Cavaliers center Tristan Thompson has been talking the talk. Beginning tonight in Toronto, the LeBron James-less Cavs will have to start walking the walk.
“We’re still four-time Eastern Conference champions, so until you take us down from that, (you) ain’t got much to say,” Thompson said early in training camp. “Boston, Philly, they ain’t got much to say.
“Boston had home court Game 7 and lost (to the Cavs in the 2018 Eastern Conference finals). Philly, you guys almost got swept (earlier in the postseason). Toronto, we already know that story. So until someone takes us down, there’s not much they can really say.”
Perhaps trying to step up as a team leader or maybe craving attention after a few appearances on “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” Thompson backed off only slightly following the Cavs’ last preseason game.
“We’re a playoff team,” he said. “That’s realistic. Everyone that says playoffs is overachieving doesn’t know our squad and doesn’t believe in our squad. For us, we’re a playoff team. We just have to go out there, be ourselves and prove the naysayers wrong, which we will.”
Time — and 82 regular-season games — will tell.
A season ago, with four-time league MVP James not missing a game for the first time in his 15-year career and putting up monster numbers, the Cavs won 50 games and barely held onto the No. 4 seed in the East.
The last time James departed, after the 2009-10 season, Cleveland finished 19-63 the following year and suffered a 26-game losing streak that extended to dropping 36 out of 37 games.
The Cavs aren’t in total rebuilding, tank mode this time around, and aren’t interested in how low they can go when it comes to obtaining a high draft pick. They vow to compete every night and don’t seem to be the slightest bit concerned with the fact they won’t have their first-round choice in the 2019 NBA Draft if it is not in the top 10.
Whether that motivation, plan and outlook will be enough to secure one of eight playoffs spots in the East remains to be seen.
“It’s definitely going to be a challenge,” said power forward Kevin Love, the team’s best player who signed a four-year, $120 million contract extention in the offseason when he got assurances the Cavs were going to do their best to compete. “It’s definitely going to be a growth year for us. We feel like if we’re in shape, if we play physical, if we shoot the ball well, we’re going to give ourselves a chance.
“Anytime you lose the best player in the world, you take a step back. I didn’t want to be a part of something where we were tanking or we were going to be in the lottery every year.”
The Cavs could well be in the lottery following this season, but they certainly won’t land the No. 1 pick three times in four years — Kyrie Irving in 2011, Anthony Bennett in 2013, Andrew Wiggins in 2014 — like they did the first time James left town.
Cleveland also could sneak into the playoffs — and probably lose quickly in the first round — in an Eastern Conference that still isn’t nearly as good as the West.
Boston and Philadelphia, despite Thompson’s boastful statements, are very good. Toronto and Indiana lead the next tier, followed by teams like Washington, Milwaukee and maybe Miami.
That’s still only seven teams, leaving at least one playoff spot open for a number of organizations that either could go into rebuilding mode later in the season or have a number of things come together and seriously contend for the postseason.
The Cavs, who didn’t sniff the playoffs in their four seasons without James the first time, vow to compete and, if things go as well as planned, contend.
“The culture is still the same,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “We want to continue to win games while developing players. Most development comes from playing meaningful games.”
To be playing meaningful games in February, March and early April, the Cavs will need not only a healthy Love, but a very productive Love.
They’ll also need a great rookie season from 19-year-old point guard Collin Sexton, who will come off the bench at the start but will eventually replace 32-year-old veteran George Hill in the starting lineup, a breakout season from second-year small forward Cedi Osman and a big bounce-back season — at least when it comes to his performance with Cleveland — from shooting guard Rodney Hood.
“He’s probably ready (to start), but we want to ease him into it and make sure he’s comfortable,” Lue said of Sexton. “He’s going to have his chance.”
Sexton, who outperformed Hill for most of the preseason, is extremely athletic and quick, but needs to improve his shot selection and ability to get others involved.
“I think Collin has done a great job,” said Lue, a former point guard. “I want him to understand the game, understand how to run the offense, understand how to pick and choose his spots.
“G-Hill is a great veteran to learn from. Just watching him and talking to him every day is good for (Sexton). ... (Sexton) has done a good job of controlling the team and controlling the game. He’s only going to get better.”
The No. 8 pick in the draft after just one season at Alabama, Sexton has the kind of ability — and will get the kind of playing time — that could lead to him being involved in NBA Rookie of the Year conversations.
The 6-foot-2, 190-pounder also can get off a shot whenever he wants. The key will be learning when to take it and making enough to force defenses to play him honestly.
“When I was first out there, I’d be a little jittery, just because it’s the first time I ever experienced this,” Sexton said. “I’ve calmed down a little bit.
“I feel like when I get in that mid-range, I’ve got to make the shots, because it will open up everything else. I just have to make sure I make those shots and do my job.”
Hood was a 16-point scorer in Utah, but struggled mightily after being traded to the Cavs, to the point where he was removed from the rotation for a chunk of the postseason.
Now he’s starting at shooting guard, where the Cavs are hopeful he can return to his production with the Jazz in a fast-paced offense that will feature a lot less isolation play and a lot more player and ball movement.
“He could be our No. 2 option (behind Love),” Lue said.
Osman, who spent most of his rookie year watching and learning from James, is being counted on to do a bit of everything.
The 23-year-old will not only be asked to defend the opponent’s best wing scorer, but to score, rebound and even direct the offense at times.
“Cedi plays basketball and he lives with joy,” veteran teammate Kyle Korver said. “It’s contagious. It’s magnetic.”
Osman spent part of the summer working out with James in Los Angeles, where they were joined by fellow small forwards Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard. Like James, Durant is a former league MVP, while Leonard was in the running two seasons ago.
“I was nervous,” Osman said. “K.D. was telling me, ‘Shoot up, shoot up’ and I was like, ‘I can’t right now’ because I was pretty excited.”
The Cavs are equally excited about Osman’s potential, but that potential will have to start turning into reality if they are going to contend for a playoff berth.
A number of other things also will have to go well, but right now Cleveland players are optimistic.
“We’re trying to play with a ton of motion, a ton of energy,” Korver said. “Everyone is moving every single possession. Once we get into sync, there’s going to be more open looks than what everybody thinks.
“But everyone has to evolve their game from last year.”
- Cavs regular season starts tonight
- Cavaliers: Tyronn Lue, coach of 2016 championship team, fired after 0-6 start
- Cavs deal Kyle Korver to Utah for Alec Burks, two draft picks
- Commentary: LeBron, Kyrie leading way as NBA turns into league of miserable
- The Cavs could be bad this year— but they've definitely been worse
- Commentary: So long, LeBron, and tanks for the memories
- Cavs: Season kicks off in Toronto tonight without LeBron
- Cavs: Larry Nance Jr. signs four-year contract extension worth $44.8 million
- NBA preseason: Cavaliers experience some growing pains in loss to Pacers
- Keeping the ball moving is critical to Cavaliers' new offense
- Cavaliers serious about getting serious on defense this season
- Cavs: Ty Lue wants to play up-tempo style now that LeBron is gone
- Cavs: Coach Ty Lue says team expects to contend for playoffs without LeBron
- Rick Noland: Here come the Cleveland Cavaliers ... which should be, well, interesting at least