Position-by-Position: Front and Center
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If this offseason has seemed like a blur to you, you’re not alone.
Since falling to the Warriors in five games this past June, the Cavaliers have been as active as any team in the league – hiring Koby Altman as the new General Manager, then watching the Brooklyn native make massive roster changes – upgrading a squad that’s been to three straight NBA Finals and took the 2016 title.
And while the Wine & Gold have arguably the best starting frontline in either Conference, the Cavs brass was diligent in deepening that unit heading into the upcoming season. Enter Jeff Green, Jae Crowder and 20-year-old Ante Zizic – joining Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye off the bench.
As we’ve seen year after year, the team that goes into Training Camp is almost never the team that emerges in April for the postseason run. But as it stands, the Cavaliers are as deep as they’ve been since 2014 – a solid amalgam of youth and experience, scoring and defense.
While we prepare for Camp – tipping off in less than a month – Cavs.com will break down the squad, with the Wine & Gold’s 3, 4, and 5-spots standing front and center ….
Any discussion of the Wine & Gold’s frontline begins with 13-time All-Star, LeBron James, entering his fourth season since returning to Cleveland. James, who turns 34 in late December, showed no signs of slowing down last season and might come into this season with a sharper edge.
Finishing fourth in the MVP voting last year didn’t sit well with the four-time MVP. And by all accounts, he’s taken his storied offseason workouts to another level in preparation for his 15th NBA season.
Last year, Number 23 become the first player in NBA history to average at least 25.0 points, 8.0 boards and 8.0 assists while shooting better than 54 percent from the floor – running his double-figure scoring streak to 791 games, recording 42 double-doubles and 13 triple-doubles and becoming the only player in league history to rank in the all-time Top 10 in points and Top 15 in assists.
During the Cavaliers’ title defense, James went on another rampage – breaking Michael Jordan’s all-time Playoff scoring mark against the Celtics in the East Finals before posting another June masterpiece against the Warriors – averaging 33.6 points on 56 percent shooting to go with 12.0 boards and 10.0 assists in the five-game series.
”I think the biggest thing for me sitting here today after breaking the all-time scoring record in Playoff history is that I did it just being me,” said James after topping Air Jordan’s coveted mark. “I don't have to score the ball to make an impact in the basketball game. That was my mindset when I started playing the game. I was like, ‘If I'm not scoring the ball, how can I still make an impact on the game?’ It's carried me all the way to this point now, and it's going to carry me for the rest of my career.”
LeBron has led the Cavaliers to unprecedented levels of success since his return in 2014, but it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for the King and Co. It’s been an interesting couple months since the Cavs were eliminated in late June, but this odd offseason is almost behind us and James would love to lead a deep, drama-free squad back to the NBA Finals for the fourth straight season.
The Iron Giant
It’s hard to believe that Tristan Thompson, who arrived as a wide-eyed lefty power forward, is going into his seventh season with the Cavaliers – as a grizzled, right-handed veteran center.
A constant in the Cavaliers’ ever-changing universe, Tristan Thompson finally succumbed to the injury bug – 447 games after starting a streak that made him the franchise’s all-time iron man.
And even in that game – a 23-thumping of the Celtics in Boston on April 5 – Thompson earned a participation trophy …
”Oh, I was hyped! I was like their No. 1 cheerleader. I was going crazy at home! Talking sh*t – cursing! I was riled up like I was at the arena.”
That, in a nutshell, is Tristan Thompson. And for the first six years, he’s been a selfless, steady presence in the middle for Cleveland. This year, Thompson came into the campaign without a contract situation hanging over his head. The only speedbumps he hit during the season were the sprained thumb that sidelined his streak, a brief verbal beef with LeBron during a heated OT contest against Indiana and a rough start to the 2017 Finals.
In the regular season, Thompson averaged 8.1 points and 9.2 boards (15th in the league), doubling-up on 19 occasions, grabbing double-digit boards in 38 games and leading the team in 40. On the offensive glass, his 3.7 rpg were good for 5th in the league and he blocked a career-best 84 shots this past year.
When the Playoffs rolled around, Thompson – still nursing the sprained thumb that shelved him late in the season – was up to the task, grabbing double-digit boards in six of Cleveland’s first seven postseason contests.
Thompson was dominant through the first part of the Eastern Conference Finals – posting a 20-point, nine-board performance in the series opener and doubling-up with 18 points and 13 boards in Cleveland’s first loss of the Playoffs two nights later. But Tristan struggled mightily through the start of the Finals before coming alive for Games 4 and 5.
Thompson is the Cavaliers’ ultimate plug-and-play guy. He’ll be ready to roll when Camp tips off and will go full-throttle for the next nine months. And this year, he goes into the season as one of the squad’s true leaders.
Stairway to Kevin
The Cavaliers make no secret of their gameplan to get Kevin Love involved early. Coach Lue will say as much in his pre- and postgame media session.
And on one crazy night at The Q, Love took that gameplan very seriously – exploding for 34 first-quarter points in a November 23 win over the Blazers. The four-time All-Star scored 18 points in the first four minutes of the contest, canning his first five three-pointers and finishing the quarter 11-for-14 shooting, including 8-of-10 from long-range. Love’s 34-point period was the second-best mark in league history. (Klay Thompson, 37)
”It’s definitely fun, especially when I saw after the fact the reactions of my teammates,” smiled the nine-year vet. “We got in here after the game and they congratulated me. I didn’t realize that was the most points for a first quarter or how close I was to the record for a quarter in general. It’s definitely a lot of fun, but that’s over and done with now.”
But that quarter was just one of many highlights for Love – who had easily his best and probably least-stressful season with the Wine & Gold. Love looked comfortable from the opening days of Training Camp – doubling up in the opener and continuing that trend for most of the season.
A knee injury right before the All-Star Break cost him an appearance at the midseason classic in New Orleans and 13 games spanning the Break, but Love returned with a vengeance and was excellent the rest of the way.
In the regular season, Love was the only Eastern Conference player to average at least 19.0 points and 11.0 boards. In the postseason, he was just as good – averaging 16.8 points and 10.8 boards.
Love doubled-up in five games against Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals and had a very good Finals series against the Warriors – grabbing 21 boards in Game 1, dropping 27 points on the Warriors in Game 2 and canning six triples in Cleveland’s only victory in Game 4 at Quicken Loans Arena.
In what’s been a wild offseason following those Finals, Love’s twitter feed has been a welcome bit of levity – and a reminder that the Cavaliers are still the East’s alpha dogs. Now fully ingrained in franchise lore and Cleveland culture, a comfortable Kevin Love can come to Camp knowing that if he does his thing, the Cavaliers will remain exactly that.
The Cavaliers starting frontcourt triumvirate is arguably the NBA’s best. Tristan Thompson is a rock in the middle – with a blue-collar game that continues to improve incrementally. Kevin Love returned to his All-Star form last season as one of the most efficient 4’s in the Association. And LeBron James … he’s just really good at basketball.
But while the starting three will undoubtedly remain unchanged, the Cavaliers made some offseason moves that should seriously alter the depth chart. (We’ll breakdown the Wine & Gold’s second unit – past and present – next week.)
Last year, Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye were Cleveland’s two best frontcourt options all season, with Derrick Williams joining the squad in early February.
Veterans Mike Dunleavy and Chris Andersen came to camp with the Cavaliers, but Dunleavy was dealt in January as part of the Kyle Korver deal and Birdman succumbed to a knee injury after appearing in just 12 games. Andrew Bogut’s Cavaliers career lasted less than a minute and Larry Sanders spent more time in Canton than Cleveland.
This year, R.J. will have to make room for veterans Jeff Green – signed as a free agent in early July – and Jae Crowder, who arrived as part of the monster deal with the Celtics that sent Kyrie Irving to Beantown.
Both are versatile backups who can spell LeBron and play alongside him. Green is a career 43 percent shooter from the floor; including 33 percent from long-range. He’s been a solid rebounder (4.7 rpg) and assist man (1.7 apg) over his nine-year career.
The rugged Crowder – who was actually drafted originally by Cleveland in 2012 before being dealt to Dallas – averaged 13.9 points on a career-best 46 percent shooting in 72 starts last year with Boston. Crowder is tough as nails on the defensive end as well.
Cleveland also received young big, Ante Zizic, in the deal. The 20-year-old Croatian – selected with the 23rd overall pick by Boston one year ago – is a true seven-footer and was recently named the 2015-16 Adriatic League Top Prospect. That might not sound very impressive, but past winners include Nikola Jokic and Dario Saric – and those two guys have worked out pretty well for Denver and Philadelphia, respectively.
If the Cavaliers’ frontcourt can stay healthy, there isn’t a starting group that’s any better and their second unit is as deep, dynamic and experienced as it’s been since LeBron returned.
And in less than a month, we’ll see how all the moving parts fit together for the 2017-18 season.