Hello: Devin Brown, Cedric Simmons, Demetris Nichols.
Goodbye: David Wesley, Scot Pollard.
Last season: Fishished the regular season at 50-32. Lost 4-0 to the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA finals.
Coach: Mike Brown. Career record: 100-64. Playoffs: 19-14.
After a Cavs offseason highlighted by holdouts, I am elated to begin this preview with a bit of good news. Sasha Pavlovic's limbo has ended. A three-year deal has been agreed to and so our starting two guard will be in wine and gold by Friday's game agains the Knicks. One down, one to go. Wake up, Anderson Varejao.
The signing restores much of the optimism that had been frittered away in the months since the NBA finals. Most of the national media agree: the Cavs will falter in the playoffs this year, and every fan should bow down and praise whatever benevolent god cleared the way to the finals last spring. I remind the sporting world that the Cavs beat the mighty Pistons in the conference finals, and beat them soundly. Why? Because the Cavs were better. The best team in the East, in fact.
Then came the finals.
Yes, they were overmatched by the Spurs. Yes, I was disappointed that they did little to improve this offseason. No, I do not agree with the national media. Which teams, exactly, are supposed to rival us? Who are the contenders?
The Bucks? They have Michael Redd and an untested rookie center from China. Mo Williams? Charlie Villanueva? Sorry, not scary. Don't bet on the playoffs, Milwaukee.
The Heat? Shaquille O'neal is borderline NBA ancient. He has something to prove this season and he won't. To worsen matters, Dwayne Wade has yet to even practice with a team that is resorting to Ricky Davis. Good luck.
The Knicks? Just kidding.
The Raptors? Chris Bosh is a legitimate star and worthy of his draft class. They surged at the end of last season, only to fizzle to the Nets in the first round of the playoffs, which brings us to...
The Nets? Vince Carter was manhandled by Sasha Pavlovic in the playoffs, a microcosm of what the Cavs did to the Nets. The trio of Kidd, Jefferson and Carter has never won and they never will. I'm not sure why they gave Carter all that money. Nenad Krstic's return is big for them, but not enough.
The Magic? Dwight Howard is going to be a force for many years. Jameer Nelson is a nice piece. Bringing in Rashard Lewis is an intriguing move, but then I wonder: what the hell has Rashard Lewis ever done? Soon Magic fans will be asking why ownership shelled out so much for the guy.
The Wizards? A healthy Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler make this an interesting squad. Still, the Cavs have beaten the Wiz in the playoffs two consecutive years. As I recall, Agent Zero was healthy the first time around.
The Bulls? What have the Bulls needed more than anything in the past two seasons? Low post scoring. Who have they hired to provide it? Ben Wallace and Joakim Noah. I don't get it. This is a tough team, capable of winning in the early rounds of the playoffs.
The Pistons? What in the world have they done to get better after being dismantled by the Cavs in the conference finals? I know, I know...Rodney Stuckey and Amir Johnson. Rasheed Wallace is done winning championships.
The Celtics? They have perhaps the best-balanced three-man punch in the league. Remeber, though, that these much heralded superstars have accomplished very little in their careers beside putting up big numbers. And what else do the Celts have on their roster? Junk. Still, those three guys....
And what about the Cavaliers? Let's take a stroll through the roster before I make my official prediction for this year's team.
LeBron James: James is the best player in the NBA. He scores, passes, rebounds, defends and is a leader who challenges his teammates to keep up with him. Better still, LeBron worked like a fiend on his jumpshot in the offseason. An embarrassing sweep in the NBA finals has made him hungrier. Barring injury, watch for him to win his first MVP award. He will also become the all-time leading scorer for the Cavaliers, surpassing Brad Daugherty, in only his fifth season.
Zydrunas Ilgauskas: By now I think we know Z's assets. He is a great jump shooter and one of the best offensive rebounders in the game. Critics point to his defense, although he must be competent enough for the Cavs to have had the number 1 defense in the playoffs last year. Still, Ilgauskas, a Cavalier great, is now 31 and has had 1,000 foot surgeries. His career is going to be winding down sooner than later.
Drew Gooden: In Gooden the Cavs have another excellent all-around rebounder. Coupled with Z on the offensive glass, the Cavs frontcourt gives other teams fits. With Anderson Varejao holding out for god knows how long, look for Drew to get big minutes and more shots. As an offensive player, he has been underused for years. Give him credit for never bitching about it.
Larry Hughes: No more excuses. Larry is healthy and he vows to be the slashing, scoring guard the Cavs signed two seasons ago. Even with his shortcomings he was key helping the Cavs whip the Pistons. The Cavs need 16+ points and at least 65 games from Hughes, always a struggle for him. His inability to contain Tony Parker cost the Cavs a title.
Sasha Pavlovic: I've always championed Sasha and wondered why he didn't get more minutes. Since committing to defense, he has made himself invaluable to the Cavs' success. Quick, strong and brimming with talent, Pavlovic needs now to add consistency to his game. I'm still pissed at him for holding out and missing training camp. Absurd, but whatever. Now prove you're worth the investment.
Daniel Gibson: Boobie is a born shooter, and his role will be to add instant firepower off the bench. Look for him to build on his success in the playoffs, when he burst upon the scene by racking up 31 against the Pistons in the elimination game. Strong defender who also drives to the hoop. Not a good enough passer to solve the Cavs PG problems. Without Anderson, Boobie is first off the bench. Gibson's performance will be critical to the Cavs success this season.
Damon Jones: Disgruntled and wanting a trade, Jones is going to have to accept his role on a team that went to the finals for now. Poor guy. And just what is his role? Very small. The absence of Eric Snow will boost his minutes early in the season, so he'd better drain some jumpers and deal a few dimes. Jones is the team's worst defender.
Donyell Marshall: If Marshall doesn't produce early, he will be banished to the end of the bench for the rest of his career. Needs to hit threes and rebound if he wants to survive, and I'm not sure he's capable at this point. Aside from one brilliant game, Donyell was awful in the playoffs last year.
Eric Snow: Please retire. I can't watch you slow the offense down anymore. I can't watch you miss shots. Become a coach.
Shannon Brown: Perhaps the second most gifted athlete on the team, Brown has big problems controlling his turnovers and making shots. Not a good recipe for getting minutes. Still promising, still a project. Will get a chance though.
Ira Newble: Newble hasn't played in three years, and yet he never goes away. Solid defender. Nonentity.
Dwayne Jones: Worked his way onto the team with hustle and rebounding. Anyone remember another hustling rebounder named Scot Pollard?
Devin Brown: Brown was brought in as a Pavlovic replacement. A career 41% shooting backup journeyman guard is not what I had in mind this offseason for a title contender looking to improve.
Cedric Simmons: Since when are we loading our roster with former Hornets? Simmons has a big upside and likely won't see the light of day for a good, long while.
Demetris Nichols: Can you say D-League?
Anderson Varejao???: Make no mistake, the lack of Anderson Varejao will hurt. Not as much as giving him a ludicrous contract would hurt, though. The Cavs need his rebounding and defensive skills off the bench, because Donyell Marshall can't do it anymore.
There you have it. The core, save Anderson, is intact. The team is good, but hardly great. So, why so few changes in the offseason? Partially because so much money is tied up in Hughes, Marshall and Damon Jones. Another reason, which people don't want to hear, is that the Cavs are looking ahead to the next offseason, when they will have more flexibility.
But that core is a good core. Really good. Good enough to make another terrific playoff run. And don't count out a midseason deal to shake things up (Don't count on one, either).
Coach Mike Brown has done what he promised from day one: mold the team into a defensive powerhouse. Now he needs to take the primitive offense to another level. The preseason was dedicated to just that, so let's see how LeBron and the rest of the team react. In James, Gooden, Ilgauskas, Hughes, Gibson and Pavlovic, the Cavs have plenty of talent on offense. A more sophisticated offense should allow those talents to flourish.
So, without further ado, here is Nate's official prediction for the 2008-09 Cavaliers: 52-30, Eastern Conference champs. The Cavs may start slow, as the early part of the schedule is loaded with playoff teams, but eventually Anderson will re-sign, the offense will click and the wins will come. There is no team in the east that scares me at this point. By the end of the regular season, the Cavs will be geared up for the playoffs, where I predict they will fall to the Spurs in six games in the finals. Until a true point guard comes along, they won't make the final leap to greatness. Still, this is a team built to win in the postseason, where high-flying offenses go to die.
Can't wait. Go Cavs!