by Anthony Lima
Listen to Anthony on The Ken Carman Show with Anthony Lima, weekdays from 6 am-10 am
The Cavaliers are three days away from media day, and from beginning their NBA title defense. The 2016-17 campaign can best be boiled down to whether or not the champs can overtake a Warriors team that added arguably the second best player in the game in Kevin Durant. But for gamblers, as always, there’s so much more out there in the way of intrigue, as Vegas as released the over/under totals for the season and the Cavs number is at 56.5. That’s a full ten games behind Golden State Warriors.
At first blush, it seems insane the defending champs and the team – that if you haven’t heard by now — came back from a 3-1 deficit to overtake the record-setting 73-win Warriors are projected at 56.5 wins. But one thing we learned about the NBA last year, is that while the Warriors were dead set on chasing and capturing history, the Cavs were largely in chill mode for most of the regular season, winning 57 games and causing just about everyone outside of Cleveland to think they were playing for second place.
To put the Cavs projected total in perspective, LeBron-led teams have won 57, 53 and 54 games respectively. Last season, Westgate had the Cavs locked in at 57.5 (a losing ticket), while other books had them at few games lower. As you can see, Vegas typically has a pretty solid handle on the majority of these teams and without playing the vaunted “Cavs Schedule Game.” Every team has a specific amount of “trap games” and unwinnable back-to-backs at the end of a cross country road trip. Every team prays every year that they don’t have venture to Utah on a second night of a back to back or go up to altitude in Denver at the end of a trip. The schedule can, at times, become very predictable. Or, you can just hope you get about 35 cracks at Philadelphia and then you’re really set.
So what would it take the Cavs to bypass the 56.5-win threshold? First and foremost, they have to learn to win without LeBron James. Life without LeBron will become more of a reality in the final act of his career, as the organization finally comes to grips with the fact they’ll need a Spurs-like maintenance program designed to lengthen his career. One problem with that; the Wine and Gold are just 4-14 in games without LeBron James, vastly different from the Heat, who figured out how to win games with LeBron sidelined. Whether it was David Blatt or Ty Lue, the Cavs offense has been so predicated on all things LeBron (and how could you blame them) that they almost waved the white flag without him in the lineup.
They”ll also need Kevin Love to be Kevin Love. While my tweet during the NBA Finals about the Cavs losing the Love the trade didn’t go so well once they came back to win the title with Love actually locking up the league’s MVP and proving his worth on the boards in Game 7, we can’t forget that he was benched in a few Finals fourth quarters because of his ineffectiveness. Maybe the championship changes things for Love, whose skill has never been questioned. But at times, his confidence has been questioned. Maybe this year he develops into more of a versatile offense threat, and not just a corner three-point shooter. Maybe he finds his post game that has eluded him since he discovered dieting and form-fitting size ‘smedium’ shirts.
Then there’s Kyrie Irving, whose now iconic dagger three over Steph has vaulted him into super-stardom. Who’s had a better summer than Kyrie? He finally validated all the commercials and shoe deals with a star moment that’ll never be forgotten. Not to mention his heroics in Rio, where there were times he was the guy a team of stars was looking at in big moments. Simply put, if Irving can carry the load on nights where LeBron decides he’s in ultimate chill mode, Kyrie can “flip the switch” and be the best player on the floor.
There are some question marks surrounding the roster right now, but nothing that is impossible to overcome. The loss of Matthew Dellavedova leaves them a void at backup point guard, or at least a dependable one. Mo Williams says he’ll be back and Dan Gilbert spent $2.4 million on the rights to draft Kay Felder, a 5’9” combo guard who showed a knack to finish among the towers during summer league. They also still don’t have J.R. Smith under contract yet, but given his lack of offers around the league, and his agent’s connection with LeBron James, it seems like a foregone conclusion that he’ll be settling in at some point around camp time.
There’s also a pair of intriguing additions to the team this season, despite their maxed-out cap season. Chris Andersen only played in 27 games last season, but may have just enough in the tank to spell Tristan Thompson, and partially make up for the loss in Timofey Mozgov. The Cavs under-the-radar move that could potentially pay the most dividends is the addition of Mike Dunleavy, who even at 36, shot the three ball at almost 40% last season. He’ll get more open threes then ever before in an offense surrounded by LeBron, Kyrie and Love.
So even if the ‘LeBron Maintenance Program’ is ratcheted up this year … even if he goes into chill mode and starts throwing his teammates under the bus on Instagram … even if Ty Lue is replaced by David Blatt around the holidays … even if Delonte West is brought back to become the backup point guard … even if Jim Chones is about all they have left by the end of the season as a rim protector … the Cavs will win at least 57 games. And you’ll be thanking me when you’re at the window waiting for the stacks of cash to come your way.
And if not? Well, you’ll at least get a few free drink tickets out of the wager. And I’ll be on a boat in the Mediterranean with David Blatt.