5 Questions – Cavs season-opening edition
After a four-year hiatus, the NBA spotlight makes its return to Cleveland on tonight as the Cleveland Cavaliers open up the 2014-15 season against the New York Knicks.
The Cavs are emerging from NBA purgatory after losing 215 games over the past four seasons and are set to embark on what should prove to be one of the most exciting seasons in franchise history thanks to the return of LeBron James, the addition of Kevin Love, and the continued maturation of Kyrie Irving.
Because the Cavs pulled off one of the most amazing (and unpredictable) off-seasons in league history they are considered by many as favorites to not only return to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2007, but also bring home the franchise’s first NBA title – whether they are ready to or not.
“Anybody talking about us winning it all, I think they’re being unfair to those great NBA teams that are out there that have either won it or have been there to win it, and also to us as a team that’s talented but new,” head coach David Blatt said earlier this week. “We have a lot of work to do before we can start claiming anything before it’s time.”
Fair or not, the expectations are there for the Cavs and they will have to deal with them on a nightly basis. In addition, they will have to cope with heightened scrutiny from the media, take their opponents’ best shot night after night, and carry the burden of being the closest team to ending the city’s 50-year championship drought.
They will have to do that with a first-time NBA coach, and a core group of players that included several – Love, Irving, Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson, most prominently – who have never appeared in a single NBA playoff game, let alone with a title.
But they will also have the game’s best player on their side in James, who in his decision to come home showed that he fully embraces the challenges facing this team.
At this time last year, Cavs fans were trying to talk themselves into Andrew Bynum being a “low risk, high reward” acquisition.
Boy, how times have changed.
The next six-plus months are going to bring one of the most memorable years in team history, and to help get everyone ready we’ve brought together some of the best Cavs minds on the Internet for the latest edition of 5 Questions.
Joining us today are:
Question: What is the best role for Dion Waiters and, most importantly, can he accept it?
Ben: Dion’s best role is a spot-up shooter/opportunity scorer with the first unit and backup point guard/playmaker with the second. Dion needs to not ball stop when he’s on the court with the Big 3. He needs to keep the ball moving. But when Kyrie Irving (and LeBron James) sit, Dion can be the facilitator on the second unit.
Can he accept it? Who knows? But with LeBron in his ear every day (and a potential contract extension looming), he just well might.
Also, Dion has all the physical tools to harass opposing point guards on the defensive end. The Cavs will be in an unbelievable spot if Dion can become a two-way player as his size and speed could and should be a pain for smaller guards.
Mike: I will probably always be of the belief that the best role for Waiters is coming off of the bench. I just don’t see him thriving in a role where he is going to be the fourth option on offense, so I think it would be better to let him utilize his scoring ability with the second unit. If he is going to work as a starter on this team, it will be because he turns into a really reliable three-point shooter and accepts the fact that he’s going to have to take fewer shots than he has in the past.
Murray: I’ll answer the second part first. I think Dion is just going to be a lot happier to be on a winning team and that is going to reflect in acceptance of whatever role he ends up fulfilling for the Cavs. In terms of his best role, it’s an interesting question. He’s a starter, primarily because he’s the second best guard on the team, but I think the best role for him right now will be a sixth man-type role. When he shares the floor with the starters, he can work as a floor spacer due to his underrated ability as a spot up shooter. When Irving and LeBron sit he can be the primary ball handler with the second unit, and they can plug him in as a scorer when it’s needed, depending on how he’s playing.
Demetri: Dion Waiters has the talent to be in the starting lineup of this team, but his talents would be best utilized coming off the bench. His role will be more well-defined there and the addition of Mike Miller or (possibly) Ray Allen in the starting lineup has better balance. If David Blatt does decide to start Waiters, he will have to pick and choose his spots. He will be able to score a quick 10 points in three minutes on occasion if that happens.
Question: David Blatt seems too good to be true as a head coach. What can we realistically expect from him?
Ben: Blatt has to know that these Cavs will ultimately be judged in the playoffs, so I think we can expect a lot of experiments, especially with regard to his lineups. The Cavs can put a lot of different looks on the floor. I’m also excited to see if and how the Cavs switch their defense during games. A few times this preseason he’s had the Cavs press after timeouts and free throws, and he’s even gone zone.
Mike: The expectations do seem pretty high, considering that the guy has never coached in the NBA before. I think he is absolutely the right guy for the job, but we need to be careful not to expect the Cavs’ offense to look like the Spurs’ right from day one. Implementing his system will probably take time, especially since many of the players on the roster have not played with each other much before.
Murray: Well we know he’s going to be a good quote! Aside from that, he is someone that’s going to be adaptable. He has a reputation as a Princeton offense guy, coming from playing there under Pete Carril, and he will run a lot of those concepts, but he’s not tied to anything. I expect he’ll change and react to different situation. Aside from that, he comes across as an easy going guy and players seem to love playing for him, but he’s not a coach that’s going to take any crap. Everybody’s heard about him kicking Alexey Shved and Sergei Monia off the Russian National Team during a game.
Demetri: I think there will be a learning curve with David Blatt, but it won’t matter as much because of the ridiculous amount of talent on this team. Blatt has a reputation for being a guy who does great work for short spurts but eventually wears on his players. The hope is to get as much out of him as possible before that happens.
Question: Can the Cavs play well enough on defense to get the job done, or will they simply have to outscore the opposition every night?
Ben: Unless Kyrie and/or Dion has a defensive epiphany, the Cavs are going to have to rely on outscoring their opponents, at least early in the season.
Mike: I think they can be alright on defense. Not great, but good enough. They obviously don’t have a rim protector, but they have a few pretty good individual wing defenders, and LeBron will make sure that everyone buys into playing hard on that end. Effort is a pretty big component of how good a defense is.
Murray: There’s obviously questions about the individual defensive ability of players on the roster, but defense is scheme and effort. I believe the coaches and the veterans on this roster will get the team playing hard enough on defense for it to be enough. Plus, they’re going to outscore everyone whether they have to or not!
Demetri: The Cavs will only need to play mediocre defense to get the job done as they have that much offensive talent. The thing about basketball is that offense and defense matter equally. However, opposing teams will have to figure out a way to stop the Cavs. That won’t be easy with the roster that is assembled. As long as the Cavs play passable defense, they should be playing into June.
Question: How is this version of LeBron James different than the one Cavs fans saw the first time he was with the team?
Ben: He’s better at basketball, which is really kind of insane to even think about. He’s comfortable in the post (he broke out a sky hook in preseason! A freaking skyhook!), he’s made himself into a great spot-up shooter and he’s matured as a leader.
Plus, with free agency not looming, Cavs fans will be able to cheer for him unconditionally. There’s no fear that he might bolt to a bigger market if things don’t go perfectly.
Mike: People like to say that LeBron “knows how to win” now, and I think there is some truth to that. He’s definitely a little bit wiser and a little bit more mature. But he’s also older. He’ll be 30 soon, which isn’t necessarily old in the traditional sense, but he’s logged so many miles when you consider that he’s been in the NBA since he was 18, he’s played in 158 playoff games, and he’s played in three Olympics. Even though he’s been so durable throughout his career, I really do worry that he might start breaking down sooner than anybody realizes. There has to be a limit to how many times his knees can support that huge frame landing on them.
Murray: Well, he’s obviously a better player, a more complete one. But I think the biggest difference is mental. In his first term with the Cavs he was not prepared to handle the responsibility that was pushed on him by virtue of being the best player. This time around his attitude has changed. He has actively accepted the role of team leader, pursued it even, in returning to the Cavs. Before he grew frustrated that his teammates were not up to his level, but now he’s committed to making the team better and to lead them on and off the court. This team has been sorely lacking in veteran leadership over the past four seasons and I think that’s the biggest difference we’ll see in LeBron.
Demetri: Basketball’s best-kept secret is that LeBron’s defense has slipped in the last year. However, his field goal percentage has increased in each of the last eight years. That’s incredible. I wouldn’t be surprised to see LeBron’s defense improve this year given that he won’t be asked to carry the load like he was in Miami. This is quite the ironic turn. Off the court, LeBron James appears to have matured a lot. He has embraced the area and what he means to it. It truly was a matter of leaving something for him to realize how great it really is.
Question: Will we be celebrating come June?
Ben: My gut says no, that it’s too much to expect both Kyrie and Kevin Love to win a title during their very first playoff run. But they might. They have the best player on the planet and he’s in his prime, so they’ll always have a shot. They’re the most loaded Cleveland sports team since the 1998 Indians; they have three in-their-prime All Stars, a boatload of talent, and a coach who’s won everywhere he’s ever been. If they can gel on defense and if they can add a center … they got a shot.
Mike: I tend to take a “hope for the best but expect the worst” approach when it comes to Cleveland’s teams. But I really do think this is the best team in the NBA, and they should win the title this season. I have no problem saying that because I don’t believe in jinxes.
Murray: I say … yes. There are issues to work out and the team needs to gel, but the regular season is 82 games long. By the time the playoffs come around they’re going to be full speed and they aren’t gonna be stopped.