The Cavs Will Make the Playoffs
I think we’re still going to see playoff basketball in Cleveland this year. The Cavs are coming into the season commonly assumed to have a lackluster, if not disheartening, season.
ESPN Basketball Power Index: 9.2% chance to make the playoffs
FiveThirtyEight 2018-2019 NBA Predictions: 10% chance to make the playoffs
John Gonzalez at The Ringer: Best case scenario: the Cavs are “pesky” in the East
Reasons the Cavs are going to the playoffs this year:
Kevin Love has had an understandably subdued role in Cleveland. We know why that’s been the case, and while there has been valid disagreement about his role, I don’t think Kevin Love can be blamed for that. He understands his role on any team he’s been on. This year, his role is to take over, so I think he’s going to have an All-Star season.3
When he was The Guy TM in Minnesota (2010-2011 season to 2013-2014 season) he averaged 7+ FGs a game, on 17 FGAs, close to a 43% FGA percentage. He averaged close to 23 points and almost 14 rebounds a game on a 28% usage rate. He’s averaged a 23% usage rate in Cleveland. I could see Love nearing a 30% usage rate in 2018-2019.
Love should be in the top 20% of rebounders in the league. He’s in the physically smaller Eastern Conference and playing more minutes, so that makes sense even though he’s averaged 10 rebounds a game for Cleveland. I expect him to play more in the post now that he’s not primarily a drive-and-dish target. He should average a double-double, easy.
Getting his number called to take the ball in or nab lobs down low will send him to the line more often, too. He went to the line almost twice as often when he was in Minnesota - but he shoots a higher FT percentage now.
He’ll still be able to knock down his usual share of 3-pointers in the Cavs offense. Love is more effective off catch-and-release 3-pointers than shooting them off the dribble, so they should set up plays to create those shots for him. Since he’s been shooting an increasingly higher percentage from 3 the last few seasons, he should still be making more 3’s than he did in Minnesota.
Love records more assists when he gets more touches. In Minnesota, he averaged 2.8 assists per game, and 4 per game his last season there.
Love can return to some of his statistical highs from his days as the go-to guy in Minnesota while incorporating the parts of his game he has improved upon over the last four years.
Kevin Love is not alone. This team has vets with playoff and crunch-time experience, young players with big upsides, and a professional, determined locker room, front office and overall organization. They are used to winning, after all, and that kind of culture and approach helps. Here’s some interesting pieces of the Cavs roster:
Between George Hill, Jordan Clarkson, and Collin Sexton, decent ball-handling and passing will be consistent, with Sexton possibly is a solid bonus on the defensive end. Maybe his defensive focus and determination will be contagious, in a best-case scenario.
I have Rodney Hood as my dark horse pick for Most Improved Player. He can come off the bench and play some minutes with Kevin Love, cutting up the key or back door for passes out of the double-team, or dish-out threes from the wing. He can get buckets on his own against second units in the East.
Kyle Korver is a more than solid defender and passer, and is usually good for a few important buckets. JR Smith still has a volatility in his offensive game and sometimes, he plays pretty good defense.
Either Cedi Osman and Sam Dekker could blow up a little. I could see Osman’s minutes growing as the season progresses. Osman is a player that can do damage with the ball in his hands, which this new Cavs team needs. He has a good touch and is able to adjust his shot in the paint if he needs to. He’s an energetic player and he looks down the court on breaks as well.
Larry Nance, Jr. and Tristan Thompson are great offensive rebounders and lob finishers. They’re both exciting players when they show up on the offensive end. With good effort, they can be effective defenders, even if a little undersized down low. Thompson doesn’t finish as strong as he used to, but he and Nance can both deliver exciting slam dunks on occasion.
The Cavs are more than the sum of their parts, however. There are positive aspects that don’t show up on the roster or in game film.
An Underdog, and Used to It
It’s hard to call a team with LeBron James an underdog, but last year the Cavs filled that role in The Finals storylines. Now, the Cavs are being considered a shoo-out for the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. I think the team had a professional operation before LeBron’s return, but now, many of the players seem more focused, professional, and hard-working than they were prior to playing with LeBron. They’ve also played together in the playoffs against many of the same teams they’ll be facing all season long in the East.
In my conference rankings predictions, the other playoff teams in the East are Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Indiana, Washington, and Miami. I have Cleveland sneaking into the 7 seed, with Miami at the 8. Who are the teams the Cavs will be jockeying with if they are in the playoff hunt during the middle or end of the season? Teams like Detroit, Charlotte, Orlando maybe? I’ve even seen arguments made for Brooklyn sneaking in. None of these teams are locks for the playoffs, and I think the Cavs match up well against them. Kevin Love is as big of a boost as any of those teams’ top player, and the rest of those teams don’t have the same cohesion as the Cavs.
The Schedule & The Record
The Cavs could win more than 40 games this season if they get a win here and there against the top 4 teams in the East. They should win matchups against the rebuild-phase teams in the league.
Cleveland has a 10-game stretch from the middle of February into early March with 7 of 10 games at home. Those ten matchups are New York twice, Brooklyn twice, Phoenix, Memphis, Portland, Detroit, Orlando, and Miami. These are all winnable games if Cleveland’s top players are healthy and scoring as they should.
I expect the Cavs to lose more games than last year, for sure. Even if they lose 10 games off their record, they will have 40 wins. I think they could lose 12 or even 15 more games and sneak into the playoffs past some of the younger, less seasoned rosters in the Eastern Conference.