Are the Cavaliers Even Better This Year?
Before the 2016 NBA Finals, Cleveland has not seen a major sporting championship since 1964. The pain and suffering attached to over 50-years of failure is something Cleveland fans understand all to well. You do not have to travel to one of the most remote townships in Ohio to find a sports fan who can tell you how difficult winning a championship.
If the journey was easy, why bother? But to repeat as champions, that same journey’s difficulty increases mightily and no one knows that bet than Cavaliers superstar, LeBron James.
In the NBA in particular, a team has to be at the very pinnacle of the game with minimal flaws, enough star-power, chemistry, good coaching, and even a good amount of luck to just win one lone title. A lot of factors go into winning a championship when competing against 29-other teams and over-300 of the greatest basketball players and athletes in the world. Winning another one just becomes that much harder once the metaphorical target is on your back.
Last season that target was on the back of the Warriors, the record-breaking 73-win team that each team was salivating at the bit to get a shot at. This year, the target still remains on the Warriors after they acquired Kevin Durant, but more so in the Eastern Conference, every team wants to take down the reigning NBA champion Cavaliers.
A team that may just be even better than they were in their championship-winning season.
The 2016-17 Cleveland Cavaliers brought back ten members of their 2015-16 championship roster. The team chemistry, especially after a title win only grows and its visible on the floor. Offensively, the Cavs rank fourth in the league at points per game (110.0) as opposed to eighth last season (104.3) and although defensively they slipped from fourth (98.3) to 11th (103.2), the Cavaliers have a slightly better point differential this year than they had in 2015-16 (+6.8 in 2016-17, +6.0 in 2015-16).
But there is more to the 2016-17 Cleveland Cavaliers than what the simple statistics show. Yes, James is still around putting up ridiculous numbers and Kyrie Irving may just be the second best player in the conference, maybe even the most clutch performer in the game. But surprisingly enough, the Cavaliers have no edge over last season’s team only because James is averaging 26/8/8, or because Uncle Drew is putting up 24 and six on the season.
The answer to what makes this Cavs team special lies elsewhere.
Of course, something must be said for Kevin Love’s vast improvement. A former All-Star who constantly looked out of touch and out of place is now one of the major reasons for the Cavaliers ascent. Love has averaged 16.2-points, and 9.8-boards per game while shooting just over 36% from three-point range in his first two seasons in Cleveland. Defensively, he was a mess. He was soft and looked like a player who couldn’t find a role in the system run by the Cavaliers coaching staff. The large contract extension handed to him looked almost ludicrous.
This season, the real Kevin Love is here. Averaging 22-points and 12-boards per game, while shooting the three at a 40% clip, Love has reverted back to the player the Cavaliers traded a former number one overall pick for.
Speaking of the three, the entire Cavaliers team is shooting the three at a better percentage than last season (38.8% in 2016-17, 36.2% in 2015-16), a percentage that will only increase as Kyle Korver joins the fray. 38.8% ranks the Cavaliers third in the league, just a tick under the Toronto Raptors, but nearly a percent higher than their predicted NBA Finals foes, the Golden State Warriors.
The Cavaliers have an abundance of riches. The winning formula to achieve a repeat – they have it.
When constructing a championship-worthy roster, a team needs established superstars, which the Cavs have in Kyrie and LeBron. The next step is not surrounding them with the best players possible, but filling in the spots with players who can feed off the superstars’ strengths.
In Irving’s case it’s more isolation work. Big man who can work with Irving in a pick-n-roll offence or just move out of the way and let Irving operate. For that, the Cavs have Tristan Thompson and he fits flawlessly.
Moreover, the team blends in with James. No matter how high up the all-time scoring list James climbs, his greatest asset will always be his court vision. There is no one in basketball’s history outside of maybe Magic Johnson who has the gift that James has. That being said, the Cavs have surrounded James with Korver, Channing Frye, Love, J.R. Smith, Jordan McRae, even James Jones – all shooters, who can hit three-pointers at will.
The Cavs do not have the high profile shooters that the Warriors have, but the Cavaliers with their quick ball movement, stretchy front court, proven marksmen, and LeBron in the middle of everything can shoot any team out of the gym on any given day.
If a game calls for a shootout, teams like the Warriors will surely not back down, but what the Cavs are doing is getting stronger defensively as well and they can credit one of the least talked about players for just that.
DeAndre Liggins, a two-time D-League Defensive Player of the Year, has stepped into a starting role since Smith went down with a hand injury and yet again, the Cavaliers have caught lightning in a bottle.
As part of the starting units, the Cavaliers are now massacring their opposition. In just over 88-minute of floor time, the Cavs are outscoring the opposition at a +49.2 net rating, which is simply ridiculous as opposed to the +11.4 net rating with Smith in the starting line up. Liggins provides a Tony Allen-like presence that with a player of the calibre of LeBron already on the court, scoring turns into a premium for any opponent.
Whether or not Liggins is relegated to the bench now that Korver is in the fold, the Cavaliers are loaded with players who can help the team win in a multitude of ways. Whether its with high volume marksmanship, defensive toughness, or letting their superstars close out the deal, the Cavaliers are well assembled to repeat as champions.
The entire league is on notice.