Now that the prodigal son has returned, the Cleveland Cavaliers have a whole new look.
LeBron James, who announced his decision via Sports Illustrated to come back to his hometown team and continue what he left unfinished during the first go-round, will obviously have a monstrous impact on the new Eastern Conference contenders. However, he's not the only new piece set to suit up in Quicken Loans Arena during the 2014-15 season.
David Blatt, best known for his work in international leagues, will be pacing the sidelines. Andrew Wiggins, the much-hyped prospect who followed in Anthony Bennett's Cavalier footsteps as the top pick of the 2014 NBA draft, will be throwing down dunks and settling into a fearsome defensive stance.
Plus, there's the whole set of questions revolving around Kevin Love. Will he end up on the Cavaliers? If so, what will it take to land his services?
This Cavs team might roster many of the same pieces from a disappointing—and often dysfunctional—2013-14 campaign, but everything is about to look a lot different with James leading the charge.
With Kevin Love
Even within this scenario, there are still multiple options.
In order to acquire Love without involving a third team, the Cavaliers will have to give up Wiggins and make salaries match by including either Anderson Varejao or Dion Waiters and Bennett. Other combinations are possible, but those seem to be the most likely at this stage of the game. And all of the aforementioned packages are bad ideas.
After all, they involve a certain No. 1 pick. No, not Bennett.
Trading Wiggins for Love just doesn't make sense for the Cavaliers, even if the power forward is markedly better at this stage of his career. Yes, Love is an All-Star and Wiggins is an untested rookie.
But potential matters, especially because the Kansas product is one of the few players who can help Cleveland present a championship-caliber defense down the road. Adding Love without maintaining the core defenders is a recipe for disaster, as he'd be paired with another huge liability (Kyrie Irving) on a team that doesn't have high-quality rim protectors who can stay healthy.
Trading for Kevin Love would be huge for Cavs but perhaps not at the expense of Wiggins. His potential perimeter defense could prove vital.— Robin Lundberg (@robinlundberg) July 12, 2014
Fortunately, the Cavs seem quite hesitant to part ways with the NBA's most-recent No. 1 pick.
"The Cavaliers are said to be willing to consider a deal for Love, but No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins has been assured he would not be included in any such trade, a source told Sporting News," reports Sean Deveney.
That sentiment will only grow stronger after Wiggins' summer league debut, as he scored 18 points—albeit on 18 shots—against Jabari Parker and the Milwaukee Bucks while flashing some of his lofty potential. Between a ridiculous step-back jumper, great success hitting shots with momentum carrying him and that jaw-dropping athleticism, he was extremely impressive during his first foray into professional action.
It's impossible to speculate on a three-team deal to land Love, but it won't involve Wiggins. And if that's the case, it's likely that Dion Waiters will find his way out of Cleveland, potentially taking Bennett with him.
At the risk of making too large an assumption, we'll proceed in this section as though both high-upside players are gone, replaced by a certain power forward from the Minnesota Timberwolves. And if so, here's what the depth chart would look like:
|Starter||Kyrie Irving||Andrew Wiggins||LeBron James||Kevin Love||Anderson Varejao|
|Primary Backup||Matthew Dellavedova||Joe Harris||Scotty Hopson||Tristan Thompson||Brendan Haywood|
|Secondary Backup||Carrick Felix||Dwight Powell|
It's a stacked lineup, though defense is still a question mark.
However, the offense may well be strong enough to negate any hemorrhages on the less-glamorous end, especially if a pair of LeBron's former teammates rejoin him in Cleveland. The Cavs are close to securing the services of Mike Miller, per Fox Sports' Sam Amico, and the reporter also reveals that Ray Allen could be coming to team up with LeBron once more, retiring if he doesn't.
Given the need for quality depth at both wing positions, those signings would be highly beneficial. Add in Chris Andersen, who Bleacher Report's Jared Zwerling has the Cavs pursuing, and the second unit just gets even stronger.
Without Kevin Love
All those potential signings still apply if Love remains a member of the 'Wolves organization or ends up going to a different franchise entirely. In this scenario, however, Waiters and Bennett continue to function as parts of the Cleveland organization.
Call me crazy, but I'm not ready to give up on Bennett.
Without the spotlight that comes with being a No. 1 pick in his rookie season, he'll fare much better mentally, working on his game quietly without the constant pressure and crushing expectations that swell up in both the media and the fanbase. Between the arrival of LeBron and the drafting of Wiggins, he's more of an afterthought than a primary storyline now.
No longer dealing with a shoulder injury and in better shape than ever before, Bennett looked renewed and refreshed during his first summer league appearance. Though he wasn't particularly efficient and fouled far too often, it was encouraging to see him exerting constant effort and flashing plenty of athleticism while flying around the court.
Don't sleep on last year's No. 1 pick, even if he set himself on track to be a major bust throughout the 2013-14 season.
And, of course, there's Waiters.
The mercurial 2-guard has had a roller-coaster career, often experiencing the lows before the All-Star break and rebounding effectively during the second half of the season. The most recent campaign was no different, as Waiters averaged 19.3 points, 2.6 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game following the midseason festivities, shooting 46 percent from the field and knocking down triples at a 37.9 percent clip.
So, how does the depth chart look with both young guns in the rotation?
|Starter||Kyrie Irving||Dion Waiters||LeBron James||Tristan Thompson||Anderson Varejao|
|Primary Backup||Matthew Dellavedova||Joe Harris||Andrew Wiggins||Anthony Bennett||Brendan Haywood|
|Secondary Backup||Carrick Felix||Scotty Hopson|
The starting five isn't as impressive this time around, but the depth is even better. Once Allen, Miller and potentially Birdman are added into the equation, there's a quality backup at each of the five slots in the traditional lineup.
If LeBron learned anything from his last season in South Beach, it's the importance of depth.
It's also possible that Wiggins could keep starting at the 2, even with Waiters on the roster. The Syracuse product may well be best suited for coming off the bench as an offensive spark plug, allowing him to dominate the ball when either Kyrie Irving or LeBron (or both) need a quick breather.
Love or no Love, the Cavaliers are going to run an offensive system that's predicated upon plenty of ball movement. It presumably won't be as screen-heavy as the offense Erik Spoelstra ran for LeBron while he was enjoying those college years with the Miami Heat, but the ball is still going to fly around the perimeter.
That much was clear during the summer league victory over the Bucks, which David Blatt just happened to be coaching, winning over basketball nerds everywhere when he fouled while up three with the clock ticking down in the fourth quarter. It's already obvious that he wants to implement his system within every facet of the organization, and the players seemed to be buying in.
"His offense has been described as a 'modified Princeton,' filled with sets that utilize the pick-and-roll and off-ball movement to create good looks for his team," writes Trevor Magnotti on FeartheSword.com. "This sounds great on the surface; after all, this European-style offense is similar to what the Spurs have been doing for years."
There are two elements to this offense that will make it particularly exciting for the Cavaliers.
First, things run quite smoothly when the off-ball movement is paired with a player who can take his man off the dribble. Now the Cavs have both Irving, who possesses arguably the best handles in the Association, and LeBron, who's obviously quite good in one-on-one situations. With defenses focusing on providing second lines to prevent penetration damage from those two, the off-ball threats like Wiggins get all the more deadly.
"Blatt's formula of high energy play is orchestrated by the point guard controlling the tempo," writes Branson Wright of The Plain Dealer. "It's an offense where the point guard will push the ball and if the team can't get a quick or easy basket, the ball will move around and set up a pick and roll with the point guard."
Well, LeBron allows for a whole new element, as he's a non-point guard who handles the ball like a natural floor general. It's safe to say that Blatt has never had a weapon like him at his disposal.
And how about the potential for high-low action?
By having one big man pop out to the perimeter and another establish position in the post, a defense is inherently going to spread out. And there are so many ways for the Cavaliers to make this work, so long as Tristan Thompson isn't one of the big men. Maybe when he develops, but not yet.
You can see examples from Blatt's tenure with Maccabi Tel Aviv up above (h/t Magnotti), but just imagine LeBron and Anderson Varejao working together. Both are impressive passers at their positions, and LeBron is deadly when he has space to work right around the basket.
Better yet, imagine LeBron and Love running this together, with the latter serving as a threat to just pull up and shoot if a quality entry pass doesn't present itself or the defense sags off too much.
Backdoor cuts will also be a fundamental part of the offense. Blatt did attend Princeton after all, and the Princeton offense is famous for that type of movement. This worked particularly well during summer league action, especially on one play when Alex Kirk hit Wiggins with a beautiful feed to set up an easy slam. You can see one view of that cut at 0:40 in the video below:
In fact, as multiple people noticed, it was quite impressive how well the young summer league roster picked up the Blatt offense right off the bat:
You can already feel Blatt's offense is light years beyond Mike Brown's. More movement, passing and screens. Looks promising— Jordan Lorenz (@jordanL14) July 12, 2014
I'll give the Cavs this: in Summer League, with little prep time, they are running the hell out of a David Blatt offense. Lots of motion.— Andrew Lynch (@AndrewLynch) July 12, 2014
I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010. My patience will get tested. I know that. I’m going into a situation with a young team and a new coach.
However, it's not offense that will be too long a process. Any team boasting LeBron's services and an offensive mastermind like Blatt isn't going to have too much trouble scoring points right away.
No, defense is the culprit.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, the Cavaliers allowed 107.7 points per 100 possessions during the 2013-14 season, leaving them tied with the Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics for the No. 20 mark in the league. That will obviously get better with LeBron and Wiggins arriving. After all, the former is a fringe Defensive Player of the Year candidate year in and year out, while the latter's most NBA-ready skill is his shutdown ability.
However, it's still going to be hard for Cleveland to cover up for Irving and the inevitable liability at power forward. Love would be particularly hard to overcome, given the team's lack of a true rim protector who stays healthy. Thompson isn't all that much better, though he has the physical tools to improve dramatically with the right tutelage.
The scheme Blatt will run is still unclear, though the positional versatility of the roster seems to imply that there will be plenty of switches. More obvious is the impact of James, which ESPN analyst and former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy recently discussed, as relayed by Tom Reed of the Northeast Ohio Media Group on Cleveland.com:
I think James will have a real impact on Kyrie Irving and Love — if he goes there. You need a real commitment to defense if you're going to win (a title). I think James knew that from his time in Cleveland and he certainly knew it from his time in Miami. He will bring that experience and defensive mindset back to Cleveland. ...
... Defense is about commitment, resolve, discipline and an ability to concentrate. The pressure is going to be exerted by James. He is in his prime and they have a chance to win so as a player you don't want to not play up to your potential defensively.
If JVG is right, the Cavs get all the more dangerous.
Irving has the physical tools necessary to become an above-average defender at the very least. So too do Waiters and Thompson. They just haven't had that discipline yet, and it didn't help that Mike Brown—defensive mind that he's supposed to be—wasn't able to convince them they should commit on that end of the floor.
Could Blatt and LeBron change that? Without question, though it will be a process and not something that looks markedly different on the opening day of the 2014-15 season.
But as a whole, the Cavs will indeed look quite different.
With or without Love, they're going to be one of the most competitive teams in the Eastern Conference. That much is already perfectly clear.