So, our long summer of speculation is over. Kevin Love is a Cleveland Cavalier.
The Cavs have now gone from a moribund and frankly not very interesting mediocre team that couldn’t even sniff the playoffs in a horrifically bad conference to the newest iteration of the NBA “super team” ideal, and they’ve done all that in just over three months. Gone are Luol Deng and Spencer Hawes. In their places are LeBron James and Kevin Love.
What a difference three months makes.
Minnesota comes out of this looking pretty good themselves, but I’ll save the fawning over their potential for another time. The Cavs will compete for a title right away and for the foreseeable future, so let’s talk about that.
First and foremost, the Cavs are going to score the crap out of the ball. We don’t necessarily know what kind of offense David Blatt will install, but Cleveland has plenty of shooting and thus will probably mimic much of what the Miami Heat did over the last four years. Love is basically the best possible version of the role Shane Battier and Rashard Lewis played in Miami — a shooter who can bang with the big boys defensively and save LeBron the wear and tear while allowing him to work in the post offensively. Kyrie Irving is basically Dwyane Wade offensively if you substitute shooting for post proficiency. Mike Miller and James Jones are Mike Miller and James Jones.
Now, clearly, the question is defense. LeBron is still LeBron, but he wasn’t himself defensively last year, and it’s not clear whether that was a lack of effort or diminishing ability. Anderson Varejao is a solid defender, but he has major injury concerns. Shawn Marion is 36. Kyrie is generally a horrible defender. Love is a lot better than his reputation suggests, but he’s probably not much better than average on his best days. Mike Miller and James Jones are Mike Miller and James Jones.
So, they’re going to give up tons and tons of points, right? Not necessarily. It is possible to defend capably without elite defenders. Look at Kevin Love’s former team, the Minnesota Timberwolves. Last year, they finished tied for 14th in Defensive Rating, per NBA.com, despite their best defenders being Ricky Rubio and Corey Brewer. The Charlotte Bobcats finished 6th in DRtg despite starting Kemba Walker, Josh McRoberts and Al Jefferson. If you can put together a solid system and populate it with smart players who know where to be, you can get away with poor defenders.
Obviously, it helps to have elite defensive talent. The Bobcats had Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who is already one of the best wing defenders in the league despite his youth. But again, the Cavs do have LeBron. So, assuming his substandard 2014 performance was about effort and not ability, maybe the Cavs will be fine.
It’s also worth noting that we shouldn’t pretend the Cavs would have been amazing defensively before acquiring Love. Andrew Wiggins projects as a defensive force, but he almost certainly won’t be very good this year. Rookies almost always struggle to adjust to the speed of the NBA and the more complex systems that they’re being asked to learn. And Anthony Bennett probably wouldn’t be any better defensively than Love even under the most optimistic projections. The Cavs were going to struggle to defend with or without Love.
So where does that leave Cleveland? Well, they’re definitely the best team in the East on paper, though they’re a clear step down from the Spurs and Thunder, and probably the Clippers. My guess is that they’ll finish second in the East during the regular season — Tom Thibodeau lives for winning the regular season and he’ll probably do so as long as Derrick Rose stays mostly healthy — but will be in good shape come the playoffs and make the Finals.
Hopefully, after waiting for the sequel to the 2011 Bulls-Heat Eastern Conference Finals these past few years, we’ll be rewarded with a Cavs-Bulls ECF this year that pits the Bulls nigh-impenetrable defense against the Cavs’ offense.
This season is going to be fun. I wish it would get here already.