Cavaliers Players Who Could Improve Without LeBron James

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterJuly 31, 2018

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 09: Larry Nance Jr. #22 and Kevin Love #0 of the Cleveland Cavaliers react in the first half against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on April 9, 2018 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)
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There's no question LeBron James has consistently raised the level of his teammates' play over his 15-year career.

From his elite passing ability to his knowledge of everyone's position and playing style, James has always provided both a thrill and challenge for those sharing the court with him.

With James' move from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Los Angeles Lakers, there will be different levels of impact for the remaining Cavs. Spot-up shooters Kyle Korver and J.R. Smith will suffer, as might rim-running centers Tristan Thompson and Ante Zizic. For others, a greater opportunity exists for scoring, ball-handling and overall leadership.

If there's a silver lining to James' West Coast move, it's that Cleveland's young core will get the chance to develop in a larger role.


Cedi Osman, SF, 23

Last summer, James wanted the Cavaliers to sign veteran guard Jamal Crawford with their mid-level exception over Cedi Osman. Crawford was described as "Cleveland's to lose" at one point, even though the Cavs never ended up making a formal offer, per Cleveland.com's Joe Vardon.

Now, Osman is an immediate beneficiary of James' departure, as he becomes the best small forward in Cleveland.

A 6'8", 215-pound jackrabbit, Osman has the size and developing skill set necessary to become a starting 3 this season. He also received time at shooting guard and power forward last year, and head coach Tyronn Lue often used Osman to defend opposing point guards.

Whether Lue starts Osman in James' old spot or opts for a three-guard lineup, there's no doubt the 23-year-old will have a much larger role.

In summer league, Osman displayed an impressive game and was forced to not just score, but also rebound, defend and set up others. In two games, he totaled 40 points, 16 rebounds, nine assists and five steals.

After averaging just 3.9 points in 11.0 minutes per game as a rookie, Osman appears set for a major breakthrough. In the time he took the floor without James last year, Osman's true shooting, rebounding and assist percentages all improved. Look for his scoring numbers to follow.


Jordan Clarkson, G, 26

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

This is an important year for Jordan Clarkson, who capped a promising regular-season stint with the Cavaliers with disastrous play in the 2018 postseason.

In 28 games following a trade from the Lakers, Clarkson gave the Cavs 12.6 points per game on a career-best 45.6 percent shooting from the floor and 40.7 percent from three. In the playoffs, those numbers plummeted to 4.7 points on 30.1 percent shooting overall and 23.9 percent from deep. Clarkson attributed some of this to the NBA grind, having never played past April before.

"I got a new strength guy out in L.A. that I've been working with. He's got me on a diet and stuff like that, so I've been focusing in the weight room so I can be ready for those times and keep prolonging myself so I can stay at a high level," he told Vardon.

While improved strength and diet will help, Clarkson can't just be a scorer with James gone. His 12.0 assist percentage with the Cavs was the lowest mark of his career, and too often Clarkson would put his head down and force up shots instead of looking for the open man.

The good news? He averaged over twice as many assists per 100 possessions (5.5 to 2.7) last season when taking the court without James. His assist percentage also jumped from 8.4 to 19.7 percent, a mark greater than the career average of starting point guard George Hill. This is a good indication Clarkson can transition into a more balanced offensive player.

"I feel like we're going to shock a lot of people this year just because LeBron left," Clarkson said, per Vardon. "I feel great about the team, coaching staff. They got a lot of belief in guys, so I'm just ready to strap it up and get ready for the season now."


Larry Nance Jr., C, 25

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 9: Chris Paul #3 of the Houston Rockets shakes hands with Larry Nance Jr. #22 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the 2018 Las Vegas Summer League on July 9, 2018 at the Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas, Nevada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ac
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One has to feel for Larry Nance Jr. 

After a 2-14 start to Nance's rookie season, Kobe Bryant announced he would retire at the end of the year. Now, James is leaving Nance, this time after only 44 regular- and postseason games.

Still, not many players can stake their claim to sharing a locker room with both Bryant and James, no matter how brief that time may have been. While Nance has to be disappointed the Cavaliers' championship hopes are gone, he seems to be in good spirits.

"I didn't break down crying," Nance said of James' departure, per ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin and Ohm Youngmisuk. "I kind of just got excited to prove myself, get a chance to step up a little bit and prove that this team is capable more than people think it is."

James seemed like the perfect player to pair Nance with. Someone with elite court vision and passing accuracy who could find him skying to the rim for one of his signature alley-oops. That didn't happen, however, as Nance shot just 45.9 percent off passes from James last season, which was down from his overall success rate of 55.0 percent with the Cavaliers.

If anyone is ready to step into a larger role, it's Nance. Still just 25 and coming off his third professional season, he had the third-highest player efficiency rating (21.5) of any Cavs rotation player, trailing only James and Kevin Love. He led all rotation players in rebound, block and steal percentages as well.

With the Cavs looking for new ways to generate offense, it would be great to see Nance handle the ball on the elbow, run plenty of pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop options and get out more in transition. After the whirlwind of the February trade and short Cleveland learning window, Nance has the opportunity to unlock his game.


Rodney Hood, SG, 25

James' 27.5 points per game not only led the team, but the average was also nearly 10 more a night than the closest Cavalier: Love's 17.6. That won't be easy to replace.

Outside of Love, Hood may wind up as the Cavs' leading scorer next season, assuming he re-signs.

Hood remains a restricted free agent. It's likely either the Cavaliers will match any deal he receives or Hood will play out the year on his $3.4 million qualifying offer.

If he's back, the Cavs need to run a significant portion of their offense through the 6'8" shooting guard. Hood is skilled enough to handle the ball in the pick-and-roll or come off screens to knock down the catch-and-shoot three-pointer. He becomes one of the few Cavaliers (Love, Clarkson, Hill, Collin Sexton?) who can reliably create their own shot, which is a much-needed skill on a team with no true point guard.

When Hood took the court without James last season, he recorded 23.8 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.1 steals per 100 possessions. With James, Hood's numbers fell to 19.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.1 steals.

Hood should embrace this new workload, especially if he ends up playing on the qualifying offer and can hit unrestricted free agency next summer.


Kevin Love, PF, 29

LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 12:  Kevin Love attends SI Fashionable 50 Event on July 12, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images)
Phillip Faraone/Getty Images

Love is finally the face of the Cavaliers, just like we all predicted when he joined forced with James and Kyrie Irving in 2014.

Joking aside, the fact that Love remains in Cleveland is somewhat astonishing, given he was almost traded twice and had every right to request a trip out of town when James left. Instead, he's back on a four-year, $120 million contract extension that puts him in a Cavs uniform until 2023.

Any excuse that Love wasn't properly utilized in the offense can be thrown out. Lue needs to be relentlessly studying Love's Minnesota Timberwolves tape, even if the five-time All-Star has significantly changed his body and skill set since then.

Love put up monster numbers when James rested last season, averaging 27.5 points and 14.9 rebounds per 36 minutes. He should see far more time at power forward this season, given that 61 percent of James' minutes came at the 4 in 2017-18. With Nance, Thompson and Zizic all needing minutes at center, Love should be thrilled to return to power forward full time.

Love may not improve efficiency-wise without James, but he'll instead remind everyone just what he's capable of with more than 12.4 shots a game.


Greg Swartz covers the Cleveland Cavaliers and NBA for Bleacher Report. Stats provided by NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.