Predicting Cleveland Cavaliers' 2014-15 Opening-Night Starting Lineup
And they might well be that—having the best player in the galaxy guarantees your at least being in the conversation, no matter how disappointing your performance last year.
Before we get any further ahead of ourselves, perhaps it’s time to figure out...I don’t know...what Cleveland’s opening-night starting lineup will be? Can we just start there?
While the team still has a few moves left—including possibly signing another LeBron favorite in shooting guard Ray Allen, according to Windhorst—it’s safe to say the Cavs’ only concern at this point lies in reinforcing at the fringes.
That is, unless they go after Kevin Love. After what’s gone down so far this summer, would you really be surprised?
What follows, then, is our prediction for Cleveland’s opening-night starting unit.
Will head coach David Blatt go with a traditional lineup featuring James at the 3, or will he put the King at power forward? Will rookie Andrew Wiggins continue his impressive ascent and land alongside LeBron in the first five?
Let’s see what our crystal ball* has to say.
*An empty can of seltzer water that’s sitting in front of me at this particular moment.
Point Guard: Kyrie Irving
To those who paid to see Matthew Dellavedova in this spot, we apologize.
After a breakout first pair of seasons—albeit somewhat beset by injury—Kyrie Irving made a bit of a statistical backslide in 2013-14, with drop-offs in points (as well as points per 36 minutes), assists, field-goal percentage, three-point percentage and overall player efficiency.
We’re guessing having LeBron James in the mix is going to make things a bit easier.
At 22, Irving is still years away from his productive peak. And if anyone can help get him there, it’s James—who, let’s not forget, once made an All-Star out of Mo Williams.
In Blatt, who earned a reputation as an offensive genius coaching for the likes of Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel, Irving now has a coach well suited to turning up the tempo. Getting Irving to commit at the other end of the floor? That task might ultimately fall to James.
Irving’s struggles last year might’ve temporarily tempered the excitement wrought by his first two palpably promising seasons. But with the King at his wing and a thinker of Blatt’s caliber on the sidelines, Kyrie’s ceiling—as both a leader and productive point guard—has never been higher.
Shooting Guard: Dion Waiters
Look, we’ve all heard the rumors. That Kyrie and Dion Waiters don’t like each other (per Brian Windhorst, in an interview with Cavs: The Blog), that Irving wants Waiters traded—what have you.
Lost in all of the sordid speculation, however, is the fact that, when all’s said and done, Waiters could be really, really good. Like, really good.
With James policing the locker room and Blatt—long noted for his excellent rapport with players, per The Plain Dealer’s Mary Schmitt Boyer—we’ll soon find out what this Waiters guy is truly all about.
Where Irving has suffered through a statistical regression of sorts, Waiters enjoyed upticks nearly across the board last season. Now aided by a pair of playmakers in Irving and James and a brilliant basketball mind in Blatt, Waiters is going to be put in the best possible situations pretty much at all times. Whether he can capitalize on them—that’s the rub.
If, however, Waiters further sours on Cleveland, don’t be surprised if the trade rumors start swirling once more. Who knows, we might eventually see Wiggins starting at the 2.
For the moment, though, Waiters is one 22-year-old on which the Cavs would be wise to exhaust all available options—strategic, psychological or otherwise—before cutting him adrift.
Center: Anderson Varejao
“I think I can help Kyrie Irving become one of the best point guards in our league. I think I can help elevate Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters. And I can’t wait to reunite with Anderson Varejao, one of my favorite teammates.”
So reads one of the final paragraphs of James’ now legendary Sports Illustrated essay. Somewhere, Andy Varejao is blushing.
It’s been four years since Varejao—now 31—has played in more than half of his team’s games, owing to a series of recurring injuries. Even when he was healthy last year, Varejao’s role as starting center was all but usurped by the floor-spacing Spencer Hawes.
Now, with Hawes gone to the Los Angeles Clippers, per NBA.com, Cleveland’s frontcourt is suddenly paper-thin. Sure, the recently signed Brendan Haywood is good for some decent spot minutes. But it’s with Varejao—a big who, for all of his lack of range, remains a willing passer and efficient low-post scorer—that Blatt and company will ultimately hitch their fortunes.
Unless the Cavs somehow reel in another body, that is.
Remember, Varejao was averaging 14 points and 14 rebounds through his first 25 games two years ago before being sidelined for the rest of the season with a blood clot. Varejao has since been given a clean bill of health and—with his old buddy James back in the fray—perhaps it’s high time the mop-topped center’s fortunes fully turn around for good.
Power Forward: Tristan Thompson
With only two slots left and one of them soundly spoken for, I’m sure some of you were hoping that last click brought you face-to-face with a Summer League image of Andrew Wiggins.
Wiggins will have his day. For now, though, Blatt would be wise to roll with what’s safest.
Considering he was taken No. 4 in the 2011 draft, Thompson hasn’t quite lived up to the lottery billing—at least not yet. Still, his production has been anything but disappointing, especially considering the dude’s just 23 years old.
Starting Varejao and Thompson at the 5 and 4 doesn’t give Blatt much in the way of spacing. But with James, Waiters and Irving patrolling the perimeter, Cleveland won’t be shy about busting out the running game when and where appropriate.
Should Wiggins progress at a promising clip, don’t be surprised if he supplants Thompson in the starting five, thereby moving James to power forward and giving Cleveland a truly terrifying defensive presence on the wings.
Then again, it’s probably just as safe to anticipate the alternative: that having James in the fold will help take Thompson’s game to the next level.
Small Forward: LeBron James
Here’s what Bleacher Report’s Adam Fromal had to say about the lofty locker-room task that James faces in Cleveland:
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.
As the PR sheen of LeBron’s latest decision slowly begins to fade, reality will start to set in: Cleveland, for all of its undeniable talent, is a long way away from actualizing it.
LeBron defenders might be quick to point to Cleveland’s pre-2010 Eastern Conference dominance as proof positive the Cavs are destined for contention.
This, in a word, would be naive. Yes, James is every bit the basketball genius he was four years ago (albeit a bit older). Yes, this team has, on paper, far more upside. Yes, David Blatt stands a good chance of proving a palpable upgrade over Mike Brown.
At the same time, those Cavs teams didn’t have near the bull’s eye on the back that LeBron’s new charges face. Avoiding the fatal kill shot requires James learn to trust his teammates—just like he did in Miami.
In his Sports Illustrated essay, James acknowledged that building a contender would be “a long process.” To see it through, the LeBron of four years ago—superlative, sensational, the best player on the floor—will have to take a back seat to the one that won him a pair of rings in Miami.
Andrew Wiggins: In Wiggins, the Cavs hope to have found their franchise cornerstone of the future. Unless he gets dealt for Kevin Love, of course. Should he stick around, Wiggins' tantalizing combination of quickness, athleticism and raw-but-NBA-ready fundamentals make him a potential legend in the making. Look for him to garner heavy minutes at the 2 and 3.
Mike Miller: In Miami, Miller became one of James' most trusted on-court confidants, which Miller duly rewarded by drilling seven three-pointers in the Heat's Finals-deciding Game 5 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder back in 2012. Expect Miller to see significant action alongside James and Irving.
Anthony Bennett: To call Bennett's 2013-14 rookie season a nightmare would be an understatement. Still, the second-year big out of UNLV has shown signs of life in the Las Vegas Summer League. With James on board, look for Bennett to make significant year-two strides, even if his minutes don't crest above 15.
Brendan Haywood: The Cavs scooped up the veteran big for next to nothing, per ESPN.com, after watching Spencer Hawes fly the coop. Even at 34 years old, Haywood should be able to provide some valuable spot rebounding and interior defense.
Matthew Dellavedova: Dellavedova was something of a pleasant surprise last season, with the rookie playing in all but six games and even starting four in lieu of the injured Irving. A heady, steady playmaker who can can knock down the open triple, Dellavedova should get good looks aplenty in Blatt's LeBron-led attack.
Joe Harris: Harris garnered a reputation as a stellar two-way player during his four years at the University of Virginia. And while his scoring had dropped off significantly by his senior year, Harris is just the kind of scrapper you'd expect to fight and claw for a rotation spot. Don't expect big minutes, but expect Harris to make the most of them when he does.
Dwight Powell: Acquired in the Haywood deal and the 45th pick in the draft, Powell put up 14 points and 6.9 rebounds during his senior year at Stanford. He will also be fighting for one of the final roster spots come training camp.
Carrick Felix: He averaged 2.7 points in (very) limited action as a rookie last season. With so much wing depth now at Blatt's disposal, Felix has his work cut out for him sticking around for a second stint.