Projecting Cleveland Cavaliers' 2017-18 Depth Chart
The Cleveland Cavaliers approach the 2017-18 NBA season as both the Eastern Conference's top heavyweight and a team in turmoil.
LeBron James really is a magician, isn't he?
Truth be told, the former doesn't have everything to do with The King, although everything wine and gold-related does have something to do with him.
It's been several weeks since Kyrie Irving's trade request surfaced—it feels a lot longer, doesn't it?—courtesy of ESPN's Brian Windhorst, and James' own uncertainty is shaping how Cleveland chooses to proceed, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.
So, what's true about the Cavaliers today may not be relevant tomorrow, making all prognostications even less of an exact science than normal.
But that doesn't mean our crystal ball is broken, it's just cloudier than we'd prefer.
What we do know is the Cavs have 15 contracts on the books, 13 of which are fully guaranteed. By combining that intel with statistics and forward-thinking analysis, we have pieced together their likely depth chart for the upcoming campaign and made an educated guess of whether a changing of the (point) guard is imminent.
Starter: Kyrie Irving
It's funny to think of saying a team should keep its 25-year-old All-Star as a hot take, but this feels bold. Maybe because the frenzy that followed Irving's trade request never included a denial from him or anyone else. Wojnarowski also dubbed a deal "inevitable," so it's part of official hoops scripture now.
But count me in the minority who think patience is still Cleveland's strongest play. For all of the turmoil swirling around the organization, the Cavs haven't surrendered their leverage with Irving.
"[Owner Dan] Gilbert and [general manager Koby] Altman are under no obligation to act in this case, despite what outside noise might suggest or implore," Dennis Manoloff of the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote. "They can wait for the unequivocally best deal."
That offer isn't close to coming.
It's one thing for Kristaps Porzingis or Andrew Wiggins to be deemed too steep of a price. It's quite another when Josh Jackson—a player whose entire NBA experience entails five games of 42.5 percent shooting at summer league—is the line potential trade partners won't cross, as Arizona Sports 98.7's John Gambadoro reported.
The Cavs could be approaching their final campaign with King James. Irving will help that quest more than any player he'd bring back in a trade. And if you think these two couldn't play nice for a year, you don't understand the business of basketball.
Cleveland can—and should—listen to all available offers for Irving. But unless a no-brainer suddenly appears on the table, the Cavs should keep rolling with the starting point guard who's helped propel them to three straight Finals.
Backup No. 1: Derrick Rose
There's probably a scenario where Irving is moved and Rose climbs to the top of the position, but that could be disastrous. Last season was his most productive since his knee trouble began, and he still finished 50th among 79 point guards with a minus-2.25 real plus-minus, per ESPN.com.
Keep Rose in a backup role, though, and he could be quite the steal on a minimum deal. His aforementioned resurgence featured 18.0 points and 4.4 assists per game, numbers Cleveland only received from its All-Stars.
Rose doesn't have the shooting or defense of an ideal running mate for James, but the former MVP's ability to create offense could keep things from cratering without its alpha. Cleveland lost 13.5 points per 100 possessions when James took a breather.
Backup No. 2: Jose Calderon
The Cavs can trust Calderon with two things—making the right reads and converting open looks. The 35-year-old has averaged 3.88 assists per turnover for his career; Andre Iguodala was the only qualified player with a better ratio last season.
Calderon has also made his long-distance looks at a career 40.9 percent clip, which would have been a top-25 mark.
That's the extent of what he brings, which means his minutes could be few and far between. But his reliability will keep him ahead of the higher-ceiling, lower-floor sophomore behind him.
Backup No. 3: Kay Felder
Remember when James ranted about Cleveland needing a "f--king playmaker," per ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin, in January? Felder was already a Cavalier then, leading one to deduce he wasn't the playmaker James had in mind.
It's hard to think that assessment has changed.
Felder battled inefficiency when he played as a rookie, hitting just 39.2 percent from the field and 31.8 outside. But the bigger issues are beyond his control. He only has a partially guaranteed contract, and he shares a position with two of Cleveland's four offseason additions.
If he sticks with the organization next season, he could again get the bulk of his run in the G League.
Starter: J.R. Smith
Smith stands as Cleveland's biggest internal hope for improvement. His 2016-17 performance proved the club's least characteristic, as he posted the worst field-goal percentage (34.6) and second-lowest scoring average (8.6) of his career.
But he had several factors working against him. A contract stalemate lingered into mid-October, denying him valuable training time. A thumb fracture later shelved him for nearly three months. In January, his daughter, Dakota, was born five months early and didn't leave the hospital until May.
Smith is paid, healthy and soaking up quality time with his daughter now, so the stage seems set for a big bounce-back. That doesn't guarantee it will happen, but all of his career numbers suggest he's not the player Cleveland watched last season. And if he's right, he can scratch some of the Cavs' biggest itches.
"He's one of the team's few two-way players who can hit a big shot and shut down an opponent on the other end," Bleacher Report's Greg Swartz wrote. "... He has to become the ultimate three-and-D guy again this season while mixing in the occasional circus shot."
Backup No. 1: Kyle Korver
Korver is the ideal sniper to pair with superstar gravitational forces on the offensive end. The Cavs have two such magnets in James and Irving, who were the only teammates to both have top-15 usage percentages (Irving ninth at 30.8; James 12th at 30.0) and top-10 isolation possessions (tied for fourth at 5.1 per game).
Korver's fit in Northeast Ohio looked skinny jeans-snug on paper and even better in practice. He striped an absurd 48.5 percent of his threes as a Cavalier—for context, his season-long 45.1 percentage was the Association's best—and averaged a team-best 4.1 triples per 36 minutes.
His defensive deficiencies could bump him down a peg here, but with bench minutes available at both wing spots, it wouldn't significantly impact his floor time. Knockdown shooters are always a necessity with James, and Korver is one of the game's best.
Backup No. 2: Iman Shumpert
There isn't much separation between Korver and Shumpert, who averaged almost identical minutes last season (25.5 for Shump, 24.5 for Korver).
If Shumpert could find a consistent shooting stroke, he could leapfrog the two guards ahead of him, as he's both the youngest and best physically equipped to lock down the defensive end.
But with six up-and-down seasons behind him, inconsistency feels a part of his identity.
Maximizing his impact, then, likely means riding his heat waves and shortening his leash during cold spells. The end result will still show the minutes of a wing reserve regular and feature him backing up at least two different perimeter spots.
Starter: LeBron James
The cyborg isn't even hinting at slowing down yet. James, playing his 14th NBA season, led the field with 37.8 minutes per game and crushed a career-high 178 dunks. His 8.7 assists and 8.6 rebounds were both personal bests.
He just steamrolled to a mind-boggling seventh consecutive championship round, proving once again that rostering him means having a stranglehold on the entire Eastern Conference.
"They've got LeBron James. Nobody's closing the gap on him," Kyle Lowry told Wojnarowski, then with The Vertical, in May. "I mean, that's it right there: They've got LeBron James and nobody's closing the gap on him."
That means Cleveland can still follow the lead of its juggernaut difference-maker. The Cavs had a top-three net efficiency rating when he played (plus-7.7) and a dead-last mark when he didn't (minus-8.5).
Backup No. 1: Richard Jefferson
It says plenty—none of it good—about Cleveland's bench that the 37-year-old Jefferson was its strongest player during the Finals.
He's an irregular contributor at this point, although he competes defensively, can knock down open shots and occasionally unleashes a throwback throwdown.
The Cavs have some new blood at the forward spots, so they shouldn't need all of the 20.4 minutes per game Jefferson provided last season. But he'll be a steady support piece at the 3 and 4 spots.
Backup No. 2: Cedi Osman
All due respect to Rose, Osman might be Cleveland's most intriguing newcomer. He's the youngest and least established, so there's inherent mystery in play. And based on what he showed overseas, he projects to be the kind of blue-collar role player a star-studded squad like this could use.
"He's a 6'8" Delly type of human with a high basketball IQ," an executive told Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "He's shooting threes better. Grit. Toughness. Winning player."
As long as the Cavs don't need Osman to create—with the offensive firepower they possess, they shouldn't—they'll be glad to have his length, athleticism and energy.
He might not be ready for regular playing time, but he'll provide pesky defense and transition scoring when he steps inside the lines.
Starter: Kevin Love
This is different, and probably refreshing for him. There's a ton of roster speculation around the Cavaliers, and Love's name is rarely attached to it (or not as often as usual, at least).
"If someone had said three years ago that Love would be content and Kyrie Irving would be the one trying to force his way out, people would have thought it was crazy. But, here we are," Fear the Sword's Zack Geoghegan wrote.
To be clear, Love hasn't left the rumor mill entirely. His name reportedly surfaced during Cleveland's attempts to land Paul George, according to Haynes and Marc Stein, then with ESPN.com. But Love's name has been engulfed by trade smoke before, and that's not currently the case.
The 28-year-old is coming off his best season with the Cavs, when he averaged 19.0 points, 11.1 rebounds and 2.4 threes. His outlet passing proved a potent weapon, his shooting threat kept the offensive end properly spaced and good things generally happened when he played. His on/off efficiency splits were the second-widest of Cleveland's regulars: plus-7.2 with him, minus-1.0 without.
Love isn't the best defender or the most cost-effective contributor, but he looks as comfortable as ever in the third star role.
Backup No. 1: Jeff Green
At one time, Green's physical gifts and potential versatility shined bright enough to make him the No. 5 pick. But fast-forward 10 years, and he's now getting minimum money from what will be his sixth different NBA team.
Green has the size and skills to play both forward spots, and he can usually be counted on for a handful of scoring outbursts (11 outings of 20-plus points in 2015-16). But he's coming off an abysmal season (9.2 points on 39.4 percent shooting), and clubs have consistently fared better without him.
Starter: Tristan Thompson
Last season was the first in five years when Thompson didn't average a double-double per 36 minutes. He just shot a career-high 60.0 percent and matched his previous best with a 1.5 box plus/minus instead.
Everything from his defensive mobility and rugged rebounding to his ferocious interior finishing has increased his lead in the race for the starting center spot. But if he bothered to peak over his shoulders, he would realize he's running unopposed.
"He's the only center we have," Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said in March, per Cleveland.com's Chris Fedor. "He has to play right now."
The only thing that has changed between now and then is Edy Tavares replacing Larry Sanders as the long-shot option at the bottom of the depth chart.
Thompson isn't the most versatile player around, but he's mindful of his limitations. He stays within himself and that maximizes his impact, which is critical given Cleveland's dearth of traditional 5 options.
Backup No. 1: Channing Frye
Frye's first full season in Cleveland went as expected. He was an offensive asset (17.4 points per 36 minutes, 40.9 three-point percentage) and a defensive liability (Cavs allowed an extra 1.6 points when he played per 100 possessions).
Change seems unlikely for the 34-year-old. His floor spacing will make him a prominent member of the regular-season rotation, but his defensive issues could again render him a postseason observer.
Backup No. 2: Edy Tavares
Tavares had a blink-and-you-missed-it run in Cleveland last season. He was signed in April and out with a broken hand by May, making only a single, 24-minute appearance in between.
But the 7'3" center (not a typo) with the 7'9" wingspan (neither is that) impressed as much as one can in half of a game, snagging 10 rebounds and blocking six shots. The defense is legit, as he was last season's G League Defensive Player of the Year. So, too, is his need for seasoning, as the 25-year-old has only made 13 NBA appearances to date.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.