First and foremost, this is a good team. The Cavaliers — not surprisingly— are the favorites to win the Eastern Conference for the 3rd straight year. There are plenty of reasons for that, but the top three are LeBron James, LeBron James, and LeBron James. I love the idea of the Irving, James and Love "Big 3," but let's get real, any look at how good the Cleveland Cavaliers can be will start and end with LeBron James.
However, since everyone writes articles every day about how great LeBron is and how he'll carry the Cavaliers toward the title again this season, let's take a broader approach and look at some lineups, rotations and the surprisingly unclear depth chart with the season almost upon us.
As of this week, the following guys are certain to be on Cleveland's opening day roster:
Guards - Kyrie Irving, Iman Shumpert, JR Smith.
Forwards - LeBron James, Richard Jefferson, Channing Frye, Mike Dunleavy, Kevin Love, James Jones.
Centers - Tristan Thomspon, Chris Andersen.
That's 11 guys thanks to JR Smith finally signing. It turns out that my prediction that he'd sign mid-October was pretty dang good. Jordan McRae is not a lock yet, but there's a strong feeling that he'll make the roster as a super-flexible guard. He could fit the 1-2-3 roles relatively comfortably due to his size and athleticism. That's 12. Dahntay Jones is not guaranteed, and frankly, I'm not sure he'll make the cut. He might show up if someone gets hurt and sign a few 10-day deals, but I'm not convinced he'll make the opening night roster. Those last few spots get a little sticky.
Additionally, those last few spots are also going to be playing sparse minutes, so let's got a realistic look at the depth chart the Cavaliers will likely roll out.
Guards: Just like above, we can expect Kyrie Irving and JR Smith to start in the backcourt. Iman Shumpert to start in the backcourt for the Cavs. It's possible that Shump will start for the first week or two while JR Smith re-acclimates to the squad and gets back in shape, but that's JR's spot to lose in the long-term.
Backing up the two starters will be whichever of the Smith/Shumpert pair is not starting, followed by an interesting group. The 2-guard spot will occasionally feature Mike Dunleavy and Richard Jefferson. Each of these veterans is expected to get some light minutes although their position will likely be hard to define. In many cases, LeBron will be acting as a point guard, and the Cavaliers will have him surrounded by shooters, effectively negating positions altogether.
That's five guys who will likely see time in the backcourt, but that's still not everyone. I fully expect Jordan McRae to make the team and see decent minutes as the backup point guard. Beyond that, the season may include minutes from Kay Felder, DeAndre Liggins, Markel Brown, or Dahntay Jones. It depends on who makes the regular season roster and whether everyone stays healthy.
Forwards: This is an easy part of the roster. LeBron James and Kevin Love will start as forwards.
Channing Frye will be the 3rd forward. The two tweeners from above, Mike Dunleavy and Richard Jefferson, will most definitely see time in the front-court as well - proving the versatility that Cleveland has on their hands. James Jones will see late-minutes or enter games for occasional hard fouls and spot up shooting, but he's not expected to be a huge factor for the Cavs. Lastly, Cory Jefferson is a dark-horse candidate to make the roster as he's been pretty solid in the pre-season. He would be another big body and a rebounder, primarily.
Centers: Easy. Tristan Thompson and Birdman Andersen.
Look back through the bold names and you'll see 17 of them. Teams can have a max of 15 active players on their roster at any given time. Two of those guys are going to be inactive, sent to the D-League, or both. My expectation is that Liggins will get D-Leagued and Dahntay Jones will either go to the D-League, go inactive, or get released, and they'll give him a chance to sign somewhere and stay in the league.
Three Things to Watch for
1) Health. The way I see it, the #1 priority for every team is health. Kyrie has a bit of an injury history, and Kevin Love has had some ups and downs in recent years. If and when one of them goes down, who's in? Does Cory Jefferson step in? Does Kay Felder make big plays? That leads me to #2.
2) Felder vs. McRae. The big debate seems to be which of these guys will be the backup point guard. McRae has an edge because he's been on the team before but Felder has a ton of intrigue around him. Isaiah Thomas has given small guards an extra shot because of his overwhelming success and Felder is the beneficiary of that.
3) Rust and rest. This is a playoff team. They will play in the playoffs and they will coast through the regular season while resting players. The Cavaliers will not go out and try to win 70 games this year and will instead focus their energy on the post-season. However, with some new rotation tweaks, will they be able to balance everything and still be ready to go by springtime? The answer is probably yes, but that doesn't mean they won't be aggravating along the way.
The season is almost here. Rejoice.