How Cleveland Cavaliers Can Make Most of LeBron James' Homecoming

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How Cleveland Cavaliers Can Make Most of LeBron James' Homecoming
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LeBron James is back with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but even he isn't ready to declare that his new team is ready to hold up the Larry O'Brien Trophy at the end of the 2014-15 campaign.

"I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way," the King explained during his announcement on SI.com.

James is correct.

These Cavaliers are not ready to make the most of his homecoming by competing for a title in the first year of the post-return era. The team is full of talent, but it's also remarkably young and inexperiencedespecially when it comes to playoff basketball.

And as LeBron knows all too well from his 2010-11 adventure with the Miami Heat, it's tough to make the proper adjustments right away.

However, Cleveland can be ready. The team is only a handful of improvements away from truly competing for a title, and all those changes can be made internally.

 

Kyrie Irving Becomes a 2-Way Player

David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

The Cavaliers are going to have an awfully difficult time remaining competitive—in the sense that they're competing for a title, not just a promising playoff seed—if they can't prevent the opposition from putting up points in a hurry.

Point guard defense is often marginalized by the second lines, but that really won't be the case for Cleveland.

When Kyrie Irving serves as a matador, just ushering people into the paint, he's letting them attack a frontcourt comprised of Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao, which gets even worse when the backups are on the floor in a traditional lineup.

Whereas some teams can protect the rim well enough to make bad defensive 1-guards look just as impressive—statistically speaking—as good ones, the Cavs don't qualify as such.

Despite his reputation as a solid defender, NBA.com indicates Varejao actually allowed opponents to make 54.2 percent of their shots at the rim on 5.3 attempts per game during the 2013-14 season.

Among the 77 players who faced at least five shots per contest, Varejao deterred opponents more effectively than only 13.

LeBron can shore up the overall defense, terrorizing players with his well-rounded contributions and helping shut down the other team's best wing defender, but he's not really a rim protector.

Unless Irving stops putting so much pressure on the frontcourt, it'll be hard for Cleveland to make the massive strides necessary on that end of the court.

So much of this comes down to commitment and effort.

Irving absolutely has the physical tools necessary to thrive. We see how quick he is on defense, but as you can see in the clip above, he can stand up straight and allow his man to blow by him and gain access to the paint.

The desire just hasn't been there in the past, and hopefully that changes when he's playing for a competitive team.

During the 2013-14 season, 82games.com indicates Irving allowed opposing floor generals to post a 17.8 player efficiency rating against him, which was well above the league-average mark of 15. According to Basketball-Reference.com, the defense allowed an additional 5.9 points per 100 possessions with him on the court.

To put that in perspective, the defense with Irving on the pine would've ranked No. 7 in the Association. When he played, that ranking slipped all the way to No. 28.

There's no doubt that Irving is a stellar offensive contributor, one who should look even better when LeBron's presence draws more defensive attention and allows him to post better shooting percentages.

As Reuben Fischer-Baum breaks down for FiveThirtyEight, James' presence has tended to lead to across-the-board improvements for his teammates' shooting.

However, the Cavs aren't just going to need offense from this particular No. 1 pickseeing as they're the first team in decades to have four top selections on the roster, specification is needed. If the floor general isn't committing to the defensive end, that will be the ultimate downfall of this team.

 

Play in the Eastern Conference

Check.

Simply playing in a weak Eastern Conference, one in which the Derrick Rose-led Chicago Bulls and these Cavs should be considered the favorites, is a huge deal. That won't help in the NBA Finals, but it'll certainly keep Cleveland fresh for that ultimate series.

 

Dion Waiters Thrives, Along With the Rest of the Bench

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New head coach David Blatt will have plenty of intriguing lineups at his disposal, but he should be well aware of depth's value to a championship roster.

So should LeBron, after a lackluster bench held him back during the 2013-14 seasonespecially when it was completely outclassed by the San Antonio Spurs.

The best starting fives involve having Dion Waiters come off the pine in a move that's by no means a relegation. Sure, the talented 2-guard might not be particularly happy about what he feels is a demotion, but he should consider it a chance to handle the rock more and lead the charge.

Waiters is best with the ball in his hands, but that's not the way he'll get to play while sharing the court with both Irving and LeBron.

After all, there's only one basketball on the floor at a time, barring an unforeseen rule change that would fundamentally alter the sport.

Bleacher Report's Dan Favale concurs:

Irving, Waiters, Wiggins and James all prefer to operate with the ball in their hands. More than one of them will have to make some sacrifices if they're logging a majority of their minutes together.

Put that way, coming off the bench as Cleveland's sixth man actually ensures Waiters of a more prominent role, replete with additional touches and the opportunity to, at times, be the focal point of the second unit.

Waiters has actually been worse when he comes in as a reserve, as Favale breaks down, but that's still the best option for Cleveland—especially because he doesn't have to be worse.

It's actually in Waiters' best interest to shift his mentality so that he can both accept and thrive in a role off the bench. Irving isn't going to the second unit. Neither is James.

While Andrew Wiggins is brimming with talent, he's in no way ready to lead a squad on the offensive end. He's still best suited as an off-ball talent who can excel as a tertiary option on the court, taking advantage of the little attention defenses can afford to pay him while focusing on Irving and James.

That leaves Waiters.

If he's standing out as a James Harden-with-the-Thunder-esque scorer off the bench, it makes everyone else's jobs that much easier.

Anthony Bennett can continue looking like he has throughout summer league action, playing as though he's in shape and filled with the athletic promise that made him the top selection in 2013.

The shooters on the bench—especially if Ray Allen eventually signs with Cleveland, which ESPN.com noted as a distinct possibility—will have more space to thrive.

Waiters, scary as it may be, is the linchpin for the second unit.

He has to be.

 

Everything Else

Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

Wiggins must not only stick around, but also become an immediate defensive stopper so that the Cavaliers can have one extremely strong point to their defense. With the reigning No. 1 pick and LeBron serving as shutdown wing defenders, Blatt can build the rest of the scheme around them.

Speaking of Blatt, he must continue what he started during summer league.

Everyone has bought into his offensive stylings (broken down here) thus far, and that must carry over to the regular season, where ball movement helps everyone get the right shots.

Varejao needs to stay healthy, proving to LeBron that he's still a big man capable of playing solid defense and providing all-around contributions well into his 30s. Given the fact that he's played 31, 25, 25 and 65 games over the past four respective seasons, this is by no means a guarantee.

David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

The locker room can't be filled with the dysfunction that's plagued it in the past.

LeBron's leadership—as well as the benefit of being competitive—should aid this process, but it's highly important for the Cavaliers to function as a team by avoiding the in-fighting and overall messiness that went hand in hand with them during the 2013-14 season.

This is not an easy process.

The Cavaliers weren't exactly ready to compete for a title in the last go-round, and the addition of LeBron doesn't immediately change that.

The roster is inundated with young talents, talents who have plenty of work to do before they're consistent and high-quality players. Now, that process has to be sped up in order to make the most of the homecoming.

Can the Cleveland Cavaliers win a championship in 2014-15?

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Can it be done? Without question.

However, there are no guarantees. From Irving's defense to Waiters' role, from Wiggins' immediate impact to Varejao's health, plenty has to break in favor of Cleveland for it to be an instant contendereven with the four-time MVP on the roster.

 

How competitive can the Cleveland Cavaliers be right off the bat? Let me know on Twitter and Facebook. 

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