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Competition discussion: Cleveland

The season is still two months away, but most of the rosters are set, barring the requisite Michael Jordan comeback rumor (just kidding, but only a little).  We have an idea where our team stands, but we can't really know unless we discuss everyone else.  In that spirit, I'm going to throw up a "competition discussion" thread for each of the other 29 teams over the next month or so.  We'll go in alphabetical order from A to Z.  Today's team: Cleveland.

Last year's record: 50-32.
Playoffs: Beat Washington 4-0, beat New Jersey 4-2, beat Detroit 4-2, lost to San Antonio 4-0.

In: Nobody yet.
Out: Scott Pollard (free agent).

Projected starting lineup: Larry Hughes, Sasha Pavlovic*, LeBron James, Drew Gooden, Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
Bench (in no particular order): Daniel Gibson, Eric Snow, Shannon Brown, Damon Jones, David Wesley, Ira Newble, Donyell Marshall, Anderson Varejao*, Dwayne Jones.

*=restricted free agent

So what do we think?  Can they repeat their Eastern Conference champion even as the rest of the conference got better?  What can we expect from LeBron this year?  Was Daniel Gibson's playoff performance a mirage or a sign of things to come?  How much does it suck that they still have three more years of Larry Hughes?  Will they make a trade for a point guard already?

I think Wizards fans are predisposed to hating (that's probably too strong of a word) Cleveland, because our superstars could not be more different.  One has been hyped since he was 16; the other came out of nowhere as a second-round pick.  One seemingly dogs his way through the regular season before turning it on in the playoffs; the other always seems to be working hard.  One is savvy enough to play a pass-first game and get the "making his teammates better" treatment; the other shamelessly self-promotes and plays a gunning style that could be interpreted as selfishness.  One lacks real personality in the public eye; the other could not be more personable.  One operates with a stable of average teammates; the other has two very good teammates and a bunch of below-average guys.  Need I go on?

But while this may lend itself to undershooting Cleveland's projected win total, I really don't see how they're going to be as good this season.  They did nothing to upgrade a flawed team that somehow made into the finals.  Looking at the roster, most of Cleveland's core players (other than LeBron, Gibson, and possibly Pavlovic and Varejao) are not getting any better.  Larry Hughes, Big Z, and Marshall have nowhere to go but down, Gooden isn't suddenly going to morph into anything more than what he already is, and Eric Snow's a corpse at this point.  

As long as LeBron has to be the primary ball-handler, the Cavs won't be successful.  The Bulls realized this with Jordan, and Cleveland must realize this with LeBron.  It's just silly to have the most incredible physical specimen in the game and not use him in the open floor.  I'm not going to say that the Cavs desperately need a "true point guard," because LeBron should be doing his fair share of ball-handling in the halfcourt, but they need someone who can run the position well, especially in the open court.  Maybe Gibson is that guy, but he's better off playing the John Paxson/B.J. Armstrong spot-up shooter role like he did in the playoffs.  They'll still be pretty good  because of their defense, but I can't see how that offense can get any better.

This shouldn't be that hard of a season to predict.  Cleveland starts well, then struggles for half the season until after the all-star break.  A home loss to the Clippers will be mixed in their somewhere, as will a road loss to Minnesota.  LeBron looks like he doesn't care, the rest of the team takes it's cue, the fire Mike Brown bandwagon returns, and The Cavalier will rant and vow to never watch his team again.  Then, LeBron will come alive in the last month and a half, the team will follow suit, and ESPN guys will breathe down our throats reminding us to "not forget about the DEFENDING EASTERN CONFERENCE CHAMPS."  Then, with all the momentum, LeBron will realize he can't just flip the switch in an improved East, and the Cavs will bow out to the Wizards in 7 in the first round, prompting wholesale changes in the personnel.  

For now, I'll say 47-35 and that first-round exit.