LeBron James is clearly still in his prime as he will be only 31 on Dec. 30. But is it fair to say this season might be his last, best chance at a third ring? You have to consider all the minutes the guy has played. While Michael Jordan played three years at North Carolina, he had his minutes very regulated by Dean Smith. And MJ's Bulls weren't going deep in the playoffs during his early years. James of course came right out of high school and he has been doing deep into the playoffs almost every year since. Those minutes -- James already has blown by Jordan -- are going to take a toll on a guy, even an imposing physical specimen like LeBron.
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Cleveland was the NBA championship favorite entering the 2015 playoffs despite having the No. 2 seed in the East and finishing with 53 victories, seven fewer than East No. 1 Atlanta and 14 fewer than West No. 1 Golden State. The Cavs were pretty healthy entering the postseason but then Kevin Love dislocated his shoulder in the Game 4 clincher of the first round against Boston and wouldn't play again. Kyrie Irving also started breaking down near the end of the six-game series win over Chicago in the East semis. He would miss two games of the sweep of Atlanta in the East Finals and only play in Game 1 of the NBA Finals against Golden State.
Of course, the Cavaliers lost in six games to the Warriors and that series only reached six because LeBron had perhaps the greatest Finals performance in NBA history. He played an average of 45.8 minutes against the Warriors and averaged 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists with two triple-doubles and nearly three more. He probably is named Finals MVP if that series gets to seven games and the Cavs still lose. James was that good, but you could tell he was wearing down at the end. It was the fifth straight Finals appearance for a James-led team and his sixth trip overall. He is now 2-4. Jordan was 6-0 for what that's worth.
Cavaliers 2015-16 Season Betting Story Lines
It's a good thing that Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert is a billionaire because he is likely to have the NBA's largest payroll and luxury-tax payment in league history. But Gilbert knows he has to do whatever LeBron wants because James keeps signing these one-year contracts. The reasons are twofold: James will make more each season doing that as the cap rises, and it keeps the pressure on Gilbert and the front office to ensure James is happy and the Cavs are title contenders.
Everyone of note is back. Guards Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith, both acquired from the Knicks during last season, re-signed. However, Shumpert will miss the first three months of the season or so with a wrist injury. That's a fairly sizable loss as he was very good in the playoffs after taking over for the streaky Smith as a starter. Shumpert is also a vastly superior defender. Love could have become a free agent but signed a long-term extension. He hasn't yet played this preseason off shoulder surgery but could this Sunday for the first time. Love appears on track for the Oct. 27 season opener in Chicago.
Irving will not be ready for the opener as he is rehabbing from knee surgery. It's still not clear when he will debut. You hear everything from mid-November to around Christmas. No need to rush him as the Cavs don't care about the regular season. The team also added a veteran point guard in free agency in Mo Williams as Irving insurance. Expect James to play fewer minutes this season and get the occasional game off to rest. In fact, he now will not play the rest of the preseason after getting a precautionary injection in his back.
Big men Timofey Mozgov and Anderson Varejao (who missed all but 26 games last season) are also coming off surgeries but are playing in the preseason. So really the only question remaining is regarding power forward Tristan Thompson, who really shined in the postseason when Love went out. He and the team are at a contract impasse and Thompson is holding out. Frankly, Thompson has no leverage. If he sits out the season, he would still be a restricted free agent next year and in the same position. The Cavs have offered him $80 million over five years, but he wants $94 million. It's either take that or sign the qualifying offer for $6.8 million and become an unrestricted free agent next summer when the cap explodes and Thompson is likely to get offers worth $20 million a season even though he's a very offensively limited player. But once healthy, this a crazy deep team. You could have a second unit of Williams or Matthew Dellavedova, Smith, Richard Jefferson (the other new addition), Thompson and Varejao. That's pretty good.
Cavaliers 2015-16 Betting Odds
At BetOnline, Cleveland is -450 to win the Central Division, -200 to repeat as Eastern Conference champion and +250 to finally bring a championship home to that title-starved city. One prominent overseas book is offering Eastern Conference title odds without Cleveland. The Cavs have an "over/under" wins total of 57 (over -125, under -105). James is the +225 favorite to win a fifth NBA MVP Award.
Cavaliers 2015-16 Betting Predictions
The Eastern Conference seems a formality if Cleveland is healthy. No other team in the weak East even has a wins total of 50. That said, I am leaning under on that wins total and I don't think LeBron wins MVP. The Cavs aren't going to be whole for a while, and there are going to be nights they coast or simply punt to give guys some rest. The second of a back-to-back on a road trip, for example. I'd bet James doesn't play more than 72 games. He was in 69 last year. Irving might not get more than 60. But for now, I will take the Cavs to win the title because they should coast through the East while the four or five West powerhouses will be beating each other up to reach the Finals.
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