The 2016 champs have their starters back and look to cruise back to the Finals. What are the odds that it happens again?
The dawn of a new season brings a clean slate and a new chance at drowning the city of Cleveland's history of failure.
That sentence no longer applies. After the Cavaliers exorcised the demons of 52 years and completed the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history, things changed. Now the new season is a chance to repeat — a concept that zero Cleveland natives can wrap their heads around.
Cleveland used to be all about "there's always next year," but then this year happened. The Cavaliers won, the Lake Erie Monsters won the AHL (minor league hockey), the Indians are leading the AL Championship Series, and the AFC Cleveland Royals won the NPSL — a 4th tier American soccer league. It's been a pretty good run.
The Cavaliers have a shot to continue that run into the 2017 calendar year (goodness knows the Browns won't do it). They're due to secure their title and go to the Eastern Conference as well. Boston has reloaded and added Al Horford, Toronto has retained its outstanding backcourt, and Dwight Howard re-entered the conference. However, none of these will be enough to stop the Cavaliers. Now that they've won the title, LeBron James will not let a championship hangover linger with these guys.
So what happens this coming year? Here are some things to look for:
Resting the studs
The Cavaliers have a relatively demanding schedule this year; they're tied for the highest number of back-to-back games in the NBA. Couple this with the fact that last season's team had plenty of lulls in the regular season on their way to a title and this is a recipe for starters getting light minutes.
On the one hand, Tristan Thompson will more than likely continue to play and continue his games-played streak (he has the Cavaliers record for this and doesn't have any interest in breaking it), but LeBron, Kyrie, and Kevin Love will likely see a handful of nights off in these back-to-backs. Additionally, JR Smith will get some rest from time to time, as those guys are all likely to play 32-plus minutes per game. It will be interesting to see if Coach Lue allows Tristan to keep playing in that situation or gives him an occasional night off. The other factor, of course, is injury prevention. We're still waiting on a healthy Kyrie season.
Tinkering with lineups
In conjunction with resting, the Cavaliers might have to play around with different lineup combinations: We might see Channing Frye get minutes with the starters, we might see Birdman get heavy minutes one night and none the next, or we might see Jordan McRae sharing the backcourt with Kyrie. There are lots of ways to toy with this, and I expect Tyronn Lue will explore all of his options. There are several teams out there who can give Cleveland trouble (we'll address a few soon) and coach Lue will want to have unique options for each of them.
Coasting, and the frustrations that come with it
Between resting, being the defending champs, and having LeBron James's career minutes total about to cross 40,000, everything points toward the Cavaliers taking it easy in the regular season. They have no real reason not to coast. What kind of coach can come in and say "I need you to treat every game like it's game 7" when it's clear as day that this team has an on/off switch? They proved they can flip the switch and that's all that matters to a lot of them.
The downside, of course, is that this is infuriating as a fan. Some nights a team just doesn't have it and the Cavaliers were brilliant at getting out to 20 point leads and then being outplayed for the next two quarters. For some reason, the Cavs would let teams back into games that shouldn't have been close. A similar attitude this year will mean a similar problem.
Every now and then the Cavaliers are going to blow somebody out. Last year it was the Magic — seemingly every time they played it was a Cavaliers' domination. This year it could be anybody, but my random guess is that it'll be the Hornets. No reason to think that, it just seems as likely as anyone. These are the games where you might scream at your TV and wonder why they don't play like this every night. There's no right answer.
My favorite part of any NBA season is predicting records, standings, and pointless tidbits, so here we go. Eastern conference standings first.
That's right. The 76ers will not be the worst team in their division this year. The Nets are bad. I think Toronto will hold off Boston as I bet the Horford signing throws a slight wrench into the harmony of last year's Celtics. They'll be good, but literally, everything worked that Brad Stevens tried last year. That luck can't hold up perfect.
Yep. Cavs take it again. The only way they don't is if there's a major injury and I just don't see that happening. Detroit is tough as they've shown a lot of fight in last year's playoffs (albeit en route to a sweep), but they're spirited and Van Gundy is a big-time coach. The Bulls are too confusing to figure out and the bottom two will be mediocre but not threaten anybody.
Yikes. I don't see any of these teams winning 50 games, and I also don't see any of them losing 50. This will be a tight division. Whiteside will be the Defensive Player of the Year, and Orlando will look different with Serge Ibaka playing big. The Wizards are good, but how good? Dwight is back home, leading to an odd division. The whole division will battle for the 8th playoff spot in the East.
I think it'll go Cleveland, Toronto, Boston, Detroit, Washington, Atlanta, Miami, New York. Round two will be Cavs, Raptors, Celtics, Wizards. Cavs over Celtics in the ECF and Cavs fall to Warriors in 6 in the Finals. Here's to me being wrong.
1) Jordan McRae will have a 35 point game. 2) Kyrie Irving will finish top 6 in MVP voting. 3) Cleveland will win 58 games or more. 4) JR Smith will break his own team record for three-pointers made in a season - but it will be very close. 5) LeBron James will average no more than 25.5 points per game and will average no more than 35 minutes per game. 6) The Cavaliers pop up on lists of landing spots for veterans but don't make any real roster changes.
Random NBA Predictions
1) The Sixers will win 30 games. 2) Russ Westbrook does NOT win the MVP. James Harden does. 3) The Spurs wander through the regular season and win 55 plus games. 4) The Knicks will be just good enough to get swept in the playoffs, but Derrick Rose will not look good all season — physically or culturally. 5) The Pistons will beat the Warriors during the regular season. No idea why, but this is a prediction. 6) The Warriors annihilate the Thunder in OKC, and everyone gets sad.
Last Important Thing: Rivalries!
The Cavaliers are entering a new phase of rivalries. ?The good news is that rivalries only happen when your team is good, the bad news is that there are plenty of teams that hate the Cavaliers right now. Any passionate fan base will get into the Cavaliers pretty aggressively because that's how you're supposed to deal with the best teams. Here are some highlights.
The Raptors and Cavs had a fantastic playoff series last year, trading dominant performances. Obviously, the Cavs won the series, but there was a lot of energy between the teams during. It was all good-natured, but the Indians/Blue Jays series has escalated the fan-base angst a little bit. Toronto is tough. However, it was Bismack Biyombo who messed with Cleveland the most, and he's now sitting on a pile of money in Orlando.
The Celtics don't like LeBron. It's hard to blame them. He keeps ending their seasons, and there's just no way to stop him. More importantly, Boston plays hard. Boston doesn't get blown out easily under Brad Stevens, and Cleveland has a habit of sleepwalking on occasion. I wouldn't be surprised if this rivalry heats up and we see Boston take a couple of regular season games against the Cavs before meeting in the playoffs for a tense series. Folks in Cleveland still aren't fans of Kelly Olynyk.
The Warriors, of course, are going to be a big deal. These two teams are Ali and Foreman. They're the Yankees and Red Sox. They're Ohio State and Michigan. Whatever your opinion of a hateful, aggressive rivalry, that's what the Warriors and Cavaliers are right now. It's fantastic. This will be a bubble and simmer all season long as it looks like another collision course that ends with these two teams in the Finals. Obviously, there's a wrinkle with the addition of Kevin Durant, but time will tell how well that team can handle one more alpha dog.
However, my favorite pseudo-rivalry of the year, by far, will be the Knicks. You might be saying "Wait, the Knicks? That's not a rivalry at all!" and you'd be partly right if it weren't for one small thing. Joakim Noah hates Cleveland. He hates it like an infant hates getting their nose wiped. He hates it like hipsters hate liking things. Even so, that doesn't make a rivalry, right? Wrong. The Cavaliers get their championship rings AND hang their championship banner on opening night, October 25, against the New York Knicks. Joakim Noah could never beat the Cavs in Chicago, so he signed with another team to prolong his career, and what does he get? He gets to watch the Cavaliers celebrate their first NBA title in franchise history... right in front of his face. That should spur on some bad blood. I can't wait.