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Around the East, Part I: Cleveland Cavaliers

Over the next few weeks, Brian Fleurantin will be giving us his take on some of the more interesting teams the Nets will face his season. First up, the remade Cleveland Cavaliers, who the Nets face for the first time December 8 at Barclays.

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After the 2013-2014 regular season ended, the Cleveland Cavaliers were a franchise in flux. They had missed the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season, rolled snake eyes on the 2013 Number One pick Anthony Bennett, and looked to be a long shot to acquire any of the major free agents.

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After signing Jarrett Jack and Andrew Bynum in the summer, the Cavs fancied themselves as playoff contenders in a weak bottom half of the Eastern Conference. Unfortunately, it didn't work that way for them as injuries and terrible play conspired to keep them out of the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. With four straight losing seasons and an owner viewed as a whiny joke, things were not looking good for the Cavaliers heading into the offseason.

1. What significant moves were made in the offseason?

The Cavaliers have had a busy, busy off-season. In May, the team named interim General Manager David Griffin (then GM Chris Grant was fired in January 2014) the permanent GM. Head coach Mike Brown was fired (again) and after a month long search, they hired David Blatt to fill the vacancy.

On the personnel side, things were busy as well. The team won the number one pick in the Draft Lottery and drafted Kansas wingman Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins played well in the Summer League, but the goals of the team changed rapidly after he was drafted. With those rapidly changing goals and Kevin Love wanting out of Minnesota, the Cavs were able to move Wiggins, last year's number one pick Anthony Bennett and a future draft pick for Love. They also added some veteran depth, signing Shawn Marion, Mike Miller, and James Jones.

But of course, the biggest move of the entire NBA off-season was LeBron James rejoining the team on a two year deal. The move is huge for basketball reasons (which we'll get to in a minute), but Joseph Gray over at Slam Magazine keys in on something more important for the Ohio area:

As I watch the news on the day of the decision, I see the hope being reborn. I see revitalization happening over again. People have smiles on their faces, a pep in their steps, the love has come back home, and all of it came through a Sports Illustrated article entitled, ‘I’m Coming Home.’ I smile, too…

With these acquisitions, the Cavaliers are going to be a must watch team after being down in the doldrums for the last four years.

2. What are the strengths of this team?

LeBron James. I could stop right there, but that wouldn't do it justice. When we last saw him with the Cavs, he was still the best player in the league, but his game was a bit different. In the 2009-2010 season, Bron attempted 788 jump shots, including a career high 387 three pointers. In Miami, that ratio changed dramatically as Erik Spoelstra had Bron playing closer to the basket and as a result, Bron became an even better player than he was during his first stint in Cleveland. With the new talent around him, he won't have to carry as much of the load as he did during his first Cleveland run and last postseason with Miami. With Kyrie Irving being deemed the primary ball handler, LeBron won't have to expend as much energy on offense and can channel it into his defense.

When you have a player like LeBron, you need to have shooters to help space the floor. With that in mind, the Cavs brought in two of the league's best three shooters. Mike Miller and James Jones have been excellent three point shooters throughout their careers and with defenses so keyed in on the superstars, they should get plenty of great looks. Love is also a terrific passing big man and that presents a lot more options for the Cavaliers, particularly in transition.

With Love and Anderson Varejao, the Cavaliers should control the glass on both sides of the ball.  When healthy, they've been two of the best rebounders in the league and that trend should continue this year. Don't forget about Tristan Thompson coming off the bench as well. He was a shade outside of the league leaderboards, but was still very good on the glass. He hasn't missed a game in two seasons and that will be crucial as he is currently the first big man slated to come off of the bench. Bron is a good rebounder as well, and depending on how the Cavs choose to play on defense, he could become even better. The Heat placed a great emphasis on forcing turnovers (Top Five the last three seasons and led the Association last year) so there wasn't a real need for LeBron to hit the glass that often. That will probably be the case in Cleveland as James is better utilized hassling perimeter players instead of banging on the inside chasing rebounds.

3. What are the weaknesses?

Injuries have been a problem over the past four seasons. Anderson Varejao has missed 166 games over the last four seasons due to a variety of injuries. Mike Miller has a long documented injury history and Love has missed a fair amount of games in recent seasons as well. Depth is always something to worry about, and with a new team trying to compete for a championship composed of key players with injury histories, you have to be mindful of that and manage minutes accordingly.

Depending on how you see him, Dion Waters could be considered a weakness as well. He made improvements last season, but he still faced heavy criticism around the league. And when you take into account his alleged squabble with Kyrie Irving, the narrative around him isn't all that positive. However, we may be looking at Waiters all wrong. The fine folks over at sister site Fear the Sword have been focused on the discussion surrounding Waiters' and pointed out that his play is actually similar to well regarded second going on third year shooting guard, Washington's Bradley Beal. Waiters has gotten some guff over the summer, but so far appears willing to adjust his game to suit the new firepower on the roster. As FtS pointed out, Waiters can function as a sort of jack of all trades. One thing that will help this transition is his improved three point shooting. He shot a respectable 36.8 percent from deep last year and with all of the opportunities he will receive due to the attention being given to the big guys, it's gonna be up to him to become even better from downtown.

The amount of time it'll take for the roster isn't a weakness per se, just something to keep an eye on. New coach David Blatt will have to adjust to the NBA as well get three incredibly high usage players to fit on offense. For Love, he spent most of last season behind the three point line and the expectation is that he will play closer to the basket. As for LeBron, he won't be initiating the offense as much as he used to, but if his two runs in the Olympics are an indication, he'll be fine.

Defensively, there could be some issues initially. Love, Irving and Waiters have been poor defenders throughout their young careers, so the initial onus on defense will fall on LeBron, Varejao and Marion coming off of the bench. They'll be able to cover for Irving and Love but it'll be up to Blatt to put them in a position to succeed defensively or hide them whenever possible.

4. What are the goals of this team?

Here's where it gets tricky. With LeBron, the Cavs are automatically contenders for the Eastern Conference Championship. As for reaching the Finals for the first time since 2007, let's pass the mic to Bron:

I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010. My patience will get tested. I know that. I’m going into a situation with a young team and a new coach. I will be the old head. But I get a thrill out of bringing a group together and helping them reach a place they didn’t know they could go.

It's important to note that this was written in the middle of July, and the basketball world has dramatically changed since then. With the acquisition of Love and the catastrophic injury to Paul George, Cleveland is the early favorite to capture the Eastern Conference Championship for the first time since 2007. They'll face tough competition from a healthy Chicago Bulls team, revamped Miami Heat and the upstart Washington Wizards. However, the Cavs have the most top flight talent in the Conference and it's never a good idea to bet against LeBron James. It took the Heat a season to really get comfortable with each other, so don't be surprised if the same thing happens with Cleveland.

5. Big money, big stage, big pressure

With a new five year extension and LeBron James back in town, things are looking up for Kyrie Irving. Since entering the league in 2011, he's been to the All Star game twice (winning the MVP last year) and has become one of the league's more popular and well regarded players.

But despite those accolades, there are some questions about Irving. He's missed 49 games over the last three seasons due to a variety of injuries. He's also never been someone (at Duke and in the NBA) that has had to focus primarily distributing the ball instead of scoring. His assist numbers have dipped each season while he's had to take on more responsibility on offense. Kyrie did average 20.8 points per game, but only shot 43 percent from the field as he got practically no help from his teammates. However, the biggest issue with Kyrie might be his poor play on the defensive end. He isn't regarded as a particularly competent individual defender, and the team has been worse when he's on the floor. In his three seasons, the Cavs have been five points worse per 100 possessions with Irving on the floor each year.

With new talent and a new deal, there's going to be a lot of pressure on Irving to play well this year. This is the most talented roster he's played with and there won't be any excuses made for him if he doesn't play as one of the league's best point guards. He's got the long term security players dream of so he won't be stuck answering leading questions from little kids. He doesn't have to shoulder the entire load on offense so look for his shooting percentages to improve as LeBron and Love will create a variety of good looks on the perimeter and driving lanes to the basket. He'll be challenged as soon as the season begins when he faces Derrick Rose & Damian Lillard back to back after the Opening Night contest against the Knicks. He's clearly one of the league's most talented players and now that he has some help, he should be able to reach his full potential. If not, he'll end up facing an endless stream of questions about whether he is the right kind of point guard to lead a team to an NBA Championship.

More reading: Fear the Sword