Will Isaiah Thomas have enough to lead the Boston Celtics past the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James?
We all know that small forward LeBron James is the engine of the vehicle that is the Cleveland Cavaliers, but what about his sidekick in point guard Kyrie Irving? Irving was the first overall pick of the 2011 NBA Draft by the Cavaliers as he was looked at as a building block for the franchise. Irving was the 2012 NBA Rookie of the Year as he averaged 18.5 points and 5.4 assists. For his career Irving has only averaged 5.5 assists per game as he is far from being a conventional NBA point guard. Irving is a shooting guard in a point guard’s body which has gotten him into trouble at times with teammates such as former Cavs shooting guard Dion Waiters who accused him of playing “buddy ball” with power forward Tristan Thompson. Irving has been a scorer that has played off of James for the last two seasons in Cleveland, but is he a player that the Cavaliers can with an NBA Championship with?
One of the knocks on Irving has been his ability to remain healthy. In five NBA seasons, Irving has never suited up for all 82 regular season games as he has been unable to avoid the injury bug. But when Irving is on the court, he gives the Cavs a viable scoring threat.
In Game 1 of the 2015 NBA Finals, Irving suffered a fractured kneecap which hindered Cleveland’s chances in that series against the Golden State Warriors while also putting him on the shelf until late December. In Irving’s season debut on December 20, he went for 12 points in just 17 minutes of action against the Philadelphia 76ers, and by December 28, he got the Phoenix Suns for 22 points.
Overall it’s been a smooth transition for the Cavaliers to Tyronn Lue who replaced David Blatt as the team’s head coach in late January. Under Lue, the Cavaliers are 11-6 and they have a 11.5-game lead over the Indiana Pacers for first place in the Central Division while they possess a 2.5-game lead over the Toronto Raptors for the best record in the Eastern Conference. The Cavaliers are going to win the Central Division in their sleep, but there’s been a recent uprising by the Raptors which included them knocking off the Cleveland 99-97 last Friday night. And in that game Irving was limited to 10 points while his counterpart in Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry went off to the tune of 43 points and 9 assists.
In a seven-game playoff series, the Cavaliers should be able to get past the Raptors, but the elephant in room is their play against other elite teams in the NBA which starts with the play of Irving.
In two games this season against the Warriors, Irving was limited to just 21 points combined as he was simply outplayed by Golden State point guard Steph Curry. But that isn’t a full indictment on Irving due to the MVP-caliber season that Curry is currently having. However what the Cavs are going to need from Irving going forward is for him to take a page from James, and that is the ability to make the people around him better.
James is the Cavs best facilitator, but there tends to be too much of the other Cleveland players standing around on the court waiting for him to make something happen. And Irving could remedy some of that if he doesn’t solely look for his own shot. But can Irving do that while still being an effective scorer?
If you look at some of the NBA’s top point guards such as Curry, Lowry, Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook, Washington Wizards point guard John Wall, and Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul, they can score, but they have the ability to get their teammates involved in as well, and I am not sure that Irving can do both at this point of his NBA career.
In the three years that Irving was the Cavaliers leading scorer, the team was never close to being a playoff team, which has obviously changed with James returning to Cleveland. And this was once again on display this past Sunday when the Cavs were thoroughly dominated by the Wizards as they lost 113-99. James did not play in the game as Irving led all scorers with 28 points, but it didn’t matter as Cleveland wasn’t even close to winning.
Irving has always been a player that focuses on scoring first, second, and third. It was evident during his brief tenure in college with the Duke Blue Devils where he only appeared in 11 games for the entire season. Irving made a cameo appearance in the NCAA Tournament where he scored 53 points in three games to solidify his status as the top pick in the 2011 NBA Draft. Irving knows how to show off his scoring skills in front of a large audience which was highlighted by him being named the MVP of the 2014 NBA All-Star Game, but he will now be defined by what he is able to do in the months of May and June when the basketball world is really watching him in the postseason.
James left the Heat to re-join the Cavaliers as he felt that the grass was greener in Northern Ohio than it was on South Beach, and a big part of that was playing with Irving. But at this rate, James won’t be getting that third NBA Championship and first for Cleveland that he is seeking unless his running mate at point guard can make some adjustments to his playing style.
Y-Cleveland Cavaliers 56-26 (1)
In the blink of an eye the Cleveland Cavaliers once again became contenders in the NBA when small forward LeBron James decided to return to the team in the summer of 2014. And in James’ first season back with the Cavaliers, he was able to get them to the NBA Finals for just the second time in franchise history as they were only two games short of winning it all. As the 2015-2016 NBA season is set to begin, the message is clear for the Cavaliers which is to finish.
Last season started slow for the Cavs and that was too be expected with so many new players along with a new head coach in David Blatt. The Cavaliers began slow with a record of 19-20 before they were able to turn it on as they finished with a record 53-29 which was the second best in the Eastern Conference and they are once again a team that has something to prove.
Make no mistake about it that James is arguably to best NBA player of this era as he is one of the greatest all-around players that the game has ever seen. This will mark James’ 13th season in the NBA and even though he is a freak of nature, you have to wonder when the wear and tear will begin to catch up to him. James has averaged 39.3 minutes per game for his NBA career and once you factor in five consecutive trips to the NBA Finals along with playing in the Summer Olympics three times, the Cavs and Blatt must not attempt to put everything on him this season as he’ll be 30-years of age in December. But luckily for James, he does appear to have a strong supporting cast around him in Cleveland.
Just like James was a part of a “Big Three” with the Heat which consisted of him, shooting guard Dwyane Wade and power forward Chris Bosh, the Cavs created their version with point guard Kyrie Irving and power forward Kevin Love to team with James. Irving and James were able to develop exceptional chemistry last season, but the same couldn’t be said about James and Love. Love and James were not on the same page last year as Love had his worst year statistically since the 2009-2010 NBA season. Love had the opportunity to opt-out of his contract with the Cavaliers last summer which he did, but in a surprise move he decided to return. As Love and James were never able to develop chemistry together, it was partially due to the fact that Love was never able to alter his game to compliment James. Love is not a consistent post player, but those players that are in the post must adjust their game when they are a teammate of James due to the fact of his attacking style along with his tendency to play in the post as well.
While James and Love weren’t on the same page, the same couldn’t be said about James and Irving as they became Batman and Robin. Irving remains one of the fastest and best scoring point guards in the NBA, it is just a matter of him remaining healthy. In Game 1 of the 2015 NBA Finals, Irving suffered a fractured kneecap that will keep him sidelined as he’ll miss the start of the upcoming season while he is recovering. Irving has always had concerns about his durability, but at this point the Cavaliers need him for the stretch run of the regular season and the playoffs.
As soon as James returned to Cleveland last year, he immediately connected with power forward Tristan Thompson. Thompson was primarily a bench player for the Cavs last season, but once Love was lost in the first round of the NBA Playoffs due to injury, he became extremely valuable as he was able to play off of James.
The Cavaliers also have a solid supporting cast that consists of center Timofey Mozgov, shooting guard Matthew Dellavedova, and guard Mo Williams who is returning for his second stint in the Cleveland. But the wild cards on the season for the Cavaliers could be shooting guard J.R. Smith and swignman Iman Shumpert. The Cavaliers acquired Smith and Shumpert last season from the New York Knicks. At first Smith and Shumpert were on their best behavior as they were playing within the realm of the team, but as the season went along they began to freestyle and resemble the “me” type players that they were in New York. And if Smith and Shumpert continue refusing to be team players, I can see them traded out of Cleveland real soon.
The Cavs will face a tough schedule when the season begins as they’ll meet the Chicago Bulls, Memphis Grizzlies, and Miami Heat. But it will be very interesting to see how this team will be able to mesh as the season goes along.
X-Chicago Bulls 51-31 (2)
The last five NBA seasons have seen the Chicago Bears become one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, but that wasn’t enough for head coach Tom Thibodeau to remain employed by the team. In every year under Thibodeau, the Bulls made the playoffs including a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2011. But being that Thibodeau wasn’t always on the same page with Bulls general manager Gar Forman, it was time for a change. The Bulls would hire Fred Hoiberg to be their next head coach and he brings a stellar resume with him to the Windy City. Hoiberg played 11 NBA seasons with four of those seasons being spent with the Bulls. Hoiberg spent the last five years as the head basketball coach at Iowa State University where he became the only head coach in school history to reach the NCAA Tournament in four consecutive years.
And with the Bulls, Hoiberg’s job will be to get the most out of a veteran team that has aspirations of winning an NBA Championship.
Since winning the NBA MVP Award in 2011, Bulls point guard Derrick Rose has struggled to remain healthy. Last season Rose appeared in 51 games which is the most amount of games that he has played in since winning the NBA MVP Award in 2011. However Rose suffered an orbital bone fracture at the start of training camp and in spite of that, the Bulls are hopeful that this is the year that he will finally remain healthy throughout the season.
In Rose’s absence last season, small forward Jimmy Butler has emerged as the Bulls go-to-guy. Butler was the Bulls first-round pick in 2011, and in each year in Chicago, he has improved. Butler is coming off of his best season in the NBA as he averaged 20.0 points per game and in the process he earned his first All-Star Game appearance. And just where Butler left off in Thibodeau’s offense, you can expect more of the same as far as him being the focal point in Chicago under Hoiberg.
For numerous years center Joakim Noah has been the heart and soul of the Bulls as he embodies the toughness that the City of Chicago is known for. Noah was the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2014, but a foot injury limited his effectiveness last season. And like Rose, the Bulls will need a healthy Noah this season if they are going to contend for an NBA Championship as he is a solid rebounder and defender. If Noah is able to remain healthy this season, he could become the Bulls all-time leader in rebounds. Alongside Noah in the Bulls frontcourt, Chicago has a solid scoring option in power forward Pau Gasol. Gasol was expected to be more of a complimentary player last season, but he ended up being the Bulls second leading scorer at 18.5 points per contest. And as long as Hoiberg is able manage Gasol’s minutes this year, he can still be an effective contributor in Chicago even at the age of 35.
The Bulls also have a solid group of role players that includes veterans in power forward Taj Gibson, point guard Kirk Hinrich, and small forward Mike Dunleavy while youngsters in the form of forwards Doug McDermott, Bobby Portis, and Nikola Mirotic can also have a solid impact.
Aside from opening the season against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Bulls have an easy schedule to begin the year which could be just what the doctor ordered for Hoiberg and his crew.
X-Milwaukee Bucks 47-35 (6)
In their first year under head coach Jason Kidd, the Milwaukee Bucks enjoyed an impressinve turnaround. The Bucks went from going 15-67 in the previous NBA season to being a playoff team last season with a record of 41-41. The Bucks enjoyed this huge turnaround without the services on small forward Jabari Parker. Parker was the second overall pick of the 2014 NBA Draft, but after he suffered a torn ACL, he only appeared in 25 games. For the year Parker averaged 12.3 points per games, and without his services the Bucks were able to make the NBA Playoffs. But now with Parker back healthy and in the saddle, the Bucks are trending upwards as their young talent is making believers out of many people.
Youth is on the side of the Bucks as they have 11 players on their roster that are 25-years of age or younger and they don’t have an idea of how good that they can be.
After winning the NBA’s Rookie of the Year in 2014 as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers, point guard Michael Carter-Williams was traded to the Bucks last season and he has a chance to be a solid point guard. At 6’6″, Carter-Williams is a bigger point guard just like his head coach in Kidd who is 6’4″. And like Kidd, Carter-Williams came into the NBA with questions about his perimeter shooting. In just two NBA seasons, Carter-Williams is a career 40 percent shooter from the field while he is shooting just 25 percent from beyond the three-point arc. But whereas Carter-Williams is still attempting to find his touch as a shooter, he is a solid facilitator that has averaged 6.5 assists for his brief NBA career and he has a few triple-doubles under his belt. And as far as the triple-doubles go, Carter-Williams can learn from one of the best in Kidd who had 107 career triple-doubles which is third all-time on the NBA’s list for triple-doubles.
Aside from Parker and Carter-Williams, the Bucks have a ton of young, athletic players that includes forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, center Greg Monroe, and small forward Khris Middleton while they will also have depth coming off of their bench in the form of guards O.J. Mayo, Jerryd Bayless, and Greivis Vasquez, along with forward Carl Landry.
The young Bucks have a ton of size and they will be a very fun and exciting team to watch this season.
Detroit Pistons 36-46
From 2002-2009, each NBA season resulted in the Detroit Pistons making the playoffs which was highlighted by an NBA Championship in 2004. But since then the Pistons have fallen by the wayside as they have produced five seasons in which they’ve lost at least 50 games and in the process they’ve gone through five different head coaches over that span.
Stan Van Gundy is coming off of his first season as the Pistons head coach and he is in the process of establishing some order in the Motor City. Aside from being the Pistons head coach, Van Gundy is also the team president as he is in the process of shaping this team in his own image with players that fit his system.
Last season center Greg Monroe led the Pistons in scoring at 15.9 points per game, but he was allowed to leave Detroit as a free agent and he would sign with the Milwaukee Bucks. To offset Monroe’s departure, the Pistons and Van Gundy are hopeful that center Andre Drummond is able to continue improving. Last season Drummond emerged as one of the top rebounders in the NBA as he was second in the league in the category as he grabbed 13.5 boards per contest. But aside from cleaing up the glass, Drummond must become more of an offensive threat for them in the post as they’ll need him to average at least 18 points per game this season if they are going to contend for a postseason spot.
Last season the Pistons acquired point guard Reggie Jackson from the Oklahoma City Thunder. And in 27 games last season with the Pistons, Jackson averaged 17.6 points and 9.2 assists per game. Van Gundy saw enough and signed Jackson to a five-year, $90 million deal this summer, but the Pistons also have another point guard in Brandon Jennings. Jackson and Jennings have the same playing style and it will be interesting to see how Van Gundy uses them.
Van Gundy will spend the upcoming NBA season continuing to reshape this Pistons roster that is not quite ready to be a playoff team in the Eastern Conference.
Indiana Pacers 36-46
As expected last season was a struggle for the Indiana Pacers. In the summer of 2014, Pacers small forward Paul George suffered a broken leg while participating as a member of the United States Men’s Basketball team. The injury limited George to just six games last season as the Pacers only won 38 games compared to 56 in the previous NBA season which was the best record in the Eastern Conference. And even with a healthy George returning to the Pacers for the 2015-2016 NBA season, Indiana will still be a very different team with a ton of question marks surrounding them.
Pacers general manager Larry Bird and head coach Frank Vogel have decided to have a change of philosophy in team personnel as after watching the Golden State Warriors win the NBA Championship last June, they have decided to go “small ball”. After spending the first seven years of his NBA career with the Pacers, center Roy Hibbert was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers over the summer while power forward David West opted out of his contract to sign with the San Antonio Spurs. And the Pacers are now asking George to play power forward for them. George is 6’9″, but he is only 220 lbs., which will make it very interesting to see how he’ll be able to adjust playing in the post more.
After spending the last two seasons with the Dallas Mavericks, point guard Monta Ellis opted out of his contract as a he signed a four-year, $44 million contract with the Pacers. The Pacers will be Ellis’ fourth NBA team and although he is a point guard by trade, he is more off an “off-guard” being that he is more of a scoring threat than anything as the potential success of this team will come down to him and the health of George.
This will be a year of transition for the Pacers and they will more than likely get lost in the shuffle in the Eastern Conference.
Sources: Sportscity.com, Basketball-reference.com
With all of the new talent that the Cleveland Cavaliers have assembled for this season you knew that it would take some time for them to gel. When small forward LeBron James decided to return to the Cavs this season, the expectations for Cleveland went through the roof. But just like Rome wasn’t built in a day, the Cavaliers found out the hard way that there’s no such thing as a quick turnaround in the NBA. In early to mid-January, the Cavs were mired in a six-game losing streak and they had an overall record of 19-20. But since then the Cavaliers are 17-2 including a 12-game winning streak as they now appear to be on the same page heading into the spring.
Aside from James returning to Cleveland, the Cavs began this season with a new head coach in David Blatt. Prior to joining the Cavs, Blatt had never coached in the NBA (even as an assistant) which meant that he had to get accustomed to the nuances of the league. The Cavs lost their regular season opener to the New York Knicks and shockingly Blatt decided to call a team meeting afterwards. Along with Blatt attempting to get on the same page with James and the rest of the players in Cleveland, Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving had to figure out how to play with other talented players while the newly acquired power forward Kevin Love needed to figure out his role in Cleveland as well. In the past Irving was accused of playing “buddy ball” with Cavs center Tristan Thompson by former Cavaliers shooting guard Dion Waiters. Irving would also tend to play one-on-five offensively which would alienate his teammates. Prior to joining the Cavs, Love put up big numbers as a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves, but the team there wasn’t close to being a winner.
And in just one stroke of the pen by James last summer, the Cavaliers went from being an underachieving team in the Eastern Conference to a team that is now expected to contend for the NBA Championship. But for guys like Love and Irving who have never been to the NBA Playoffs, they’ve had to learn how to win in the league which also required them to understand the concept of playing team basketball. And that meant that you wouldn’t see as many 35-point, 20-rebound games from Love and not as many 35-point games from Irving either with the new and improved Cavaliers.
But now all of that appears to be behind the Cavaliers as they are rolling. The Cavs currently have the fourth best record in the Eastern Conference and they’re only half a game behind the Chicago Bulls for first place in the Central Division. Irving is only averaging 5.3 assists per game, but his shot attempts are down as he is not coveting the basketball like he did in the past, but he is still averaging 21.7 points per game. Love has accepted his role as the third wheel in the Cavaliers offense behind James and Irving while still being able to maintain his status as one of the better rebounders in the NBA at 10.4 per contest. James is still the best all around player in the NBA and at the age of 30, he is now becoming more of a mentor to the youngsters on the Cavaliers such as Love and Irving. On the season James is averaging 25.8 points per game which is third in the NBA. The turnaround this season for the Cavs simply began when everybody including Blatt started to trust one another. James had been down this road before when he went to Miami 2010 as he and Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra didn’t start out on the same page. Things would change and subsequently the Heat would win a pair of NBA Championships in four seasons with James. However the Cavs are dealing with a more mature James this time around and more than ever he is leading by example through his focus and intensity.
The City of Cleveland has never been a hotbed as far as luring NBA free agents, but James’ presence alone on the Cavaliers roster is changing that notion. A pair of James’ old teammates with the Heat in forwards James Jones and Mike Miller followed him to Cleveland over the summer. And James’ return to the Cavaliers has also made everybody on the team step their game up.
Last month the Cavaliers acquired shooting guard J.R. Smith from the New York Knicks. During his NBA career Smith has developed a reputation as being a loose cannon. Smith has had issues throughout his playing career as far as playing within the realm of an offense as he has never met a shot that he didn’t like. But in 23 games with the Cavaliers, Smith is averaging 13.0 points per game and Blatt has trusted him to be on the court for nearly 32 minutes per contest. Along with Smith, swingman Iman Shumpert was acquired from the Knicks last month. And like Smith, Shumpert was considered to be a malcontent with the Knicks but all he has done with the Cavs is what he has been asked to do which is to play basketball and have fun doing it. This past Sunday, the Cavaliers faced the Knicks in what marked the first game back at Madison Square Garden for both Smith and Shumpert since the trade. In the game Smith went for 17 points as the Cavs easily disposed of the Knicks 101-83. Another ex-Knick in center Timofey Mogzov was acquired last summer in a deal with the Denver Nuggets. The Cavs needed another big man after center Anderson Varejao was lost to an injury. And so far with the Cavaliers, Mozgov is averaging a career high in points (10.4) and rebounds (8.2) which was highlighted by a 20-point, 7-rebound performance in a 113-93 victory over the Heat on February 11. Along with Love and Thompson, Mozgov has given the Cavaliers another big body in their frontcourt to provide size, get rebounds, and clog up the defensive interior.
The Cavaliers a gelling and they appear to have all of the tools necessary to make a deep run in the postseason. James is in the prime of his career while he also has a strong supporting cast around him which wasn’t the case during his first run in Cleveland. Nothing is set in stone for the Cavaliers, but the best appears to be in front of them.
LeBron James’ last season with the Cleveland Cavaliers was during the 2009-2010 NBA season. In that season the Cavaliers won 61 games in the regular season and they advanced to the Eastern Conference Semifinals. After that season ended, James left Cleveland as a free agent to sign with the Miami Heat where he has gone on to win a pair of NBA Championships. In the aftermath of James leaving Cleveland, it took the Cavs nearly three seasons to match their win total during his last season there. When James left Cleveland, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert went on a tirade for the ages in the attempt to belittle James while guaranteeing that his team would win a title before James would be able to in Miami. Obviously Gilbert’s dream has not turned into a reality as the Cavaliers are 97-215 since James took his talents to South Beach. Since then the NBA has gone above and beyond the call of duty to “reward” Gilbert and the Cavaliers as they have “won” the NBA’s Draft Lottery an unprecedented three times in the last four years. In spite of being the first team get a crack during the NBA’s Draft buffet, the Cavs have not been able to grasp success and how many more free layups will they receive from the league?
The past few seasons have seen the Eastern Conference of the NBA be extremely weak. This past season saw the Atlanta Hawks qualify for the postseason with a losing record. The Eastern Conference was also home to four teams last season that won 25 games or less. With a team loaded with young players such as point guard Kyrie Irving, the Cavaliers were unable to snatch a playoff spot. The Cavaliers were 33-49 last season and their lowest point came on February 5 when they suffered a 119-108 home loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers only dressed eight players for the game and for a good portion of the second half they only had five players available, but a full Cavaliers squad was unable to run them out of the gym.
After the season the Cavaliers fired Mike Brown and recently hired David Blatt as their new head coach and he’ll be the team’s third head coach in as many seasons. At last week’s NBA Draft, the Cavs selected former Kansas University shooting guard Andrew Wiggins who has tremendous potential, but how will he fit in with this team?
Last season Irving led the Cavaliers in points per game (20.8), assists (6.1), and steals (1.5). During the season Irving was accused by Cavaliers shooting guard Dion Waiters of playing “buddy ball” with power forward Tristan Thompson which led to a rift between them. If Irving cannot spread the ball around enough between Waiters, Thompson, and himself, then what will he do with another mouth to feed when Wiggins joins the party? Not to mention that last year’s number one overall pick by the Cavaliers, small forward Anthony Bennett only appeared in 52 games last season without making a single start. Bennett would only average 4.2 points per game which are paltry numbers for someone who was the league’s top pick. Being the first overall pick of the NBA generally entails being a player that can immediately come in and be a difference maker; not a player that sits towards the end of the bench.
The NBA began the draft lottery in 1985 in the attempt to prevent teams from “tanking” the season on purpose in order to obtain a higher slotted draft pick. The only instance previous to the recent luck of the Cavaliers in which a team won the NBA’s lottery in consecutive seasons was when the Orlando Magic got lucky in 1992 and 1993. In 1992, the Magic were coming off of a 21-win season and they needed a boost. The Magic were able to get that boost when they used the first overall pick of the 1992 Draft on center Shaquille O’Neal. In O’Neal’s first season in Orlando, the Magic went 41-41 and missed the postseason by one game. In 1993, the Magic selected power forward Chris Webber who they immediately traded to the Golden State Warriors for point guard Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway. In 1994, the Magic made their first playoff appearance and by the next season they were able to make their first appearance in the NBA Finals.
When the Magic got “lucky”, they didn’t go backwards, but instead they were able to go forward. But unfortunately for the Cavaliers they still have been unable to figure out how to succeed without LeBron James.