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A Preview of the 2019-2020 Basketball Team Known as the Cleveland Cavaliers 

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY THE CLEVELAND CAVS
  • Photo courtesy the Cleveland Cavs

Hello. This is a season preview for the 2019-2020 Cleveland Cavaliers. It should be consumed less like a trailer for an upcoming Hollywood movie and more like a piece of informational literature for a strict new diet: Here is the roster of allowable foods. Here are the metrics for success. Here are testimonials from recent dieters, excerpted to help strengthen your resolve. The result, you'll no doubt find, is a portrait of a sad and ascetic few months, within which the glimmers of hope are mostly psychological, if not spiritual.

You are turning your life around. You are getting healthier, stronger, more disciplined. You are rebuilding.

The pro hoops team in Cleveland, Ohio, will kick off their season Wednesday, Oct. 23, under the tutelage of a new head coach — a folksy senior citizen named John Beilein, lately of Ann Arbor. And on Saturday, Oct. 26, they'll play for the first time in their newly christened corporate events center, the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.

Despite the glitzy allure of the renovated arena and its myriad fan-congregation zones, most fans would still prefer to watch competitive basketball, which the Cavs are unlikely to regularly produce. That's why so many fans have not renewed their season tickets. So few consumers are buying full or partial season ticket packages that the Cavs sales team, eager to maximize profits through in-game concession purchases, are offering monthly specials at bargain-basement rates.

A new monthly subscription plan — not unlike the dearly departed Movie Pass — gets fans into any home game for $89 per month. That's the lower-bowl option and is sold out for October and November. But upper-level tickets are still available for $49 per month. That gives subscribers access to 10 regular season games through October and November. The subscription automatically renews each month, but subscribers can opt out at any time, and no games are blacked out. It's honestly an insane value, assuming you limit your consumption of $12 beers.

Despite these special offers, and despite the early slogans about Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse as "Cleveland's Living Room," most fans will be watching the Cavs, if they watch at all, in their actual living rooms on Fox Sports Ohio, where, as in years past, all games will be televised. The late Fred McLeod understood that the vast majority of fans seldom make it to the arena, and that the best announcers make you feel like they're watching the game right alongside you.

McLeod's sudden death this summer casts a pall over the upcoming season. And new play-by-play guy John Michael, who makes a lateral jump from the radio broadcast, will have enormous shoes to fill. No longer will fans hear McLeod's dad-joke euphemisms during play calls — that opposing players in verbal altercations were "exchanging email addresses;" that slashing ball-handlers who slip and fall en route to the basket "blew a tire;" that three-point shots hoisted from deep beyond the arc were "from Avon Lake" (or some other far-flung Northeast Ohio suburb or recognizable regional landmark during away games) — and no longer will the organization have a trusted, generous, professional colleague and friend.

The team should quickly dispense with the notion, however, that the season will be dedicated to McLeod in some way. The team's performance would no doubt serve as poor tribute. League analysts have observed the Cavs over the course of four ghastly preseason outings, including consecutive beatdowns by the Boston Celtics, and declared that they'd be lucky to win 20 games. Said ESPN's Rachel Nichols, in a segment predicting the Cavs inevitable woes: "I'm not sure General Patton could lead this team."

Yikes!

Twenty wins, for the record, would be one more than last year's total, during which the Cavs trotted out 27 total players — guys like Patrick McCaw and Andrew Harrison and Cameron Payne — and dramatically underperformed not just pundits' projections but their own pre-season rhetoric. This was the year after four repeat trips to the NBA finals, they said, and even without LeBron they planned to compete. (Tristan Thompson said the following with a straight face in September of 2018: "We're still four-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 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.")

This year, while the team denies that they are "tanking," they have fully embraced a "rebuild" ethos and figure to give their incoherent assortment of young players ample time to show their stuff. Experts are convinced that fashion icon and mental health advocate Kevin Love will be moved to a competitor before the trade deadline. And guys like Thompson, Brandon Knight and Jordan Clarkson (the second, third and fourth highest-paid players on the team) are all valuable trade assets as well. They're in the final year of their contracts, which makes them hot commodities for teams looking to shed salaries in the offseason as they pursue big free agents.

It's a good thing that John Beilein has the vibe of a youth coach because he'll be dealing with a handful of rotation players born during and after the year 1998. (Both rookies Darius Garland and Kevin Porter Jr. were born in 2000). Beilein is a veteran of the high school and college game and proudly makes his players do drills without balls and so forth. In an interview with ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski earlier this month, he emphasized the value of a crisp pivot.

Woj also asked Beilein what success would look like in five years (the length of Beilein's contract, which will no doubt be aborted once owner Dan Gilbert recovers from his stroke and returns to his impulsive megalomaniacal profligacy.)

"I think that we will have great crowds down there for every game at the new Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse," Beilein replied. "We're in the playoffs, in the playoff hunt, competitive in the playoffs. But we also have a culture that everybody's talking about. People want to come to Cleveland to play because of the development process. Everybody. A guy wants to come here to do video because he knows this is where people get better. A free agent comes here because he wants another contract. A first rounder wants to come here because he knows it's the best way for him to get a great second contract. If we're known for all those things, then I'll know we did our job."

In other words, Beilein sees his task as transforming the culture. That was to be a task, incidentally, for international coaching savant David Blatt, who took the reins in the summer of 2014, before LeBron James announced his return.

Now it's Beilein's chance. And transforming the culture is especially difficult when it's so unclear what it's being transformed from. Since 2003, other than being the team on which LeBron James played, the team has had no special brand. It follows that Beilein's roster is now not just bad, but bad without an observable identity. They are not the long and athletic freaks of Milwaukee. They are not the boring, impeccably coached and mannered businessmen of San Antonio. They are not the zippy youngsters of New Orleans or the grit-and-grind animals of yore in Memphis.

What they are is a mercurial mix of veterans and upstarts. The presumed starting lineup dramatizes this dichotomy: Kevin Love and serial philanderer Tristan Thompson look to control the glass in the front court while rookie Darius Garland and second-year guard Collin Sexton will share duties heaving up 60 to 70 shots per game at point guard.

When Garland was drafted at No. 5 overall in June, the line from the team was that they hoped to create a dominant back court like Portland's, with co-stars Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Both Sexton and Garland have the range to be blistering three-point shooters, but the Portland comparisons won't be anything but theoretical if Cleveland's guards both hover around two or three assists per game. Kevin Love or backup PG Matthew Dellavedova, in limited minutes, may ultimately lead the team in total and per-game assist numbers. (It's also worth noting that Garland is scarily injury prone, so it's a good thing that backup Brandon Knight arrived at training camp in the best shape of his life.)

Starting at small forward will be limber Turk Cedi Osman, a confusing player who has failed to meet the hype generated by a 2018 workout photo, in which he was snapped — sweaty, peripheral — alongside three of the league's elite talents: LeBron, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard. If trajectories hold, Cedi will flirt with 13 to 14 points per game this season ... not exactly alpha territory. He may yet be unleashed, but the buzz around Cedi has been practically nonexistent.

Springing from the bench will be Jordan Clarkson, the Cavs most consistent and extravagantly tattooed offensive weapon. Beilein has hinted that Clarkson, whom he dubbed a "Wolf" in preseason, may play some small forward in small-ball lineups, to which Clarkson shrugged and noted that the NBA is now virtually position-less anyway. He will continue to score at the impressive clip he has in years past. Like Garland and Sexton, though, he is not known for his distribution skills.

The Cavs assist numbers last year were the worst in the league. But the far more embarrassing distinction was their inability to protect the rim. They tallied the fewest blocks in NBA history by an enormous margin. The Cavs bigs, other than Tristan, Love and Larry Nance Jr., the first big off the bench, are befuddling.

Love may play only 30 to 40 games, depending on injuries, rest and a looming trade, and Tristan's inability to score from beyond about 6 feet from the basket makes him a borderline liability unless he's surrounded by sharpshooters — Garland, Sexton, Love, and rookie Dylan Windler, say, who'll be out for a few weeks to start the season. Nance has supposedly been working on his long-range shooting, but was 2-11 from beyond the arc in preseason play. Interior monster Ante Zizic will be out for the first few weeks of the season with a sore foot too, and lanky shot blocker John Henson, dubbed the Cavs "secret weapon" during training camp, may never return from his various ailments. He's currently nursing a sore groin. Beefy veteran Jarell Martin, signed to a one-year deal in August, looked like he might gobble up minutes by default, but he and training-camp invite Marques Bolden were both waived over the weekend. Two-way players Dean Wade and Tyler Cook may be routinely called up from the G-league for spot starts.

Given the injury-riddled front court, it's not surprising that Beilein plans to experiment with small ball lineups, in which guys like Jordan Clarkson or rookie Kevin Porter Jr. play small forward while Cedi Osman or even Dylan Windler are slotted over to power forward. It's a good bet that he'll be tinkering with the rotation nightly, and may stumble on some chemistry.

But the team will no doubt be very bad. And for those of us who still insist on watching as many games as possible, one of the few available entertainments — other than Delly-to-Tristan alley-oops! — is watching current players ascend in various statistical categories and seeing them eclipse individual, team and league milestones. Here are a few to watch for this year.

• Last year, the Cavs as a team shot a sporting .792 from the free-throw stripe, good for eighth in the league. It was the third-highest FT percentage the franchise had ever achieved, trailing only the 91-92 (.802) and 92-93 (.805) seasons when Mark Price couldn't miss. With this year's addition of sharpshooter Darius Garland, the Cavs could flirt with .800 from the stripe once again, or even set a new mark.

• Tristan Thompson needs 411 rebounds to eclipse Brad Daugherty and move into the franchise's top three in total rebounds. He'll achieve that milestone if he collects 8.6 rebounds (his career average) over 48 games.

• In a statistical quirk, right now Tristan Thompson, Brad Daugherty and Anderson Varejao are all tied for total blocked shots, with 397. With a single swat, Thompson will leapfrog both of them in the #7 position on the Cavs leaderboard. Last year, the 6-foot-9-inch Thompson blocked only 16 shots all season.

• Kevin Love needs only 86 threes (just about one per game, across a full 82-game season) to top Kyrie Irving and move into the top-three on the franchise leaderboard, behind only LeBron and Mark Price.

• J.R. Smith holds the Cavs individual season record for made three-pointers with 204 (in '15-16), but 149 threes would be good for a top-10 single-season performance. Kevin Love, Collin Sexton, Cedi Osman, Jordan Clarkson and rookie Darius Garland are all eligible.

• Sexton's 119 threes last year was the most ever by a Cavs rookie. If Garland stays healthy, he could conceivably top that total without breaking a sweat.

• Larry Nance Jr. led the Cavs last year in total rebounds, blocks and steals, despite only playing 67 games. If he matches his steals total last year (100), he'll join the franchise's top 40 in that category, eclipsing the likes of Jim Chones, Cedric Henderson and Ricky Davis. If he bests his average by only 0.1 per game and plays 80 games, he'll top Daniel Gibson, Shawn Kemp and Tyrone Hill and approach the franchise's top 30.

• Larry's points, rebounds and assists averages have all increased every year of his three-year career. He'll need to top last year's averages of 9.4 PPG, 8.2 RPG and 3.2 APG to keep all three upward trajectories intact.

• Last year, Matthew Dellavedova was the only Cavalier who averaged better than four assists per game (4.2, across 36 games). It's unlikely that he'll see serious minutes behind the Garland, Sexton, Brandon Knight and Jordan Clarkson logjam, but if he averages even 2 assists across 25 games, he'll best Zydrunas Ilguaskas (929 assists) and move into #26 on the Cavs leaderboard. Next up: Eric Snow (1,035) and Danny Ferry (1,045).

• Jordan Clarkson led the team in scoring (16.8 ppg) for most of last season, while Kevin Love was hobbled and Collin Sexton was still discovering his three-point shot. As a utility player this year, and possibly even as a starter if Cedi Osman goes down, he could very well reach 16 points per game again. On the franchise leaderboard, that would propel him over such Cavs stalwarts as Sasha Pavlovic, Carlos Boozer, J.J. Hickson, Dion Waiters and Antawn Jamison.

• Kevin Porter Jr. is a total question mark, but may emerge as the franchise's absolute superstar.

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