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The upcoming regular season schedule is back to 82 games, but with the Draft being pushed to late July, the offseason dust still hasn’t settled. It’s likely that some big names will still be changing addresses before next year rolls around.
On Friday afternoon, the league released the 2021-22 slate – with the Wine & Gold tipping things off against the Grizzlies in Memphis before coming home to welcome LaMelo Ball and the Hornets for the home opener. Cleveland travels west early, closes against the World Champs and will host the All-Star Game for the third time in franchise history in mid-February.
On Friday, we took a look at some of the schedule’s odds and ends. Today, we spread the floor a little more and break down the upcoming campaign, division-by-division …
One of the aforementioned teams that may or may not look the same when the regular season rolls around is the Sixers, as the Ben Simmons saga has spilled into the summer. The Wine & Gold face Philly – which led the Conference in wins and added Andre Drummond and Georges Niang in the offseason – four times (@ 2/12, @ 3/4, 3/16, 4/3) over the season’s final 25 games.
It’s almost inarguable that the highlight of last season for the Cavaliers was their dramatic back-to-back wins over the Nets in the following game after acquiring their former center Jarrett Allen in the four-team James Harden deal. The Nets lost just two games with their Big Three of Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant – one of those was to the Cavs. Brooklyn shed some payroll this offseason, but drafted LSU’s Cameron Thomas, the top scorer in Vegas Summer League. The Nets (@ 11/17, 11/22, 1/17, @ 4/8) will be Cleveland’s final road opponent this year.
Last season’s Coach of the Year, Tom Thibodeau, was the architect of the Knicks major turnaround, and New York added some punch to their rotation in the offseason with the acquisitions of Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier. Julius Randle – who took home the hardware for 2021’s Most Improved Player – will try to build off his career year for the Knicks, one of four Eastern Conference teams Cleveland will face but thrice this season (@ 11/7, 1/24, @ 4/2).
The Celtics limped to the finish line last year, with injuries and inconsistent play sidelining their season. Both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown had huge seasons, but Boston still made big changes elsewhere – including the hiring of Ime Udoka as head coach as well as bringing back Enes Kanter and signing Dennis Schroder away from the Lakers. Cleveland took two of three over the Celtics last year and play them just three times this year – all before Christmas (11/13, 11/15, @ 12/22).
Just two years removed from their only World Championship, the Raptors had a rough season in 2020-21, falling to the bottom of their division, dropping nine of their final 10 games. Toronto’s had a busy offseason, dealing Kyle Lowry to the Heat in exchange for Precious Achiuwa and Goran Dragic, and surprising pundits on Draft night, tabbing F Scottie Barnes over G Jalen Suggs. The Raptors (@ 11/5, 12/26, 3/6, @ 3/24) took two of three against Cleveland last year, with all three games decided by double digits.
Following the roadmap of Central Division superstars-cum-Champions like Michael Jordan and LeBron James before him, Giannis Antetokounmpo took the next step in his progression towards Springfield, Mass. with his 2021 title run for the ages. Milwaukee added a pair of former Cavs (Rodney Hood, George Hill) along with Grayson Allen and Semi Ojeleye in the offseason. The Bucks (@ 12/6, @ 12/18, 1/26, 4/10) took all three meetings against Cleveland last year and will be the Cavs final regular season foe in 2021-22.
Other than drafting Chris Duarte (No. 15) and Isaiah Jackson (No. 22), the Pacers (1/2, 2/6, @ 2/11, @ 3/8) have been quiet on the player movement front this offseason – making a logical choice to see what they can accomplish with a healthy, talented roster. They did, however, make their second coaching change in as many seasons – bringing back Rick Carlisle, who coached them from 2003-07. Indy won their head-to-head trifecta against the Wine & Gold last year.
The Cavaliers took two of three over the Bulls last year, Chicago’s first under Billy Donovan. And after a disappointing finish overall, the Bulls (12/8, @ 1/19, @ 3/12, 3/26) have been busy this offseason – acquiring Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan via trade and Tony Bradley and Alex Caruso in free agency. But Chicago’s biggest move came at last year’s Trade Deadline, dealing for All-Star big man, Nikola Vucevic. It’ll be interesting to see how it all comes together.
November 12 is when the top pick in the 2021 Draft, Detroit’s Cade Cunningham, makes his debut against Cleveland – taking on the player picked two spots later in Evan Mobley. The Cavs took two of three over the Pistons – who added Kelly Olynyk and Trey Lyles over the summer – one season ago. The Pistons (11/12, @ 1/30, @ 2/24, 3/19) put two players on last year’s All-Rookie teams (Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart) joining Cleveland’s Isaac Okoro, as the two team’s rosters develop. A rekindling of the rivalry could very well be in the cards.
Many fans point to the Hawks recent success – going from a 20-win season to the Eastern Conference Finals in a calendar year – as an optimistic blueprint for the young Cavaliers. Trae Young and Co. shocked the world last spring and have every reason to believe they can compete with the Conference’s elite moving forward. After making major moves last offseason, Atlanta (10/23, @ 12/19, 12/31, @ 2/15) was relatively quiet this summer. The Cavs won a pair of thrillers over the Hawks this year before falling in the finale.
The Cavs only play Miami (@ 12/1, 12/13, @ 3/11) just three times this year, but two of them are on South Beach, where the Wine & Gold have dropped 20 straight contests. It won’t get any easier this season, as the Heat got even more rugged this offseason – trading for Kyle Lowry while adding Markieff Morris and P.J. Tucker via free agency. Miami took all three games against Cleveland last year.
The Wizards (11/10, @12/3, @ 12/30, 2/26) have the Conference’s leading scorer, Bradley Beal, returning. Other than Rui Hachimura and Davis Bertans, there isn’t much resemblance to Washington’s squad from a season ago – dealing Russell Westbrook to the Lakers, drafting Corey Kispert with the 13th pick and replacing Scott Brooks on the bench with Wes Unseld Jr. Last year, the Cavaliers didn’t face the Wizards until the final month of the season; this year, they play three of four before the All-Star Break.
Cleveland opens its Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse schedule against the reigning Rookie of the Year, LaMelo Ball, and the Hornets (10/22, @ 11/1, @ 2/4, 3/2) for the second straight season. The Wine & Gold won two of their three meetings against Charlotte – which brought in Kelly Oubre Jr. and Mason Plumlee over the summer -- last season. The Hornets dealt Devonte Graham, but should get their free agent target from a season ago, Gordon Hayward, back healthy this year.
The Magic made their intentions clear at the Deadline last year, dealing away Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic and committing to a youth movement. Orlando had to be thrilled when Jalen Suggs fell to them at No. 5 overall, and they snagged Franz Wagner from Michigan three picks later. Former Cavs assistant Jamahl Mosley takes the reigns of the young squad this year – facing his former club just three times (11/27, 3/28, @ 4/5) in 2021-22.
Even with the amazing postseason run and incredible turnaround made by Atlanta, no team exceeded expectations more than the Western Conference Champs Suns, who won just 19 games two seasons earlier. Devin Booker, CP3 and a roster built by former Cavalier – and reigning NBA Executive of the Year – James Jones should be just as competitive out West again this year, especially with the additions of JaVale McGee and Landry Shamet. Phoenix (@ 10/30, 11/24) won both decisions over Cleveland last year – including an overtime heartbreaker at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.
The Cavaliers don’t usually face the Clippers in the fifth game of the season, but that’ll be the case this year as Cleveland embarks on an early roadie – taking on Ty Lue, Kawhi Leonard, PG13 and the Clips in late October. L.A. added Justise Winslow via free agency, traded for Eric Bledsoe and tabbed high-flying forward Keon Johnson in the first round of the most recent Draft. The Clippers (@ 10/27, 3/14) finally reached the Conference Finals; now they’re looking to finish the deal.
As they often do, the Lakers made the biggest splash of the offseason, dealing for future Hall of Famer, Russell Westbrook, who averaged a triple-double for the fourth time in his last five seasons last year with Washington. How he’ll gel with LeBron James and Anthony Davis is another story. But the LakeShow (@ 10/29, 3/21) didn’t stop there – reeling in free agents Carmelo Anthony, Trevor Ariza, Kent Bazemore, Wayne Ellington, Dwight Howard, Malik Monk and Kendrick Nunn.
The Warriors sure seem like their building back to something, and while Klay Thompson has been out over the past two seasons, the Dubs (11/18, @ 1/9) have quietly built a talented young roster for his eventual return – including the selections of Jonathan Kuminga (No. 7 overall) and Moses Moody (No. 14) in this past Draft. The Warriors crushed Cleveland in two meetings last year as the young Cavaliers look to one day resume one of the game’s great rivalries.
If last year’s thriller in Sacramento (12/11, @ 1/10) is any indication of what this year’s meetings will be like, buckle up for some entertainment. The Cavs were at the losing end of a wild one last year at the Golden 1 center, with three end-to-end lead-changes in the game’s final six seconds. This offseason, the Kings – who haven’t reached the postseason since 2006 – acquired Alex Len and Tristan Thompson while tabbing tough two-way threat, Davion Mitchell, with the 9th overall pick in the Draft.
The NBA will look to make this season Luka Doncic’s unofficial coronation. He’s not the game’s brightest star just yet, but he’s well on his way, and his Mavericks (@ 11/29, 3/30) will be national TV fixtures this year. Dallas was relatively quiet in the trade and free agency market this summer, but they did make a move on the bench, elevating Jason Kidd – one of the heroes of their 2011 title run – to head coach, replacing Rick Carlisle. Luka always has a big Slovenian gathering for appearances in Cleveland, but they’ll have to wait until near the end of the campaign.
For the first time, the Cavaliers will open their season in Memphis – taking on J.B. Bickerstaff’s former team to open the campaign. The Wine & Gold won their lone appearance at the GrindHouse last year, with Isaac Okoro and Andre Drummond providing the late-game heroics. The rough-and-tumble Grizzlies (@ 10/20, 1/4) got even tougher in the offseason, acquiring Steven Adams, Patrick Beverly and Rajon Rondo and lithe Stanford forward Ziaire Williams with the No. 10 pick.
After reaching the Playoffs for over two decades straight, the Spurs have been on the outside looking in over the past two. So this offseason, the Spurs (@ 1/14, 2/9) signed Zach Collins as a free agent while dealing for solid vets like Al-Farouq Aminu, Doug McDermott and Thaddeus Young. As they’re accustomed to do, San Antonio also raised some eyebrows on Draft night when they chose Alabama’s Josh Primo with the 12th overall pick. Last year, the Cavs registered their biggest road win over in San Antonio – and they’d love to do it again when they return in mid-January.
The Pelicans (@ 12/28, 1/31) realize they’re on the clock with Zion Williamson, who’s yet to reach the postseason despite a pair of extremely productive seasons in the Big Easy. Stan Van Gundy is out after one season, replaced by former Suns assistant Willie Green. New Orleans’ brass has been busy adding talent and some offensive punch this year – making offseason deals for veterans like Devonte’ Graham, Jonas Valanciunas, Tomas Satoransky and Garrett Temple.
The No. 2 overall pick (Jalen Green) and the player picked one spot later (Evan Mobley) square off as pros for the first time on December 15 at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, as a pair of young teams continue building their way back. And like Cleveland, Houston (12/15, @ 2/2) is building through the Draft – grabbing four first rounders this past July, including big man Alperen Sengun, who was outstanding in his Summer League stint. The Wine & Gold took both decisions over the Rockets last year – both by double-figures.
After finishing with the league’s highest win total (52) one season ago, the Jazz know they’re not far away – despite the postseason disappointment. They’ve got the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year (Rudy Gobert) and its top Sixth Man (Jordan Clarkson). This summer, the Jazz (12/5, @ 1/12) fortified their loaded roster – snagging Rudy Gay and Hassan Whiteside in free agency, trading for Eric Paschall and drafting Jared Butler, the heart and soul of the NCAA Champion Baylor Bears.
A late-October trip out to Denver isn’t normal for the Wine & Gold, but that’s how this year’s schedule shook out – taking on the league’s reigning MVP Nikola Jokic and Co. to tip off a five-game West Coast junket. Like several heavyweights out West, Michael Malone’s squad is looking to get over the hump – and the Nuggets (@ 10/25, 3/18) have the talent to do so, if they can stay healthy. Jamal Murray dropped 50 on the Cavaliers last year before a knee injury ruined his season, and he could be back when Cleveland hits the Mile High City in a couple months.
When it comes to postseason frustration, no team (and player) must be more ready for change than Damian Lillard and the Blazers – who’ve fallen in the first round in back-to-back seasons after reaching the Conference Finals in 2019. Seeking a change, the Blazers (11/3, @ 1/7) replaced Terry Stotts after nine seasons with Chauncey Billups at the helm. Other than the additions of Ben McLemore, Tony Snell and Cody Zeller, Portland has been relatively quiet this offseason. Will it stay that way?
The Timberwolves have a solid young roster that they’ve been assembling, mostly through the Draft, including Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards, and D’Angelo Russell. Like the Cavaliers, now this group of promising young players needs some seasoning and a little taste of success. The Cavs and Wolves (@ 12/10, 2/28) split last year’s two meetings, with both contests being decided by five points or less.
And in terms of building through the Draft, no team in the league has set itself up with future picks like the Thunder, who went all-in on the youth movement after the 2018-19 season and haven’t looked back. The Thunder (@ 1/15, 1/22) grabbed Aussie guard Josh Giddey with the 6th overall pick and took Florida’s Tre Mann at No. 18. OKC has already done well with some of their young picks – and they’ve got a boatload more to play in the coming years. Cleveland split its two meetings against the Thunder last year, falling at home before blowing out OKC on its home floor in April.