His prediction turned out to be correct – the Cleveland Cavaliers did not win the championship. Objectively, 2014-15 was still the best season in the history of the franchise. They made it to the NBA Finals for just the second time, won a Finals game for the first time, and came within two wins of bringing the city of Cleveland its first professional sports championship since 1964.
Despite all of that – and despite LeBron’s efforts to temper expectations before the season began – it felt like the Cavs missed an opportunity. With Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love sidelined for much of the postseason, the championship-starved fans of Northeast Ohio were left to wonder what might have been.
This season, there’s no doubt about the expectation for the Cavs: championship or bust. Here are five storylines to keep an eye on as James and company once again attempt to exorcise Cleveland’s sports demons.
1. Will year two with David Blatt at the helm be smoother than year one?
It was a bit of a surprise when owner Dan Gilbert and GM David Griffin tapped Blatt – who had been hugely successful overseas but had never worked in the NBA in any capacity – to be the team’s new coach after the disappointing 2013-14 season. For a team that had nowhere to go but up, it was worth taking a shot.
His inaugural season did not always go well. There seemed to be a disconnect between Blatt and LeBron from day one, and it lasted all the way through the Finals. Reasonable people can disagree about who was at fault for their rocky relationship, but either way, it probably won’t be allowed to persist for another season. Either Blatt and LeBron will figure things out, or the Cavs will get a new coach.
Other than the drama with his star player, Blatt’s first season in the league was mostly a success. He did have one near-disaster in the final moments of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, when he attempted to call a timeout his team didn’t have. But otherwise, he did a nice job of being a steady hand during a season that was often tumultuous.
Blatt is a very smart man, and it will be interesting to see how he uses his experience from last season to approach this season.
2. Can Blatt get LeBron some rest during the regular season?
One of the main criticisms of Blatt early last season centered on the number of minutes James was playing. Before departing on his two-week hiatus in late December, LeBron was averaging 39 minutes per game, which would have been his highest average since 2009-10, when he turned 25
To Blatt’s credit, those high minute totals didn’t last; LeBron ended up averaging 36.1 minutes in 69 games. He was fresh enough in the playoffs to do everything the team needed him to do. He probably wore down by the end, but only because he didn’t have very much help down the stretch.
With Irving’s status for the start of the season uncertain, it will be a challenge to keep LeBron’s minutes down. But James – whose back began acting up in preseason – turns 31 in December, so it is as important as ever. Great athletes’ bodies always betray them faster than anyone expects.
3. Can the LeBron-Kyrie-Love trio reach its full potential?
On paper, these three players look unstoppable. In practice, they didn’t always mesh perfectly. James and Irving struggled to learn to play off of each other early on, and Love never seemed comfortable in the role the team put him in. Due to injuries, the three didn’t get a ton of time on the court together.
But they certainly showed flashes. When they were all on the floor together, the Cavs outscored their opponents by 12.6 points per 100 possessions. In the playoffs, they looked like they were really clicking just before Boston’s Kelly Olynyk pulled Love’s arm out of its socket in the first round.
In their second season together, the trio look to play up to their enormous potential more consistently.
4. Will the Cavs be a deeper team this season?
Gone are the aging Mike Miller, Shawn Marion and Kendrick Perkins. In their place, the team added the somewhat younger Richard Jefferson, Mo Williams and Sasha Kaun, a 30-year-old Russian big man who has spent his career playing in Moscow. Forward-center Anderson Varejao, who missed most of last season, will attempt to come back from a torn Achilles tendon.
Despite being 35, Jefferson may be able to provide as much help on the wing as Miller and Marion did last season – a pretty low bar. Williams should be a solid upgrade as a backup to Irving. Remember, Matthew Dellavedova started games in the NBA Finals when Irving was hurt. Adding Williams should allow Dellavedova to fit into his more natural role: a defensive pest off the bench for about 10-12 minutes per night.
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Between Kaun and Varejao, there should be pretty decent depth behind the main big man rotation of Love, center Timofey Mozgov and forward Tristan Thompson – should he ever come to a contract agreement. With wings J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and James Jones all back, the Cavs should be a little bit deeper than they were last season.
Of course, none of these players will decide who wins the title. What really matters will be whether Irving and Love can stay on the court to give LeBron the help he needs come playoff time.
5. Will key players stay healthy when it counts?
The NBA Finals last June turned out to be the Golden State Warriors against LeBron James, who was pretty much on his own. Love missed every playoff game after the first round and Irving missed five of the six Finals games. If the Cavs are going to win it all, they will likely need both of those guys healthy this May and June.
There’s really not much the team can do to make that happen other than keeping their minutes down during the regular season and being very cautious with them if an injury arises. Both players have pretty lengthy injury histories. The Cavs just have to hope they don’t suffer any when the games really start to matter.
In Las Vegas, the Cavs are currently the favorite to win the title. Those odds presume they will be fully healthy. In sports, presuming health is always a risky proposition. And Thompson’s holdout could become an issue both on and off the court.
But if the Cavs are healthy, a championship is the only outcome that can be considered a success. A year ago, LeBron said they weren’t ready. They should be ready now.