July 15, 2016, 10:00 am
In many ways, the 2015-16 season felt like it belonged to the Warriors. Their efforts to catch Jordan’s Bulls dominated news cycle after news cycle, as the organization planted its flag in the “best team ever” conversation. This narrative, however, neglected to mention the reigning Eastern Conference Champions who were hoping to return to the Finals as well. In the end, the Dubs were undone by LeBron James and his own quest for recognition. After two years of hard fought growth in Cleveland, the King brought the Cavs back from a 3-1 Finals deficit to spoil Golden State’s chance at history. Hoop Ball’s Post-Mortem series takes a look at what happened in Cleveland.
The Cavs kept the band together after losing to the Warriors in the 2014-15 Finals. LeBron continued with the team on another 1+1 contract, they resigned Kevin Love to a max deal and retained Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and Matthew Dellavedova. The team brought in veterans Mo Williams and Richard Jefferson to round out their roster and set their eyes on again reigning over the East.
The journey wasn’t altogether smooth, however. Despite quickly assuming the top spot in the conference, unrest continued. Stories chronicling frustrations between the players and head coach David Blatt became more and more prevalent, and eventually the organization opted to fire him on January 22. In his place, the Cavs elevated assistant coach (and longtime LeBron confidant) Tyronn Lue.
On the court not much changed under Lue. The Cavs were fourth in offensive efficiency and tenth on the defensive end, finishing 57-25 and securing the number one seed in the conference entering the playoffs. As had been the case the season before, the team was emphatically the best in the East, but looked overmatched compared to their rivals out West.
Aside from a few mental lapses that prolonged the Eastern Conference Finals against Toronto, the Cavs coasted to the Finals. Once there things seemingly began to fall apart for LeBron and his merry men, as they quickly fell behind 3-1 to the Warriors, getting blown out twice in Oakland and dropping a critical game four back in Cleveland. No team had ever came back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals.
We all know the rest: LeBron played the best three game stretch of his career and carried the Cavs to a title. The Cavs’ defense came alive thanks to LeBron’s rim protection and willingness to switch onto Steph Curry. Kyrie Irving found his shot just when the team needed him most, and Kevin Love – frequently maligned as a superstar turned contract albatross – provided critical rebounding, screening and passing in the Cavs’ Game 7 upset at Oracle Arena.
The future for the Cavs is less clear. They seem content to retain the majority of their current core, and no major threat formed in the East during free agency. Their path to the Finals is as clear as ever. The Warriors, on the other hand, reloaded and look poised to take back their crown. The Cavs will enter the season as the rare defending champions who will not be the most scrutinized team in the league, but their ability to repeat is very much in doubt.
It’s hard to decipher the specific impact of Blatt or Lue on this Cavs’ season. Blatt’s basic principles – simplified during the 2014-15 playoffs – remained in place even after he was fired, and while Lue made some critical postseason adjustments his ability to coach an NBA franchise is still very much unclear.
That said, players did seem to respond to Lue, and their defensive intensity during the Finals was nothing short of remarkable. Next season, Lue will again be charged with finding a balance between his two ball dominant players and better utilizing Love. From a fantasy perspective, it seems safe to assume that the dynamic established this season probably isn’t going anywhere. James is the established King and Irving will get his shots, leaving only leftovers for Love. Lue might try and shake things up, but at this point players’ roles are pretty much established.
ADP: 5/5 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 6/10 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 7/9 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 76
Facing playoff elimination LeBron remains the best player in the league. That statement isn’t controversial at this point, but for regular season fantasy owners it’s fair to note the ways in which LeBron has slipped. He remains a first round fantasy asset, and his ability to contribute across the board remains impressive, but his days of being a top-three player are probably behind him.
In returning to Cleveland last season LeBron’s value was drained by his decreased efficiency. In his last two seasons in Miami he averaged 56.6% from the field, a number that would be excellent for a big man who doesn’t need to do anything on offense but dunk. He was the single biggest contributor in that category from 2011 to 2014, but then suddenly shot just 48.8% in his first season after returning home. That number might sound fine, but when we are talking about players at the absolute apex of fantasy hoops the slightest dip can have a sizeable impact.
Last year, LeBron righted his shooting by bullying his way into the paint. Despite the hundreds of stories written about James’ broken jumper he managed to shoot 52% from the floor by taking a staggering percentage of his shots at the rim. His threes per game dropped to 1.1 as a result, but the rest of his counting stats were impressive. LeBron averaged 25.3 points, 7.4 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 1.4 steals and 0.6 blocks per game, making him one of a handful of players to meaningfully move the needle in nearly every fantasy category.
Next season, we should see more of the same from LeBron. Even as he enters his age 32 campaign he remains an absolute fantasy force, and while it may be time to consider selling LeBron in dynasty leagues he should still be considered a first round pick in any redraft format.
ADP: 33/23 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 33/34 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 46/38 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 77
When Love resigned with the Cavs last offseason every major sports outlet ran a story claiming that the he and the organization were finally on the same page. Speculation abounded that Love would be seeing more touches in the post and operating with the ball at the elbow to work as a facilitator. These plans sounded intriguing in August, but by November it was clear little had changed. There remains only one basketball on the floor, and LeBron and Irving continued to get their touches before factoring Love into the equation.
Love’s final numbers look almost identical to what he produced during his first season in Cleveland. Averaging 16 points, 2.1 treys, 9.9 boards, 2.4 assists, 0.8 steals and 0.5 blocks, Love offered diverse stats for a big man. His production in both threes and assists in particular, along with an 82.2% free throw percentage, allowed for fantasy owners to fill holes in their roster from an unexpected source. That being said, he shot a putrid 41.8% from the floor, a number made doubly awful by the fact that it’s coming from your power forward.
The skillset that made Love a top-5 player in Minnesota hasn’t disappeared, but situation and role are powerful fantasy factors. As long as he remains in Cleveland, he is functionally a role player with a famous name. If you can draft him next season as a solid stretch four, great, but let someone else talk himself or herself into the notion of a bounce back season.
ADP: 38/26 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 114/123 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 52/60 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 53
After Irving fractured his kneecap in the 2014-15 Finals he became a polarizing figure in fantasy circles. Yes, he’d had significant injury concerns throughout his entire career, but from 2012 to 2015 Irving had finished as a top-12 player twice and a top-24 player once on a per game basis. You knew you weren’t getting a full compliment of games from him, but it was safe to assume Irving would produce when he was on the court.
This year things were different. Irving didn’t return until the middle of December, and when he did he wasn’t quite himself. He finished with averages of 19.6 points, 1.6 threes, 2.9 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.1 steals per game, noticeably slipping in threes, assists and steals. As he recovered from his knee injury Irving was obviously lacking some of his signature quickness, struggling to finish at the rim and pull up in tight spaces. Even setting aside the 29 games he missed, he still finished outside the top-50 on the player rater, the worst mark of his career.
Irving is slipping to the middle of the third round in most early rankings, and, despite the concerns enumerated here, that seems about right. He is still only 24, and injuries as severe as the one he experienced last season can take more than a full calendar year to recover. As the third player on your team Irving offers a level of upside that’s hard to come by, and could be a steal on draft day if he returns to form.
ADP: 89/108 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 90/66 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 111/86 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 77
Smith is primarily a single category contributor in Cleveland, but he does just enough across the board to warrant a starting spot in most fantasy leagues. In 30.7 minutes he averaged 12.4 points, 2.6 threes, 2.8 boards, 1.7 assists and 1.1 steals per contest. The threes are significant in fantasy leagues, and his ability to give you a solid source of steals helps as well. That said, Smith’s woeful shooting takes a lot off the table. He shot 41.6% on 11 attempts per game, which proved a significant drain on his fantasy value.
While it isn’t official yet, Smith is expected to resign with the Cavs this offseasons and slot right back into his same role next year. Owners shouldn’t expect more than what he’s offered since arriving in Cleveland, but Smith is a surprisingly stable fantasy asset at this point in his career.
ADP: 110/127 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 111/89 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 158/126 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 82
While Thompson’s numbers are far from spectacular, he provided enough as a rebounding specialist to remain ownable in all leagues. Thompson averaged 7.8 points, nine rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.5 steals and 0.6 blocks. He shot an impressive 58.8% from the field, but only took 5.1 shots per game, muting the impact of his stellar shooting percentage. Thompson also struggled from the line, averaging just 61.6% from the stripe on three attempts per game.
Between his free throw woes and lack of rim protection Thompson’s upside is limited in fantasy even as a starting center. Next season should be more of the same, meaning he’ll be a late round pick for those looking to sure up their rebounding numbers.
ADP: N/A / N/A (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 170/188 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 198/223 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 76
Dellavedova was critical for the Cavs but only had flashes of fantasy relevance this year, most of which occurred during Irving’s early season absence. Averaging 24.6 minutes, 7.5 points, 2.1 boards, 4.4 assists, 0.6 steals and 1.3 threes, he didn’t offer much beyond assists and threes. Dellavedova is penciled in to start in Milwaukee next season, and while he’ll see more minutes he will likely remain the fourth or fifth option on offense, limiting his fantasy upside.
ADP: N/A / N/A (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 213/196 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 243/202 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 70
Despite playing a key role in the playoffs, Frye was little more than bench depth after being traded to the Cavs this season. Averaging 17.1 minutes, six points, 3.3 rebounds, one assist and 1.3 threes, his only real fantasy contribution came from his ability to knock down the three ball. Frye’s defensive limitations will keep him locked into a bench role going forward, and he isn’t worth drafting next fall.
ADP: 140/127 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 243/234 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 216/206 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 54
Between injuries and middling play Shumpert offered little to fantasy owners in 2015-16. Averaging 24.4 minutes, 5.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.8 threes, one steal and 0.4 blocks he failed to make an impact in standard leagues. If he can stay healthy it’s possible Shumpert is able to provide the well rounded contributions that made him a worthwhile player in 2014-15, but owners can safely monitor his early season progress while leaving him on the waiver wire.
ADP: 110/119 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 195/189 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 244/230 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 76
Finishing inside the top-200 in total value downplays how putrid Mozgov was for fantasy purposes this season. It’s obviously positive when a player stays consistently healthy, but on a per game basis Mozgov was unownable in almost every league. He averaged just 17.4 minutes, 6.4 points, 4.4 boards and 0.8 blocks. Mozgov was reportedly battling injuries all season, and should see his minutes increase in Los Angeles next year, so a bounce back season isn’t out of the question.
ADP: 112/138 (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 308/319 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 255/296 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 41
Williams was a solid bench contributor in his 41 games for the Cavs last season, but made little impact on the fantasy landscape. He tallied 18.2 minutes, 8.2 points, 0.9 threes, 2.4 assists and 0.3 steals per contest, while shooting 43.7% from the floor. Williams simply doesn’t contribute enough to justify a spot on most standard league rosters.
ADP: N/A / N/A (ESPN/Yahoo), Total Value: 262/254 (8/9 cat), Per-Game Value: 319/302 (8/9 cat), Games Played: 74
Despite being a legitimate Finals hero for the Cavs, Jefferson was largely off the fantasy radar this season. He averaged 17.9 minutes, 5.5 points, 0.9 threes and 1.7 boards, making him little better than a streaming option for owners in need of threes. Jefferson signed a two-year deal to remain in Cleveland, but won’t see enough minutes to warrant drafting.
Right now Cleveland gets to bask in post-title bliss, but the looming threat of the Warriors casts a long shadow. The Cavs’ path through the East remains as clear as ever, and as long as they have LeBron you can’t completely ride them off. That being said, the Cavs might face one of the tougher title defenses in history. How they respond to yet another super team will be fascinating, as Cleveland represents perhaps the only real threat to a Warriors’ dynasty.