It was an up and down regular season, ending with a run-in vs. an all-time juggernaut. The Cavaliers made the Finals for the third straight year, so what are the five best takeaways?
Summer is upon us. The Cavs fell short in the NBA Finals and it took a tremendous effort to get their sole win in that series. Within an hour of the final whistle, speculation had already begun about whether the Cavaliers need to make a trade for someone like Paul George in order to compete next season.
Pump the brakes. Let's take a look back at the season that was and go over five positive things we learned. I need to stress this: this edition will be only positive things, so keep the Debbie Downer-ing to yourself (but only for a little while because next week there will be five negatives).
1. LeBron James
Try to imagine someone saying that LeBron James would lose in the Finals again and it might actually make his "best player ever" case stronger. Nonsense, right? Wrong.
There's almost nothing left to say about the guy. He averaged a triple-double in the Finals against (arguably) the best team in NBA history. He shot 38% on three-pointers and 56% from the field against a historically great defense. For the entire playoff run, LeBron James averaged 33 points, 9 rebounds, and 8 assists while shooting 41% on three-pointers. The consensus "world's best player" (for the better part of a decade) managed to play these playoffs at what might have been the highest level of his entire career.
Also, if you didn't notice the video above, he threw an off-the-backboard alley oop to himself in the NBA Finals. He has my vote for the new logo whenever Jerry West gets replaced.
2. David Griffin is a Genius
The Cavaliers came into the season with just about zero in the way of cap flexibility and tradeable assets. Somewhere along the way, they managed to acquire one of the best three-point shooters in NBA history (Kyle Korver), a stop-gap defender who could guard positions 2-4 (Derrick Williams), a legitimate backup point guard (Deron Williams), and an interior defender with dynamite passing skills (Andrew Bogut). The Cavs also dabbled in Larry Sanders, but that didn't pan out.
Through no fault of Griff's, Bogut broke his leg about 60 seconds into his first appearance and the other guys disappeared in the Finals. Deron and Korver seemed like dumb luck failures when it mattered most. Even so, those guys came from deals that got rid of Mo Williams, Mike Dunleavy, and Chris Andersen (who was injured regardless). This was Picasso's Guernica or Beethoven's Fifth. Except this was Griff and basketball and somehow finding a taker for Mo Williams.
3. Kevin Love Found his Stride
Despite a mid/late season injury, Kevin Love really figured out where he belongs on the Cavaliers. He's the first quarter scoring beast, a potent rebounder, and serviceable defender after a career of being referred to as bad on that end. He took the most free-throws per game of any season in Cleveland (and made the highest percentage of his career), plus his points and rebounds per 36 minutes were easily the highest during his time with the Cavs.
Perhaps most importantly, he was excellent in the playoffs. While there are still a few question marks about the Finals (we'll get to those in the "Five Negative Things" column), he averaged 19 points and 12 rebounds per 36 minutes in the playoffs. Oh, and he shot 45% on three-pointers. 45%!
It's easy to throw Love's name around in trade rumors because he has a big contract and he struggles to keep up with Golden State's ludicrous speed and versatility, but Kevin Love looks like he's back to being a stud. He even made the All-Star game, but was injured and missed it.
4. Ability to Improvise (minus LeBron)
That may have been a confusing way to say it, but aside from when LeBron sat out, the Cavaliers did a pretty good job of adjusting on the fly. Nobody on the team played in 80 games this season, let alone 82. Richard Jefferson (36 years old) led the team in games played with 79. Iron-man Tristan Thompson missed four games. LeBron missed eight. Kyrie Irving missed 10. Kevin Love missed 22. JR Smith missed 41.
In addition to all those missed games, bringing on a handful of new players meant even more shakeups. Admittedly, it wasn't pretty during the regular season as the Cavs stumbled around and tried to figure things out. But once the playoffs came, that was a potent team.
21 different players saw time with the Cavaliers this season. That's impressive.
Obviously, this is all with an asterisk, and that asterisk is how the Cavs played without LeBron. In the regular season, they survived while he sat on the bench (in spurts - not for entire games). With LeBron on the floor in the regular season, Cleveland had an 118 ORtg and allowed an 110 DRtg. When he sat, those numbers switched to 103 ORtg and 112 DRtg. Not great, but when he was only sitting for 10 minutes per game, it was enough to survive. Those numbers got much worse in the playoffs, but again, that's for next time.
5. Role Players Filling Roles
No one expected Kyle Korver to come in and score 20 points per game. No one expected Deron Williams to play 25 minutes per night. No one expected Channing Frye to become the sixth man. None of those things happened.
Even though the role players were held in check in the Finals, it's hard to call them an overall failure. Korver shot 48.5% on three-pointers for the year, Frye made 41% of his, and Deron Williams provided useful backup point-guard minutes for three full months. Nobody tried to do more than what was asked of them - except for those occasions where Iman Shumpert decided that he was the best player on the floor and took a rebound coast-to-coast and then clanked an 18 footer.
Also, Kyle Korver dunked in the NBA Finals.
So there you go. Five solid, positive takeaways from a season that ended just short of the ultimate goal. The Cavaliers have a lot to think about before next season starts, and it begins with the NBA Draft on June 22. Cleveland currently has no picks, but you never know with David Griffin involved.