LeBron James is always the biggest story in basketball, but LeBron James back in Cleveland? It might be the biggest story in sports. James pulled a stunner by returning to the Cavaliers as a free agent and then the team traded No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love. Cleveland suddenly has a super team with a totally weird roster and a rookie head coach who has plied his trade overseas. We're here to try to make sense of it all.
ZILLER: LeBron is actually back in Cleveland, and the Cavaliers gave him a star the caliber of which he never had the first time around: Kevin Love. Plus he has Kyrie Irving, arguably better than any one of LeBron's former Cleveland mates. This team is going to be absolute and total fun, right?
FLANNERY: It's going to be a blast not only because they should play an enjoyably style, but also because it's so obviously flawed. They're relying on Anderson Varejao to protect the paint and don't have a ton of size. LeBron's going to have to guard everyone on the floor and I'm not sold on their depth either. But really, who cares because they've got the best passing forwards in the league.
The New Cavaliers
3 things we learned from preseason opener
The Cavaliers cruised to a 107-80 victory over Maccabi Tel Aviv in their preseason opener, looking sharp from the second quarter on.
The New Cavaliers
ZILLER: That's what will be most interesting to me: will David Blatt, LeBron and the basketball world allow the Cavs to just be straight-up fun? Or will the pursuit of greatness (and more specifically a title for the People of Cleveland) mean we get only some percentage of potential fun that a LeBron-Love-Kyrie team is capable of?
This was a serious issue for the Super Heat, and I feel we got shortchanged somewhat in the entertainment aspect. By the time Erik Spoelstra committed to a smaller, faster style, Dwyane Wade was showing his age. That said, Chris Bosh is less "exciting" than Love on offense, Kyrie is young and Blatt is known for Euro-style movement basketball, so there's perhaps a good deal more potential for fun here.
Basically, I fear expectations will make Cleveland play more carefully and spend so much energy on defense that Kyrie doesn't play free, that Love doesn't attack the offensive glass or throw outlets and that LeBron is Staid Miami LeBron instead of goofy Shaq-era Cleveland LeBron.
FLANNERY: Couple of things here. Do people really except the Cavs will win a title this year? I think they should make the conference finals and maybe even the Finals, but is that team ready to beat the Spurs? Not yet. I think (hope might be a better word) that this first year is the journey of discovery phase where everybody's grooving on the positive vibes and random cool shit they pull off on a semi-regular basis.
The mood around the Heat was tense because they made it that way. They tried to cover it up with a notion of, Hey look at us we're having fun, wheee and no one bought it. So far, LeBron has created the perfect framework around this season. He's coming home to build, rather than parachuting in to some random town to win a bunch of titles.
That said, there will be pressure because of course there will be pressure. I'm not going to pretend to understand the Cleveland fan psyche but it's pretty obvious they want a championship and they want it yesterday. But, honestly, I don't care about that. I don't mean that in a malicious way either, Cleveland. That's your trip, but it doesn't have to be our concern.
ZILLER: Do you believe LeBron's pose, though? The guy is a fierce competitor, and if he wins a few more rings he will have a case as the greatest ever. He's said all the right things about patience and taking time to grow and just wanting to return home, but underneath it all I still think he wants to beat the Heat, he wants to beat the Pacers, he wants to shut up Paul Pierce, he wants to shut up Kobe's fans, he wants to beat the Spurs, he wants that title and another and another. Winning the first one seemed freeing to a degree, but he appeared to be absolutely crushed when Miami fell short last season. When push comes to shove I think he hates losing too much to actually believe what he's been saying about patience all along.
And I don't think for a second Cleveland or the national media will be patient with him, not after the Love deal. We (I use the pronoun loosely) don't handle teams or players who fall short of expectations very well. Ask Dwight, ask the 2012-13 Lakers, ask Melo, ask pre-2012 LeBron and especially the 2010-11 Heat. And expectations are high: Cleveland is favored over San Antonio for the title according to Vegas. That's a recipe for pressure. And pressure is a recipe for less fun, especially with the guys (Kyrie, Love) less tested.
This may be a pessimistic reading, though. What we haven't gotten into much is how Blatt figures into this. You said you hoped it'd be a season of experimentation and fun. But doesn't Blatt seem totally serious about, well, everything? How do you see his partnership with LeBron shaking out?
FLANNERY: Which one if us is the cynical Easter Coaster again? I see your objections and raise you a Kyrie-Bron fast break, plus a Kevin Love outlet pass.
The Blatt-LeBron partnership is an interesting part of this. LeBron has never had a Phil Jackson as a pro. I thought Spoelstra could be that for him and he probably was to an extent, but I sensed a fraying last year during the Finals. Everyone in the league raves about Blatt. I'm going to go with intriguing at the moment and let it develop.
See, things can happen in their own time if we let them.
ZILLER: That is so patient and un-sports media of you.
I'll just say that I'm interested to see what sort of reputation Blatt has by, saying, the All-Star break. Folks are going to judge him pretty early on and breaking those first impressions is always tough.
Two more topics I want to hit. First, which non-Big Three Cav is the most important? I keep bouncing between Tristan Thompson and Shawn Marion. It appears T.T. will be the starting center, and to say his defense is going to be tested is a massive understatement. Marion is likely to come off of the bench, but certainly you'd expect Blatt to play him a bunch to buoy the defense at both forward spots.
Finally, you said you don't think this team beats the Spurs, and I'd tend to agree. What's the minimum threshold for it to be considered an acceptable season for Cleveland? (By acceptable I mean that Love obviously re-signs, Blatt keeps his job and Cleveland can do more tinkering than massive change in the '15 offseason with one more guaranteed year of LeBron.) I think that anything less than winning the East will be a real disappointment unless Chicago comes out and wins 65 games to reset expectations out there.
Tristan Thompson, Photo credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
FLANNERY: Tristan Thompson in the regular season, Shawn Marion in the playoffs. That's where their depth concerns me a bit. Blatt will have to manage Marion, Mike Miller, et al to keep them fresh for the spring. He'll also have to resist the urge to ride LeBron so much. Miami kept him under 3,000 minutes the last few years and that's a decent goal.
On the court, they have to at least get to the conference finals. That's the minimum expectation. If they lose a hard-fought seven-game series to the rejuvenated Bulls, then that will serve as the requisite tough experience. Don't forget: No one besides LeBron and a couple of the veterans have even been in the playoffs before. But yeah, I think they should get to the Finals, and if they don't there will be some pushback.
To me, the big question is whether we, as enlightened basketball fans, allow ourselves to enjoy this. Call me crazy, but I think we can if we really try.
ZILLER: Consider me on board with that. I hereby declare that, above all, I will try to enjoy the Cavaliers. It seems so simple, but I fear the basketball world will make it so, so hard.