The biggest story in the NBA this past summer centered around whether LeBron James would leave the Cleveland Cavaliers. James infamously left Cleveland back in 2010 after 7 seasons in order to join the Miami Heat. If you were following the NBA back then, you undoubtedly recall “The Decision.”
“The Decision” sparked all sorts of outrage, but James’ 4-year tenure with the Heat was incredibly successful. James helped the Heat win 2 titles while he was there, and Miami appeared in the NBA Finals every season. Following 4 years, however, James made the somewhat surprising decision to return to his hometown and try to lead the Cavaliers to their first-ever title.
In 2016, he did just that. LeBron led the Cavs to the most dramatic NBA Finals comeback in history, leading the team to a win on the road in Game 7 against a 73-win Golden State Warriors team that previously held a 3-1 series lead. With his stated goal accomplished, some wondered whether LeBron would remain in Cleveland for the duration of his career, or if he would leave to find a new opportunity.
This summer, we got our answer when it was announced that James had signed a 4-year deal to join the Los Angeles Lakers. James’ decision to leave Cleveland back in 2010 proved to be a disastrous blow to the franchise. The following season the Cavaliers finished 19-63, which was the worst record in the Eastern Conference. They were rewarded for their troubles, however, when they won the draft lottery and ultimately selected Kyrie Irving first overall. The Cavs then took Tristan Thompson fourth overall that same year, followed by Dion Waiters (fourth overall) in 2012 and Anthony Bennett (first overall) in 2013. The fact that the Cavs won the lottery twice in the 4 years LeBron was gone speaks to their incredible struggles.
Will the Cavs instantly plummet to the bottom of the standings now that LeBron has left for a second time? Thompson doesn’t think so. When asked about what he thinks of the Cavaliers’ chances this week, Thompson said, “We’re still the 4-time Eastern Conference champions, so until you take us down from that, teams ain’t got much to say. Boston, Philly, they ain’t got much to say. Boston had home court in Game 7 and lost. Philly, you guys almost got swept. Toronto, we already know that story. So until someone takes us down, there’s not much they can really say.”
Thompson is confident in his team, we have to give him that. However, the odds certainly tell a different story. Here are the current odds (via BetOnline) to win the Eastern Conference:
- Boston Celtics -110
- Philadelphia 76ers +350
- Toronto Raptors +400
- Miami Heat +1400
- Indiana Pacers +2000
- Milwaukee Bucks +2000
- Washington Wizards +2500
- New York Knicks +5000
- Chicago Bulls +6600
- Detroit Pistons +6600
- Atlanta Hawks +10000
- Charlotte Hornets +10000
- Orlando Magic +10000
- Cleveland Cavaliers +10000
- Brooklyn Nets +25000
You’ll notice the Cavs down there near the bottom at +10000 to win the East, tied with also-rans like the Magic, Hornets and Hawks. Not great! Thompson was talking a big game, but oddsmakers pretty clearly aren’t buying what the LeBron-free Cavs are selling at this point. Does Thompson have a point? Are the Cavaliers being overlooked as a potential sleeper bet?
More Talent Now
It’s not a hot take to say that LeBron left the Cavs in a better place this time than he did the first time around. Losing Kyrie Irving last summer via trade was obviously a blow to the team’s non-LeBron future, but there is still plenty to like about this roster. Cleveland inked Kevin Love to a lucrative new contract extension a few months ago, while rookie point guard Collin Sexton was one of the highest-rated players in the draft.
The Cavs also have a decent group of supporting talent with players like Thompson, Kyle Korver, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., George Hill and J.R. Smith. The team also brought Rodney Hood back on a team-friendly deal and intriguing youngsters like David Nwaba and Cedi Osman figure to see big roles with James no longer eating up so many minutes on the wing.
When LeBron left the first time, the Cavs’ rotation featured luminaries like Antawn Jamison, Baron Davis, J.J. Hickson, Jamario Moon and Luke Harangody. It was a dark time in Cleveland, indeed.
With James on board, the Cavs swept the Raptors in last season’s playoffs before getting past the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. They were ultimately swept by the Warriors in the Finals. Without James, the Cavaliers have been installed with an implied total of 30 ½ wins ahead of next season. The teams Thompson referenced, the Celtics, Raptors and 76ers, all have implied win totals north of 50 for the upcoming season.
If the Cavaliers are going to exceed expectations, they are going to need the Timberwolves version of Love to show up. With James and Irving around, Love was relegated to third banana. Now that he’s the only one left, I expect him to assume a massive offensive role. I am definitely not convinced that he’ll instantly go back to being that guy that put up 20-20 lines seemingly every night, but I think he’s a lock to average a double-double along with 20-plus points a night.
The team will also need Sexton to mature quickly. He will presumably be tasked with manning the starting point guard duties at some point, and they are going to need him to play like a star if they want to seriously compete for a playoff spot.
As crazy as it sounds, I think the Cavs are being undervalued. Losing the best player in the history of the game is, uh, a problem, but it’s not like the bottom half of the Eastern Conference is littered with titans. The cream of the crop at the top speaks for itself, but you can get the Cavs at +300 to make the playoffs. Why can’t this team nab a No. 8 seed? It’s a roster with tons of veteran experience, and they’ll be presumably duking it out with teams like the Hornets, Pacers and Pistons near the bottom half of the playoff picture. Are the Hornets, Pacers or Pistons clearly better than the Cavaliers? At this point, I don’t think we can say so definitively.
Can the Cavs Win the East?
Can the Cavs make a trade prior to or during the season that will propel them toward the top of the conference? Of course. We heard last week that Cleveland is one of the teams that had interest in trading for Timberwolves All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler. Whether the Cavs have enough assets to tempt the Wolves into making that kind of trade remains to be seen, but there is some flexibility here that could help them improve the roster in short order.
The betting value on Cleveland to win the conference at +10000 is obvious, Of course, there’s a reason for that number, as well. I still think they are being undervalued, but at this point the Celtics, 76ers and Raptors pretty clearly have rosters closer to title contention than the Cavs do. Kevin Love is an All-Star caliber player, but Boston, Philly and Toronto each have multiple All-Stars along with an array of high-upside young players.
Taking the Cavs to represent the Eastern Conference in the Finals for a fifth year running would be a bit aggressive, even for the most risk-tolerant bettor. I think Cleveland at +300 to make the playoffs is a strong bet, but at this point taking the Raptors, Celtics or 76ers to win the conference looks like the smarter path to take.