Before the start of the 2018-19 NBA regular season for the Cleveland Cavaliers held their annual media day. But, this year’s media day was a lot different compared to year’s past for Cleveland. Swingman JR Smith summed it up best by simply saying, “The congregation got smaller, huh?” Even though it seemed like a joke, Smith was actually serious.
Earlier in the summer, LeBron James decided to leave Cleveland for Hollywood and join the Los Angeles Lakers. With James gone, the media circus also followed him and mostly local reporters were in attendance for Cleveland’s media day. But, even with James taking a lot of drama that plagued Cleveland last year, he also took much more with him as well.
Heading into the regular season, Vegas projects the Cavaliers to only win roughly 30 games, which is twenty less than last season. A lot of that can be credited to losing James, arguably the greatest player of all time. That and the Eastern Conference is a lot better compared to Cleveland’s four year run of dominance. The Boston Celtics, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Toronto Raptors have all squarely placed themselves in the upper echelons of the East, and they no longer fear Cleveland. Again, this is due to losing James and his exit has caused many to sour on the 2016 NBA Champions.
Well, if anyone were to visit the Cavaliers during training camp at Cleveland Clinic Courts, the team would think otherwise. Even though they lost James, the Cavaliers have been carrying themselves with a certain swagger. During day three of camp veteran big man Tristan Thompson said Boston, Philadelphia and Toronto still have to prove themselves, not Cleveland:
“We’re still four-time Eastern Conference champions, so until you take us down from that, teams ain’t got much to say,” Thompson said. “Boston, Philly, they ain’t got much to say. Boston had home court in Game 7 and lost. Philly, you guys almost got swept. Toronto — we already know that story. So, until someone takes us down, there’s not much they can really say.”
That soundbite Thompson gave to the media really does perfectly embody the overall message the Cavaliers have been following. Earlier this summer, general manager Koby Altman said that the Cavaliers were not going to tank and instead still contend for the playoffs. Head coach Tyronn Lue shared the same sentiment during media day. But, Lue also expressed some sanity by acknowledging that the Cavaliers would be a lot different after losing James and that this season is not about wins and losses but rather “wins and lessons”.
With James gone, the Cavaliers will likely learn a few tough lessons. But, everything is not lost for Cleveland. Even though they are maxed out salary-wise with $121 million committed to players, Altman was able to make a few financially savvy moves to help the team succeed. Altman was able to bring in Sam Dekker via trade and signed David Nwaba and Channing Frye to team-friendly contracts. The team was also able to bring back Rodney Hood on his qualifying offer of $3.4 million. These moves, along with drafting Collin Sexton and bringing back most of their roster from last season, make the Cavaliers an attractive team on paper.
But, even if on paper everything looks great for the Cavaliers, it matters how Lue and the coaching staff utilize the talent. Thankfully, it appears they are taking steps in the right direction. The Cavaliers want to play at a faster pace this season, which utilizes a lot of their newly-acquired talent. They also want to play a lot less of isolation-oriented basketball, which was their bread and butter with James. Instead, they will likely use a more motion-based offense that relies on playing at a faster pace. Last season, the Cavaliers played at the sixth-fastest pace and had a dynamic offense. If they improve that pace the sky’s the limit for the squad.
In the end, a lot of people are doubting the Cavaliers after losing James this summer. The Cavaliers are well aware of that doubt and are only using it as motivation. The team personally believes that they are the team to beat since they are the defending four-time Eastern Conference Champions. Being a sure-fire lock for the NBA Finals is tough with James gone, but the Cavaliers on paper do have the talent to make some noise in the East this season. Now the Cavaliers just have to back up the attitude of Cleveland vs. The World on the court this season.