The Cavaliers lost the best player on their team, and probably the world, to free agency when LeBron James left to join the Lakers. Losing a player like LeBron is never good and unfortunately, Cleveland already had experience with losing LeBron. Also not ideal for Cleveland, it didn’t go so well last time. The 2010-11 Cleveland Cavaliers won only 19 games without LeBron, they won 61 games the season before with LeBron. When LeBron left the Miami Heat after the 2013-14 season they also dropped in wins from 54 to 37.
It comes as no surprise that when LeBron leaves the team gets worse. The two examples above are very different scenarios except for one area, injuries. Both teams faired far worse due to injuries. The Heat team was well situated to be successful with both Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade. Due to health issues, Bosh only played in 44 games and Wade in 62. The Cleveland organization was completely overhauled with the removal of their head coach, GM, and only 62 percent of their minutes returning on the roster after LeBron left. That team was also devastated by injuries to Anderson Varajeo and only getting 15 games out of Baron Davis in a trade for the injured Mo Williams.
The feeling in Cleveland seems completely different this time around. Instead of burning jerseys they seem to be embracing their current roster. Besides LeBron James and Jeff Green, everyone who played significant minutes at the end of the regular season and playoffs is back with the team. Without the best player in the world on their team, everyone in the Cavs organization has the opportunity to prove themselves.
The player with the biggest contract and the most to prove is Kevin Love. Sometimes when you are playing with the best player in the world you have to change your game. Kevin Love probably did that more than anyone else on this roster. Playing next to LeBron, Love was turned into mostly a spot up shooter. If he can get back to averaging 20 and 10, as he did in Minnesota, the Cavs could be in decent shape for this season.
Other players have the opportunity to show their worth as well. J.R. Smith, ignoring the debacle at the end of game 1 of the Finals, had his worst statistical seasons the past two years. We will find out this year if he is on the downswing of his career or if he can get back to playing more like the Sixth Man of the Year. Tristan Thompson also had one of his worst statistical seasons last year. Not that he is known for scoring but he had his lowest point total since his rookie season. What was worse is that he is known for his rebounding which was the lowest of his career at only 5.8 per game. Kyle Korver was the one player that excelled at his job last season. All Korver is asked to do is shoot 3s and he did it at a high rate, .77 3PAr, and high efficiency with a 43.6 3-point percentage. Without LeBron getting all the attention and setting him up, Korver might have a tougher time getting open looks this season.
Cleveland overhauled their roster in the middle of the season last year and for the most part, those players struggled. George Hill struggled to find his shot on this team. Hill shot below his career average from 3 and had his lowest 3-point percentage in five seasons. The poor shooting also led to his points per game average with the Cavs being his lowest since his rookie season. Rodney Hood was another player that came to Cleveland in the middle of the season last year and struggled to find his place. Hood had his lowest usage, 3PAr, and 3-point of his career. After showing improvement year over year under Quin Snyder, Hood took a major step back with the Cavs. Hood will have the opportunity to play more to his style this year and hopefully get back to being a more productive scorer.
The third group of players the young ones. Collin Sexton, the Cavs first round pick, has played well on Summer League and the preseason. However, rookie point guards tend to be more hurtful than helpful in their first season. Cedi Osman is another young player with a great opportunity. Playing behind LeBron he was destined to see limited playing time but he made the most of his time.
Finally, coach Tyronn Lue has a lot to prove as well. He has never coached a team that didn’t have LeBron as the star. LeBron, being the best player in the world, typically dictates the way his teams play and even who is playing. With LeBron gone, Lue has a chance to showcase his style of play, teaching ability, and lineup tweaks to get the most out of his players. With a roster full of proven vets and young players, mixing the development of the young players with winning will be an important part of Lue’s job.
Most projections have the Cavs missing the playoffs this season due to LeBron leaving. Neither the 2014-15 Heat nor the 2010-11 Cavs made the playoffs after LeBron left and it doesn’t look very promising for the 2018-19 Cavs either. Too many things have to go right for this team to make the playoffs, even in the weakened Eastern Conference. This team needs to improve defensively; last season they were second-to-last with a defensive rating of 111.9. Their veterans have to get back to playing their best basketball without the help of LeBron. Kevin Love and other veterans have to stay healthy all season long, which hasn’t happened in the last few seasons.
They need to get off to a good start in the first half of the season. If not they might look to trade some of their more expensive veterans such as George Hill, Kyle Korver, or even Love. Even if all that happens they need some other players to play drastically better than expected. Sexton, Osman, or even Rodney Hood need to play up to their potential to help this team offensively.