Season 44 of Cleveland Cavalier basketball tips off tonight at 7:00 at The Q when the Wine and Gold host the new-look Brooklyn Nets. That much we know for sure. Beyond that, so much of this upcoming season is a mystery. But the nice thing about the unknown is that it can offer equal parts hope and excitement.
Hope is nothing new for Cleveland. People often mistakenly assume that Cleveland sports fans are miserable and hopeless. Well, we might be miserable, but for some reason we never let go of hope.
There was hope that the post-LeBron Cavaliers would still make a playoff run with the likes of Mo Williams, JJ Hickson, Antawn Jamison, and Daniel Gibson. There was hope that Byron Scott would bring a fresh, new, exciting brand of basketball to Cleveland. There was hope that Brandon Weeden in his 2nd year would make the leap into a competent QB and lead the Browns to a meaningful season. There was hope that an overachieving Indians team could ride their hot streak into the playoffs and make an improbable run at the World Series.
So maybe our hope isn’t paid off very often. But this unrequited hope is what makes Cleveland sports fans so great. And never is hope more abundant than on opening day of any season. None of this is new. I feel like every year on opening night I write about the hope of a new season and the quality of the unknown and blah, blah, blah. It’s all a fine sentiment, but all it’s ever done recently is precede a gut-wrenching season of miserable basketball.
This year truly is a little different, though. And I don’t mean that in a Tobias Fünke “…but it might work for us” kind of way1. No, there is something tangibly different about this season, and that difference is expectation.
Previous seasons offered plenty of hope without expectations. We all hoped Kyrie would be great his rookie season, but we didn’t necessarily expect it2. We hoped Dion Waiters would gel with Kyrie, we hoped the Cavs would be better in year 2, we hoped that Tristan Thompson would continue to develop and get better. But there were never any real expectations.
This year, there are expectations, and it’s something new that the Cavaliers are going to get to experience for the first time since 2010. We know expectations are real, but the trickier prospect is understanding just what those expectations are. Playoffs are the goal here. From Dan Gilbert to Nick Gilbert to Chris Grant to Mike Brown to Kyrie Irving, the message is clear and consistent….this is the season for the Cavaliers to return to the playoffs.
And so the fans’ hopes will be placed inside those expectations as we all prepare for the 82 game ride that’s about to embark. Yet one can’t help but wonder if that’s really where expectations truly lie. With so much unknown revolving around this team and this season, it would be easy to misplace expectations.
This year’s Cavalier team is unlike any other team I can recall. I can literally envision about 20 different scenarios playing out. As easy as it is to envision Anderson Varejao and Kyrie Irving getting hurt again, and Andrew Bynum never coming back to play, and Dion Waiters regressing and the Tristan Thompson experiment failing, leading to another 20 win season and lottery trip, it’s just as easy to envision Bynum truly being ready to come back soon, reclaiming some of his former self, Varejao resuming his great season that was cut short last year, Dion Waiters showing some of the sophomore SG leap, and Kyrie Irving morphing into one of the best players in the NBA, and the Cavaliers returning to the playoffs as a 6 seed.
Like pretty much everything in life, the answer will likely be somewhere in the middle. But there’s a lot of middle there to cover here. What actually happens this season will be secondary to the only result that seems to matter…making the playoffs. I truly hope the Cavaliers can do it. I hope everything works out as planned. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned just a little bit about the playoffs-or-bust mentality. That mentality has caused plenty of teams in previous seasons to panic and make boneheaded trades in the spirit of chasing their stated pre-season goal.
All I want out of this season is the same thing I’ve been dying to see the last couple years. Improvement. Steady, consistent effort and general improvement. If the pieces all work and fit together and this turns into a playoff team, great. But it is possible for the Cavaliers to improve and have a quality season without it culminating in a playoff birth. And I ‘d hate to see any room for future improvement be compromised for the sake of immediate gratification.
There’s plenty of time this year to worry about all that stuff, though. Today is about excitement and looking forward to the season that’s about to start. And that season begins tonight against the Nets, so what can we expect from this game?
In the post-LeBron era, the Cavaliers are actually 2-1 on opening nights. This opening night is going to be quite the challenge for the Cavaliers. Both teams come into this game looking considerably different from the teams who took the floor most nights last year.
The Nets come in with the additions of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry, Andrei Kirilenko, and Shaun Livingston, along with new head coach Jason Kidd. While Kidd will be serving his suspension from an old DWI case and Kirilenko is listed as doubtful with a back injury, Pierce and Garnett will be in the starting lineup. And that Nets starting lineup is, on paper, one of the absolute best starting lineups in the NBA. Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Brook Lopez will be a formidable test for the young Cavaliers.
The Cavaliers haven’t had much luck in recent years against the Nets. A team the Cavaliers used to dominate in the late 2000s, the Nets are now 10-2 in their last 12 against the Cavaliers. Lopez in particular has absolutely feasted on the Cavaliers’ poor interior defense. In his last 5 games against Cleveland, Lopez has put up 23.6 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks. In fact, in his 14 career games against Cleveland, he has only failed to score in double digits twice and has scored 20 or more in 7 of his last 11 games against the Cavaliers.
For the Cavaliers to win tonight’s opener, they absolutely must make things more difficult inside for Lopez. And that, really, will be the first big litmus test of Mike Brown’s defensive system. Brown has always demanded his teams defend the interior at all costs. I don’t think anyone expects the Cavs’ defense to turn around overnight. It will take time for the system to sink in. But watching Brook Lopez’s effectiveness on the offensive end will be one way to start to gauge how much of a difference Brown’s system is making from the start.
Brooklyn isn’t without their own questions. Garnett and Pierce are getting up there in years, Jason Terry was largely ineffective in Boston, Deron Williams has been seemingly regressing in Brooklyn, and Joe Johnson is coming off his first sub-15 PER (Player Efficiency Rating) since his 2nd year in the league. Nobody is quite sure how all these pieces will work together, but it’s a team that will be interesting to watch all season.
For the Cavaliers, all eyes will be on the defense. Beyond just monitoring how they defend Lopez inside, another key will be Kyrie’s defensive effort against Williams. Earl Clark was brought in to play defense, and if he does indeed get the start, can he stay with Pierce? By all accounts, the Cavaliers barely touched on offense in preseason and training camp. For most of the preseason, they weren’t even running an offense at all, just falling back on vanilla, basic sets. That’s because Mike Brown wanted 100% focus on defense. So while we shouldn’t expect total improvement in Game One, there better at least be a focused, noticeable, tangible difference to what we have seen for most of the last 3 years. If not, this game could get ugly.
On offense, without knowing much about what type of offense Mike Brown wants this team to run, I can’t say too much about what to expect. Instead, we can focus on things to watch. I ‘d expect to see a lot of pick and roll with Andy and Kyrie, something we all sorely missed watching after Andy’s injury. With Dion being told to focus on SG and not being a combo guard, it will be important to watch his movement off the ball. Is he willing to work hard cutting through screens to create space? When he gets the ball, what will his shot selection and decision making look like? With Tristan, the shooting hand switch will be something to watch, of course, but more importantly, I want and hope to see some improvement in post presence and a reduction in his shots being blocked in the post.
I don’t expect the Cavaliers to win this game, but I really hope they do. It would be a great opening night statement that could set the season off to a great start. After tonight, the next 12 games are against Charlotte, Indiana, Minnesota, Milwaukee, Philly, Philly, Chicago, Minnesota, Charlotte, Washington, Washington, and New Orleans. There are an awful lot of winnable games in there, and a win tonight could really set the table for a hot start to the season. A loss tonight isn’t the end of the world. It would just be a simple loss to a better team. But a win would carry a lot more meaning.
Win or lose, though, it’s just refreshing to have meaningful Cavaliers games to discuss again. I don’t just mean ‘meaningful’ because it’s regular season vs preseason. I mean ‘meaningful’ because of the excitement and expectations that come along with this season. We’ve been through so much bad basketball in the last 3 seasons, and this year there is a real opportunity to have fun watching some quality and exciting basketball games. I can’t wait.