In our first segment we looked at the fresh faces that will be donning the wine and gold this year, but today, we will look at the contributors to this year’s Cavalier team that will be returning from last season.
We will start with the most prominent. Namely, the Cavs bring back a lot of front court talent between Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson and Larry Nance Jr.
Nance might be the low-key best player on this team. I believe he was last year, at least. He’s an athletic big that can finish around the rim as well as be a surprisingly adept passer. His creativity with the ball should lend itself well to Beilein’s offense. He was also the Cavs’ best defender last year and was in the top 20 in steals, a stat he claims he wants to be among the league leaders in this year. He will start the year likely in a bench role, but should be more than poised to step in if there are any injuries.
Thompson was having a great season last year until he got injured, although I think some of his offensive output came at the benefit of Love’s own absence. He did show an improved ability to score around the rim though and shot nearly 53% from the field. Both he and Nance want to open up their offensive games this year and try to stretch the floor with deep shots, including 3s. Exemplified by making 33 threes last year, Nance has shown an ability to do this in the past. Thompson on the other hand, is a player that has struggled with knowing which hand to shoot free throws with, let alone perfecting jump shots from the field in game action. Color me skeptical. Alternatively, Beilein has come out and said anyone who proves to make shots in practice will not be scolded for taking them in games.
Love could very well could make his 6th All-Star team this year as he has had a year to become re-acclimated to being the number 1 option in an offense. He, along with Nance and Thompson compose a very strong rebounding front-court that could prove helpful if the team can pick up their defensive efforts. The question becomes though, how many possessions will the Cavs really want to waste on the 31 year old Love? He’s proven a great locker-room leader, but would the team not be better served to allow reps to guys like Darius Garland, Cedi Osman and Colin Sexton (more on them to come)? Will the Cavs trade Love? Will he be healthy at the appropriate time for him to be traded in the first place?
Love isn’t the only trade question on the team either. This squad is a mix of young potential players and veterans. 6 vets on this team are on the last year of their contracts: Thompson, Osman, Brandon Knight, Jordan Clarkson, John Henson and Matthew Dellavedova. How many of these guys are not going to be interested in being a part of a tank job, particularly when so many will be coming off the bench in lieu of younger talent? I think a number will welcome a trade, and their behavior in the locker room will have a lot to do with how smooth of a transition lies ahead for this Cavaliers team. With the exception of Osman and maybe Dellavedova I would not expect any of the above to return after this season.
With Osman in mind, this is a huge year for him. The man that replaced LeBron at starting small forward has a lot to prove, and a lot to gain coming into a contract year. He could be poised for a breakout as his improved scoring ability and creativity with the ball should aid him well in Beilein’s offense. He shot well down the stretch last year but looked super inconsistent in his time playing for Turkey at the FIBA World Cup this summer, costing them in dearly in the final minutes of a couple games. He will have to cut out the major gaffe’s he’s been susceptible too, but if he can he has real talent as a rotation player in the NBA.
Its odd, but Dellavedova was a bit of a godsend last year when he was brought back to the Cavaliers in a mid-season trade. I am not fooling myself, I’m sure his acquisition had a lot to do with instilling good will with Cleveland fans in a bleak season by having a fan favorite player return. Further, Milwaukee was more than willing to off-load his $9.6 million per year, but he was a cool head who was able to handle the ball and initiate offense, something the Cavaliers desperately needed last year and used until his season ended with concussion issues. Delly had the best assist rate on the team by far, at 31.3% and with there still being questions about Garland as a facilitator, he very well may continue to have a significant role on this squad.
Another big part of the team’s ball-handling woes last year comes from the performance of Collin Sexton. Sexton was the 8th pick in the draft for the Cavs last year, and to be fair, was absolutely brutal at times. Labeled a point guard, he average just 3 Assists Per Game, in just under 32 Minutes a Game, coupled with 2.3 Turnovers Per Game. He proved much more of a scorer, averaging 16.7 Points Per Game with an ability to get to the rim and more shooting range than expected. Personally, I think he needs to cut out some of the long 2 point shots he takes. They made up 21% of his repertoire last year and made him a less efficient scorer than he could have been. He was also a bit of a turn-stile on defense, accumulating negative Defensive Win Shares, but to his credit, improved throughout the season and received All-Rookie Second team honors.
Sexton however was not the only guard on the team who needed the ball in his hands. Jordan Clarkson was one of the bright spots on a bad team last year, but it came mostly in a scoring role off the bench. He led the league in 10+ point games off the bench and scored 16.2 Points Per Game. He absolutely benefited from an injury-stricken second unit that didn’t have a ton of scoring talent around him, but he has proven to be a young player with quality scoring potential. Expect Clarkson to get a lot of run again early this year, but to not be part of the future plans of the team. I really believe a play-off bound group would love to snatch him up for bench scoring down the stretch. The Cavs should showcase him early, and he deserves the minutes.
But really this brings us to the crux of what this team is. One on hand, you have a number of front-court vets that are accomplished and bring quality basketball to the floor. On the other, you have 2 young point guards, both of whom so far show more of a penchant for scoring than passing, are undersized and of questionable defensive ability. I fear 2 things. For one, we have seen this rodeo before. Dion Waiters and Kyrie Irving did not get along, despite what they might have said back in the day (see linked video for a laugh). I truly believe those Cavalier teams earlier this decade were on a train to nowhere before LeBron rescued them. You had 2 ball-dominant guards, both of whom wanted to handle and were not great defensively, and the team struggled for 4 long years. This might be where the Cavs are headed. My second fear is a lesser one, and it is just that ultimately, Sexton and Garland can be cordial members of the same team, but the floor just isn’t big enough for both of them at one time. I ultimately think this will be a benefit, as I personally think Sexton is eventually better suited as a spark plug off the bench for a playoff team, similar to former Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams. However, can the team stick it out with both players long enough to build a team where its suitable to run Sexton off the bench? To conclude my thought, I will say that I do not blame the Cavaliers for what they have done. They believe they have taken the best players available in the draft. The 76ers took center Joel Embiid even though they had a young center in Jahlil Okafor in their starting lineup and that decision has worked out for everyone in the long run (except Okafor). You can’t pass up on talent when its there, not when you so desperately need it in order to compete.
Unfortunately for now though, this team is a bit of a mess. Its a conglomeration of talent that I just don’t think really has a sense of direction yet. I think if the Cavs wanted to roll out their 5 best players on the floor at the same time they would not be able to as three of them are Love, Thompson and Nance to go along with Clarkson and Garland (I THINK, who knows! He only played 5 college games!). Love, Thompson and Nance would never work together, not unless Love played a weird version of small forward since he can stretch the floor, but can’t guard the other teams’ 3 position. Not even mentioned above is Ante Zizic, another 7 foot center that looked like a really promising player for the Cavs in spurts last year., was 4th on the team in Win Shares Per 48 Minutes and 4th in Offensive Rating.
This is a big year in the transition of the team though as they will need to figure out if Sexton and Garland fit together, and if not, how bad the damage is. They also need to figure out if Cedi Osman is in their long term plans, see what they can get for Jordan Clarkson and if they could really bring in a bomb’s worth of talent for Kevin Love. There will be a lot of dead money coming off their cap this off-season, which they will want to hold on to. Either Garland is a real piece and a franchise player in a league where you need at least 2 of those pieces to really compete, or the Cavs are still at least 2 seasons away from finding both of their cornerstones and starting to really build something.
The discovery begins on Wednesday in Orlando. In my last preview entry we will be looking at the schedule and I will be making a prediction on a season record for the Cavaliers.