Position-by-Position: Guarded Optimism

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images
by Joe Gabriele
Cavs.com Managing Editor

Bolstered Backcourt

Most teams that taste the level of success the Cavaliers have – reaching the Finals in three straight seasons – don’t spend the summer re-tooling the current NBA game’s most important position. But that was the spot Cleveland found itself in this past summer.

Not long after the Wine & Gold’s season wrapped up in Oakland, word leaked that four-time All-Star Kyrie Irving was unhappy with his situation in Cleveland and wanted out. And in late August, the Cavaliers’ new brass appeased Uncle Drew – shipping him to Boston in exchange for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, the Nets unprotected first rounder next year and Miami’s second round pick in 2020.

The spot across from Irving was less in flux this offseason. And as of early September, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert are the off-guard incumbents – as has been the case since their arrival in a midseason deal back in 2015.

With Training Camp looming in less than three weeks, the Cavaliers might still have some moves up their sleeves. The team acquired some serious assets in the Kyrie-IT deal. And as the past few years have proven, the veteran buyout market is always something to keep your eye on.

With that in mind, check out Cavs.com’s breakdown of the backcourt – past, present and future – as the Wine & Gold gear up for another run at the Ring …

Straight to the Point

There’s zero question about it: Kyrie Irving is a bone fide NBA superstar just now reaching the prime of his career.

He was the 2012 Rookie of the Year, was named an All-Star on four occasions – winning MVP honors in 2014 – has posted two of the franchise’s top three individual scoring games and hit the biggest shot in Cavaliers franchise history, drilling the game-winning triple with 53 seconds to play to give Cleveland its first NBA title and the city’s first championship in 52 years.

And now he wears No. 11 for the Boston Celtics.

”Me leaving (Cleveland) wasn't about basketball,” said Irving at last week’s introductory presser in Beantown. “It was more or less about creating that foundation of me in Cleveland, and then now taking this next step as a 25-year-old evolving man and being the best basketball player I can be.”

At this point last year, the Cavaliers point guard situation consisted of Kyrie being backed up by pastiche of players ranging from Iman Shumpert to DeAndre Liggins to Jordan McRae to Kay Felder. The Cavaliers finally locked down that role, but it wasn’t until late February, when they signed Deron Williams after being waived by the Mavericks.

This fall, the position has been completely re-tooled. And once again, it might now come completely into focus until the season is already in progress.

Isaiah Thomas – the last pick in the 2011 Draft that saw Irving go first overall – improved exponentially during his Western Conference days with Sacramento and Phoenix, hitting his true stride after being dealt to Boston in a three-team deal, nearly winning Sixth Man honors after averaging 19.0 points per in the final 21 regular season games with Boston.

In his next season as a starter, Thomas earned the first of two All-Star nods. Last year, in 76 games, Thomas averaged a career-best 28.9 ppg – good for third-best in the NBA and second-best in Celtics history – along with 5.9 assists per. An All-Star and All-NBA Second Team selection last year, the former Washington Huskie set career-highs in field goal, three-point and free throw percentage. His .909 mark from the stripe was good for second-best in the league.

But the hip injury that sidelined Thomas for the final three games of the Eastern Conference Finals will likely keep him on the shelf for the first part of the season. Thankfully, Koby Altman and the Cavaliers’ new-look front office spent the first part of the summer locking up a strong contingency plan.

We’ll get into the Cavaliers’ bench when we examine the squad’s Second Unit in the next week, but for now, it looks like the Cavaliers will head into the 2017-18 campaign with former MVP and top overall pick Derrick Rose running the point.

Rose has battled myriad knee issues after injuring his MCL in the 2012 postseason, and he was limited to just 10 games in 2013-14. But he’s increased his game load every season since – starting 64 games for a bad Knicks team last season – averaging 18.0 points per, his highest scoring mark since 2011-12, without being the squad’s first offensive option.

In his single season with New York, Rose notched double-figures in 61 of his 64 appearances, topping the 20-point plateau on 24 occasions.

The Cavaliers lost a superstar this summer. And still managed to get deeper at the modern game’s most critical position.

Shooting Stars

After his great 2016 Finals run – and shirtless tour de force in the ensuing summer celebration – J.R. Smith had a difficult year both on and off the floor last season.

The campaign began with a contract holdout that cost him Training Camp and in late December he was sidelined for 36 games with a right thumb injury.

Away from the game, his life (and that of his family) was even more challenging. Smith’s second daughter, Dakota, was born five months premature and spent the first five months of her life in the neonatal intensive care unit. Swish seemed like a new man when that day finally arrived in March.

On the floor, Smith never truly found his rhythm in the early stages of the 2016-17 season – notching double-figure scoring in just six of his first 21 games before the thumb injury in Milwaukee.

When he returned to action – and with his daughter back at home – Smith looked like himself again, posting double-figures in four of his first six games back. He did so again over a five-game stretch in early April, but cooled off as the squad did, with Cleveland dropping its final four games of the campaign.

Swish scrapped on the offensive end through most of the postseason as well – posting double-figures in just two games before the Finals. He awoke late – going off in the final three games of the series against Golden State, averaging 18.6 points on 63 percent shooting from deep, including a 7-for-8, 25-point barrage in Game 5.

Since Smith and Iman Shumpert’s arrival, they’ve split time starting and coming off the bench. Shump was the starter during the Cavs’ 2015 Finals run and found himself in the squad’s first five on 31 occasions when J.R. went down this past season.

Shumpert doesn’t bring nearly the offensive firepower that Smith can, but he was a solid stand-in while the Cavaliers worked their way around the injury bug this year – taking the reigns midway through a West Coast junket and netting double-figures in seven of his first eight games as a starter.

Shump came back down to earth offensively, but still posted some career shooting numbers. He was asked to do less on that end of the court with the arrival of Kyle Korver. And remained one of the squad’s most consistent perimeter defenders all season.

Look Ahead

Last year, the Cavaliers had a revolving door at the backup point guard spot that stretched beyond the All-Star Break. This season, the position is deeper than it’s been in LeBron James’ tenure in Cleveland (including his first seven years).

This season, Derrick Rose will handle the point until Isaiah Thomas is ready to go. The three-time All-Star will be backed up by another solid veteran, Jose Calderon – a pure point guard confident in his role with the Cavaliers.

When we cover the Cavaliers’ reserves in the next few days, we’ll get into what to expect from the rest of the backcourt – including Kyle Korver, Kay Felder and Calderon.

The Cavaliers already boast arguably the best starting frontcourt in the Conference. They’ll come into this campaign with a deep, talented veteran point guard rotation and an effective two-pronged attack at shooting guard – with J.R. Smith returning to action with a clear head and, like the rest of the squad, something to prove.

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