The Cleveland Cavaliers enter the 2015-16 season seeking redemption following a disappointing, injury-riddled exit from the NBA Finals.
After jumping out to a 2-1 lead over the Golden State Warriors, Cleveland just couldn't make up for the losses of All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, even with LeBron James playing at superhero status.
Four months later, the Cavs are still on the mend but have retained the majority of their impressive core.
While the Cavaliers kept just five players last summer, they're now looking at 11 returning band members. Love silenced many a doubter with his decision to sign a five-year deal to stay in Cleveland, spurning bigger markets and roles in the process. J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Matthew Dellavedova agreed to new contracts as well.
The learning period is over. This is a veteran group that enters as overwhelming favorites to not only win the Eastern Conference, but an NBA Championship as well.
The Cavs certainly have the talent necessary to obtain their first title in franchise history, but yet again, health remains a big concern.
- Additions: Mo Williams, G (free agent); Richard Jefferson, SF (free agent); Sasha Kaun, C (draft rights signed)
- Subtractions: Shawn Marion, F (retired); Mike Miller, G (traded); Kendrick Perkins, C (unsigned); Brendan Haywood, C (traded)
Cleveland's biggest offseason addition should be a familiar one.
Williams, who played 186 games with the Cavs from 2008-11, agreed to return to the franchise where he made his lone All-Star appearance. He provides an excellent backup to Irving and should hold down the fort just fine until Irving returns from his offseason knee surgery.
Teams can never have too much shooting around James, and Williams has proven his value alongside the game's best player before. Williams converted 40.8 percent of his three-point looks with the Cavs but has been unable to crack the 40 percent mark with any of his six other previous employers.
Although born in Jackson, Mississippi, Williams affectionately referred to Cleveland as "home" in his announcement to return this summer.
Joining Williams are a pair of veterans who've taken very different career paths.
Jefferson is well-known from his 14 years in the league, achieving success on both individual and team levels. A former 20-plus point-per-game scorer, Jefferson has transitioned nicely into a three-point specialist (42.6 percent with the Dallas Mavericks in 2014-15). He provides James with perhaps the best backup he's had during his time in Cleveland.
Needing to add another big man, the Cavs reached into their past. Kaun, originally acquired in a 2008 draft-night trade with the then-Seattle SuperSonics, agreed to come back to the states following six seasons with CSKA Moscow.
Storylines to Watch
Health is very much the primary concern in Cleveland these days.
As Joe Vardon of the Northeast Ohio Media Group goes on to list:
The Cavs' roster has been devastated by injury during the preseason. In addition to Kyrie Irving (knee surgery), Kevin Love (shoulder surgery) and Iman Shumpert (wrist surgery) missing the entire preseason to this point, J.R. Smith (hamstring), Timofey Mozgov (soreness from knee surgery), and Matthew Dellavedova (ankle) have all missed games.
Irving did indeed miss the entire preseason while recovering from his fractured kneecap. His return date is still unknown. Love managed to play limited minutes in a pair of preseason games following an offseason of rehabbing his dislocated shoulder in the mountains of Park City, Utah.
James, who missed more contests last season than any other in his career, was shut down after just two preseason games following concerns about his back. He's not expected to miss the start of the regular season, however.
If and when Cleveland gets everyone healed up, one person remains missing.
The Tristan Thompson free-agent watch is now wrapping up month No. 4 in a weird stalemate that few saw coming.
According to Chris Haynes of the Northeast Ohio Media Group, Cleveland has remained steady with a five-year, $80 million offer, which Thompson and his agent, Rich Paul, have refused. They believe Thompson is worth a max deal valued around $94 million over those five years.
While it was assumed Thompson would play out this season on the $6.8 million qualifying offer should no long-term deal be reached, he has been a no-show for all of training camp and the preseason.
Cleveland will need Thompson at one point or another to serve as injury insurance for Love, Mozgov, Anderson Varejao and others. He remains an elite offensive rebounder and can effectively guard the pick-and-roll.
The two sides need to come to an agreement, the sooner the better.
When the Cavs initially traded Dion Waiters in a deal that netted them Iman Shumpert from the New York Knicks, it appeared J.R. Smith was merely a salary dump for Phil Jackson and company.
There was no telling how Smith would react to a relocation from the Big Apple to Cleveland. As it turned out, landing in Northeast Ohio may have been the best move for Smith and his career.
Smith clicked almost immediately as the starting shooting guard between Irving and James, providing an extra scoring option to help stretch the floor.
In 46 games, Smith averaged 12.7 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists and a team-best 2.8 made three-pointers per game. His catch-and-shoot ability was fantastic, connecting 41.4 percent of the time.
Although his hot hand shot the Cavs out of many a slump, it was Smith's overall play on both ends that really made a difference. Cleveland scored 3.3 more points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and allowed 2.4 less. As it turned out, a focused Smith was quite good.
Now with Shumpert and Irving both out to begin the season, the Cavaliers need Smith to log heavy minutes in the backcourt. He'll once again take a starting role next to James and be asked to share the scoring load, especially until Irving returns.
Once unwanted and discarded by the Knicks, Smith is needed by Cleveland this season more than ever.
Making the Leap
While it may be odd to think of a 27-year-old, three-time All-Star as just now "making the leap," that's precisely what Love needs to do in his second season with Cleveland.
By all accounts, Love had a pretty solid first year with the Cavaliers. He led the team in rebounding (9.7) while finishing third in scoring (16.4 points) and player efficiency rating (18.9). He served as the stretch-4 whom both James and Irving relied on to help open up driving lanes.
Still, most expected more out of Love, and for good reason.
His shooting numbers were down (43.4 percent from the field, 36.7 percent from deep), seemingly a direct correlation as to where Love was operating with the ball. A whopping 41.2 percent of his total shot attempts came from beyond the three-point line, by far a career high.
Cleveland needs to maximize Love's talent by utilizing him much of the way the Minnesota Timberwolves did for years. Posting him up, pick-and-pops and elbow touches were all big parts of Love's game in addition to his outside shooting. For Love to make the leap, the Cavs need to make him just as much a part of the offense as James and Irving.
Few forwards in the NBA bring as much to the table on the offensive end as Love can. Taking the next step would make the Cavaliers' scoring attack nearly unstoppable.
There's only one best-case scenario here, and it ends with a trophy, cigars and a parade down East Ninth.
For this to happen, of course, Cleveland needs healthy bodies. An ideal scenario would have Irving back before Thanksgiving and Shumpert before Christmas.
Thompson, sitting at home flipping through channels, suddenly lands on his old team demolishing another squad, cracking jokes and getting paid. Realizing he misses the game (and the paychecks), Thompson calls Paul crying and begs him to get a deal done, no matter the what the numbers are. He washes and waxes James' car for three months before LeBron speaks to him again.
In the midst of all of this, David Blatt is crowned the next Red Auerbach, while general manager David Griffin plots ways to convince Kevin Durant to accept a veteran's minimum deal next summer.
Oh, and Varejao plays all 82 games without so much as stubbing a toe.
Let's try not to think about this. It's possible that Thompson decides money's not that important and takes up hockey at his local YMCA. His holdout lasts the entire season, and we never see him suit up for the Cavs again.
Surgeries are always tricky, and with the number of Cavs that have gone under the knife, it's tough to imagine all will come out without any setbacks.
Be it Irving's knee, Shumpert's wrist or Love's shoulder, Cleveland's medical staff has its work cut out. Keeping everyone on the court (when they finally return) will be nothing short of a miracle.
James will be turning 31 this December. We've seen his otherworldly athleticism slowly decline. How much of a drop-off he makes this season will be a huge factor for Cleveland's title hopes. The Cavs still need a few years of elite play from their hometown star, but age and early back problems are already threatening his reign as the NBA's best.
Unfortunately, Cleveland could very well storm into the postseason before losing significant players to injuries once again.
For the better part of five decades, the Cavaliers' primary problem has been L.O.T., or lack of talent. For once, this is no longer the case.
What makes this season different from last is the continuity the team brings with it. Roles have already been established, and veterans like Williams, Jefferson and Kaun know what's expected of them.
Anything less than a championship will be considered a failure, as it should be. The Miami Heat needed a long playoff run before obtaining a title in their second season together. This same pressure now falls on the Cavs and their own Big Three. James' 2-4 record in the Finals is the one true blemish on his historic resume, something he can come ever closer to correcting this season.
The good news for the Cavaliers is that if injuries must be fought through, it's better to do it now. A healthy roster in November is nice. Having one in June is crucial.
We know Cleveland will be good. With such a watered-down Eastern Conference, there's no way the Cavs shouldn't at least make it to the championship round, even with whatever the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks or Heat can throw at them.
From there on, things get a little tougher. With so many talented teams in the West, the Cavs have to hope they beat up on each other enough before Cleveland can deliver a knockout blow.
The Cavaliers are arguably the best team in the NBA, but they will need a healthy roster and a happy Thompson in town to ultimately win it all. Unfortunately, that's too many "ifs" right now to predict a title in a city so desperate for one.
Final Record: 60-22
Division Standing: 1st
Playoff Berth: Yes
Playoff Finish: Lose in NBA Finals
Greg Swartz has covered the Cleveland Cavaliers and NBA for Bleacher Report since 2010. Follow him on Twitter: @CavsGregBR.
All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.