Previewing the Central Division: Cavaliers Stay on Top

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In the final iteration of our Central Division Preview, we look at the team that came within two games of winning the NBA Finals this past season: the Cleveland Cavaliers.

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The Cavs had one of the most successful off-seasons of any team. They were not only able to retain most of their core from last season, they also added to their bench, something that hindered them significantly as injuries mounted during their run.

This puts the Cavs firmly in place as one of the NBA’s clear-cut title contenders this coming season.

One key to the Cavs season will be the health of their players. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love both have a checkered health history which struck the Cavs at the worst possible time last year.

Being without one may be managable. However, being without both is too much to ask for a team largely built around its three superstar players.

The Cavs, with Irving and Love healthy, are one of the elite offensive teams in the league. Irving is one of the special few who’s capable of putting up 40 or more on any given night. He’s able to get to the basket at will, in large part because of his elite dribbling ability and instincts.

Irving is also capable of creating his own shot, often hitting step back jumpers and fadeaway shots over bigger players, and is an elite spot-up shooter. This makes Irving arguably the toughest player to guard in the NBA.

In many ways, his skills are reminiscent of a prime Kobe Bryant, as he’s capable of hurting you in any number of ways.

Kevin Love, on the other hand, provides the Cavs with the critical floor spacing. On a team which is built around LeBron James (and to a lesser extent Irving), the Cavs need spacing to give James lanes to drive. Love provides this with his knock down shot ability, something that others like Tristen Thompson cannot do on a consistent basis.

Love can also provide the Cavs with another primary scoring option. His low post skills were woefully underused by the Cavs last year. He’s one of the few players who can score in a variety of ways in the low post, and he facilitates the ball better than any other big in the NBA. If the Cavs can find a way to get him more involved, it could give them a historically great offense this coming season.

With Irving and Love healthy, the Cavs boast the best offense, on paper, in the NBA. However, as last year’s NBA Finals showed, the Cavs cannot survive the losses of one or both of these men, especially if they’re going to beat a team like San Antonio or Golden State who are stacked with elite scorers as well.

Apr 8, 2015; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love (0) during the game against the Milwaukee Bucks at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Cleveland won 104-99. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Another key to the Cavs success this coming season will be their supporting cast. The Cavs added to their depth which was lacking this past season. Mo Williams has had a very successful career and should provide the Cavs with a solid sixth man. With Irving expected to miss the start of the regular season, Williams will play a major role in how the Cavs season starts out.

The Cavs also have depth elsewhere. J.R. Smith, who was critical for the Cavs in their series against Chicago and Atlanta, has returned and should provide the Cavs with another solid scorer off their bench. Richard Jefferson gives them a wing who can give James a few minutes off each night without a major defensive drop-off. They also have Anderson Varejao returning from injury. All of these guys will be critical to the team’s success as they should allow the Cavs to rest their key players more during games.

Iman Shumpert is another important player. He’s solid three and D wing who provides the Cavs with a second solid defender next to Lebron on the perimeter. With J.R. Smith providing more of a scoring threat off the bench, Shumpert will need to remain on top of his game if he wants to remain a starter in this Cavs line-up. His defense should see him do just that.

No player, however, may be as important to the Cavs supporting cast as Timofey Mozgov. Mozgov had a breakout performance for the Cavs this past post-season. While others around him struggled to score or make a consistent impact, Mozgov stood tall.

Mozgov is solid defensive player. Though he’s not as athletic as other centers, Mozgov is able to protect the rim, block shots, and make things difficult for any player in the low post.

He’s also no slouch on the offensive end, as his performances in the NBA Finals demonstrated.

Mozgov is the key to the team because of the defense that he provides. Irving and Love are both sub-par defenders. If the Cavs are going to be good enough to win a championship on the defensive end, Mozgov must provide the Cavs with a steely presence on the interior. James is only able to do so much to help others defend. With Mozgov waiting at the rim, the Cavs should have enough rim protection to prevent teams from getting to basket at will.

The final key to the Cavs season will be how they adjust and integrate their talent. On paper, this Cavs team is more talented, deeper, and more experienced than last year’s squad.

The Cavs, however, experienced major adversity during the first half of last season. If the Cavs are going to become champions this season, they’ll need to get their supporting cast more involved. This means getting Kevin Love, one of the NBA’s best, more involved in the offense. It also means getting their role players more minutes so they’re ready to step up when called upon.

The Cavs and Bucks will be a fun match-up to watch this coming season.

The Cavs boast a line-up with three top 20 players in the NBA. Irving, James, and Love should provide the Cavs with 60-70 points a night.

The Bucks, however, have more than enough talent to compete with the Cavs.

The prospect of watching LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo squaring off against each other is enough to get any NBA fan excited. Antetokounmpo is one of the few players in the league whose capable of going toe-to-toe athletically with James. Even if LeBron is the best player in the world, nothing will come easy with Antetokounmpo guarding him.

Apr 8, 2015; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) drives for the basket as Milwaukee Bucks guard

Khris Middleton

(22) defends during the second quarter at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Jabari Parker, when he’s fully healthy, will be a nightmare match-up for Kevin Love. Parker can run, stretch the floor, and score in a variety of ways. This should provide Parker with ample opportunity to wear down Love, making it tougher for Love to get involved on the offensive end.

The key to the match-up, however, will be the play of the Bucks supporting cast. Michael Carter-Williams will need to contain Kyrie Irving. This means he must work to make every shot difficult. His length and defensive instincts should accomplish this.

Greg Monroe must find ways to punish Timofey Mozgov. His low post skills will be critical, as will his ability to rebound. Whoever wins the rebounding battle between these two may ultimately decide who wins the games between these two teams.

Khris Middleton must also find ways to get involved. He and Shumpert play with a similar style. Middleton, however, is much more polished on the offensive side. If the Bucks are going to compete with the high powered Cavs offense, Miiddleton will need score near 20 PPG if the Bucks will have a real shot at beating the Cavs.

The Bucks will also need their bench to step. OJ Mayo must be the hot hand off the bench. John Henson will need to be an elite rim protector. Others like Greivis Vasquez and Damien Inglis will need to step as well. If the Bucks are going to beat the Cavs, they must create as big of an advantage as possible when the Cavs big three is out.

Experience, and superior talent, should see the Cavs beat the Bucks this coming season. However, don’t be surprised if the Bucks snag a game or two in what should be a competitive season series.

Prediction: Record 60-22 (1st in the Central Division)

Next: Has Jamaal Charles Lost a Step?

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