Regular season play begins Wednesday for the Cleveland Cavaliers, and while there has been a considerable drop in interest (and expectations) in the franchise, I am very excited about the upcoming season. You see, the rebuilding process has already begun on the North Coast, and this season will determine how long that process will take, and how successful it will be. There are a lot of new players on the team, and much to discuss in terms of potential trades, so let's jump right in.
As I have established in previous articles, I am usually irrationally optimistic about my favorite sports teams, and am no different with the Cavs. Experts and regular fans see nothing but doom and gloom because the Cavs lost the 4th best player (Kobe, Durant, Wade), largest ego, and biggest diva in the league. However, I see one of the youngest teams in the league with a HUGE trade exception to use, whose veterans could potentially bring in more youth or draft picks later in the season. I feel like a lot of people think the Cavs simply "lost" Lebron, but that could not be farther from the truth. So my first order of business is to clear up that misconception and explain why losing Lebron was, dare I say it, good for the franchise.
O.K., you got me. Obviously losing Lebron James does not make the Cavs a better team. But let's not forget, Lebron was in Cleveland for 7 seasons, and won zero championships. If he had continued signing three year extensions like he did after his rookie contract expired, then the Cavs' front office would continue to be handcuffed. The past few years, management built teams for winning a title ASAP in order to appease Lebron, instead of building for the future. This continuously left the team worse off at the end of a season than at the beginning of it. In exchange for Lebron, the Cavs received two of Miami's between 2013 and 2017, a second round pick from the Heat in that same time frame, Miami's 2012 second round pick, and the right to switch first round picks next year (for if the Cavs finish with a better record than the Heat this year...).
Now, I know what you are thinking; "Miami is going to be one of the best teams every year, so the Cavs are going to get one of the last picks in the draft. Those are useless." Yes, Miami's draft picks probably won't be lottery selections. But that is four extra draft picks over the next five seasons. And now some historical data to show you that ALL draft picks are useful: Leandro Barbosa (28th), Tony Parker (28th), and David Lee (30th) were all taken as one of the final three selections in the first round. There are even more big names that were taken in the second round: Gilbert Arenas (31st), Carlos Boozer (35th), Michael Redd (43rd), Monta Ellis (40th), Paul Milsap (47th), and Marc Gasol (48th) were all passed over at least 30 times before being selected. If the Cavs are smart, they will make these count.
Not to be forgotten in the Lebron fiasco is the large trade exception the Cavs received for losing such a high salary. Not many people understand what a trade exception is in the NBA, so I will do my best to enlighten you. In the NBA, when two teams make a trade, the salaries of the players being swapped must match (or at least be close enough to get approved by the League). When a team trades a player for draft picks only (as the Cavs did with Lebron), they have to get something to offset the tremendous loss of salary they just incurred. This adjustment is called a trade exception.
To put it very simply, a team receives the difference between the salary it gives up and the salary it receives to be used in another trade. Since Lebron's salary is about $15 million, the Cavs now acquire $15 million worth of salary without giving up any salary. So, they can trade for a player making $15 million per year and just give up draft picks, which they now have plenty of. See how it all ties back in together nicely like that?
Enough of the numbers game, let's move on to the guys who will actually be playing for the team this year. There are 9 players returning from last season (Gibson, Hickson, Jamison, Moon, Parker, Powe, Varejao, and Jawad and Mo Williams), meaning there are 6 new players who are new to Cleveland. Gone, too, is former head coach Mike Brown, replaced by Byron Scott. Allow me to introduce:
Byron Scott: Scott had a very successful career as a player, winning three championships with the Showtime Lakers in the 80's, PLUS a Greek League Championship with Panathinaikos in 1998. As a coach, he hasn't enjoyed quite the same level of success, but still has a proven track record. In 2000, Scott took over a New Jersey Nets team that finished 31-51. He then proceeded to lead the team to back-to-back NBA Finals appearances After being relieved of his duties in New Jersey, he coached New Orleans while they played home games in Oklahoma City, eventually earning an NBA Coach of the Year award. He is more offensively oriented than Brown was (read: he realizes that running an offense is legal in the NBA), and his more up-tempo style may fit well with the remaining (and new) Cavs roster.
Christian Eyenga: Eyenga was the Cavs' first round draft choice last season. He spent all of last season in Europe, but made the 15 man roster for this season. He is only 21 years old, and has a lot of upside. Eyenga is extremely athletic, but also very unrefined. He is 6'6" and about 210 pounds, and can play either the shooting guard or small forward position. This will be a developmental season for him, and don't be surprised if he spends some time in the D-League. The Cavs (and me) would be very happy if he could eventually turn into a Raja Bell/Mickael Pietrus type player in a year or two.
Joey Graham: Graham is pretty much filling out a roster spot for the Cavs. This is his third team in 5 seasons in the NBA, and he has some pretty unremarkable numbers so far. Graham is a solid defender and good team player, but he also plays the shooting guard/small forward position. Since he is a poor three point shooter (30% career) and poor rebounder (2.9 per game career), he can't play significant minutes at either spot. If Eyenga progresses early on, Graham may not see the floor much at all.
Manny Harris: Buckeye fans will remember Harris from his playing days at Michigan. Harris left after his junior season, only to go undrafted. He signed with the Cavs and had a solid enough preseason. He took Danny Green's roster spot. Harris is a big shooting guard (6'5", 185 lbs.) and will fit nicely into Bryon Scott's new system as a young guy who can run the floor. He can't really play the point, and he will likely be behind Daniel Gibson, Ramon Sessions, Mo Williams, and Anthony Parker on the depth chart. He could see more minutes that you might think, though. Sessions will play mostly point guard, and Mo will split time at the point and 2 guard. And let's be honest, as a rebuilding team, would you rather give more minutes to a young guy who might develop or to Anthony Parker (no offense to Parker, he is a solid player, but you know what he is going to give you. Let's see what Manny can do).
Ryan Hollins: Hollins was a throw-in in the Ramon Sessions for Delonte West deal. He is a 7'0", 230 pound true center, and since the Cavs are short on true centers (they have exactly zero), he could get some significant minutes. I am cautiously optimistic about him, however. In four seasons, he has averaged all of 4 points and 2 rebounds per game. But, he is very athletic and can run the floor on fast breaks, so let's see how he works with Bryon Scott.
Samardo Samuels: Samuels is the other undrafted rookie to make the squad. At 6'9" and 260 pounds, he is a banger in the post. He will likely start the year behind Hickson, Jamison, and Powe at power forward, but can provide some much needed strength down low and given Jamison's age and Powe's injury history, I wouldn't be terribly surprised if he was forced into some action early in his career.
Ramon Sessions: Without a doubt, the most important new player on the Cavs. Sessions is a solid, young NBA point guard. His numbers took a hit last year because he was not a good fit in Minnesota, but the previous year in Milwaukee, in which he saw his most significant playing time, he averaged 12 points, 6 assists, and 3 rebounds in 27 minutes, mostly off the bench as the backup point guard. He can either serve as the backup to Mo Williams at point guard, or he can start and let Mo shift to shooting guard. Sessions can push the ball and fits Bryon Scott's style perfectly. He provides some much needed depth and flexibility in the back court.
Finally, my predictions for this season. As presently constructed, I think the Cavs would win about 45 games this year, and make the playoffs as the 7th seed. However, I also hope believe that if the team is, in fact, on pace to be a bottom tier playoff team, that the front office will trade away some of the veterans on the roster for draft picks or some young guns. My gut tells me that Antawn Jamison, and maybe Mo Williams, will not be on the team after the trade deadline, and that it will probably be for the best. Taking trades into consideration, I predict the Cavs will end up 35-47.
So there you have it, Cavs fans. There are a lot of reasons to be hopeful about this team (8 players 26 or younger, plenty of future draft picks) and plenty of reasons to dread this upcoming season (8 players 26 or younger, lots of future draft picks). And while their record will probably not be very impressive at the end of the year, this season will be pivotal in determining the direction that this franchise is heading.