As part of our season preview, we'll be talking to other SB Nation team blogs and asking them five questions about their team.
When the Cleveland Cavaliers took a 2-1 lead on the juggernaut Warriors in last summer's NBA Finals, nobody could quite believe it. They were, after all, still playing without Kevin Love. Kyrie Irving had hobbled through Game 1 before being shut down with a knee injury. Matthew Dellavedova (bless his soul) was playing Robin to LeBron James' Batman. It all seemed unsustainable, but it was all somehow working.
That's the power of LeBron James. Recognizing that without injuries, a different outcome could've come from last year's Finals, Cavaliers management has spared no expense in keeping last year's rotation intact. With over $90 million in contracts already this season, Cleveland will probably pay over $225 million with the NBA's aggressive luxury tax rules. If anything is a sign of confidence that a team's championship window is open, paying that much money is it.
So, what will stop the Cavs, if anything? We talked to Justin Rowan, contributing writer at Fear The Sword, to see how things look from the inside.
Q: Last season, injuries forced LeBron James to be a one-man team in historic fashion in the NBA Finals. Given that Iman Shumpert is out three months and there’s still reports about Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving being limited at camp, are you concerned that the Cavs will again be derailed by injuries?
A: Injuries will always be a concern whether or not your players have a real history of getting hurt. Russell Westbrook had an incredible streak of never missing games dating back to high school, now his health seems like a major concern. Stephen Curry was a steady presence on the injury report for his first few years in the NBA. With the mileage LeBron James has on him, an injury is something that keeps me up late at night.
When it comes to Irving and Love, their histories certainly give you a lot of pause... but the absence of a recurring injury does help to alleviate some of the concerns there. Irving has talked about adding floaters to his game and has been studying Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson to see what adjustments they made to their game in order to stay on the court and stop hurling their body recklessly into the opposing big men. Kevin Love has put an incredible amount of work into his body to make sure that he is in the best shape of his life.
While Irving remains doubtful for the season opener, he has not suffered any setbacks and Love is on pace to be 100% prior to the start of the season. With how competitive the Cavs roster was in the Finals, despite Irving and Love being out and Shumpert having a shoulder injury, it's hard not to worry that the worst case scenario might come up again. But it's so hard to acquire superstar talent in the NBA, let alone three stars. You take what you can get and hope it works out.
Q: Give me your general feelings on the Tristan Thompson saga and whether he's worth the money. Given he didn't take the qualifying offer, how much do you expect him to sign for?
A: I've been in the "PAY TRISTAN HIS MONEY" camp for all of the offseason. The rising salary cap has thrown everything out of wack and it's going to take some adjusting for both fans and media. The 5-year, $94 million contract Thompson was demanding would work out to 20% of the salary cap, or $12,559,555 per season under the old salary cap. That asking price is slightly more than Nikola Pekovic and less than Derrick Favors, Nene, Joakim Noah and Rajon Rondo. When you remember that you're paying a player that was 23 years old last season and projecting for improvement over the next five seasons, it doesn't seem so unrealistic.
The salary cap is based off of net revenue that the teams are pulling in, so going off of the percentage of the cap is the only way to really keep things in perspective, rather than comparing a new salary to what players had signed for in the past. Right now, Thompson is probably a somewhat overrated defender and an underrated offensive player. Thompson is a fantastic finisher in the pick and roll and is very intelligent off the ball, capable of finding passing lanes and holes within the opposition's defense, and able to strike quickly when he gets the ball. A high usage offensive center isn't an ideal fit next to the big three, so Thompson's skills on offense are nearly a perfect fit. His rim protection will need to continue to improve and should benefit as he continues to play minutes at his natural position of center. But his ability to defend the pick and roll, play very solid man to man defense on almost every center in the game and be able to guard point guards or wings when forced to switch is a huge asset.
Bigs typically only really develop into great defenders around the age of 24-25, so if Thompson continues to improve there on top of his offensive abilities, he is easily worth that money. Lineups of James, Irving, and Love with Thompson at center outscored their opponents by 21 points per 100 possessions, in comparison to 17 points with Mozgov. With no cap space to sign a replacement for him for several years if he were to walk, signing him has seemed like a vital move all summer in my eyes.
Q: Cleveland is paying big money for their rotation, but there were some under the radar moves made this summer as well. Which off-season addition do you see making the most impact on the Cavaliers bench?
A: I think Mo Williams will have the biggest impact. The Cavs had a hard time staggering the minutes of the big three and featuring Kevin Love because the only players capable of initiating the offense were Kyrie Irving and LeBron James. Adding another playmaker that will allow those two to rest and give Love more time as a featured player should help reduce any drop-off the Cavs experienced when they would turn to their bench and help keep the big three rested for the playoffs. Williams averaged over 17 points per game in Charlotte last season, so he's still got something in the tank and should be able to play alongside Irving at times throughout this year.
Q: NBA circles love to poke fun at Kevin Love and how he doesn’t quite fit the games and personalities on this team. On the court, how do you expect Love to improve this season?
A: Kevin Love is an introvert and a weirdo and I love it (pardon the pun). He was dealing with back spasms on top of adjusting to a new season last year. With the time to rest this summer and get himself right, the hope would be that he is going to be able to play a much more featured role now that he is healthy. I touched on how the Mo Williams signing might help Cleveland optimize Love's gifts, but it appears that both LeBron and Blatt are looking to make some changes when it comes to Love. Rather than testing free agency, Love decided to meet with both Blatt and LeBron separately and has said that while they didn't agree on everything at first, they came away from those meetings feeling like they had a plan of attack in place and reached a common ground. At media day, LeBron specifically stated that Love would take over for him and allow him to rest a lot more during the season. While the Cavs obviously don't want to tinker with something that worked so well last year, optimizing a player that was fifth in points per game just two seasons ago is probably only going to lead to positive dividends.
Q: The Raptors are obviously looking to eventually get to the platform the Cavs are on as one of the best teams in the NBA. From your perspective, what do they need to take that next step?
A: First of all, I love what Toronto did this summer. I think they got rid of a lot of empty stats and offensive hijackers in Greivis Vasquez and Lou Williams. I think that they are poised to be a better team this season, even if they slip in the standings.
That being said, I think what they need to start doing now in consolidating talent. Package some of the assets together and try to acquire real cornerstone pieces. I think you can stick with DeMarre Carroll unless something big comes up, but there's nobody that I'd be too attached to if I was Masai Ujiri. Throwing an offer of Jonas Valanciunas, DeMar DeRozan and picks for DeMarcus Cousins (or some sort of move like that) could dramatically alter the ceiling of this franchise. Even if you overpay, it's easy to attract replacements if you have those cornerstones and strong management in place.
To even get a meeting with LaMarcus Aldridge last summer shows that the league is looking at Toronto differently. With so many pieces present, they are likely going to be able to survive parting with a few. I'll also say that paying DeRozan next summer is a really scary idea that could hurt their ability to properly form a contender. I think he could work as a team's third best player, but I don't think you can get options one and two if you are paying him over $20 million a year. Shopping him now would probably be a wise sell high move for Toronto.