Can Cavs Make Playoffs without LeBron in 2018-19?

kevin-love-knee-injury-impactLeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers this offseason as predicted. He led the Cavs to four straight NBA Finals appearances before his departure.

That said, Cleveland is unlikely to make a fifth-straight appearance in the post-LeBron days. Most analysts don’t expect them to even reach the playoffs. Assuming these predictions come true, the Cavs will be watching ping pong balls bounce in June for the first time since 2014.

But there is some reason to be excited for this year’s team. They have old holdovers from the LeBron era, including J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver, Kevin Love, and Tristan Thompson. The latter spoke to Cleveland.com on his team’s chances of making the postseason.

“We’re a playoff team. That’s realistic,” said Thompson. “Everyone that says playoffs is overachieving doesn’t know our squad and doesn’t believe in our squad.

“For us, we’re a playoff team. We just have to go out there, be ourself and prove the naysayers wrong, which we will.”

The East Presents a Chance to Make the Playoffs

Every team is obviously going to carry a playoff mindset into the season. But is there any substance to back up Thompson’s words?

The core of the team isn’t bad, especially in the lackluster Eastern Conference. Love should regain the role he played in Minnesota as a No. 1 option. Thompson and Larry Nance will serve a scrappy inside players. Smith, Korver, Rodney Hood, and Jordan Clarkson can supply offense on the perimeter.

jr-smith-clevelandRookie point guard Collin Sexton brings plenty of excitement to the roster. The No. 8 overall pick in last year’s draft should play a big role on this Cleveland team in his first season.

Realistically, though, this squad will need some luck in order to actually make the playoffs. They no longer have LeBron to create floor space and open shots.

Smith hasn’t played well ever since signing a new deal in 2016. Korver is still a great shooter, but he doesn’t create his own shot. Hood didn’t see the floor much until the last two games of the 2018 NBA Finals. Clarkson did see the floor, but he was awful in the postseason. Point guard George Hill looks like he’s already on the downside of his career.

Love is still an All-Star caliber forward who can shoot outside and play in the post. But he’s certainly no LeBron and has never proven capable of putting a weak team on his back. That said, Cleveland will still struggle to earn a playoff berth, even in the dilapidated East.

This could be a Throwaway Season for the Cavs

Many expected the Cavs to make a move in the offseason in order to bring in young talent. After all, they didn’t really figure to have much of a chance to compete for another title without King James.

Love was the obvious trade bait mentioned in the offseason. However, the team shocked everybody by signing him to a long-term deal instead. This signaled a willingness to try and compete despite the odds against them.

kyle-korver-cavsThere’s an obvious reason why Cleveland has chosen to compete rather than overhaul their roster: they don’t have much a choice.

The team is saddle-bagged with aging veterans on big contracts. Smith will be a good trade candidate next season, because the final year of his contract is only guaranteed for $3.8 million in 2019-20. But that doesn’t do Cleveland much good this year.

Nobody is going to trade for Thompson and his $17 million annual salary. Likewise, they’ll have to deal with Hill and his $20 million salary for one more season.

Rather than blow up the team in the offseason and combine rebuilding with disgruntled veterans, the team has simply chosen to compete in the 2018-19 campaign.

Sexton Will Be the Key

Pretty much everything on Cleveland’s roster is a known entity. The only way this changes is if some of the veterans like Smith and Hill play even worse in 2019. However, Sexton is the one unknown variable at this point.

collin-sexton-clevelandIf draft experts are correct, he could provide even more value than his No. 8 selection suggests. The 6’2″ point guard is a tough competitor who plays hard on both ends of the floor.

The problem, though, is that point guard is the toughest position to play as a rookie. Don’t expect Sexton to jump out of the gate and play like an All-Star. This is especially the case when considering that he shot 33% from the three-point line in college.

Nonetheless, he’ll have plenty of chances to learn the game on an under-talented Cleveland team. He’ll also serve as Hill’s understudy for the early part of the season (and potentially beyond).

Assuming Cleveland doesn’t make a serious push for the playoffs and Hill doesn’t do any better than last year, then Sexton might move into a starting role and establish himself as an important future piece.

Final Prediction on Cavs’ 2018-19 Season

Cleveland won 50 games last year and made the NBA Finals with James playing the best basketball of his career. That said, there’s no way Cleveland approaches 50 wins this season with virtually the same roster.

Odds are that they drop off between 15-20 games when compared to last year. They realistically project to win around 33-35 games.

But there’s always a chance that they rally around each other following years of success. Assuming everything goes right, they can compete for the final playoff spot in the East.

More than likely, though, the team is simply looking to get through this year and survive the bad contracts they have until next offseason.