For the first time since LeBron’s homecoming, the Cavaliers are not the betting favorites to win the championship. This has been an eventful week for the Cavaliers. Expectations were high with pre-season predictions for the Cavs with upwards of 65 wins but they currently sit at fifth place in a historically weak Eastern Conference with a 19-16 record. The panic button is being hit daily now with reports of head coach David Blatt already being on the hot seat and LeBron considering leaving if Cleveland doesn't build a contender. The Cavs are saying all the right things but they certainly did not help hold off critics by losing to the lowly Sixers on a buzzer beater from Tony Wroten this past week (that sentence alone should cross them off as championship contenders).
The Cavs announced that LeBron would miss at least two weeks with an assortment of old-man injuries including back spasms, joining Kyrie Irving who also has been sitting with a lower back injury (somebody needs to teach the Cavs to lift with their legs) and Anderson Varejao who had his annual season-ending injury. Management knows that this team is in need of some help as they traded Dion Waiters this week, the former 4th overall pick in the 2012 draft, in an attempt to balance the roster and improve chemistry. Cavs fans can take some solace in the fact that we’ve seen this story before, the Miami Heat started 9-8 in the first season of the big-3 before finishing with 58 wins and a trip to the finals. Questions of team chemistry and how their stars could fit together plagued that group also and made them stronger as a team in the long run. This is more than a couple losses and there is certainly reason for concern, but there are at least 10 reasons you shouldn’t be counting the Cavs out of the championship just yet.
10 Not a finished product
Cavs GM Chris Grant recognizes that this team has significant flaws as currently constructed (this is a team counting on rookie Joe Harris for significant minutes). The Wiggins-Love deal left Cleveland with very few valuable trade assets; gone is the perpetually-diminishing value of Anthony Bennett. The Waiters trade netted a first round draft pick from the Thunder that is likely somewhere in the 18-25 range in this year’s draft. The Cavs then landed Timofey Mozgov for the price of two 1st-round picks.
The Cavs main need was glaring; their opponents shoot 56.5% at the rim as they have had to rely on the likes of Love and Thompson for rim protection. Solid rim protectors are hard to come by in the NBA, so Mozgov could help the Cavs. The Cavs are also strong candidates for any veteran free agents (e.g. Jermaine O’Neal) that will be available. It was a seemingly forgettable 10-day contract for Chris “Birdman” Anderson that gave the Heat the rim protection they needed and helped them craft a championship quality defense.
9 Defensive Improvement
Since this team was assembled it was clear they would struggle to put together a championship caliber defense. The Cavs give up 47% shooting to opponents and own the 22nd best defense in the league. There is now some rim protection on this team. It was a challenge even before Varejao went down for the season and it didn’t help that they have had to play Love at centre; an unsustainable move defensively. The lack of rim protection was a tough problem to fix but the team did their best to address it with the recent acquisitions of Shumpert and Mozgov. This is a team that can improve dramatically on the perimeter.
The biggest improvement can come from the best player in the world re-committing to the defensive end. LeBron has been coasting this year on defense falling asleep on backdoors and not locking down drives on the perimeter. The addition of Shumpert gives the Cavs more flexibility on defense similarly the Heat’s defensive system that LeBron was comfortable and excelled in. The Cavs have a group of defenders that can switch pick and rolls and aggressively trap ball-handlers. They won’t be a top-5 defense but they don’t need to be either; when the Cavs carve out a league average defense they will be scary.
8 New Coach
Head coach David Blatt has come under fire already into his young NBA career. He was hired by the Cavs before LeBron had committed and it’s unclear if he would have been the choice if they knew they would be a contending team. Blatt comes over from coaching Maccabi Tel Aviv, one of the best Euroleague teams but undoubtedly has a transition to make to the NBA game. He comes highly regarded as an offensive mind that uses an updated version of the Princeton offense, which focuses largely on motion, basket cuts and high-low post action.
Blatt has had to adapt his offense in the early going of the season to his players available, and largely to LeBron’s preferences. LeBron and Kyrie are both ball-dominant pick and roll players and Blatt is working to fit them into this system. Blatt has also struggled to land on a consistent rotation, specifically fluctuating who to start at shooting guard. The addition of Shump and J.R. Smith should clarify everyone’s role more clearly. After the Heat's 9-8 start back in 2010-11, people were clamoring for Pat Riley to return to the bench but patience paid off and Spoelstra has emerged as one of the game’s best young minds.
7 Playoff Ready
Aside from their lack of rim protection, this is a team that is built for the playoffs. There is no concern of LeBron coasting during the playoffs; he will be on top of his game and bring his experience to this team. They are a team capable of scoring at ease in the half-court because the can get to the basket and have solid spacing with Love shooting 3’s. The Cavs currently play one of the slowest paces in the league which bodes well in the playoffs when the game slows down and they will have experience scoring in those situations.
The Cavs are also fourth in the league in free throws made, which is key in close playoff games that come down to the fourth quarter. This is a team full of 4th quarter and big game performers. Kyrie Irving thrives in high-pressure situations and has already hit a number of game winners in his young career. The team is surrounded by veterans with playoff experience like Shawn Marion and Mike Miller; the moment will not be too big for this team like it may for others.
6 Improved Chemistry
It takes time, what a sports cliché that is. The San Antonio Spurs championship last year changed the conversation about how to construct a contender. No longer was putting together three star players the only path to a championship, the value of continuity and cohesion amongst the players, coaches and the system has never been higher. Sitting atop the East are teams like the Raptors and Wizards that have been afforded years to grow together into contending teams. The “Spurs-East” Atlanta Hawks are the prototype of a team being better than the sum of its parts; right now the Cavs haven’t been able to get their parts to fit.
While chemistry can’t be placed on one player, Waiters is the poster boy for a contentious locker-room and his departure should bring the team together. This is a different big-3 than the Heat’s. They were more experienced and Wade had won his own ring. Irving is still just 22 years old and a significant part of this team has only played together briefly. Injuries have not helped the chemistry on the court as their best lineups haven’t been able to log that many minutes together. Once this team learns their individual roles, where players succeed best, they will be a team no one wants to face in the playoffs.
5 Offensive potential
For all the early season concerns about the Cavs there’s one thing they aren’t struggling at, scoring. The Cavs are 5th in the league in offensive rating and 9th in points per game. These numbers are even more impressive when the big 3 share the court together. Love is a devastating stretch power forward that creates space for LeBron to drive to the basket. Coach Blatt is starting to use the shooting of James Jones and Mike Miller to pair with LeBron and those lineups have been close to un-guardable. With the frontcourt of Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love, the Cavs have two of the best offensive rebounders in the league that will afford their top 5 offense even more possessions.
Thompson single-handedly beat the Raptors earlier this year with nine offensive boards. There is potential for improvement on the offensive side also if they can speed up their pace which sits currently in the bottom five of the league. When healthy, the starting lineup with Kyrie and Shumpert in the background should be able to use their athleticism to get out and run. The Cavs have been able to put up with all these numbers even without Love playing to his capacity, LeBron coasting and constant lineup inconsistencies.
4 Addition by Subtraction
Trading away Dion Waiters was all that needed to be heard to know it was a good move for the Cavs. One half of the self-proclaimed best backcourt in the NBA is heading to the Thunder and takes with him his 24% 3-point shooting and his locker-room fist fights with Kyrie Irving. Waiters is a talented player but his self-confidence has always got in the way of him accepting his rightful role as a scoring 6th man. Waiters and Irving have never been on the same page with Waiters reportedly breaking Kyrie’s nose in an altercation last season.
The move also makes sense from a team balance perspective. Irving and Waiters didn’t function well on the court as teams freely drove past them on a regular basis. The Cavs received Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith from the Knicks in the trade for immediate help to their defense. Shump brings the defensive mentality that the Cavs need and can hit the 3 at a high enough percentage to maintain spacing for the big 3. Improving the perimeter defense should also help the Cavs weak rim protection and create some fast break opportunities off turnovers. J.R. Smith and his $6.5M next season was the price the Cavs paid for getting Shump but he plays the same role as Waiters and is more comfortable doing so.
Every team has to deal with injuries but the Cavs have had to put together a new team without being able to play together on the floor. Starting centre Anderson Varejao was having a great season before going down for the year, leaving an already thin front-court thinner. Love, LeBron and Irving have suffered nagging injuries throughout the early going and need more time together on the floor. Injuries have forced players like Joe Harris and Shawn Marion into larger roles than they should be playing on a title contender.
The injuries have forced Blatt to search for a viable lineup that can score and defend. The consistency will come as players begin to get healthier. The lineup with the most minutes (the big 3 with Varejao and Marion) only has a plus-3 net rating but more balanced lineups such as Irving, Dellavadova, LeBron, Love and Thompson have put up a plus-45.8 net rating. Despite the small sample size, these are the types of lineups they will get to use when all players are healthy. Once Blatt settles on a rotation and defines roles for his players, they will be as good as anyone in the East.
2 The best player on the planet
He may not be looking like it so far this season but LeBron James is still the best player on the planet and that counts for a lot when the playoffs begin. After a vintage, dominant LeBron game against the Magic this season he said postgame that he was ‘chillin’ and Tobias Harris woke him up. At least LeBron is aware he’s been coasting a bit this year, especially on defense. LeBron has his lowest PER this season since he was a rookie and his shooting has suffered as he’s hitting just 48% of his field goals, a number that would be great for most but disappointing for LeBron’s usual standards, he shot 56.7% last season.
His overall shooting percentage is affected by the fact he’s only hitting 59% of his shots from within 10 feet, a spot he usually hits close to 70%. It’s understandable that James wants to take it a little easy; he knows that the season is a marathon not a sprint and has been dealing with nagging injuries. As James gets healthier and more aggressive it will be open things up for the rest of the team.
1 Unproven competition (Raps, Wizards, Hawks)
The most important reason the Cavs are championship contenders is their competition. The four teams ahead of them in standing (Raptors, Wizards, Bulls, Hawks) all have glaring weaknesses. Aside from the Bulls, these teams have limited playoff experience, especially in the later rounds. The Bulls, considered the strongest competition in the East are as well rounded as any team in the NBA…if healthy. That’s a big “if” as Rose’s knees and Noah’s feet haven’t been healthy at the same time in a few seasons.
The Hawks are using ball movement and spacing to show the Eastern Conference how to play Spurs basketball but it remains to be seen if an offense centered on Kyle Korver can make a deep run in the playoffs. The leaders of the Wizards and Raptors are still very young and showed in last year’s playoffs they weren’t ready yet. The Hawks and Wizards have also had two of the easiest schedules this year and will slow down as they play more Western Conference opponents. It may appear now that the Hawks are the far better team but in the playoffs it’ll be hard to pick Millsap, Korver and Horford over the big 3 of the Cavs.