Star-studded Cavs eyeing another title
CLEVELAND — Before LeBron James sat down for a 45-minute news conference in which he took a few swipes at Kyrie Irving, President Trump and temporarily quieted the drumbeat about his future, the superstar succinctly summarized Cleveland’s offseason.
“Long summer,” he said. “Really long summer.”
And really stormy.
It’s hard to recall any team as accomplished as the Cavaliers, three-time defending Eastern Conference champions, enduring anything close to what happened to them after losing to Golden State in the NBA Finals.
The general manager left. Irving asked to be traded. The roster was overhauled, facilitated by a blockbuster trade with Boston and the signings of a former league MVP and future Hall of Famer.
Other than that, it was pretty quiet.
But while Cleveland’s core stayed the same, the Cavs look like an entirely different team, perhaps a better one and certainly one capable of winning another title.
The Cavs are new and improved, and following a recent practice, James said he hasn’t quite gotten used to Cleveland’s influx of talent — Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, Isaiah Thomas, Jeff Green and Jose Calderon — now playing with him, Kevin Love, J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver, Iman Shumpert and Tristan Thompson.
“It’s still surreal,” he said.
It’s still to be determined if the changes will help Cleveland close the gap on the Warriors. But the Cavs remain the team to beat in the top-heavy East, where the path to a possible championship is still much easier than in the wild West.
When Irving approached Cavs owner Dan Gilbert and asked to be traded so he could get out of James’ shadow, it set in motion a series of events that couldn’t have been imagined.
Koby Altman took over as general manager for the departed David Griffin in July, then Cleveland signed Rose to a one-year, $2.1 million contract. Rose averaged 18.0 points in 64 games last season for New York. The Cavs then worked out their monster deal with the Celtics, shipping the disgruntled Irving to their closest conference rival for Thomas, Crowder, center Ante Zizic and a 2018 first-round pick — an asset they can use to add a piece during the season or get a prospect if James leaves next summer.
James then got personally involved and did some high-pressure recruiting to bring in Wade, his close friend, former Miami running mate and a player who has always brought out the best in him.
The All-Stars have aligned in Cleveland, where a powerhouse has grown stronger.
Nothing is certain, but James, perhaps unburdened with Irving no longer around, isn’t worried about personality clashes getting in the way of goals.
“When guys signed here and wanted to come here, we all know what we’re here for,” said James, who will attempt to get to his eighth straight Finals. “So, there’s no ego. The only ego is to bring your game, which these guys know how to do. We all have a common goal so none of that other stuff matters.”
AGENT OF CHANGE?: James can opt out of his contract following the season, and Cleveland fans are already on edge. The 32-year-old said his intentions to finish his career at home haven’t changed, but that won’t stop unrestrained speculation and rumors about him leaving for Los Angeles or elsewhere.
ON POINT: Thomas is beginning the season sidelined by a back injury that prematurely ended his ’16 postseason, but the All-Star guard, who averaged 28 points for the Celtics last season, has made significant progress and is expected to be playing in games by the end of December. He gives Cleveland yet another proven scorer, playmaker and late-game option.
OPENING NIGHT: As fate would have it, Irving returns to Cleveland for the season opener on Oct. 17, a matchup with a postseason pulse. Irving wanted the stage for himself. He’s got it and every one of his on-court interactions with James, who has been slowed by an ankle injury, will be documented — and interpreted — with exacting detail.
LUE’S CHALLENGE: Cavs coach Tyronn Lue controls playing time and it’s up to him to maximize the contributions while keeping everyone happy with their minutes. He’s already settled on his starting lineup — Rose, Wade, James, Crowder and Love — but it could change numerous times over the next six months.
WHOLE LOTTA LOVE: Love has moved from power forward back to center, where he played in Minnesota. Love’s ability to make 3-pointers will force defenses away from the basket, opening space and lanes for James and Rose.