Last week, I touched on a handful of things that could give an unexpected boost to the Cavaliers’ 2016-17 season. Now, in the interest of fairness — and in recognition of the fact that one championship may not have entirely washed the ingrained pessimism from every Cleveland fan’s heart — I present to you the other side of that coin: four things that could completely derail the Cavs’ title defense.
1.) Injuries: Over the course of an 82 game season and the playoffs that may or may not follow, every NBA team will deal with injuries. They’re unavoidable. According to the site In Street Clothes, the 2015-16 season was a relatively healthy one. The league’s total for missed games due to injury (4,496) was lower than its average over the past 11 years and nine teams had fewer than 100 games missed due to injury, the lowest in the site’s database that goes back ten years. The Oklahoma City Thunder were the luckiest, losing just 23 games due to injury after years of losing both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook for significant time. The New Orleans Pelicans, meanwhile, got eaten alive by the injury bug, losing over 350 games to injury, most in the league last year.
The Cavs were 11th in the league, with just over 100 games lost due to injury last season. So, outside of the games Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert lost at the start of the season, the team had a very healthy season.
What’s more, besides the game Kevin Love (concussion) missed during the Toronto series, the Cavs were healthy in the playoffs, where the games missed by rotation players — Steph Curry, Blake Griffin, and Chris Paul, just to name a few — was at its highest level in decades. Injuries even played a roll in the Finals, where the Golden State Warriors lost starting center Andrew Bogut mid-way through the series and were forced to watch the Cavs attack Steph Curry, who was clearly not one hundred percent.
As the Cavs learned in the 2015 playoffs, the real question with injuries is “Who?” and “When?” This year’s team is built to be able to withstand a season of bumps and bruises, but an ill-timed injury to LeBron James, Irving, Love, or even Tristan Thompson could make defending their crown too tall an order for those left standing.
2.) Shallowing up the Depth: It’s not just the Cavs’ top players who need to stay healthy. This Cavs team is deep, versatile and experienced. Of course, in getting that experience, many of the team’s reserves have racked up a lot of miles on the court. While injuries can happen to young players, as well, subjecting older players to the stress of playing a lot of minutes certainly doesn’t help keep them spry.
With head coach Tyronn Lue already thinking about managing James’ minutes, as well as those played by the 36-and-over crowd of Mike Dunleavy Jr., Richard Jefferson, James Jones, and Chris “Birdman” Andersen, an injury to one of those veteran reserves could be just the first domino to fall.
An injury to Jefferson, say, could mean more minutes for Dunleavy, who is just a season removed from a back injury that forced him to miss significant time. Those additional minutes could put Dunleavy at risk and, should he go out, the Cavs could be in the position of having to lean more heavily on James, not allowing him the rest he needs to hit the playoffs running a full-speed.
3.) Die By the Three: The Cavs put on quite a three-point shooting display in the playoffs last year. But, really, their reliance on the premiere floor-spacing shot began during the regular season — in which the team was third in the league with 29.6 three point attempts per game and tied for second with 10.7 threes made — only to find its most successful version during the Eastern Conference Playoffs.
During the playoffs, the Cavs shot 40.6% from deep and made the second most threes per game while only shooting the fifth most as a team. That is some incredibly effective long-distance shooting.
Smith shot a career-best from deep and the addition of Channing Frye made the Cavs capable of knocking down the deep ball from every position.
Smith, of course, is still unsigned. Should he come to the team unhappy with his new deal, maybe that impacts his performance on the court. Maybe James, who rediscovered his jumper for stretches during the playoffs, making the Cavs nearly impossible to defend, returns to his career-worst numbers shooting outside the paint. Maybe Love, whose three point percentage (36%) was the lowest it’s been (outside of the 2012-13 season in which he only played 18 games) since he started making a name for himself by stretching the floor continues on his own downward trend.
The Cavs have enough good shooters that it’s unlikely that they take a complete dive from outside the arc. Still, this team is built to take and make those shots. When they don’t, they become a much less imposing unit.
4.) The Rubber Match: For a team like the Cavs who have played better as underdogs than favorites these last two years, the best thing that could have happened to their title defense season did, in fact, take place: Durant signed on to play with last year’s runner up. Heading into this season, all the attention is on the Warriors, not the Cavs, which should help the team go into 2016-17 with a chip on their shoulder and with something still to prove.
There’s no telling who will end up playing in the 2017 NBA Finals, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see a Cavs/Warriors rubber match in June. If that happens — and if the Dubs are playing at the hypothetical, ridiculously high level that some are expecting — the Cavs may not have the personnel to pull off the upset for a second year in a row.
But that, as they say, is why they play the games…