Title defence: Cleveland's major concern after summer of content
The Cleveland Cavaliers will head into the 2016/17 season having to defend their NBA title with a worse team than the one that won it.
Cleveland won the title off of a transcendent individual performance by arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, LeBron James. [I am not making this argument. We have however reached the point where the argument can be, and is being, made. And last year’s Finals performance is partly why.] James did not do it all himself – no one ever has or ever can – but he came as close to doing so as was possible, his teammates chipping in with vital contributions alongside him, all based off of the foundation of his greatness.
Assuming that J.R. Smith re-signs, the Cavaliers will return the strong starting five of Kyrie Irving, Smith, James, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson. That five is as good as any. Irving is a dynamic star point guard, Love is a former 20/10 power forward who doesn’t need to be an ideal fit to be effective, Smith has tempered his designs on greatness and added a vital scoring punch, and Thompson is an elite offensive rebounder, effective finisher and disruptive defender. It’s a very good five.
However, the bench that has taken shape behind them is not.
Center Timofey Mozgov and point guard Matthew Dellavedova have both departed this summer, both overpaid by other teams (L.A. Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks respectively) in free agency. Both departures were fine on their individual merits – the Cavaliers were not going to pay $64 million to re-sign a 30-year-old player in Mozgov who not only lost his starting job but fell out of the rotation altogether (and it remains a mystery as to why the Lakers did), whereas even in this very liberal free agency market, Dellavedova was not worth the $10 million per season he got from the Bucks.
The problem is not that they left. The problem is how few acquisitions of proven quality were made in their place, and two areas, in particular, are sorely lacking as of today.
At point guard, the draft rights to Kay Felder were bought from Atlanta, and Felder is signed through the next three years, the first of which is guaranteed. Felder is a unique and fiery guard – very small and very athletic, Felder is as dynamic as anyone, with the flair, handle, vision (an NCAA-leading 9.2 assists per game last season) and sheer bloody-mindedness to always make things happen. He is however extremely small by NBA standards, a bit wild, and with legitimate concerns about his tremendous collegiate scoring ability (24.4 points per game last year, third in the nation) translating to the NBA level. It is yet to be seen what Felder offers and how he translates – his talent is known, as are his weaknesses, but in Felder, the known safe pair of hands in Dellavedova has been replaced by an untested question mark.
More pertinent than the Felder question is why the Cavaliers did not bring in veteran assistance and a third option at the point guard spot. They still might, of course, yet training camp is now extremely close and it has not yet happened. Mo Williams, the other backup point guard from last season, has yet to make a decision on retirement. If he does so, as he is expected to, a veteran shooter and fairly reliable offensive weapon who can in a fashion create his own offence (the pull-up two never left him) leaves the team. And with that, Felder will be on his own, needing to fill two voids at once.
Speaking of retirement, Richard Jefferson openly announced it, before re-signing for three years. This was a piece of good offseason news. Jefferson’s transition from athletic, dynamic if mistake-prone young whippersnapper into grizzled wily veteran was hugely valuable last year – his spot-up shooting, smart cuts off the ball and good defensive reads made for an effective wing role player on both ends. Alongside him, Cleveland acquired Mike Dunleavy Jr in a trade from Chicago (using part of the Traded Player Exception opened up by Dellavedova’s departure) - when healthy, Dunleavy is a similar player, a better shooter but a lesser athlete who nevertheless can always contribute off the ball.
Iman Shumpert is back and hopes for him still rely on his ability to become an athletic and defensively versatile three-and- D wing player. Shumpert is coming off of a poor year, his worst season offensively coupled with injuries and a dip in his defensive impact, but when healthy and on his game, he provides the ball pressure, disruption and flexible defensive presence otherwise lacking on the roster. Alongside him, James Jones will also return, adequately defend his position, dribble the ball about seven times all season and shoot 40% on three-pointers. The wing bench depth is the one bit in which Cleveland does not lack.
Upfront, however, is one in which they definitely do. The roster as currently constructed has only two reserve big men on it – the returning Channing Frye and the recently signed Chris Andersen. Frye’s three-point shooting is very valuable, but the rest of his game is mediocre to poor, while Andersen is very much at the tail end of his career and ought not to be relied upon as a rotation player by this time. LeBron will, of course, take many turns as a power forward (arguably his best position these days), yet the Cavaliers have spread themselves very thin here.
This is not to say that Cleveland should have returned the same team for the sake of it. Dellavedova’s steadiness was an asset, but the $40 million Milwaukee paid for him is not, whereas Mozgov was simply poor last season and lost his rotation spot on merit. However, some acquisitions of greater note ought to have been made in their positions, especially in conjunction with the advancing age of the other bench players.
It is indeed an old bench. By the start of next season, Mike Dunleavy will be 36, James Jones will be 36, Richard Jefferson will be 36 and Chris Andersen will be 38; by the end of next season, Frye will be 34, and Mo Williams, if he returns, will be 35. The bench youth comes from Felder and Felder only – the second youngest player on the entire roster stands to be Irving, who is entering his sixth NBA season.
Going with a veteran bench can be fine, with the right balance and a bit of luck, and the luck in large part comes from injuries. But here, Cleveland should have reason to fear. Andersen has long battled a bad knee and has not played 800 minutes over the past two seasons combined. Dunleavy missed most of the last season through back surgery. Williams missed half of last season with myriad ailments including a torn thumb ligament and a bad knee and is not expected to play again. Jefferson and Frye have been relatively healthy throughout their late careers, but time is always a factor, and behind them, the deeper parts of the bench (Jordan McRae and DeAndre Liggins) have proven little in some years of tryouts.
The problem might not so much be aging or offence, however, as it will be defensively. Jones, Frye and Dunleavy are not and have never been known as plus defenders, and while Andersen has been, he barely takes the court enough to make an impact anymore. Jefferson’s usefulness and heady team defence in the playoffs was a virtue, Jones does adequately, and Shumpert is something of a stand-out on this end, but that is it for bench D. When combined with a starting line-up in which three players are mediocre-to-poor defenders, in which LeBron’s own defensive effort and effectiveness is starting to get spotty, and in which the lone big man does not defend the basket very well, the defence becomes a legitimate concern.
Cleveland were already short of interior defence, even with a big true center in Mozgov (who was once good at this part of the game, albeit not last year). Without him, they will be even weaker. Love was never good at it, Frye has always been worse, Thompson is much better when defending switches, and LeBron’s interior help is not what it was. That leaves the burden largely on Andersen, who will almost certainly play less than 1,000 minutes.
Similarly, the Cavaliers need to apply ball pressure to prevent opponent guards and wings from being able to waltz into the soft centre. Irving is notoriously bad at this, and Smith does it only in spurts. The rest of the wing quartet are not known for it either, and while Felder will certainly be asked to be a complete pest on this end with his low centre of gravity and good hands, his lack of size and historical indifference to the task do not bode well.
What is frustrating here is that the Cavaliers know what works defensively. It was Tristan Thompson’s ability to defend switches that had the most pivotal role on that end in the NBA Finals, his ability to do so being the key to stopping Steph Curry’s usual onslaught. Kevin Love also did better than expected in this regard, and with their big traps and hard hedges, the Cavaliers did a fine job of shutting off the three point line.
Between Thompson’s versatility, Jefferson’s effectiveness, Smith and Love’s surprising adequacy and James’ finding of an extra gear, the Cavaliers turned an average regular season defence into good enough of a playoff defence to stop the best offensive team ever. But this was not a reason enough to rest on those laurels. No team can just go and get a second Tristan Thompson just like that, but they needed to source better than Andersen. Cleveland’s defence was just about good enough last year through rotations, organisation and discipline, but through departures and aging, it figures to now be worse.
LeBron’s individual greatness automatically gives any team he is on the chance to be great. And with a starting five like that, barring significant injury, the Cavaliers should be the favourites to return to the NBA Finals once again. James has already proven that just getting him there can these days be enough. In returning much of the same roster, the Cavaliers return a battle-tested core who have experience of winning and of triumphing against all the odds. But when they triumphed against the odds, they did so with a carefully constructed range of pieces that shot just about well enough and defended just about well enough.
The offseason is not yet over, and, of course, midseason acquisitions are always on the cards. With last year’s trade of Anderson Varejao, Cleveland created a Traded Player Exception worth just over $9.3 million which can be used to acquire someone, and even though they are already over the luxury tax threshold without having yet re-signed Smith, Dan Gilbert has proven since LeBron’s return that the money is there if needed. The pick-up of Frye last season proved important, and there could be another opportunity during the upcoming season to do something like this again.
As of today, however, Cleveland will begin their title defence without much in the way of defence.