Cavs Close Door on Preseason, Make Final Prep for Title Run



As far as NBA basketball goes, there wasn’t much to enjoy about the Cavaliers preseason, nor was there much to report. While preseason is never exactly a joy, most years it does provide an extended look at the second stringers. But with just about the entire starting squad nursing or recovering from injuries, the backups played like starters, right down to the limited preseason minutes.

With a couple back-to-backs among the eight games, Blatt had little choice but to give the preseason backups extended minutes. This proved as unwatchable as most SNL skits-turned-movies (A Night at the Roxbury, MacGruber, It’s Pat, Superstar). No wonder D-League teams are typically located in one-horse towns (sorry, Canton): You’ve got to love basketball or have a low-threshold for entertainment to relish this.

As such, the story lines remained pretty limited. There is an open roster spot, and a second semi-open slot thanks to Tristan Thompson’s holdout, which lent an “open audition” aspect to the preseason.

Jared Cunningham would appear to have won the competition, playing in 7 of the 8 contests, averaging 25 minutes. He started strong, but had several poor shooting nights to wind up 36% from the field and 22% from the three-point line.

However he did manage a Harden-esque 7.1 free throws/game by going to the hole more often than Jack & Jill. He can get his own shot off the dribble, but struggled to finish when not fouled, in part due to a level of over-aggressiveness unlikely to be repeated during regular season minutes.

Cunningham also averaged one steal and 3.4 assists per game. He moves his feet well and played good defense throughout, something he was allegedly told could win him a job. He also brought the ball up on occasions and a lot during last night’s victory over the Dallas Mavericks.

His ability to defend point guards will allow Matthew Dellavedova to defend 2-guards when they’re out there together. This is important because Delly isn’t really fleet enough of foot to stay in front of most point guards, but can denies pretty well, making him better defensively on shooting guards.

LeBron James honestly hasn’t looked very good in the two games he played. It’s a wonder this isn’t more of a story; the inflammation shot he received last week for his back should’ve been a shot across the bow. James has as many turnovers as steals (6), and shot 9-28 in those games.

Kevin Love returned this week and played 35 minutes over Sunday and Monday. He looks noticeably quicker and base – the only thing he could workout with his shoulder injury – very solid. It’s just a hunch, but would not be surprised to see Love doing more off the dribble this year, particularly attacking close-outs. He’s such a good passer that doing so should force defensive rotations he can use to find open teammates. (In his short stint he had a couple nice behind the back passes, though he looked rusty otherwise.)

This would seem to fit with an offense that was much more geared to ball movement than during last season’s second-half run, when the team dispatched with the old offense and went into a pick-and-roll heavy attack. During the preseason we saw lots of the kind of figure-8 offense. (Players come off picks on one side and drive or reverse it to the other side where another pick-and-roll awaits, and cut through the line and head to the corner, such that the movements begin to resemble a sideways figure 8.)

We saw more Timofey Mozgov-centric post-up than we did during last year’s second half. He still struggles some with the double teams, but he’s becoming a better passer, and probably just needs more opportunities to become comfortable. Defensively Mozgov looked a step slow and probably a half foot shorter on the leap after off-season knee surgery.

Mozgov admitted during press day that his knee had bothered him during the playoffs, so perhaps this will helps down the road, but for the moment it’s obvious that he’s less than 100%, perhaps only 75%, and will need to work himself into shape during the season.

That pretty much goes for the entire starting squad. Obviously the Cavs won’t be seeing their backcourt of Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert together until at least December. The team’s clearly bringing guys along slowly taking to heart James’ words from last year. “I don’t care about seeding. Just get me to the playoffs,” he said (or something close to that). No need to comment further given last year’s one-man band performance.

J.R. Smith was the only guy who looked in season shape. The man they call “Swish” has developed a tight bond with James, who perhaps has seized upon his latest motivation project now that Tristan’s AWOL. Smith averaged 3 assists, a steal, half a block, and almost 13 points on 53% shooting from the field and 47% from behind the arc. Smith will be the third amigo until Irving gets back, and looks up to the task.

Mo Williams will be running the point in Irving’s absence, and looked disinterested at best for most of October. Blatt made excuses for him, suggesting Mo found it hard to get up for the preseason. Is that how the Cavs wound up with “Playoff Mo”? Williams shot 36% from the field, 26% from three, and had nearly as many turnovers (13) as assists (17). Remember what I was saying about work-in-progress?

It’s probably going to be ugly for at least a month while everyone gets used to each other on the court, particularly defensively. This preseason has seen teams taking more 3-pointers than ever before, over 25/game versus 21.8 last preseason, according to an article by Tom Haberstroh in ESPN.

The success of the Warriors has had a big impact on the copy-cat league. Dallas played last night with Dirk Nowitzski and 6-10, 3-point shooting former Cavalier draft pick Dwight Powell as their bigs. This trend of 3-point threat centers is to open the lane for drivers and will necessitate T-Mo coming further from the basket, especially with his recovering knee making close-outs that much slower. This will be something to watch.

The other two bigs present contrasting styles. Anderson Varejao looked in midseason form shooting 66% and grabbing nearly five rebounds in under 16 minutes a game. He also had 2.2 assists and .7 steals. His energy is felt on the floor, and will key the second team. Injuries are always a worry, but if Blatt can keep him around 20 minutes, hopefully he can hold up all season. He played 24.4 minutes per game last year, before they added Mozgov, and now Sasha Kaun.

Kaun will essentially be asked to fill Thompson’s role while he holds out for a better contract. (The less said about this the better.) Kaun isn’t going to block many shots (2 in 108 minutes of play) and doesn’t have much of an offensive game outside the lane.

He looked a little nifty around the basket twisting and using his body to get off a little half hook, but any points he scores is icing. He scored 16 points total in 6 games. His pretty much only singing contribution is his ability to move pretty well laterally for a big, making it easier to defend the pick and roll. That gift is strange (but welcome) in that he’s a lumbering guy up and down the court.

Richard Jefferson was maybe the most welcome surprise of the preseason. Though reduced to a stand-still 3-point shooter (over 40% six of the last seven years), he showed that he can still take it hard to the rim, slamming it on 7-3 Atlanta rookie Walter Tavares.

He shot exactly 40% from 3 and 50% from the field en route to 11.2 points in just 22.8 minutes per game. The 6-9 long-limbed Jefferson proved capable of guarding 3 positions (2, 3, 4) and grabbed 4.3 rebounds per game, third on the team behind Mozzy and Wild Thing. He’s aptly demonstrated he’s no Maid Marion.

Delly looked good as well. Last season appears to have done wonders for his confidence. He’s taking shots decisively rather than with an “oh well, here goes” look on his face. He looked more effective with his little floater, and continues to nail open treys. He even looks a little buffer.

James Jones led the team in three-point attempts but only shot 31%. Watching Indiana’s Luis Scola – his same age – repeatedly abuse Jones in the post reminded viewers that he’s a power forward only in name. Any time an opponent sees him enter the game he gets posted quicker than TMZ gossip. He can still shoot, but Lord help the Cavs if he plays anywhere close to the minutes he did during the preseason. It will be a sign all is lost.

Joe Harris looked pretty much terrible all preseason (33% FG, 24% 3pt, 9 TO, 6 Ast), but we’re told he’s guaranteed a spot, so the hope is he can’t really be that bad. Hope he has a good place to eat in Canton.

This is definitely a deeper team than last year, though it’s hard to see it since so many players are missing or hurt. That will have an impact. But that fact many of these guys played together last year will help in the second half when the fully complement hits the floor.

While the Eastern Conference is bad, it’s improving. While there’s no reason to get uptight about the standings – remember Washington and Toronto were the teams to beat in the first half – it won’t be a cakewalk to the first or second seed.

That said, this team isn’t really focused on the regular season, nor do they need to be. They have the best player on the planet – provided he’s really healthy – and a strong supporting cast. Kevin Love is primed for one of his best seasons, and another year under his belt should benefit Blatt and the staff surrounding him.

The preliminaries are done. It’s time for the real Macaw.

Look out on Monday and Tuesday next week for Western and Eastern Conference previews, and follow me on Twitter @CRS_1ne for the season opener in Chicago where I’ll be live tweeting before and during the game. Then look for the postgame recap the next day.

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