The story of the 2014-2018 Cleveland Cavaliers is often chaos. Stress. The team itself excelled in the face of myriad issues and it seemed like drama was around every corner. Every day seemed to be a new issue, a new subtweet, or a new article about how trading [insert player name here] would fix the team’s chemistry and performance.
Existing in LeBron James’ orbit means that you have a great shot at winning a championship. It also means a gravity that can at times feel crushing. This is certainly no fault of LeBron’s, especially not as a fan. When you’re following a title contender, a perennial one, the stakes feel removed. There is no joy to be found in a win in January against the Orlando Magic; they are not the goal. On the flip-side the losses are magnified. Each one more annoying than the last, even to someone hardened by regular season apathy. Watching your favorite team before the NBA Finals becomes a zero upside game where the wins are expected and the losses will be magnified in their frustration. This is life in a league with one peer, and it’s fine. It was all worth it. It’s also over.
Like after LeBron is hard. Crushing, usually. Both teams he has left have varied in their suck, but boy have they sucked. The Cavs were immediately the worst team in basketball for four years (more on that later), and the Heat turned one season of decent mediocrity into a lot of bad contracts and no clear path forward. It wouldn’t be surprising for the Cavs to struggle but they have some talent in a weak conference. As the Cavaliers transition from is and are as a title contender to was and were, they provide a new opportunity for fans. Here are five things to watch for this season:
Kevin Love, leading man
Kevin Love has been the leader of a team before, but now he is also a leader in the community. Love begins this season on a media tour to raise awareness for mental health, and has recently begun a foundation to work in the same field. I don’t like telling people who to enjoy their team, but I enjoy mine with good players that I can enjoy as people as well. I am very happy he will be here. From a business standpoint I think it was also imperative that the Cavs keep one of their three best players from the 2016 finals team in terms of brand building and developing a connection to fans so this fit that too.
Love, newly 30, will be leading this years Cavaliers with a sense of accomplishment that he didn’t have during his formative years in Minnesota. He’s a better player in better shape, but I don’t know what that will lead to. He has the wear and tear of 4 hard seasons and the injuries incurred in them. It should be pretty interesting.
Cedi Osman and Collin Sexton lead a new youth movement
The Cavs haven’t had much youth on the team in recent years, at least not unknown quantities. When LeBron returned, Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson were fairly young, but they were entering their primes and more or less completed players. Enter Osman and Sexton.
Osman has turned a year of working with Kyle Korver into a noticeably different and confident jumper in NBA summer league and FIBA qualifiers as a standout performer in both. He will come into camp as an almost lock to start on one wing as Rodney Hood, David Nwaba, and JR Smith fight for the other.
Sexton enters to bewilderingly small acclaim. He’s a top-10 pick, 19, and plays like a crazy person. He seems a wonderful and endearing character with an endless motor and work ethic. I find that exciting.
The problem is Sexton is unusual in a league where coverage is increasingly paint by numbers. Until his style of play proves to be fun and beneficial to the Cavaliers winning, he will not be embraced a skillset and style that runs counter to the generic theme a lot of people have in mind. It could go a lot of different ways but I am ready to see how he adapts and grows.
The Cavs have a host of players with questions marks between the ages of 24 and 27. Jordan Clarkson and Tristan Thompson make up one end; Highly paid and mostly finished products. Who they are doesn’t necessarily fit with the Cavs best pieces, but the likelihood of them moving is slim.
On the other end are Rodney Hood, Sam Dekker and David Nwaba. All on one-year deals, but all playing for something different. Hood is playing for the long term deal he missed out on by having a disastrous playoffs. Does Dekker belong in the league? He might be on his last stop in trying to prove it. Nwaba seems like a classic long term NBA spot defender, but he is trying to show that he can be a bit more after getting a late start.
Then there is Larry Nance Jr. He is likely to be extended and seems like a natural fit with Kevin Love, but it needs to be proved over a full season.
Who stays, who goes?
The Cavs have some guys at the end of the line as well. Channing Frye, George Hill, and J.R. Smith are all in the latter half of their careers and have varying fits on the Cavs.
Frye is obviously the oldest, but as a close friend of Kevin Love’s and a vital locker room component, he is probably also the most needed on the team. The more mobile NBA hurts him some but as one of the league’s premier shooters he will remain useful in the right lineups, especially with a young guard like Sexton who is obsessed with getting to the rim. The shooting of Frye and Love will be primary components in getting him clean looks and helping him learn to anticipate where his shooters will be on drives.
Smith is one of a glut of wings, but depending on his jumper can provide immense value any given day. A reliable piece from 2015-2017, he really fell off last year. They have a decision to make about keeping him but given the value of his contract (it was signed before new rules that only the guaranteed amount counts in a trade, meaning he can save someone about $13 million this offseason as a trade piece) it’s hard to see him being moved.
George Hill on the other hand seems imminently available. He has a small guarantee next year, showed no desire to be a mentor in a similar situation in Sacramento, and can be useful to a good team needing a rental. He seems primed to depart.
OK, but what about the tank?
Listen, the Cavs will probably be bad, and if they’re not then they will be surprising and probably a good deal of fun. They owe a pick to Atlanta that is top-10 protected for the next two season.
There is a few ideas that I really disagree with at play here. One of them is a mindset: “If you aren’t contending you should be as bad as possible. What a boring existence. We fall into these pits a lot. It used to be called “The Thunder model”, now it’s “The Process” — all the while teams doing other random things are winning the titles. My meaning here is it’s not something worth worrying about. If the Cavs front office is good, they will be successful. If it isn’t, they will be screwed regardless of where they’re picking. Getting in a lather because they might win five more games than you want IN A LOTTERY SYSTEM seems like a gigantic waste of your time doesn’t it? There is no one way to win a title in the NBA and there isn’t an investment style strategy to apply to make it a sure thing. Especially considering the lottery has been reformed to enhance the value of odds 4-14. The three worst records all tie with 14 percent odds of winning the top pick. Meh.
Back to the first part though, the Cavs most likely will not be very good. If they’re close to the protection, they’ll tank. They have blatantly done so in the past. They will again. The NBA season is long, and the Cavs have a thin team with a long injury history. They lost their best scorer, ball handler, and leader. They are relying on young unproven players if they are going to be good. It will be an uphill battle.
The Cavs might provide more stakes before April this year, because what they do in the regular season suddenly matters to their overall existence, but they won’t be contending for a title this year. At least we know there will plenty to keep an eye on.