The Cleveland Cavaliers have officially begun their 50th season in the NBA.
While the franchise isn’t at its apogee anymore, it has experienced tons of success over the years. From drafting one of the game’s greatest players to conducting NBA Finals wizardry in 2016, the organization certainly has special places in history.
We caught up with none other than Joe Vardon, senior NBA writer for The Athletic, who has covered the Cavs at length and has broken multiple big stories across the league.
In our in-depth Q&A below, Vardon shared his analysis on the NBA’s busy summer, how the Cavs will fare this season, where LeBron James will finish his career and more.
What moves surprised you the most from this offseason?
Vardon: It had to be the trade for Paul George. I just didn’t think the [Oklahoma City] Thunder were in a place where they were gonna blow it up right now, which now of course seems like they, of course, were gonna do that. But at the time, we were floored. Just the way that the balance of power swung out here to L.A. with the [Los Angeles] Clippers in the span of five minutes was remarkable. That would be the one for sure.
Do you think the Lakers were blindsided by Kawhi’s [Leonard] decision to go to the Clippers?
Vardon: That’s been a big topic of discussion out here the past couple of days. I don’t know if they were blindsided, and I’m not sure how difficult it was to predict where he was gonna go to.
We’re talking about three franchises. I think it was fairly clear all along that he preferred to be in Los Angeles. Given the run he had with the Raptors, in sort of the way the city, the country embraced him, and he never really gave it back. He did exactly what he was supposed to do in the playoffs, in the Finals, but it just didn’t quite lend itself to any of the warm and fuzzy that were coming his way.
You have these three franchises. It was probably gonna be the [Los Angeles] Lakers or Clippers. If you think that it was hard to predict or didn’t see the Clippers coming, well that was just because we get caught up in the Twittersphere of what people are saying on there and all the noise was coming on the Lakers. It was the Clippers who had been recruiting him all along, the Clippers who had been going to his games and it was the Clippers who had stayed quiet the whole time, and that was what they wanted.
I don’t think I was surprised and I don’t know that LeBron and A.D. (Anthony Davis) were surprised. They certainly tried to get him, and at one point thought they would get him. But at best, all sides involved thought it was a tenuous situation. The Lakers, the Clippers, Doc Rivers, LeBron, Anthony Davis, all of them.
One of the sadder news of the summer was the passing of Fred McLeod. What was your relationship with Fred like?
Vardon: He and his wife live about a block and a half from where I live. They were as nice to me as anybody could be the minute that I joined the beat. In 2014, one of the first things I did was fly to Brazil for that exhibition game against the [Miami] Heat and Beth McLeod was on my plane.
Fred was everywhere that we were. The entire four-year run with LeBron and of course he was still there last year. He witnessed history just like we did. He was there for the stressful moments, the thrilling moments, the happy moments, the not-so-happy moments. He was a guy you could talk about basketball with, a guy you could joke with. He loved golf, he loved to talk about his son. He was like us in a way too because he never stayed with team. He would always stay at the closest Marriott to the team hotel so he could collect Marriott points. So we would hang out all the time like that in different lounges and on the road. I look back with nothing but fond memories.
How has Fred’s legacy impacted you?
Vardon: I appreciated the passion that he had for the team that he covered. I appreciated the way that he seemed to connect with the community in Cleveland. Also, the preparedness that he showed each and every night whether the team was awesome or horse shit was just something that you’ll always remember. He was always, always, always ready. It didn’t matter if they were heading to the Finals or the top of the lottery.
Moving into the season, how do you think this Cavs team will do?
Vardon: Well, I don’t think it’s gonna go very well and I take no joy in saying that whatsoever. I think it’s gonna be a rough year. Just really, really young, and I expect actually that the problems they had defensively last year could very well be exasperated. They’re younger at the spots where they had trouble last year. Yeah, I don’t think it’s gonna be very good. I’d love to be wrong.
Do you like the backcourt of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland?
Vardon: First of all, I have really grown to appreciate Collin Sexton. I think what he did last year, the second half of the year, was awesome and not something that happens all the time. You’re talking about a player who’s 19 years old, maybe 20, who transformed how he played on the fly. He made 40 percent of his threes, he started shooting a bunch of them. That was great. I can’t say enough good things about him.
I also really like Darius Garland. Just a great kid, gotten the chance to talk to him a couple of times. I do think he has some real flare to his game. Depends on how you ask the question, I like them both. Playing a 19 and 20-year-old together who are both still growing into their body in a backcourt where you just get pick-and-rolled to death every night, that’s gonna be tough. That’s gonna be really hard. I’m concerned about that, but I do like both players.
How do you anticipate John Beilein to do in his rookie season as a head coach in the NBA?
Vardon: Well, they’re gonna lose a bunch of games. That’s the unfortunate thing that happens, no matter how quick he gets adapted. The first record probably isn’t gonna be very good, and again, I hope I’m wrong, but I think that’s probably true.
I do think that for him and the team that it’s much more about, words that fans don’t want to hear, growth and development. I think it’s been clear that John twice had to adjust to how he coaches and what he’s used to.
He had to do it in the summer league when he was shocked to find out how they’re running those kids in the ground, two-a-day practices before going to Vegas or going to Utah was a bad idea. Now you see after a pretty terrible preseason that he’s talking about having to totally simplify the offense, simplify what they’re trying to do and understand the players aren’t always available like how you want them to be.
The good thing is that he’s coming into this saying, “Hey, I have a lot to learn,” which can be difficult for a 66-year-old man who has as much success in sports as he’s had. He’s just never been in the NBA before.
We hear the rumors every year. Do you think this is the season Kevin Love finally gets traded?
Vardon: Certainly it makes more sense than it ever has before. It’s just a matter of, I believe, the Cavs don’t want to trade him for nothing. They want to trade him for a collection of something that makes sense for them. I would suspect that at some point the bar on what they want in return would be lowered. I think that probably by year’s end, they’ll try to move him.
But you got to say this about Kevin too, in the meantime, he has to play. He has to just go out there and play and show that he’s still an All-Star caliber player who would be worthy of a trade like that and worthy of the remainder of his contract for the team that wants to take him on.
He played 20-something games last year. He barely played and he’s 30. Until that move comes, he’s got to go out there and embrace playing for the Cavs and try to soak up the minutes, score a bunch of points and be a good teammate.
Do you think J.R. Smith will have a job again in this league?
Vardon: I don’t think so. I guess we’ll find out here in a couple weeks. We’ll see how the first couple weeks of the year go. But it doesn’t seem like it. He hasn’t played basketball since November, early November.
Obviously there wasn’t a giant market for him last year. Now he’s a free agent. You don’t have to give up anything to have him, and nobody’s making a move. I don’t like it. I don’t like the prognosis for him. If Carmelo [Anthony] can’t get a job, it’s gonna be difficult be for J.R. to be able get one. We’ll see.
What was your favorite memory or uncovered story from the 2016 title run?
Vardon: The guys on the beat at that time, myself, Jason Lloyd, Dave McMenamin were there for the whole four years. Certainly people had joined us and blessed us along the way. We lived a great existence right alongside with the Cavs. There was the pressure and the joy of covering a team like that that was a championship winner, a four-time championship contender, had the most recognizable athlete on the planet probably on it.
So we did all the stuff that you do for the job. And alongside that, we traveled together; we went out together; we ate together every day. We laughed the whole time for four years. You know, when you start talking about Cavs stories and untold stories, some of them, there’s are a reason that they’re untold and the other ones, it takes a while to think about it. Surely, what we all come back to is just the four years. Living the life that we lived there. It was worth every second.
Do you think it’s still in LeBron’s plans to finish his career in Cleveland?
Vardon: No, I don’t. I don’t think it’s in his plans. I don’t think it’s in anybody’s involved plans for that to happen. I think LeBron’s thinking about being in Los Angeles. I think he does have his eye on what happens with his son. And if LeBron can still be in the league when Bronny gets here — assuming that he does — you take a look at that. But no, I don’t think Cleveland’s in his plans.
Who do you think is gonna win the title this season?
Vardon: Well, I picked the Clippers. But I don’t know. None of us really like these preseason predictions because none us really know what the hell is going on. I think the Clippers because right now they are crazy deep. They have some pieces available to upgrade as well. The Lakers could be right there, though. But yeah, I pick the Clippers.
What will you be up to this season? Who will you be covering?
Vardon: I am a member of The Athletic’s national desk, so I’m just gonna be roaming around the country doing a lot of feature writing, recap reporting. I’ll also be doing and going to the tentpole games, sort of the games that are of great interest and doing something called first thoughts off of those games. It’s kind of an immediate analysis with reporting leading up to the final score. I’m excited.