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Cleveland Cavaliers season preview: Can the Cavs be competent without LeBron James?

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It’s time for the Cavs to prove they can move on.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Having lost LeBron James to the Lakers, the Cleveland Cavaliers are on a new journey to prove themselves. This is a franchise that had to luck into top picks and LeBron coming home to actually win games. And even that process was full of drama.

For Cleveland, this year is the start of a journey of proving it can be competent without No. 23 on its team.

Team Name: Cleveland Cavaliers

Last Year’s Record: 50-32

Key Losses: LeBron James, Jose Calderon, Jeff Green

Key Additions: Collin Sexton, Channing Frye, David Nwaba, Sam Dekker

1. What significant moves were made during the off-season?

The Cavs’ offseason started with losing LeBron James on July 1, as it shaped everything else that was to come. Even if the Cavs are able to make a run at a playoff spot this year, and are better than expected, losing LeBron means the Cavs will be worse this year. There is no way to fully quantify the many, many weaknesses and flaws he covered up for last year simply by being the greatest player ever.

The Cavs, though, also made some interesting moves. In June, they took Collin Sexton with the No. 8 pick to inject some new blood at the point guard spot. With him, Cedi Osman and (maybe, if he can develop this year) Ante Zizic around, the Cavs have some interesting young players when they didn’t have the last time LeBron left. Sexton might not be Kyrie Irving 2.0, but he has a chance to be really good.

Cleveland also re-signed Kevin Love to a massive extension that makes him the face of the franchise for at least this year. By agreeing to an extension with Love, the Cavs are signaling that they don’t want to bottom out post-LeBron—- they want to try and be competitive.

2. What are the team’s biggest strengths?

If the Cavs are going to be at all decent this year, Love has to look something like Minnesota-era Kevin Love. Based on the last four years, it’s impossible to know if that player still exists because of what he was asked to do (and what he wasn’t) next to LeBron and Kyrie. If he can be a version of that guy this season, the Cavs will at least have an offensive anchor to help guide the team along and make life easier for Sexton.

Cleveland also has a lot of players that simply play hard. Osman, while still green, plays full-throttle all the time. Ditto for Larry Nance Jr., who the team has high hopes for this season and beyond as cornerstone. Sexton, while still a long while from understanding the complexities of NBA point guard play, can create by simply being athletic and going at 100 miles an hour. And based on what most everyone on the team has said so far, this group wants to compete and wants to prove themselves capable of succeeding without LeBron. That counts for something.

3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?

Defensively, this team is going to be a mess. Out of the currently expected rotation — George Hill, Rodney Hood, Osman, Love, Nance Jr., Tristan Thompson, Sexton, Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith, Sam Dekker, Jordan Clarkson — there are currently three good defenders and perhaps four if Osman can grow on that end of the floor. Others, like Sexton, may be willing to play with effort on that end. But the skill level just isn’t there yet. Getting Nwaba playing team could help, but it’s not clear right now that he’s in Tyronn Lue’s initial plans.

The Cavs are also lacking reliable shot creators right now. Love can do his thing on the block and at the elbows, and that’s really valuable. But on the perimeter, where LeBron (and LeBron and Kyrie before last summer’s trade) really thrived was in being able to get a shot off at any point whenvere the team needed it. It’s literally a skill that won the Cavs a title in 2016. Never, ever forget that the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead.

Cleveland now has to rely on Hood (who was shaky after being acquired from the Jazz last year) and Clarkson (who can get buckets, but is inefficient) to create shots. It would mean a lot if Sexton and/or Osman could step-up as creators. Sexton did it at Alabama, and is going to be asked to do it in Cleveland at some point. Osman, while not a point guard, has been a lead creator when playing for the Turkish national team. He may not initiate any half court sets, but he can lead the fastbreak and make smart reads in the open floor.

Also of note: This is the first time ever Lue has been the head coach of a team without LeBron and with a different set of goals than making it to June. It is unclear exactly what kind of coach he will be for this group.

4. What are the goals for this team?

Publically, the Cavs say they want to compete for the playoffs, even if there is some chatter from the front office that they want to play young players and develop them. Ideally, I think the Cavs would like to make the playoffs while also having Sexton, Osman and others grow. If the former doesn’t happen, there are some veterans on the team that might be unhappy. It could get tense.

More than anything, though, the Cavs need to make this season about development. Re-signing Love is fine and it takes some pressure off of Sexton and Osman. But they (and whoever else they can sign) are the future of the franchise. Both of those players, as well as Zizic, should be taking steps forward this year.

5. What’s more valuable: a lottery pick or a playoff appearance?

One thing hanging over the Cavs’ heads is that year is that they owe a pick to the Hawks. It is top-10 protected each of the next two years. So, if Cleveland makes the playoffs, it loses the pick. It conveys to two second round picks it it doesn’t convey in the next two years.

In the short term, it might make everyone happier if Cleveland makes the playoffs as the No. 8 seed before being obliterated by the Celtics or Raptors. Making the playoffs is fun, and it would likely feel good to do so after having LeBron leave. It has, after all, been over 20 years since the Cavs made the playoffs without LeBron James on the team.

But long term, a top-10 pick next year (and ideally the year after too) helps more. So if the Cavs get to a point in the road where they need to choose chasing a playoff spot or letting young guys play more at the expense of losing games, they should pick the former. The franchise needs to finish this year having a better read on what its young players actually are.

For what it’s worth: I do not think the Cavs make the playoffs this year.

6. What veterans are still on the team by the trade deadline?

The Cavs, due to stocking up on vets in the second LeBron era, have a number of players that might be suited for others teams. A quick rundown:

  • Kyle Korver
  • J.R. Smith
  • George Hill
  • Tristan Thompson

Channing Frye could be added to this list, but they signed him this summer specifically for veteran leadership. He’s not going anywhere. Of the four listed, Korver would seem to be the easiest to trade. He was linked to the 76ers this summer and has a skill set that could help the league’s best teams. He also has the lowest salary of the group figure at around $7.5 million.

But all four could be shopped at some point. Smith blocks minutes for younger players at the two guard spot and perhaps could be bought out of his deal later on. Hill, who grew unhappy last year with the Kings when he was mentoring a young point guard and lost a lot of games, could be in the same position this year.

Thompson is the trickiest to move on from due to the length of his deal — fully guaranteed this year and next for just under $20 million per year — but he is blocking the Cavs from going with younger bigs full-time. And overall, how willing the Cavs are to hang out to their veterans around the deadline will give us a clearer picture of their plan for this year and their read on how the season is playing out.