NBA basketball is back! Okay — only the preseason is back, but still, NBA basketball is being played! Preseason is definitely boring though, so in the meantime I’ll be continuing my five part series talking about five teams that I think will for sure finish over or under their projected win totals from Las Vegas. Here’s part three.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are coming off a loss in the 2018 NBA Finals to the Golden State Warriors. It’s glossed over since the Warriors have come out on top three out of the past four times, but the Cavs’ run of four straight Finals appearances is one of the better runs in NBA history. The Warriors are heavily favored to cover their end and return to the 2019 NBA Finals this year, but it’s being heavily doubted that the Cavs will be able to return the favor.
There’s many reasons for this but – okay…let’s just be real – LeBron James has left Cleveland for the second time in his career and it’s the main and almost only reason that the Cavs are being predicted by Las Vegas Westgate to finish at 30.5 wins. The narrative (whether you think it was deserved, or not) for the Cavs’ 2017-18 season was that LeBron James carried the team throughout the season and playoffs and without him they would have been next to nothing. There’s many reasons for this narrative. One is the storyline of “Wow, look what LeBron is doing in his 15th season”. I think I heard/saw “15th season” about 1000 times last season. With being undoubtedly the best player on a team even in your 15th season, the rest of the roster is going to be scrutinized whether or not the older player is LeBron James or not. In addition, I think Kyrie Irving departing the team had something to do with the narrative, as he was very obviously LeBron’s main sidekick throughout their three years together. It also doesn’t help when, in the middle of the year, the front office trades away basically half of the roster for a new half. Then, following the roster overhaul, they still suck! The Cavs had one of the most ambitious mid-season roster overhauls I’ve seen in my lifetime, and LeBron still couldn’t get the Cavs to be elite in the regular season and had to have one of his best playoff performances of all-time just to get them to the Finals.
All of that negativity aside, I think the prediction of 30.5 wins is still far below where I think they’ll finish. I’d definitely take the over and I think they’ll finish more around 36-40 wins and will barely miss the playoffs (Detroit Pistons are projected to finish 8th in the East, with 37.5 wins).
Tristan Thompson may be a little more optimistic than me, but I really don’t think this team will finish around that 30 win mark. Thompson does sort of talk about one of my main reasons for thinking the way that I do, and that’s the fact that the Eastern Conference is so weak (that’s not really what he said but he was talking about the conference either way).
With the prediction of 30.5 wins, that puts the Cavs smack dab in the middle of the New York Knicks who are projected to win 29.5 wins, and the Orlando Magic (!!!) who are projected to win 31.5 games. Now, I’m totally fine with people thinking the Cavs are going to stink. They are, and honestly in the East, the 8th seed and maybe even the 7th seed will suck compared to the quality of the 7,8 seeds in the West. But the ORLANDO MAGIC are going to finish better than the Cavs? Come on.
In addition just to the overall strength (or lack there of) in the Eastern Conference, there’s no team in the East with a roster that stacks up to the Cavs in regards to real playoff experience. You can make fun of players like J.R. Smith all you want, but he has quality playoff experience alongside LeBron that some players in the East will never get close to. That hunger to get back in the playoffs from players like J.R., Tristan Thompson, Kevin Love, and even the guys that came over before the trade deadline, should propel them closer to the 8 seed than a 30 win finish would.
The Return of Timberwolves Kevin Love?
The centerpiece of my take on the Cavs finishing above their projected win total is Kevin Love.
It’s hard to remember Love’s days on the Timberwolves even though they were only five years ago. If you can recall, Love was an absolute force, albeit on a far below average team. In his final season with the T’Wolves in 2014, he averaged 26.1 PPG, 12.5 RPG, and 4.4 APG. In that season he was 4th in PPG, 3rd in RPG, was 8th in his Usage rate, and only LeBron James and Kevin Durant were better than him in regards to Win Shares, Box Plus/Minus, and VORP.
Once he arrived in Cleveland, his stats obviously changed as his role drastically changed. He wasn’t the number one option, hell, he wasn’t even the second option on the offensive end.
His field goal attempts and usage rate were slashed as a result of playing alongside LeBron and Kyrie. His effectiveness never faltered though, as he has somehow been underrated due to being in LeBron and Kyrie’s shadows. Going into the 2018-19 season, Love is averaging 17.2 PPG, 10 RPG, and 2.0 APG in his four year Cavs career. His three point attempts have stayed near where they were in his last year in Minnesota, as he was perfect for catch and shoot threes off of LeBron drives and set plays in Cleveland. Obviously the two point attempts dropped significantly, as Love’s role in the paint as an offensive post player was reduced.
If Love splits the difference between his 2013-14 numbers and his 2017-18 numbers, he’d probably be an All-NBA team candidate, which would make it very hard for the Cavs to miss the playoffs in the not-so-intimidating Eastern Conference. There are of course concerns with Love being 30 years old and coming off of injury-plagued seasons the past two years. But even more than those reasons, Kevin Love could completely work against me in regards to my prediction in another way. That’s all because of his long-term extension he signed in the offseason, and how Love and his contract can be traded.
The extension that Love and the Cavs agreed to made Love’s contract a five year deal to the tune of $144.1 million starting with the 2018-19 season. It was a feel good story in an offseason that was extremely negative for the Cavs and their fanbase. The actual signing was even celebrated with employees of the Cavs. With that being said, the long term extension also gave the Cavs the ability to trade Love, as a team would love the control over his contract. A perfect comparison would be the trade the Detroit Pistons made for Blake Griffin last season. When he signed his huge extension with the Los Angeles Clippers, it was believed throughout the league that he was set to potentially finish his career there in a feel-good story. That story was demolished when the Clippers traded him away for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic and a first-round pick. The Pistons wanted one of the more above average players in the league, in addition to obtaining his salary which gave them long-term control. A team could seek out a trade involving Love with the Cavs, especially if the Cavs don’t like what’s going on with their season.
Like I said, Kevin Love is the key to all of this. Collin Sexton could impress and make a run for rookie of the year. J.R. Smith could play out of his mind, Tristan Thompson could play like the 2015 version of himself as opposed to the post-Khloe Kardashian version, and players like Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood could possibly not suck like they did in the playoffs. That all could happen, but even if they did it wouldn’t have a seismic change on the outcomes of their games. What would put a positive spin on their results this season is a return for Kevin Love to his Timberwolves days. It would be huge for this team who many are pegging for the lottery in the 2019 draft. With that being said, the Cavs could very well trade him, which would basically make everything I said above USELESS. We’ll see. If they keep him for the entire year, definitely expect them to finish above 30.5 wins.