After losing in six games to the Golden State Warriors in the 2015 NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers began last season with the same goal: win the title. What made things tough in the first season of LeBron James’ return to his home state franchise was poor health, with Kevin Love going down in the first round of the 2015 NBA Playoffs and Kyrie Irving being lost in Game 1 of that year’s Finals. There were no such issues in 2015-16, and Irving’s three-pointer late in Game 7 capped the first comeback from a three games to one deficit in NBA Finals history.
Now having won the city’s first professional sports title since 1954, the Cavs are looking to repeat but the road will be a tough one. In addition to Golden State signing Kevin Durant, in the east both Toronto and Boston look to be credible challengers to Tyronn Lue’s team. But Cleveland will still be the favorites to return to the NBA Finals thanks to their “big three,” and when you have LeBron James winning another four games after reaching the finals isn’t a long shot either.
What will Cleveland get from their bench, especially with Matthew Dellavedova signing with Milwaukee? And will J.R. Smith, who’s yet to sign with anyone as a free agent, return to Cleveland? Those are the key questions that need answering as the Cavs begin training camp, but as long as this group remains healthy there’s a good chance that they’ll once again be playing into June.
Here’s a look at the roster:
Cavaliers Projected Starting Lineup
G: Kyrie Irving (19.6 ppg, 3.0 rpg 4.7 apg) If putting together a list of the best ball-handlers in the NBA, there’s a good chance that Irving is at the top of the list. A gifted offensive talent, Irving did a better job of balancing going for his offense and keeping the ball moving in his second season playing alongside LeBron James than he did in 2014-15. And after winning an Olympic gold medal this summer, Irving should be hungry to further cement his status as one of the best point guards in the NBA.
G: Iman Shumpert (5.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg) With Smith agreeing to a new deal October 14, it’s likely that Shumpert will be thrust into the starting two-guard role when the season begins. And if that is to work out for Cleveland, they need Shumpert to rebound from a disappointing 2015-16. While Shumpert was solid defensively, he shot just 37.4 percent from the field and 29.5 percent from three. Given Cleveland’s major scoring threats they don’t need Shumpert to be a prolific scorer, but they do need him to be consistent as a supplementary option.
F: LeBron James (25.3 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 6.8 apg) Yes Stephen Curry has won the last two Most Valuable Player awards. But if picking the best player in the NBA, which is different than “most valuable,” how can it be anyone but LeBron? At 6-foot-8, 260 pounds, James has the build of a Karl Malone but the athleticism of a player much smaller. Add in the basketball IQ, and Cleveland has a generational talent who now has won three NBA titles. As long as he’s in the fold, the Cavs will be a title contender.
F: Kevin Love (16.0 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 2.4 apg) Much was made about Love’s fit within the Cleveland offense, with some openly questioning whether or not the team would be better off without the power forward. But by season’s end it was clear that Love was a key figure for Cleveland, and that will once again be the case in 2016-17. Love shot just 41.9 percent from the field, a number that should improve with the increased comfort level with this team, and his offensive rating of 112 was one of the best on the team last season.
C: Tristan Thompson (7.8 ppg, 9.0 rpg) The Cavs don’t need much in the way of scoring from Thompson, who’s value is found in his abilities as a rebounder. And at 3.3 offensive rebounds per game, with an offensive rebounding percentage of 13.5 percent, Thompson is one of the best offensive rebounders in the NBA. That all being said, Cleveland would benefit from Thompson, who was a good defender, being more consistent as a rim protector this year.
Cavaliers Projected Bench
G: Kay Felder (Rookie) Felder’s on a guaranteed contract after being taken in the second round of this June’s NBA Draft, and his play in Las Vegas led to Cleveland signing him to a three-year deal. An explosive offensive player, Felder was a high-level player as both a scorer and distributor at Oakland University. And with Mo Williams announcing his retirement on Monday, Felder will be an important option off the bench.
G: J.R. Smith (12.4 ppg, 2.8 rpg) Smith agreed to a four-year, $57 million deal October 14, meaning that he’ll have less than two weeks between then and the Cavaliers’ season opener October 25 against the Knicks. That could keep him out of the starting lineup when the season starts, but after making 77 starts and being a factor both offensively and defensively during Cleveland’s title run it wouldn’t be a surprise if Smith was back in the starting lineup eventually.
G/F: James Jones (3.7 ppg) Jones played 9.6 minutes per game in 48 appearances last season, with his value coming in the intangibles department. Jones didn’t play much, and that will likely be the case again this season, but he’s a veteran who’s good in the locker room and helps the younger players understand what’s expected of them in all areas.
G/F Mike Dunleavy (7.2 ppg, 2.7 rpg) This is Dunleavy’s first season with Cleveland after spending the last three in Chicago, where he was primarily a starter. At 6-foot-7 Dunleavy can play either the two or the three, and with Smith not being signed it wouldn’t be a surprise if Dunleavy ended up starting. The question to be answered in that regard is whether or not Lue is sold on simply sliding Shumpert into the starting shooting guard role, or if there’s an open competition for the spot.
F: Richard Jefferson (5.5 ppg, 1.7 rpg) Jefferson isn’t as explosive athletically as he was earlier in his career, but he’s another veteran who’s accepted his role of providing defense and some occasional offense off the bench. Jefferson shot 45.8 percent from the field last year, and he’ll once again in be in a key bench role in 2016-17.
F: Channing Frye (7.5 ppg, 3.6 rpg) Frye’s late-season arrival from Orlando may have been overlooked when it happened, but his addition was key for Cleveland from a chemistry standpoint. Jefferson credited Frye with changing the team chemistry upon his arrival, with the team operating as one group as opposed to splintering off into cliques. There’s also Frye’s ability to step out and hit perimeter shots, which helps with Cleveland’s offensive spacing when he’s on the floor.
F/C: Chris Andersen (3.9 ppg, 3.6 rpg) The “Birdman,” who was a teammate of James’ in Miami, spent last season with both the Heat and the Grizzlies. His arrival in Cleveland gives the Cavaliers another active big man who will focus on defending and rebounding, but Anderson’s age (he turned 36 in July) is something that could open the door for a young big man to earn a spot on the roster.
Other Players in Cavaliers Training Camp
G Jordan McRae: McRae doesn’t have a guaranteed contract, but with Cleveland having just 11 guaranteed deals right now the numbers are in his favor when it comes to making the team. He played in 15 games for the Cavs last season, averaging 4.1 points per game.
G/F DeAndre Liggins: The 6-foot-6 Liggins hasn’t played in the NBA since 2013-14, but his abilities as a defender are what earned him the training camp invite and ultimately a spot on the opening night roster. Liggins beat out veteran Dahntay Jones for the spot.
Cavaliers Coaching Staff
Head coach: Tyronn Lue (Second season; 27-14 career record; 27-14 2015-16 record.)
Assistant coaches: Jim Boylan, Larry Drew, James Posey, Phil Handy, Mike Longabardi
UPDATE (10/3): Cleveland announced the signing of point guard Toney Douglas, and forward/center Eric Moreland was waived.
UPDATE (10/15): Cleveland and J.R. Smith agree to a four-year, $57 million deal. The Cavaliers waived point guard Toney Douglas.
UPDATE (10/20): Cleveland waived guard Markel Brown and forwards Jonathan Holmes and Cory Jefferson.
UPDATE (10/22): The Cavaliers announce that they have waived guard/forward John Holland.
UPDATE (10/24): The Cavaliers announce that they have waived guard Dahntay Jones.