Cleveland Cavaliers Opening Night Preview

A look at the Cleveland Cavaliers' expected starting lineup for opening night. There's a new face in there, but time will tell if it's a welcome change or not.

Basketball season is only a few weeks away. The three-time defending Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers are the odds-on favorite to make the Finals again, although this time around they're without superstar guard Kyrie Irving, who was traded in August. It has been an odd offseason for the Cavs, but it's time to start speculating about the upcoming season. Let's take a look at the opening night starting five with some detail about what we've seen and what we should expect.

The Starting Five

1. Point Guard - Derrick Rose

Derrick Rose wasn't supposed to be the starting PG for the Cavaliers this season. He wasn't even supposed to be the backup, as the Cavs signed Jose Calderon three weeks before grabbing the former MVP. But then Kyrie got traded, and Isaiah Thomas's hip announced itself as "still injured," and here we are. Did I mention it's been a weird offseason?

As seen above, Rose showed flashes of his pre-injury peak last year, but he's still a far cry from "back." He was remarkably average on offense, ranking in the 48th percentile on points per possession (PPP) via Synergy Sports. Defensively, he fared surprisingly well, showing a proclivity toward stopping pick and roll ball-handlers (71st percentile), which Kyrie treated like the plague. But Kyrie was great on offense, and Derrick can't shoot. A nice breakdown of Rose's offensive game can be seen here, by Fear the Sword's Mike Zavagno.

Even so, I expect Rose to hold his own on offense. He won't hit open threes so the Cavaliers can't lean on him for 30+ minutes per game, particularly if he isn't the primary ball-handler - a role that LeBron James often usurps. However, his role is to be a stop-gap for Isaiah Thomas and, ideally, to create shots when LeBron doesn't want to exert energy. He should be able to handle that in short bursts.

2. Shooting Guard - JR Smith

JR Smith struggled last year. After being a bright spot for the Cavs championship season in 2015-2016 and getting a fat new contract, Smith dealt with injuries and never really found his stride in 2016-17. The fear for Cavaliers fans is that Smith is freshly 32 years old, coming off thumb surgery, a hamstring tweak in the playoffs, and the worst shooting season of his career. It's not a great mix. On the other hand, his defensive load will be lightened this year with the addition of Jae Crowder (more on him later), he can't possibly shoot so poorly again, and he can breathe easier after last year's off-court chaos regarding his four-month-premature daughter, who thankfully seems to be doing well.

The two-guard position is JR's to lose. The lineup around him will dictate a lot of his responsibilities, as the Cavaliers (at full-strength) can trot out any of the following accomplished shooters: Isaiah Thomas, Jose Calderon, JR Smith, Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, Channing Frye, Richard Jefferson, and Kevin Love. Someone will get open looks. It could be JR.

3. Small Forward - LeBron James

One of the greatest players ever? Yes, please. My only hope is that Jae Crowder helps pull down LeBron's minutes but Ty Lue very clearly does not care about limiting minutes for LeBron James. More on this during the season.

4. Power Forward - Kevin Love

There comes a time every September when articles are written about how the Cleveland Cavaliers are working on ways to better utilize Kevin Love. In reality, they'll force-feed him on the left block in the first quarter (even though he's better from the right block: Read point #3 in this article), then let him drift outside before effectively cutting him out of the offense by the 4th quarter. This may change a little without Kyrie.

In any case, Kevin Love is a big-time player and will be called upon heavily throughout the season. He was the third option last year and averaged 19 points and 11 rebounds. Imagine what he can do as the second option. Look for a bigger second-half impact from Love this season as the Cavs try to figure out how to close games instead of just throwing Kyrie the ball and letting him dribble for 13 seconds.

5. Center - Tristan Thompson

Tristan's NBA Finals no-show was troubling, but probably not as troubling as it was made out to be. He averaged six and six in about 26 minutes with occasional (uncharacteristic) mental lapses on defense. It was ugly, but the entire team was ugly, so singling him out is probably unfair. TT will feel an underrated impact of the Kyrie Irving departure: LeBron doesn't throw Tristan lobs the way Kyrie (or Delly before him) did. Will Derrick Rose? Will anyone?

Tristan, like the non-Derrick Rose guys in this lineup, is the de facto starter. It's been his position so it's still his position. If Edy Tavares shows up and destroys guys in camp, we'll discuss this, but that's unlikely. The other possible outcome is that Crowder starts and Kevin Love moves to the "center" position, but that's not happening yet.

Bench Studs

The Cavs have one of the deepest "role player" squads in the league with aging (and old) guys like Richard Jefferson, Jose Calderon, Channing Frye, and Kyle Korver on the bench (full depth chart here). But since you know about those guys, let's look at the two newest bench players.

1. Jae Crowder

Crowder has somehow gone from a solid role player to the centerpiece of the Irving-to-Boston trade, according to public opinion. People are psyched about this guy. Guess what. I am too. Crowder was impossibly efficient last year, per Synergy Sports. His offensive ranking was in the 95th percentile in PPP and he was 75th defensively. He just had the best shooting season of his career to go along with one of his best seasons on a per-36 minutes basis. He can knock down an open three, he can spot up, and he's only 27. He'll also be able to reduce a burden on LeBron James, theoretically.


In addition to being another small forward, Crowder can also move LeBron to third on the "who guards the opponent's best player" list (JR Smith has been that guy in recent years). This should mean that LeBron's minutes come down. It likely won't mean that, but it's a nice thought. Crowder should be the sixth man for this team, and I think he'll do very well in that role.

2. Jeff Green

I am less confident about Jeff Green. The Cavaliers have made a habit of trying low-risk veterans who want to prove that there's something left in the tank: Dunleavy, Rose, Larry Sanders, Deron & Derrick Williams... those are just in the past 12 months. Add Jeff Green to the list. 

Green was going to be a superstar in the NBA until he was traded to Boston in 2011 and assumed a bench role. Then he missed a season with a heart condition and has never really been the same player. He's still only 31 but he's limited: He doesn't shoot very well, he's below average on defense (37th percentile), and he's on his fifth team in four years. I don't have high hopes for Jeff Green, but I do think he'll show up now and then as a slightly more talented version of the Derrick Williams experiment.

The 2017-18 season is almost upon us. More to come about some specific things to look out for as well as Sure to be Wrong Season Predictions.

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