The Cleveland Cavaliers will enter the 2015-16 season with most of their core from last year.
With the exception of Tristan Thompson—who remains a free agent as of this writing—each key player from the Cavaliers’ finals run will return. LeBron James, Kevin Love, Timofey Mozgov, Matthew Dellavedova, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert have all been signed to brand new contracts. In addition to the return of the aforementioned players, the Cavs have also added Richard Jefferson, Mo Williams and Sasha Kaun for added reinforcement.
Because of the fact that the team came within a couple of games of winning the NBA Finals despite the absences of Love and Kyrie Irving, the Cavaliers are favored by many to win the championship in 2016.
While all seems dandy in “The Land,” things are far from perfect—Irving might sit out the first couple of months of the season.
It was reported that Irving might not play until January due to his recovery from a fractured kneecap. It’s not just his recovery, but Cleveland wants to keep him sidelined so he can fully recover from his injury. That would mean the Cavaliers would play over one-third of the regular season without their second-best player.
For those that don’t understand how important Irving is to Cleveland’s success, keep in mind that at times last season, he was playing better than James.
Irving’s breakout season last year resulted in his first All-NBA nod when he was selected to the All-NBA Third Team. The 23-year-old point guard averaged 21.7 points per game, the second-best scoring average in the Eastern Conference last season.
The young point guard’s ability to take over when needed was a large reason why the team went 29-4 overall with a starting lineup featuring Irving, James, Mozgov, Smith and Love.
There is no doubt that this team needs Irving if it hopes to win a championship.
However, what this team does not need is its young point guard for a full 82-game season.
Without the four-year veteran, the Cavaliers are still the best team in the East.
Even if for whatever reason, Cleveland is unable to clinch the No. 1 seed in the conference due to some early season stumbles, it shouldn’t matter in the end. Barring catastrophic injuries, this team is going to the NBA Finals.
During the 2014-15 season, the Cavaliers ended up as the No. 2 seed in the conference despite their excellent record during the second half of the season. Outside of the fact that the Atlanta Hawks were just that damn good during the regular season, it was also due to the fact that Cleveland struggled to a 19-20 start by mid-January.
Did it matter in the end? Nope. The Cavaliers swept the Hawks in the Eastern Conference finals.
Irving’s health is of the utmost importance. You don’t want to risk rushing a young player back from injury, especially when he’s not even in the prime of his career.
Remember what happened to Derrick Rose just a couple years ago?
Unlike the Chicago Bulls earlier this decade, this is not a team reliant on Irving for success. They are more than capable of holding their own despite the absence of one of the top players in the league.
Making matters even better for Cleveland is the fact that they added Williams. The veteran guard had a previous stint in Cleveland where he and LeBron led the Cavaliers to a franchise-record 66 wins during the 2008-09 season.
Although he is probably best utilized as a shooting guard off the bench these days, Williams can start at point guard during the first couple months of the season while Irving rests his knee. Having played in Cleveland before with James in some of the biggest playoff games in franchise history, the team shouldn’t struggle at all to find cohesion with Williams leading the charge.
Outside of the steady veteran presence at point, the Cavaliers absolutely need to get Love playing with some confidence and swagger as he did when he was with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Though the veteran power forward found somewhat of a niche as the third option while playing for mostly rebounds, Love’s tentative play will not result in the Cavaliers hoisting their first Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Cleveland can get past their Eastern Conference foes with a tentative Love, but they won’t get it done versus the powerhouses of the Western Conference in the NBA Finals.
When you look at his numbers from his first season with the Cavaliers, they’re just downright underwhelming. Love averaged just 16.4 points and 9.7 rebounds per game on 43.4 percent from the field. The scoring average isn’t so bad when considering he had to take a back seat to both James and Irving, but there is no excuse for the rebounding average and the below-average shooting efficiency.
Just several years prior, Love averaged 15.2 rebounds per game with the Timberwolves. Considering the vast amount of scoring talent on Cleveland’s roster, the 6’9″ forward should have had excellent shooting efficiency. Instead, his efficiency simply plummeted due to not finding any comfort as a third offensive option. For most of his career in Minnesota, Love was the only scoring option.
This is where the Irving injury becomes a blessing in disguise. Love can grow his confidence while playing alongside James as the team’s top offensive option. LeBron can get it going any time, so it won’t hurt his offensive game to defer to Love early on in the season. In fact, James often did this with Irving during the 2014-15 to help the young point guard grow as a player.
General Manager David Griffin spoke of the need to run the offense more often through Love during the upcoming season:
“I think he and Coach have had a lot of conversations about that. He and Bron have had conversations about that. Kevin enables us to have somebody else carry the mail when LeBron sits down once in a while. Kyrie (Irving) was in a situation where he was clearly the one who was taking over when LeBron was out and I think we probably didn’t utilize Kevin enough to make Kyrie’s job easier. I think we have the ability to put him at the elbow and run offense through him a lot more than we did – some of the things he did really well in Minnesota.”
At first thought, it would seem like a terrible idea to keep Irving sidelined until just a month shy of the All-Star break.
When you think things through however, it is an absolute perfect situation for all parties involved.
Irving will get the rest he needs and should be 100 percent by the time the postseason rolls around. Williams will play major minutes as a starting point guard, preparing him for his role leading the second unit during the second half of the season. Most importantly, Love finally gets the opportunity to regain his confidence as a lead scoring option.
All of these occurrences will result in one thing—preparing the Cavaliers for another finals run that should result in the franchise’s first championship.