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.

Cavs MLK Loss to Warriors Creates Doubt Over Contender Status

cavs-in-troubleThe Cleveland Cavaliers suffered a 118-108 home loss to the Golden State Warriors on Monday. And afterward, several players on the team talked about the growing concern that they may not be able to fix their problems and compete for a championship.

ESPN’s Dave McMenamin reports that multiple players have concerns about their aging roster, redundant (3-point shooting) role players, and lack of defense.

All this has been evident in an up-and-down season for Cleveland, who started off 5-7, before winning 18 of their next 19 games. However, they’ve now lost nine of their past 12 contests, including the demoralizing loss to the warriors.

One might say that this is only a single game. But the loss to Golden State now drops Cleveland to 1-6 against the top three teams in both conferences. Their only victory against such an opponent was a win against Boston after Gordon Hayward broke his ankle.

Defense is the Biggest Problem

Last year, the Cavs were a poor defensive team that finally got better in the postseason. But this year, they’re absolutely dreadful, ranking 29th in defensive efficiency. They allow 109.3 points per 100 possessions.

In the last 20 years, no NBA team that’s finished in the bottom two in defensive efficiency has made the playoffs, let alone the NBA Finals.

If Cleveland continues at this rate, they’ll become the first such team to make the playoffs. After all, their offense has been good enough to give them a 26-17 record. But it’s highly unlikely that they can get through the Eastern Conference playing such bad defense.

Cavs Blew Lead Over Warriors

Despite the current discontent in the Cleveland locker room, they didn’t play too badly against the team with the league’s best record. In fact, the Cavs were actually leading by seven points at halftime.

But the Warriors turned on the jets from here, outscoring Cleveland 61-44 in the second half. The fourth quarter was a specially damming, given that Cleveland shot just 26.1% (6-for-23) from the floor.

While this was definitely a tough loss to take, LeBron James found solace in the fact the team put in a strong effort.

“It seemed like the rim just got smaller and smaller,” said James. “Like our effort tonight. If we continue on that, going into our next few games, then I like where we are.”

Still Room for Improvement

isaiah-thomas-cavs-warriorsThe first time Cleveland played Golden State, they didn’t have the services of Tristan Thompson (calf) and Isaiah Thomas (hip). But both players were on the court against the Warriors this time around. And they couldn’t make a big enough difference to swing the tide in Cleveland’s favor.

Nevertheless, there’s still some improvement to be made here. This is especially the case when considering that Thomas, has only been back for five games, played his most minutes (32) last night.

“I just want him to take the shots that are given to him,” said Cleveland Coach Tyronn Lue. “Not forcing shots, but if someone, whoever is on the team that can shoot the basketball, if they’re open 21 times, then take your shots. It’s not about the amount of shots, it’s the amount of good shots. If they’re your shots then you’ve got to be ready to take them.”

Thomas has drawn a lot of comparisons to Boston Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving, who was involved in the trade that sent Thomas to Cleveland. Right now, Irving and the Celtics hold the number one spot in the East, while Cleveland is currently fielding questions about their team chemistry.

However, it’s a little unfair to compare the two right now when considering that Thomas is still trying to get into the swing of things.

“[It could take me] 15 to 20 games or maybe a month,” Thomas said in regard to getting “back to the level that [I am] used to playing at.”

Rose and Shumpert Currently Out

Guards Derrick Rose and Iman Shumpert are currently out with injuries. And they’ll add to the rotation when they’re healthy enough to return.

Of course, they could also further complicate a rotation that’s already in disarray. After all, Lue still has yet to figure out a lineup that can both score and shut down opposing offenses.

Cavs Trade Coming?

derrick-rose-lebronCleveland isn’t getting any younger. And there’s no defensive help on the way either. The Cavs will play better around the postseason – like always – but will it be enough?

Kevin Love can’t protect the rim when he plays center, Thomas is a defensive liability, and the rest of the roster is past its defensive peak.

Offensively, Cleveland doesn’t have a clear playmaker when LeBron sits. Thomas could be this when he’s healthy. But what happens when both sit?

Dwyane Wade, Rose, and Jose Calderon aren’t elite playmakers, while J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver are merely spot-up shooters. Then you have Jae Crowder, who’s having his worst season in years.

The important thing to remember here is that Cleveland is still 26-17 and looking like a middle seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, at worst.

But they certainly don’t look like any real challenger to the Warriors. They might not even be good enough to make it out of the East. And this would be a first within the past four years.

This is why GM Koby Altman might make a big trade before the deadline. I discussed the potential scenario where they acquire center DeAndre Jordan from the Clippers. But this would mean that they’d have to give up the Nets’ 2018 first-round pick.

Word now is that they want to keep it in case LeBron bolts in free agency. But the players would no doubt like to see Altman use this asset to better the team, especially with what’s going on now.

Cleveland still has over three months before the playoffs begin to get things right. That said, it’ll be interesting to see if they can swing a good trade or find a really effective lineup before then.

Isaiah Thomas Out until All-Star Break? Derrick Rose Gains More Importance

The Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics recently completed a blockbuster trade, where Kyrie Irving is going to the Celtics, while Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 first-round pick, and a 2020 second-round pick go to the Cavs.

Some hailed this as a win for Cleveland because they got a lot after Irving demanded a trade. But the Cavaliers stalled before finalizing the deal due to Thomas’ hip injury.

Cleveland claims that the timetable for Thomas is longer than they expected. And according to The Athletic’s Jason Lloyd, the 5’8″ point guard may not be available until after the All-Star Break:

“No one is willing to put a timeline on when Thomas might return to the court. The fact he isn’t running yet certainly is not a good sign. One source with experience dealing with the type of hip problems Thomas is facing predicted it could be January or even the All-Star break before Thomas returns to game action. That doesn’t leave much time for a new player to establish chemistry and rhythm with a team trying to compete for a championship.”

Lloyd continued by stating that Isaiah Thomas wasn’t Cleveland’s main object because they’re unsure over LeBron James’ future with the team. Here’s more:

isaiah-thomas-celtics“Thomas was never the focal point of these negotiations from the Cavs’ perspective, one source with knowledge of the talks told The Athletic. From the start, the Cavs made clear to the Celtics that James’ uncertain status beyond this season left them prioritizing restocking the cupboards in the event he leaves again. Cavs owner Dan Gilbert remains fixated on James’ future, one source told The Athletic. Had he gotten James to commit beyond this season, this Irving trade might have looked drastically different.

“Instead, Gilbert and general manager Koby Altman focused on a future that might or might not include the best player in franchise history. Now they will have to explain to James why trading for a wounded and undersized point guard, a good wing defender in Jae Crowder, an unknown big man and a couple of draft picks makes them better positioned to compete for a championship this season than they were…”

Thomas Claims that He’s not “Damaged”

Thomas may not have been the focal point of the Irving trade, but he can certainly help the Cavs win now. After all, he averaged 28.9 points per game last season. But now he finds himself defending his ability to come back from this injury.

“I am not damaged,” Thomas told ESPN. “I’ll be back, and I’ll be the same player.”

kyrie-irving-isaiah-thomasOdds are that Cleveland had a fair idea on the extent of Thomas’ injury, given that it occurred during the Conference Finals against them. Many believe that they used the injury as leverage after the deal was announced to get more from the Boston Celtics. That said, it’s not impossible to see Thomas coming back and being a strong player again.

“There’s never been an indication that I wouldn’t be back, and there’s never been an indication that this is something messing up my career,” Thomas said. “Maybe I am not going to be back as soon this season as everyone wants me to be, but I’m going to be back, and I’m going to be the same player again. No doctor has told me anything different than that.”

The 28-year-old is in the final year of his current deal and wants to make over $100 million in the 2018 free agency period. He did everything to make this happen last year, leading the Boston Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals and making All-NBA second team.

But now he must prove that he can still be the same impactful player after injuring his hip.

“[A doctor] told me, ‘I have seen hips worse than yours with guys who played at a high level and had great careers,'” Thomas explained. “At the moment, yes, I am injured, but I have made progress from May.”

Derrick Rose should Play an Important Role

derrick-rose-clevelandWhen Derrick Rose signed with the Cavaliers in July, it was looked at as a marginal deal that would give Cleveland depth.

He was set to back up Irving, who is coming off another stellar All-Star campaign. Now, Rose will be stepping into a starting point guard role for the defending Eastern Conference champions.

It’s unclear how Rose will mesh with the Cavs’ offense because he’s more of a scorer and rim-finisher. Cleveland has mostly surrounded LeBron with three-point shooters who are good at playing off the ball.

Rose is neither of these things, especially a three-point shooter. He shot a career-low 21.7% from beyond the three-point line.

Nevertheless, the former league MVP averaged 18.0 points and shot 47% from the field last year for the New York Knicks. And he’s a more-than-adequate fill-in while Thomas sits for an uncertain amount of time.

What does Thomas do for the Cavs’ 2018 Odds?

isaiah-thomas-celticsOn paper, there’s not a great disparity between Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas. One could even make the argument that Thomas is better at rising to the challenge when considering Thomas’ fourth-quarter heroics.

But all of these arguments are a moot point when considering that Thomas is injured. Since he likely won’t play for months, Cleveland’s record will suffer.

When Thomas does return, it’ll take time to get him back to full speed. He’ll also need to mesh with his teammates on court so everybody is playing with good chemistry.

This may not happen in half a season. But Cleveland is still favored to win the East going into the 2018 campaign. The reason why is because LeBron is at the top of his game for the foreseeable future.

But as for if the Cavs are on pace to usurp the Golden State Warriors, nobody sees this happening any time soon. They were thoroughly handled by the Warriors in the NBA Finals and don’t look to be any better after the trade.