- Photos by Emanuel Wallace
Welcome, sportsfans, to the Cavs' first LeBron-less season since 2013, when an emotionally depleted roster of senior citizens, space cadets and apneatics coached by Byron Scott capped a four-year campaign of what former General Manager David Griffin would later call, "just horseshit basketball."
Their lowliness was by design, of course, a strategy to accumulate valuable draft picks and assemble the talent required to lure LeBron James back to Cleveland. And it worked. The King did indeed return, in 2014, and led the Cavs to four consecutive NBA finals appearances, which included the championship in 2016, about which little more needs to be said, (other than reiterating that the Golden State Warriors blew a 3-1 lead).
Now, only three players remain from LeBron's first year back: Tristan Thompson, Kevin Love and J.R. Smith, who arrived in 2015 via trade. Only one other, Channing Frye, was on the championship roster. He has returned after a brief stint with the Los Angeles Lakers, where he was shipped, alongside a pouting Isaiah Thomas, at last year's trade deadline.
Word from owner Dan Gilbert and head coach Ty Lue is that the Cavs are not retreating meekly into what's called "rebuild mode." They are defending Eastern Conference champions, they note correctly, and even without LeBron, they intend to guard their turf in a conference with new giants (the Boston Celtics, the Philadelphia 76ers), retooled contenders (the Toronto Raptors, the Washington Wizards), sparkling divisional rivals (the Indiana Pacers, the Milwaukee Bucks), and the well-coached perennial nuisance in South Beach.
That's seven teams, which means one more Eastern Conference squad will make the playoffs. Even serious fans have no idea who it might be. Perhaps the lengthy, temporarily healthy Chicago Bulls, now featuring forward Jabari Parker? Perhaps the Charlotte Hornets, forever teetering on the edge of playoff contention, and now featuring career-Spur Tony Parker backing up the heroic Kemba Walker at point guard? Perhaps the Knickerbockers of New York, with towering Latvian Kristaps Porzingis eventually returning from injury to shoot threes and block shots? Perhaps the scrappy Brooklyn Nets, with their array of castoff guards, including sharpshooting former Cavalier Joe Harris? Maybe even the somber Pistons, who, with lumbering big men Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, are eager to make postseason use of the garish Little Caesars Arena (the pizzarena) in downtown Detroit.
But why not the Cavaliers, for heaven's sake? In preseason play, the starting five have shown flashes of brilliance. They are young and spry and ready to commit themselves to a new uptempto style. They have an exciting rookie point guard in Collin Sexton and a quorum of veteran father figures (George Hill, J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver, Channing Frye) who are ready and willing to lead by example. Unlike the last time LeBron left, the Cavs have a bona fide star in Kevin Love, one who has the chance to return to the MVP caliber-play he displayed with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The team's energy is positive, and the aspirations are in perspective. They know they won't win 60 games (or even 50), but they promise to compete. And they'll sure as hell be fun to watch.
The team gels and improves throughout the season with dynamite contributions from Kevin Love and emerging stars. Rodney Hood becomes a legitimate scoring threat. Cedi Osman becomes as fearsomely well-rounded as Nic Batum. Collin Sexton is a top-three contender for rookie of the year, a steals magician, and the franchise's clear-cut point guard of the future. The Cavs just miss home-court advantage in the playoffs, but nab a five seed. They upset the four-seed in the first round and acquit themselves nobly in the Eastern Conference semis against the Celtics or the Sixers.
Kevin Love is nagged by persistent injuries and Ty Lue can't manufacture the scoring necessary to win games in his absence. Disappointment reigns as Rodney Hood can't find his range and team chemistry gets worse, not better, as the season progresses. There are bright spots, including Cedi's all-around improvement, Collin Sexton's three-point shooting, Larry Nance Jr.'s ascendancy as soul of the franchise, but an early camaraderie gives way to drama (a J.R. Smith legal dustup; a Jordan Clarkson indiscretion; a Sam Dekker penchant for retweeting unsavory Alt-Rightish characters) and the Cavs find themselves in the Eastern Conference 12-hole, headed for a lottery pick.
Ceiling: George Hill is the starting point guard for only the first 20 games of the season, give or take a handful. He embraces his role as mentor and shepherd to Collin Sexton, and provides important length on perimeter defense. He doesn't produce eye-popping stats, but won't have to. And he's totally cool with that. He's just a totally chill dude. (10.0 pts / 4.0 rbs / 4.4 ass.)
Floor: Hill shoots 14 percent from three-point land and, crushed by his ineffectiveness, resorts exclusively to goofy floaters in the lane. He putters around on defense. He tries experimental meditation to improve his on-court demeanor (anxiety?) and a flurry of mid-season cramps. He consults with guru Matthew Dellavedova about pre-game caffeination to no avail. He becomes convinced that Cleveland itself is to blame and threatens to spend every evening at JACK Casino until he's traded to his hometown Pacers. (3.8 / 2.0 / 2.4)
Milestone Watch: Hill is currently tied with Derrick Rose and Joe Harris in franchise turnovers. Two more and he'll catch Andrew Bynum!
Ceiling: Ty Lue has said that he expects Rodney Hood to be the team's second-leading scorer this year, and Hood will make good, challenging Kevin Love for the points crown in the hopes of securing a major payday in the offseason. He is explosive and creative in cuts to the basket and locates Korver-esque accuracy from distance. He plays active defense, and is redeemed for his perceived pettiness last year with a newfound jocularity on the bench and regular community service outings across town. He also becomes an unlikely political dissident, challenging the wisdom of public subsidies to the Q. (20.5 / 4.4 / 3.3)
Floor: After a stretch of poor shooting and a lack of engagement on the defensive end, Ty Lue benches Hood for two consecutive games. He stops coming to practice. When inserted back in the line-up, he is a grouch, jacking up bad shots in an attempt to beef up his personal stats and committing turnovers non-stop. Everyone but Channing Frye abandons him as a friend. He receives the NBA's Scarlet Letter when he is called, not for the last time, a "locker room cancer." (12.2 / 2.0 / 1.2)
Milestone Watch: Look for Hood to rocket up the franchise scoring leaderboard this year. If he averages 16 points over 75 games, he'll dislodge studs such as Damon Jones and Lonnie Shelton. If he averages 18 over 80 games, he'll eclipse Ramon Sessions and Delonte West. Cracking the top 60 would not be unreasonable!
Ceiling: Cedi is the glue of the starting unit, scrapping for loose balls, hitting pivotal threes, and constantly in motion. He'll have gorgeous, well-rounded stat lines on a nightly basis and will continue to be beloved by fans for his effort, his floppy hair and his accent. (16.6 / 7.2 / 6.8)
Floor: Cedi's shooting touch just isn't there. His embarrassing numbers at the free throw line begin to affect his performance across the board and he develops an infuriating preference for deep twos. His passing game is just too esoteric for his teammates, and he works too hard on defense in inconsequential minutes of inconsequential games. He becomes a liability in the Mario Hezonja school. (7.9 / 3.9 / 2.9)
Milestone Watch: I'm looking for Cedi, oddly enough, to make the most significant dent in the rebounds category. Seven boards per game sounds outlandish with so many big men gobbling at the pie, but he's an intellectual rebounder who hustles, a dangerous combo. He grabbed 7, for example, in only 11 minutes of a pre-season game against the Boston Celtics starters. If he hits that mark across 76 games, he'll be good for 71st overall on the franchise board, just behind Mo Williams and Timofey Mozgov.
Ceiling: Monster season alert! Though he won't have the pep in his step that he did in the Minnesota days, Love will play heady, efficient basketball marked by a shooting stroke so elegant it might as well be cloaked in fur. He'll have a deft passing touch at the elbow, as ever, and will remain a visionary ouletter. He'll get his rebounds with his superior positioning, but will be happy to cede the down-and-dirty territory to younger, hungrier bigs. Someone's got to claim LeBron's points, and a 8-point per-game leap is well within Love's grasp this year. (26.8 / 10.8 / 4.4)
Floor: Love's hobble becomes more extreme. He is nagged, additionally, by injuries that tend to afflict the elderly: hip-flexor strains, bone density concerns, a minor fracture after "taking a tumble." He misses two significant stretches and appears in fewer than 30 games overall, never finding his rhythm. (15.8 / 7.0 / 2.4)
Milestone Watch: If Love averages 1.7 threes per game, he'll surpass Kyrie Irving and move to third on the franchise board, trailing only LeBron and Mark Price. With only 400 rebounds (8 per game over 50 games), he'll leapfrog Tyrone Hill and Bingo Smith to jump into the franchise's top 10. Also, if he averages 10 boards per game or better, he'll remain one of only three players (alongside Rick Roberson and Cliff Robinson) to do so over their Cavs' careers.
Ceiling: Tristan will do what Tristan does best: get balls. His ugly jumper and herky-jerk maneuvers around the basket will once again inspire more hilarity than rage, and he'll be the heartbeat of the bigs. At only 27, he is younger than his veteran status makes him seem, but playing slightly fewer minutes will mean he'll always have fresh legs. (7.8 / 8.8 / 0.8)
Floor: Tristan is so distracted by off-court drama that he won't even be able to convert alley-oops. He successfully blocks fewer than six shots all year. He screams in triumph all the time for plays that aren't very impressive. In one embarrassing moment, his famously lengthy blinks turn into a mid-game catnap. (4.0 / 4.8 / 0.4)
Milestone Watch: If TT averages only 8 minutes per game, he'll surpass Craig Ehlo, Anderson Varejao, Larry Nance and Danny Ferry to become the Cavs' seventh all-time leader in total minutes played. With 56 rebounds, he'll jump into the franchise's top-five, bumping out Anderson Varejao and joining LeBron, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Brad Daughtery and Hot Rod Williams. Tristan also has the opportunity to make his very first three-point shot this year.
Collin will move gracefully into the starting point guard role and become as dexterous a distributor as he is deadly a three-point shooter. His defense will be the stuff of legend, inspiring a new, Great Lakes grit-and-grind mentality. OR: Collin's theatrics on defense lead to an injury. His assist to turnover ratio is negative.
SCENE PREDICTS: 13.2 / 2.4 / 4.8
Milestone Watch: In 1986-1987, Cavs rookie Ron Harper had 209 steals, good for the second-highest steals total by an NBA rookie in history. Look for Sexton to flirt. (He would need 212 steals for #1, topping the Pacers' Dudley Bradley, the "Secretary of Defense," who collected 211 steals in 1979-1980.)
Jordan Clarkson will be a utility player thrown in for spicy line-up changes and quick scoring. He won't close out games, but he'll contribute valuable minutes and will get better at passing. OR: Clarkson will continue to acquire baroque face and neck tattoos, play me-first basketball and badger Lue incessantly about his "role."
SCENE PREDICTS: 10.6 / 2.7 / 1.1
Kyle Korver will hit exactly two three-pointers per game in a gimmicky season designed exclusively for that purpose. He will refuse all other scoring opportunities, including technical free throws, and will exit all games immediately after his second made three. There is no alternative. Although do look for Korver to become the team's de facto shooting coach (a role he is presumed to already unofficially occupy).
SCENE PREDICTS: 6.0 / 1.0 / 0.0
Milestone Watch: If Korver completes the gimmick over 82 games, he'll pass the following players to become #9 on the Cavs all-time leaderboard: Terrell Brandon, Chris Mills, Damon Jones, Craig Ehlo, Mo Williams. (He would also, of course, and much more significantly, pass Jason Terry and Reggie Miller on the NBA's all-time leaders in three-pointers, trailing only Ray Allen.)
Dekker is undistinguished at virtually every element of basketball, and hasn't shown much promise in the pre-season. What is he, even? A wing? A big? Maybe his three-point shooting will come around and he'll be a serviceable, low-cost floor-spacer? OR: The memory of his infamous bungled fast-break -- YouTube it right now -- haunts him nightly and his season is marked by the following recurring brain farts: shooting at the wrong hoop, shooting with the wrong hand, showing up to the wrong arena.
SCENE PREDICTS: 6.4 / 3.9 / 0.9
LARRY NANCE JR
Lar-Bear has improved his scoring and rebounding averages in each of his first three seasons in the league, even as his minute totals have remained roughly constant. He'll continue to grow, becoming a more efficient post player and further solidifying himself as an emotional leader and locker-room ballast. If the Big Three this year are Love, Cedi and Hood, it's Collin Sexton and Larry Nance who'll be right behind in terms of biggest potential impact.
SCENE PREDICTS: 11.9 / 7.3 / 1.8
Milestone Watch: Larry Nance is an active defender and a wily thief. He led the Cavs in steals per 36 minutes (2.1) last season and it wasn't close. (LeBron was second with 1.4.) If Nance plays nearly 30 minutes per game this year and averages ~1.8 steals, he'll have a chance to crack the franchise top 50, sharing rarified air with Dion Waiters (#52), Anthony Parker (#51), Iman Shumpert (#50), and Delonte West (#49).
MAJOR QUESTIONS FOR THE BENCH
"Who is Isaiah Taylor?"
"Will the 'Supreme Tattoo storyline' override other, more important J.R. Smith social-media inspired storylines?"
Milestone watch: With only five made threes, J.R. will top Boobie Gibson and move into the franchise top five, joining the recent big three (LeBron, Kyrie, Kevin) and Mark Price as the Cavs leaders in three point field goals.
"Barring injury to others, is there anything Nwaba can do defensively to earn playing time, given that Hood, Osman, Clarkson, Korver, and Smith are all gunning for positioning on the depth chart?"
"What incredible hijinks will Channing Frye think up next?"
"Where will Croatian big man Ante Zizic rank, ultimately, on the list of Cavs' European centers of the past 20-odd years? Ahead of Sasha Kaun, Semih Erden, Bruno Sundov and Martynas Andriuskevicius, surely, but what about Timofey Mozgov? Vitaly Potapenko? Big Z himself?
Before you scoff, consider this: There are only six players in Cavaliers history with field goal percentages higher than their free throw percentages (who played more than 50 total minutes). Here they are, ranked from lowest free-throw percentage to highest:
6) Jerome Lane (1993):
FT% .250 / .500 FG%
5) Sasha Kaun (2016):
FT% .455 / .529 FG%
4) Dwayne Jones (2007-2008):
FT% .484 / .521 FG%
3) Shaquille O'Neal (2010):
FT% .496 / .566 FG%
2) Mark West (1985-1997):
FT% .537 / .553 FG%
1) Ante Zizic (2017):
FT% .724 / .731 FG%
THIS IS INSANE. UNLEASH ZIZIC.
Also, go Cavs, go.