HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — LeBron James is back in Cleveland, leaving Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh behind and joining a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since he took his talents to Miami in 2010. Kyrie Irving is an All-Star, but he’s also just the second No. 1 pick in 10 years to not make the postseason in his first three seasons.
As he wrote on SI.com, James knows that this is a different situation than the one he had upon arriving in Miami.
I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010. My patience will get tested. I know that. I’m going into a situation with a young team and a new coach.
But the Eastern Conference looks to be wide open. And if you have the world’s best player and some decent talent around him, you have to be considered one of the favorites. But how good can the Cavs be this season? That’s a question that requires a two-part answer. To truly contend, you need to be very good on both ends of the floor.
The Cavs ranked 23rd in offensive efficiency last season, scoring just 101.3 points per 100 possessions. They improved on that end after trading for Luol Deng, but weren’t much better offensively with Irving on the floor than they were with him on the bench.
The Cavs’ coaching change could have changed things by itself. David Blatt has coached one of the best offenses in Europe over the last few years.
And obviously, the addition of James means that we can just throw last year’s numbers away. James’ teams have ranked in the top six in offensive efficiency each of the last six years.
The last two seasons in Miami were the best of those. The Heat found their space-the-floor offensive identity in the 2012 playoffs, complemented James with a bevy of shooters, and basically eviscerated opposing defenses for two years straight.
So, with the Cavs, just how good they are offensively (Top 10? Top 5?) is going to be a matter of how much shooting they can put around James.
Last season, the Cavs had two guys who shot better than 37 percent on at least 100 3-point attempts. Both of them – Spencer Hawes and C.J. Miles – have left via free agency.
So the pressure is on Irving (35.8 percent from 3-point range last season) and Dion Waiters (36.8 percent) to improve from beyond the arc. No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins should be adjusting his pre-camp training to work more on corner threes. And Cavs GM David Griffin obviously has to make shooting the priority as he pursues other free agents (like Ray Allen and Mike Miller).
Playing with James should make everybody a better shooter. According to SportVU, Waiters shot 41.6 percent (72-for-173) on catch-and-shoot threes last season.
Irving will need to learn how to play off the ball. The good news is that he can’t be a worse 3-point shooter than Dwyane Wade. But Irving was better on pull-up threes (38.8 percent) than he was on catch-and-shoot threes (32.1 percent) last season.
A huge key for Miami was having another forward (Shane Battier mostly, Rashard Lewis in the 2014 playoffs) who can spread the floor offensively and defend opposing bigs (somewhat competently) on the other end of the floor. Maybe that’s Anthony Bennett some day, but right now, Cleveland doesn’t have that guy.
With the best player in the world and a smart head coach, it’s hard to imagine the Cavs not ranking in the top 10 offensively. But without enough complementary shooting, it’s also tough to see them in the top five.
Cleveland was one of the most improved defensive teams last season, allowing 2.1 fewer points per 100 possessions than they did in 2012-13 (as league efficiency improved). They ranked 13th on that end of the floor overall, but got worse defensively (and ranked 20th) after the Deng trade.
Again, we can throw that all out with the coaching change and the addition of James, who has the ability to be the best defensive player in the league when he has enough in the tank to do it. If Blatt’s system can take some of the offensive load off his shoulders, James can get back to contending for DPOY after what was his worst defensive season in several years. It will help that Irving can play more games and carry a bigger offensive load than Wade could.
But Irving’s defense has to improve. If he isn’t staying in front of the ball, the Cavs’ defense will break down early and often. Also key is Anderson Varejao‘s health. He’s Cleveland’s best interior defender, but he’s played just 146 games in the four years since James left. (For comparison, James has played 381.)
Elsewhere, the Cavs just don’t have any proven defenders. With another coaching change, their young players have to learn a new system. And the fatigue factor (four straight years of going to The Finals) still applies to James.
Without that Battier-esque “other” forward, James will either have to defend bigs (which he doesn’t like to do) or play more at the three. Two true bigs on the floor could help with paint protection, but will hurt the offense. Still, this may be the end of the floor where they truly need a year or two to develop before they can call themselves title contenders.
James will make the Cavs much better. They will surely be a top-five team in the East. But as he said, his patience will be tested. The Cavs are likely a year or two (and a player or two) away.