry plays within the Warriors defensive schemes. But defending elite point guards will always be a team effort, as you’ll never see a point guard left on an island against Curry, Irving, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard or other greats at the position.
Irving represents the future of the Cavaliers, both as the eventual face of the franchise, and as the bulk of the internal growth they can expect from their current roster. In a regular season that carries little significance for the Cavs, nurturing Irving and helping him cement himself in the conversation of best point guard in the NBA will be a top priority. After having to go through four coaches in five years and multiple offensive and defensive systems, it appears he will finally have stability in his career. He has erased questions of whether or not you can win with him, now all that is left is answering the question of what is next.
While the spectre of the Golden State Warriors looms over the NBA, the Cavs can attest to how long and grueling the process of finding continuity, managing egos and sacrificing for the good of the team can be. The Cavs are running back a talented core with a lot left in the tank, a core that has been united in earning a championship and that trusts the person next to them. The Warriors have provided them with added motivation next year and the opportunity to pull off another historic upset.