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Cleveland Cavaliers 2015-16 Season Preview

The gang is back, perhaps with a new sense of togetherness forged in the intense heat of last year. Will this be the year they bring a championship to a beleaguered sports town?

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Cleveland Cavaliers 2015-16 Season Preview

2014-15 record: 53-29, No. 2 in Eastern Conference; No. 1 in Central Division; lost in the NBA Finals

Key Additions: Mo Williams, Richard Jefferson, and Sasha Kaun

Key Losses: Shawn Marion, Mike Miller, Brendan Heyward, Kendrick Perkins

SB Nation affiliate: Fear the Sword

Last Year

Were the Cavs really the roiling circus that they seemed through the media lens last year? The storyline had LeBron return home only to battle with/call out everyone at various points, from Kevin Love to Kyrie Irving, to coach David Blatt to Dion Waiters. Things may have gotten blown a bit out of proportion, but they did struggle deeply as a unit early on, including a nationally-televised home loss to the 17-win Knicks. There was awkwardness on both sides of the ball as they never really took to Blatt’s acclaimed schemes, and their record accordingly stood at a mediocre 19-20 nearly halfway through the year.

This all ratcheted up the scrutiny and the twitterverse hate. But once Waiters was jettisoned, LeBron came back from a mid-season injury break, and the Cavs picked up Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith, and Iman Shumpert, this team started rolling in a big way. They finished 34-9 and blew through the Eastern Conference Playoffs even as Kevin Love was lost to a season-ending injury in the first round.

In the Finals, they showed impressive heart against Golden State, losing the first game along with Kyrie Irving for the rest of the series, but took a 2-1 series lead thanks to awe-inspiring play by James and "the underdog from down under" Matthew Dellavedova. Ultimately though, the Cavs were too depleted, and the Dubs stacked up on LeBron. Cleveland couldn’t keep up with the Warriors’ artillery, and lost the next three games and the series. As when James arrived in Miami, the first year as a "superteam" fell short of the ultimate goal.

Scouting a Superteam

Despite all sorts of rumors that Love wanted out of Cleveland because he was relegated to a spot-up shooter in the offense, he re-signed in the offseason for 5 more years. LeBron re-signed, probably because there was little money in a "The Decision III" TV special, rather than a soul-deep commitment to his ersatz hometown or anything. And Kyrie is locked in at a max contract; this core is set to be together for a while.

Scoring is not going to be a problem. LeBron is still the Jim Brown of the NBA, an unstoppable force when he gets a head of steam going. He can hurt you in so many different ways: at the rim, shooting, passing, penetrating; I mean just his presence has to dent your ego a little.

Irving is a supremely skilled scorer and passer (when he decides to be), with a handle that puts the world on skates. He actually tied LeBron for Win Shares during the regular season—he really is that good, in case Blazers fans didn't already know after last year's 55-point outburst against them.  Well, here are some highlights of him torching other teams just in case:

Love is a great shooter and floor spacer with a turnaround jumper from the post that went under-utilized last year. Behind this incarnation of 'The Big Three', there's a legion of role players who can step up big any given night, now bolstered by veterans Williams and Jefferson.

Yet the Cavs shouldn’t take their strength for granted. They ran the most isolation plays in the NBA last year, evidence that Blatt’s ball-movement-insistent offense was scrapped by his players. This trend only got worse in the postseason, and you make a defense’s job a lot easier by playing one-on-one. Even with all-galaxy playmakers at their disposal, they would be well advised to take a more mature approach into a new year.

On the other side of the ball, they are pretty solid in the back court. LeBron may have lost a step on defense, but he is still extremely disruptive. Kyrie Irving made significant strides as a defender last year, while Iman Shumpert and even J.R. Smith (when he applies himself) are plus perimeter defenders. The question is, do they have enough back-end defense, especially when playing small-ball lineups? Anderson Varejao was already fading defensively before a season-ending achilles tear, Mozgov is a solid rim-protector but fairly immobile, and Tristan Thompson is not really a defender. He also is not really a Cav at this point, as he continues to hold out for a better contract, a situation which may go on for a while yet. Cleveland needs his athleticism in the frontcourt, though, so expect a deal to be reached eventually.

(Note I didn’t mention Love in the defensive summary. Lake Oswego still loves you though.)

When Cleveland tried to match up with the Warriors’ small-ball style, they got run out of the gym. They seemed to have somewhat better success sticking with their conventional lineup and ignoring that the gnats were running around them, but that lack of flexibility clearly makes them vulnerable.


This is a team that is once again favored to appear in the NBA Finals. If they get there and remain healthy, they have a good chance to win it all based on star-power alone. There will definitely be challenges along the way, particularly to a defense that needs to step it up. The larger question is whether they can keep up with the pace and team-oriented play which has lately characterized the upper echelons of the West.

Yesterday's preview: Chicago Bulls
Up next: Memphis Grizzlies