Something feels different this week as the Cleveland Cavaliers are about to start the 45th season in franchise history.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know what’s different — LeBron James, the best basketball player on the planet, returned home this offseason. There’s no reason to rehash the details or events that led to that happening.
As you would guess, expectations have now reached a new pinnacle. Some say it’s championship or bust. Others’ have expectations that are less definitive.
The problem here is that expectations are always extreme for a fanbase that has not seen a championship in 50 years. Patience is supposed to be a virtue, but in Cleveland, it’s an involuntary obligation.
I’m not yet ready to say I expect a championship. I am, however, ready to say I’ve never anticipated a season than I anticipate this NBA season.
For Cavaliers fans, these past four seasons have been especially difficult. In a matter of seconds, the Cavs went from a perennial contender to a perennial lottery team in July 2010 when James announced he was taking his talents to South Beach.
Many fans chose to give their attention to something else, and can you blame them?
Here’s some perspective on just how bad it got during this four-year stretch. Last season, the team continually sold assets to acquire players like Luol Deng and Spencer Hawes. This was all done in an attempt to earn the measly eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, and guess what? It still wasn’t enough.
So, given the circumstances, you can see why expectations are so high. I will stop short of guaranteeing a championship this season, but that doesn’t mean that my own expectations for the team are not high as well.
For me, Cleveland sports were never better than when James wore the wine and gold.
Do you remember the noise, energy, excitement — pure emotion — that would engulf the Quicken Loans Arena every night during James’ first seven years in a Cavaliers uniform? On Thursday, when the Cavs open the season against the New York Knicks, that emotion will be back. My guess is that energy will be more dynamic than ever before.
I’ll never forget one of the early bright moments in James’ career that I witnessed firsthand at the Q. Everyone points to the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals as James’ coming-out party, but for me, it was something else.
It was Game 5 of the Eastern Conference first-round series in 2006. With the Cavaliers and Washington Wizards locked in a back-and-forth overtime battle, James scored on a layup with nine-tenths of a second left to lift the Cavaliers to a 121-120 victory. The win gave Cleveland a 3-2 series advantage, and they would go on to win the series in six games.
Obviously, the emotion at that game was special, but for me, it was such a precursor of things to come. I remember celebrating with my friends and thinking, “This is only the beginning.”
My thoughts would come true the very next season when the Cavaliers advanced to the NBA Finala for the first and only time in the franchise’s history.
Yet, as I sit here now, and think back to my thoughts that evening, don’t they seem a tad incomplete? Did it ever really feel as if James’ tenure in Cleveland had a proper conclusion?
Perhaps that’s why his return seemed so apropos. Now is the time for him to deliver that storybook ending that we’ve all waited for. For us diehard fans, the only proper ending would be delivering Cleveland its first world championship since 1964.
What can we expect this season? Here’s my expectations.
To be specific, I expect this Cavaliers team to win at least 60 games. That may sound somewhat outlandish, especially since growing pains will be inevitable, but I think this is entirely possible.
Remember that James is not the same player he was when he took his talents to South Beach more than four years ago. He’s much smarter now, and he understands the grind that is an NBA season. He’s probably never been more prepared to be a leader than right now, and I expect that we will see that play out this year.
Also, keep in mind the personnel that is now around James. He’s never played with an elite point guard like Kyrie Irving, but that’s just the beginning.
Similarly, the Eastern Conference is not what it was four years ago. Back then, James had legitimate challenges in the form of Boston or Chicago. Remember that Boston still had the strong contingent of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen then. Also, Derrick Rose won the MVP while leading the Bulls to conference’s top seed.
Chicago will likely be very good this season, but as good as this year’s Cavaliers? That hinges on Rose, who has barely played for two years. Sorry, I’m just not buying it. Even if James has regular rest days, this Cavaliers team is more than capable of getting 60 wins.
I expect Cavaliers coach David Blatt to really impress in his first year under the helm. Okay, so any coach is going to look good when they have James on their team, but I think that will especially be the case with Blatt.
Remember that Blatt is widely regarded as an offensive genius. Also, don’t sell his defensive prowess short either.
With Maccabi Tel Aviv, Blatt’s offense drew rave reviews. The offense is all about ball movement and spacing, and the Cavaliers’ personnel should fit perfectly in his scheme.
Players that can shoot from the perimeter, score in the paint and recognize the right pass excel, and James, Love and Irving can do all three of these things at an elite level. This offense could be scary good.
I expect Dion Waiters to average at least 17 points per game and gain recognition as one of the top five shooting guards in the NBA. That might seem like high praise for Waiters, but I distinctly see this as a possibility.
Remember when the Cavaliers drafted Waiters out of Syracuse? What player did former head coach Byron Scott most compare Waiters to?
If you remember, it was Dwayne Wade. Now, what player did James flourish playing alongside during the past four years? Yep, Wade.
Now, this is not going to be easy. Waiters is going to have to learn to sacrifice his touches just like Wade did.
However, if Waiters can make this sacrifice, then he could be a devastating option in this offense. By default, defenses are going to initially key in on James, Love and Irving, and that’s going to leave a lot of open looks for Waiters.
As Waiters eloquently said on Twitter, “Men lie, Women lie, Buckets don’t,” so you have to believe that he is salivating at this proposition. I would not be surprised in the least if Waiters finishes as the third-leading scorer on this team, behind only James and Love. There may be no player I am more excited to watch grow alongside James than Waiters.
I expect the Cavaliers to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. I will stop short of saying that I expect the Cavaliers to win the title, but I do expect them to have a chance at it.
As noted earlier, the Eastern Conference is down significantly, and that became even more true after the Indiana Pacers’ Paul George went down with a season-ending injury during a Team U.S.A. scrimmage.
Now, James did a good job at tempering expectations when he said the Bulls are much better than the Cavaliers, but take that for what it was. It was nothing more than James taking the high road. He’s clearly learned from his mistakes and remembers the backlash after he and his Heat comrades had the party in which he uttered the infamous comments, “The way we’re gonna challenge each other to get better in practice, once the game starts, I mean it’s gonna be easy… Not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven…” Need any more proof that James matured during his four years in Miami?
Nonetheless, the Cavaliers should still be the team to beat in the East, regardless of the fact that this core has yet to play a regular season game together. James has shown that he is a more-than-capable leader, and guys like Irving, Love, Tristan Thompson and Waiters are so hungry. They’ve never played in the postseason before, and they have to be relishing this opportunity.
Similarly, think about a guy like Anderson Varejao. He’s been a part of some rough teams as of late, but he was also here years earlier during the good times. How hungry do you think he is to relive those good times?
This is a young — but hungry — Cavaliers team with a mix of youngsters (Waiters, Irving, Thompson), players in their prime (James, Love) and experienced veterans (Varejao, Shawn Marion). That will make for a deadly combination.
I expect this season to be the most fun that Cleveland fans have had in years —maybe ever. Am I setting the bar too high?
Perhaps, but I’m a Cleveland fan. Unrealistic expectations is what we do best.
When we created this site, we chose the name Everybody Hates Cleveland because of the bad luck the city endures. It seemed witty and apropos.
However, my hope is that this season is the start of something so special that everybody really does start to hate Cleveland. I want to be the team that is hated because it is so consistently good.
In baseball, that team is the New York Yankees. In football, it’s the New England Patriots. Why can’t it be our Cavaliers in basketball?