NBA 2014-15 Power Rankings Preview: #1 Cleveland Cavaliers

Can the return of the King finally bring a ring to Cleveland?

This NBA offseason has been very eventful, and the preseason is about to wrap up. To help hoops junkies with the transition from the lull of summer back to competitive basketball, we here at numberFire will be rolling out our projections for next season in the form of team previews, starting at 30 and going all the way to number one. We continue, and end it, today with the 1st-ranked Cleveland Cavaliers!

There have been many storylines this NBA offseason. But surely none even come close to LeBron and his rightful (or not) return to Cleveland. But what, or who, may very well be this summer's next biggest story? Well, that story also ended in Cleveland, Ohio. And we all are now very aware that Kevin Love is suiting up alongside King James. But can the two finally help bring a championship to the city of Cleveland? Let's see what the numbers say.

numberFire Metrics

Projected Record: 57-25
Eastern Conference Rank: 1st
NBA Rank: 1st
nERD: 64.7
Playoff Chances: 95.15%
Championship Chances: 17.89%

I have seen a wide range of win totals predicted by many who take up residence in my television. I've seen everything from 50 to 65 wins. So, our projections are spot on. Our prediction of 57 wins falls right in the middle of that range. Of course, I wouldn't be surprised if the Cavs ended up winning more than 57 games if the East doesn't improve as much as we think - whether it be due to injuries or inflamed expectations.

Either way though, we predict the Cavs to make the playoffs, win the East, and very much compete for an NBA championship. At 17.89%, the Cavs' championship chances are nearly 7% higher than the Spurs, even though the Spurs have a slightly better team nERD (65.1) than the Cavaliers. nERD is our calculation for trying to predict win percentage, so that much is reasonable. It will be interesting to see whether LeBron can get his revenge against San Antonio and fulfill our prophecy of a third NBA championship for King James.

Player Movement

Notable Additions
Mike Miller (via free agency)
James Jones (via free agency)
LeBron James (via free agency)
Kevin Love (via trade)
Joe Harris (via draft)

Notable Losses
Luol Deng (via free agency)
Spencer Hawes (via free agency)
Jarrett Jack (via trade)
Andrew Wiggins (via trade)

Yeah, it appears that the Cavaliers lost a lot of players - even more than those listed above - during the offseason. And they have. But they did more than break even when it comes to talent. Foremost, they retained star point guard Kyrie Irving. But that's not it. After all was said and done, not only did the Cavs get two superstars in LeBron and K-Love, but they also did exactly what LeBron's Cavaliers of old did not. They surrounded him with three-point specialists in Miller, Jones, and Harris.

But, just how good are these sharpshooters? Very good. In fact, if you combine and average each player's percentages from this past year, you'll find that they shoot exactly the same percentage (45.9%) from the three point line as they do from the field. It may not be easy to let guys like Deng, Hawes, Jack and Wiggins walk out the door, but it's not as hard when Love, LeBron, and LeBron's friends walk in the next day.

Three Burning Questions

Can the new "big three" co-exist?
Yes, we saw LeBron enjoy great success with his first big three down in South Beach. But one key difference is age. Wade and Bosh were 28 and 26 when they teamed up with LeBron for their first season together. For the new big three, at his age then, Bosh would be the elder statesman. But now, it's LeBron at the old age of 29. Irving is only 22 years old while Love is a little more experienced at 26. It could be hard for the three stars to co-exist at such young ages.

But age is not the only number that James, Love, and Irving must overcome. Usage rate will be as big a factor as any. Last year, the three stars all posted a usage percentage over 28%. LeBron finished 4th (31.0%), Love finished 8th (28.8%) and Irving finished 11th (28.2%), respectively, in the league. But that's not all. In addition to their high usage percentages, each of them put up at least 17.4 shot attempts per game. How are they all going to get their shots? Some sacrifices, both in usage and in shot attempts, will have to be made by each player in order to co-exist but even moreso in order to meet their championship expectations.

What can we expect defensively?
It's easy to see how good the Cavs could be offensively so long as they do gel early. They could be an offensive juggernaut with James, Love, Irving and even Dion Waiters leading the attack. But all the questions for this team are on defense. With the Heat, LeBron had the players to back his defensive prowess. In Cleveland, those players do not exist - not yet at least. If we look at the projected starting five for the Cavs, and we look at the defensive numbers from last year, it's not a very pretty sight.

At point guard, Kyrie averaged a steal and a half per game while he posted career highs in defensive rating (108) and defensive win shares (2.1). But, these are mediocre numbers for a player of Irving's talent potential. There's room for improvement.

As for shooting guard, Waiters averaged a mere 0.9 steals per game while earning a lackluster defensive rating (110) and defensive win share total (1.3). Do I need to say it again?

At small for-get it. We don't have to look at numbers to see that LeBron will lead this team with his defensive leadership.

At the power forward position, Love is not so skilled defensively. We know he'll be a beast on the defensive boards, but Love failed to average a full steal or block per game this past season. He did put up a decent defensive rating of 104 however, but it didn't show in the defensive win shares (3.7) column. On the one hand, Love could just be a poor defender, but on the other, there might be some more skill than we have seen over the years with a sub-par T'Wolves team.

Anderson Varejao, at center, will be the oldest starter at 32 years of age and will bring some much needed experience defensively. Over his 10 seasons in Cleveland, Varejao has averaged a defensive rating of 102 while averaging nearly a steal and a block per game. Can he and LeBron lead by example and show the other three how to pick it up on the defensive end? We'll have to see.

Can Uncle Drew be the point guard Cleveland needs?
Yes, I know part of the nature of the beast that is Kyrie Irving is his ability to score the basketball. He's very skilled at it, and I love watching him catch fire. But, to paraphrase from the Dark Knight, that Kyrie may be the type of point guard the city of (Gotham) Cleveland deserves, but he's not the one it needs right now. Right now, Kyrie doesn't need to be the man. He needs to do what he should as a point guard while LeBron does his best Batman and plays the hero he might turn out to be for his city.

Like I mentioned before, Kyrie will need to cut down on his field goal attempts and yield to the likes of LeBron and Love. If he limits his shots to around 12 per game, then we should look for Kyrie to get an uptick in assists from his 6.1 per game last season to at least 7, maybe 8, per night. He will also have to take better, higher-percentage shots. Last year, Irving saw career-lows in field goal and three-point percentages. If Kyrie can make these adjustments while keeping his turnovers down, he should see his nERD of 3.0 skyrocket while he and his team find themselves at the top of the East and the NBA.

Fantasy Hoops Stock Watch

PF,C Kevin Love (Yahoo O-Rank: 8)
It's hard to find myself saying this, but Kevin Love may be flying under the radar in fantasy basketball. It may be hard for him to exceed his eighth-overall value, but it's a possibility. That's why I think Love is a great first round pick. (I drafted him ninth overall in our numberFire hoops staff draft). It's hard to argue against a guy playing alongside the best player in the game.

But it's even harder to argue against a guy who put up the numbers that Love did on a consistent basis last year with such a baaad team. Love averaged over 26 points and 12 boards while also tallying over 4 assists per contest. However, the real value for Love lies in his ability to give you three-pointers from the power forward or center position. Love tied for 7th among all players this past year with 2.5 three-point makes per game. He trailed only Ryan Anderson among power forward and center eligible players. So if you haven't had your draft yet, make sure you don't let Love slide out of the top eight picks. He's too valuable.

SG Dion Waiters (Yahoo O-Rank: 152)
I'm not saying much here to contradict Waiters' O-Rank. I am, however, not so sure about his average draft position of 127.0. He should not be drafted that high. With points (16.7) as his only strong suit this past year, it's hard to see Waiters having any more value than that of a player at 152. Waiters won't see enough of the ball this year to repeat his scoring numbers form a year ago. With Love and James on board, and the usage rates they bring along, it will be hard for Waiters to get his shots. Outside of scoring, Waiters won't provide much for your team as he only averaged 3 assists, 2.8 rebounds and 0.9 steals. Unless you're punting multiple categories hard, I don't recommend getting Waiters any earlier than the last round.

And that's just what my fellow writer and Brett, Brett Weisband, did in our staff draft. After many best shooting guard in the league jokes, he picked Waiters in the 13th round with the 147th pick. Now I know I said there's not much value for Waiters at his average draft position currently, but where Weisband got him he did get value. Waiters is a projected starting shooting guard on a much improved team with two superstars in James and Love who are willing passers and who can provide Waiters with some easy assists. As corny as it is, wait on Waiters.