Title Contender Scale: 9
Conference Ranking: 1st
NBA Ranking: 3rd
2016-17 season summary: After winning the 2016 NBA championship, everything seemed fine for the Cavs. They had just came back from a 3-1 deficit against the Warriors, bringing Cleveland its first ever championship. But then Kevin Durant signed with Golden State. The Cavs had no cap room, and couldn’t sign anybody new. Their biggest move was re-signing Richard Jefferson. So, with pretty much the same championship team, the Cavs went into the season. Midway through, they made three significant moves: they traded for sharpshooter Kyle Korver, signed backup point guard Deron Williams, and signed Andrew Bogut. Unfortunately, Bogut got injured in his first game and didn’t play after that. But, Korver and Williams were both successful moves for the Cavs. Williams played well when he subbed in for Kyrie, and Korver was the three point marksman LeBron wanted him to be. Along the season, the Cavs frequently rested their starters and dealt with injuries. This resulted in them going into the Eastern Conference Playoffs as the 2nd seed, finishing behind the much improved Boston Celtics. That being said, the Cavaliers were still the unquestioned top team in the East. They cruised through the first three rounds, only losing one game. But none of those teams were even close to the level the Warriors were on. The Cavaliers simply were no match for them, losing in five games.
Offseason Overview: Even though the Cavaliers didn’t have a ton of cap room, they still had quite an eventful offseason. That doesn’t mean it was good, though. In fact, there’s been a lot of dysfunction swirling around the franchise this summer. Let’s start with the good: Cleveland signed Derrick Rose to a 1 year, $2.1 million deal. He had his best season since coming off of his horrific 2012 injury, and will certainly help the Cavs in their title chase. Kyle Korver is also returning after signing a 3 year deal. He was useful off the bench last year. They also signed some decent end of the bench contributors: Jeff Green, Cedi Osman, and Jose Calderon. Calderon is a good three point shooter. Osman has the potential to grow into a solid defender a few years from now. Green has good size and knows how to score in limited minutes. Now, for the bad. Rose can’t shoot threes, and we know that’s the trait LeBron likes the most in his teammates nowadays. Calderon is old, and can’t play defense (the thing the Cavaliers need most). Osman is unproven and hasn’t played a minute in the NBA. Green has had a disappointing career to this point and isn’t even as good as either of the Warriors’s ‘big’ additions, Nick Young and Omri Casspi. Now to get past the free agent signings. Carmelo Anthony reportedly no longer wants to be traded to Cleveland, and has set his sights solely on Houston. Cleveland missed out on an elite scorer here. Why did Melo change his mind about Cleveland? Because Kyrie Irving no longer wants to play alongside LeBron. If Cleveland loses Kyrie, there’s no chance they beat Golden State unless they get something more valuable in return, which I doubt will happen.
Additions: Derrick Rose, Jose Calderon, Cedi Osman, Jeff Green
Losses: Deron Williams, Derrick Williams, Dahntay Jones, James Jones
Favorite offseason move: Signing Derrick Rose. He’d be a phenomenal sixth man, and, even though they didn’t plan for this, if Kyrie gets traded and the Cavaliers don’t receive a point guard in return, then Rose would be a fine starting point guard. I think that LeBron will take Rose’s game to the highest level it’s been in a while.
Least favorite offseason move: Being complacent. Yes, they were capped out and couldn’t sign anyone past the minimum. But it’s hard to believe that they couldn’t find better players than Calderon, Green, and Osman. I have to feel like if they had stuck with GM David Griffin they could’ve improved more.
Starting Five (for now): Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith, LeBron James, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson
The only weak spot on this lineup is J.R, and even he is a decent player. LeBron is the best player in the NBA, Kyrie is unstoppable on offense, and Kevin Love is still an elite power forward. Tristan Thompson is an excellent rebounder and knows his role on the Cavs.
Key Reserves: Derrick Rose, Kyle Korver, Richard Jefferson
Derrick Rose is a starting caliber player who is still among the best at driving to the lane. He’ll provide instant offense when he gets in the game, but I’m not sure if that’s what the Cavaliers need. Korver is an elite marksman and is a good seventh man. I’m worried about Jefferson, though. He’s getting old and I don’t know how much more he’s got left in him. The Cavaliers would be wise to try to upgrade their bench.
Key player: LeBron James
LeBron is the leader of this team. He dictates what happens both on and off the court. He wants a shooter? Trade for Kyle Korver. So, LeBron is the one who dictates how far they go. We’ve seen how bad they are when he isn’t on the court.
Who needs to improve: Nobody, realistically
Irving, LeBron, Love, and Thompson are all in their prime. I don’t see any of them improving their game significantly from last year. That leaves the rest of the team. They’re all old and past their prime, save Derrick Rose. J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert aren’t improving. Neither is Korver. I’m afraid to say it, but I think this team reached its peak in 2016 when they won an NBA championship.
X-Factor: Kyrie Irving
I’m putting Kyrie as the X-Factor because he’s most likely going to get traded. The question is for what. If the Cavs can somehow acquire more talent (say, Melo and Bledsoe) in exchange for Irving, then that could change their whole season. But, if they get less than equal value in return (say, just Bledsoe), then that could derail all hopes of a possible Warriors upset.
Projection: 50-56 wins
Biggest question: Who are the Cavs going to get in return for Kyrie Irving when he gets traded? How will it affect the team chemistry and play style?
Future outlook: The Cavaliers’ future does not look bright. Kyrie Irving is most likely gone. It remains to be seen what the Cavaliers will get in return for him. Over a third of the team is gonna be gone after this season: LeBron, Shumpert, Frye, Calderon, Green, and Rose. Kevin Love will be on the team for the next two years (barring a trade), then he has a player option which I’m sure he will decline. Tristan Thompson, Kyle Korver, Cedi Osman, and J.R. Smith are all under contract for the next three years. This situation is undeniably bad. The Cavs have gave away picks and signed large contracts to win now, and it’s hurt their future.
Best case scenario: The Cavaliers are able to trade Kyrie Irving for Eric Bledsoe and Carmelo Anthony. The Cavaliers improve both their defense and offense, and cruise to a fourth straight finals appearance. The Warriors, on the other hand, struggle against the upgraded Western Conference in the playoffs and get upset by the Houston Rockets. The Rockets frontcourt proves to be no match for LeBron, Melo, and Kevin Love, and they win in five games. LeBron returns in free agency.
Worst case scenario: The Cavs trade Kyrie but don’t get as much as they’d like in their return. Derrick Rose’s spacing turns out to be a problem and the aging bench doesn’t provide enough production. They get the 2nd seed and get through the first two rounds fine, but struggle against the Celtics. Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown make huge strides, and help them win in 7 series. LeBron leaves for a new team in the offseason and the Cavs cut their losses by trading Kevin Love while he still has some value.
Possible moves that team could make: I know I’ve said this a lot, but Kyrie Irving is on the trade block. It’s also likely we see one of Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, or Channing Frye go with him. I also think it’s possible Kevin Love could get traded if the opportunity presents itself.
Final Verdict: I think the Cavaliers will get enough value back for Irving so that it doesn’t make their team much worse, but they certainly won’t get better. They’ll win enough games to secure the 1st seed in the East. But I don’t see a way that they beat the Warriors without Kyrie. He’s been essential to them every finals. The Cavs are great, but not great enough.