by Frank McLean
The winless Cleveland Cavaliers team that rolled into the Air Canada Centre recently was just a shell of the team that lost to the Golden State Warriors this past June in the NBA Finals. Granted it was only a preseason tilt, but with the regular season opener in Chicago less than a week away, a check of the injured list shows they aren’t ready to defend their Eastern Conference title just yet.
Out of the line-up in Toronto was LeBron James (back), but he is expected to be ready for opening night. Kyrie Irving (knee), injured in opening game of the Finals, isn’t expected back before December as is Iman Shumpert (wrist). Other players are coming back from injuries as well and are not 100 per cent as the season is getting underway.
Kevin Love finally played on Sunday in Toronto following a shoulder injury he suffered in the first round of the playoffs against the Boston Celtics. He also played in their final preseason game Monday night at home and told the media he needs to get used to taking a hit again.
Center Timofey Mozgov is playing, but his right knee is still bothering him after having it scoped over the summer.
Last but not least, Anderson Varejao has had a solid preseason, but the club is limiting his minutes as the season begins.
Head coach David Blatt has said with a smiling Alfred E Newman me not worried look, “We didn’t get off to a great start last season and it turned out all right”.
Blatt had to be happy Wednesday when the club inked their holdout power forward Tristan Thompson to a 5-year $82 million contract. With a major part of the roster not expected back until December and other starters not healthy, this was an important contract to get done.
Thompson has never missed an NBA game and that’s important with this banged up roster. He has missed the club’s entire training camp, but he did keep touch with his teammates via texting, especially with Love. The two have been plotting how they are going to create havoc with their opponents this season.
The one thing the Thompson signing shows is that owner Dan Gilbert is willing to spend the money to take a shot at a title. The Thompson signing puts the Cavaliers $30 million over the luxury tax threshold for a tax bill in the neighborhood of $70 million.
When you add the salaries and their tax bill together they have the second highest payroll in NBA history at $184 million. The 2013-14 Brooklyn Nets shelled out $197 million for the NBA’s record payroll. So the mantra in Cleveland is championship or bust.
When this club gets back to full strength the pressure will be on the second year head coach to get the job done. He has been given the talent, now it’s find a way to beat the Warriors or chances are he could be replaced.
However, when you look at Cavaliers at the moment, they are the shell of their Eastern Conference championship team of last year, but when this club gets back to full strength, on paper at least, they will be best team in the East – no doubt.
It’s the deepest roster of players LeBron James has ever had in Cleveland, but we may just have to wait until the middle of April to see how this all shakes out.
Veteran journalist Frank McLean has covered nearly every Raptors game in Toronto since their inaugural season at the Skydome back in 1995-96. He has seen it all. The good, the bad and the really bad and he is one of the very few journalists in Toronto that has kept coming back for more.