The Cleveland Cavaliers have received an injection of life ahead of the 2014-15 season. A fresh approach to finding a new coach culminated in the hiring of David Blatt.
Oh, and the franchise's biggest superstar ever, LeBron James, returned home in free agency with the desire to deliver a championship to a city starving for one.
James announced his return on SI.com, as told to Lee Jenkins, emphasizing the importance of winning at least one Larry O'Brien Trophy:
When I left Cleveland, I was on a mission. I was seeking championships, and we won two. But Miami already knew that feeling. Our city hasn’t had that feeling in a long, long, long time. My goal is still to win as many titles as possible, no question. But what’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio.
The King's presence alone has boosted the Cavs from fringe playoff contender in the weak Eastern Conference to the No. 1 title favorites at 5-2—ahead of the defending champion San Antonio Spurs (4-1), per OddsShark.com.
Even though Cleveland selected talented Kansas star Andrew Wiggins with the No. 1 overall pick after lucking into the lottery, he will never suit up for the Cavs. That's because general manager David Griffin has put a massive trade in place to land Minnesota Timberwolves All-Star Kevin Love, which requires Wiggins to head to the Twin Cities.
The trio of James, Kyrie Irving and Love is intriguing, but is it good enough to defeat San Antonio?
Soon enough, we will find out just how much better James makes his hometown team. Between Love, Irving, Anderson Varejao and Dion Waiters, James may have the best starting five he's ever been a part of.
FiveThirtyEight brings a unique look at James' past supporting casts, and the Cavs' plus-minus variable, if they replaced James with an average player, is higher than he's has had in his entire career:
But a lack of experience is a concern regarding the roster—even with James' former teammates in Mike Miller and James Jones joining the fold to add bench depth. Blatt has also never coached in the NBA.
Irving and Love have never won anything or made the playoffs. Learning to win from James is just about all that two of the Association's premier young talents could as for. They just have to be prepared for the extraordinary pressure and expectations, something James is well-acquainted with.
Here is a look at the Cavs' schedule for the upcoming season, along with a breakdown of the best games and a prediction as to what their record will be. Click here for full schedule.
Analyzing Marquee Matchups
Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Miami Heat
When: at Miami Dec. 25 (5 PM ET on ABC)/at Cleveland Feb. 11 (8 PM ET on ESPN)
The obvious showdown everyone will be looking forward to is when the Cavs first do battle with James' old teammates. It's only fitting the entire NBA nation will be watching.
Two of Miami's three big stars in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh stuck it out in South Beach amid uncertain circumstances. President Pat Riley rewarded their loyalty by bringing in at least some roster upgrades, most notably the addition of small forward Luol Deng.
There is a reason Riley had just about the maximum praise for Deng when he signed, per Bleacher Report's Ethan J. Skolnick:
Pat Riley in statement: "Luol Deng is one of the most important free agent signings that we have ever had in the history of the franchise."— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) July 15, 2014
It will be interesting to see whether rookie Shabazz Napier is able to provide a spark for the Heat at point guard. Otherwise, they will face a severe mismatch with incumbent Mario Chalmers taking on Irving.
Deng's defensive prowess may help neutralize James, but Love's presence will allow Blatt to deploy an array of versatile lineups. Putting Love at the 5 and James at the 4 as one potential wrinkle would give Cleveland a mind-blowing amount of skill in the frontcourt, enough to decimate the Heat's thin rotation.
Where the Heat could run into the most trouble is in defending the drive and dish. Both James and Irving are among the best in the game at getting to the rim. Now that Cleveland has more outside shooting between Miller, Jones and Love, its offense should experience a significant jolt.
Unless Miami coach Erik Spoelstra can get his squad to play supreme defense and have Bosh and Josh McRoberts score at will against the likes of Varejao, Love and Tristan Thompson, the Heat are staring at defeat.
Cleveland Cavaliers vs. San Antonio Spurs
When: at Cleveland Nov. 19 ( 7 PM ET on ESPN)/at San Antonio March 12 (8 PM ET on ESPN)
The Heat encountered problems in the NBA Finals this year because of the matchup nightmare created by uniquely skilled Spurs forward Boris Diaw. Love can do similar things under the proper circumstances, but he's never had anything close to championship-caliber lineup flanking him until now.
This is an instance in which James should stick at the 3 to set up an intriguing clash with reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, one of the game's fastest rising young stars.
"Defense wins championships" is a familiar adage. It's an area the Cavs have to prove themselves in after trading away a strong perimeter protector in Wiggins, as Tom Reed of The Plain Dealer points out:
I like #Cavs trade for Kevin Love. But I'm still not sure who's going to play defense for them in June other than LBJ & Andy.— Tom Reed (@treed1919) August 8, 2014
Love may have a problem matching up with Spurs legendary big man Tim Duncan. There is also the 2-guard battle that will feature Manu Ginobili likely taking Waiters to school often—unless Waiters elevates his game on that end of the court to stop the veteran super sub.
Irving will have his hands full trying to keep Tony Parker from getting into the paint, where he can kick to a multitude of shooters in Danny Green, Ginobili, Leonard and others. The second unit, led by Patty Mills, should also give San Antonio somewhat of an edge.
This will serve as a measuring-stick type of game that indicates just how close—or far—the Cavs are to being a true title contender. Although it should be close, look for the Spurs' seasoned nucleus to shine and pull out a hard-fought victory, which will be a good lesson for the Cavs' youngsters in Irving, Love, Waiters and Thompson.
How quickly the Cavs' new "Big Three" clicks will determine just how good they can be. What will be most compelling is to see how Cleveland's All-Star trio meshes in the years to come, as both Irving and Love enter their primes, presumably committed to the Cavs for the long haul.
The floor for Cleveland has to be 50 wins, which would have been good enough for the No. 3 seed in the most recent playoffs. Presuming Blatt can get his loaded lineup to buy in, there's no telling what the ceiling could be.
How will the Cavaliers fare in the Eastern Conference in 2014-15?
James himself acknowledged that it will take time to build a winner in Cleveland, but contending as soon as possible is now the priority and likely outcome with Love joining the fold. There has been a long enough wait for the city to have a professional sports champion already.
Anything short of a run to the NBA Finals would have to be considered a disappointment. Now that Lance Stephenson has left Indiana for Charlotte, Pacers star Paul George may be out for the 2014-15 season with a broken leg and Miami no longer has James, the Cavs are the favorite to win the depleted East.
Perhaps the only team capable of topping them is the Chicago Bulls, what with Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol in the frontcourt, combined with the return of superstar point guard Derrick Rose. However, with James playing alongside the likes of Love and Irving who have plenty to prove and ought to be eager to do so, look for Cleveland to grab the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Regular-Season Record Prediction: 63-19