LAS VEGAS -- The period of congratulating and backslapping for the Cleveland Cavaliers organization is drawing toward a close. The realization of what their incredible offseason means is starting to sink in.
LeBron James is back, Kevin Love may be on the way, and expectations and pressure are about to arrive right on their heels. It's what would be considered a happy problem -- one the team's principals have already started considering.
"Our team, we have a lot of work to do," Cavs All-Star Kyrie Irving said this week during Team USA training camp. "Everyone is going to be coming for us, and that is what you want as a competitor, especially in the NBA. When it comes to that point, I'll be prepared."
Irving and teammate Dion Waiters are both in Las Vegas this week with the pressing focus of the national team. Irving is in a fight to make the roster for the first time, and Waiters is part of the Select Team, an indication of his growing status, much like where Irving was in 2012.
But the duo's thoughts in some of the daily workouts are naturally drifting toward October, when they will share the floor with a vastly improved team that will also significantly change their roles.
A year ago, Irving and Waiters were seen as the cornerstones of the Cavs' future. Now they are the supporting cast for a four-time MVP. That fits nicely in a sentence and perhaps on the chalkboard, but both young guards are facing a major alteration in their worlds and, on a much more basic level, how much time they're going to have the ball in their hands.
I'm planning to go watch tape to see what D-Wade did when he played with LeBron. I need to learn how to be effective out there with him." -- Dion Waiters
At times Waiters and Irving have had issues just sharing between themselves during their two seasons together. Last season, coach Mike Brown ended up moving Waiters to the bench so he could get more time as the featured ball handler. The Cavs were underwhelming with this setup and now will have to deal with things getting diluted further.
"You do think about [changes] because you're going to be playing with the greatest player in the game," Irving said. "I've talked to several teammates about how we're going to have to change our games."
It's more complex than just looking at shot totals, but that is a tidy stat that paints a bit of a picture of what the Cavs' array of offensive options must manage.
Last season, James averaged 17.6 shots a game, which was marginally the least he put up in his four years with the Miami Heat. Teammate Dwyane Wade averaged 14.1 a game, four fewer than in his first season with James in 2010-11. Chris Bosh averaged 12.1. This generally worked fantastically as the Heat were the No. 2 offensive team in the league behind the Los Angeles Clippers during the regular season.
With that in mind, realize that Irving averaged 17.4 shots a game for the Cavs last season and Waiters averaged 14.2 and probably would have preferred more. It is germane to also include Love, who the Cavs are deeply focused on acquiring with signs pointing toward a deal eventually happening. Love averaged 18.5 shots per game last season as the primary offensive option with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The Cavs ranked 23rd in offensive efficiency last season with Irving and Waiters taking the bulk of the shots. In the 40 games Luol Deng played after being traded to Cleveland in January, the offense actually sagged a little with Deng managing to get just 12.7 shots a game, his fewest in five seasons.
Deng is no James, obviously. There's a new coaching staff led by David Blatt, who had a reputation for designing flexible offensive systems around different types of players in Europe. But there's also going to be some requirement from Irving and Waiters to re-evaluate their games a little.
Waiters has created a few minor waves already this summer when he said he wants to be back in the starting lineup at shooting guard alongside Irving and James. But he seems just as interested in studying the way Wade learned to play with James, which counts for something.
"I have to make adjustments," Waiters said. "I like to have the ball, and we have Kyrie, and he likes to have the ball. So I have to find ways to impact the game without having the ball. I'm planning to go watch tape to see what D-Wade did when he played with LeBron. I need to learn how to be effective out there with him."
Wade and Waiters have similar styles of games; neither is a strong outside shooter who would excel waiting on the perimeter for James to deliver a pass. It took Wade awhile, but he learned to be highly effective cutting off the ball and finding space playing alongside James. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra also constructed effective rotations where Wade played frequently without James on the floor.
"[Wade] is a ball-dominant guard, too, and when LeBron came over, he had to change his game, too," Waiters said. "He was so efficient, though, and that really helped their game. I think I can learn a lot from what he did."
Perhaps more important than all of these July ideas and promises, though, is that James returned to Cleveland in some part because he felt strongly about the Cavs' young talent. It is incumbent on him to make it work to a certain degree, even if that talent hasn't yet reached its potential. Irving and Waiters are both just 22.
"I think it's good for me at the end of the day," Waiters said, "because I can prove to people I can do other things than just score. I need to go play the right way, listen to LeBron and be a sponge and try to soak up what he's going to tell me."
There is something to be gleaned from the fact that Waiters has not been featured prominently in trade packages discussed with the Wolves for Love. James is known to appreciate Waiters' ability, even with the potential challenges of playing with him. Meanwhile, James has developed a relationship with Irving since the point guard's high school days. As LeBron wrote in his essay announcing his return to the Cavs, he is looking forward to mentoring both players.
"He came to the team to play with me, and I've got to be ready to play with him," Irving said. "Obviously we're all going to have to make sacrifices to our game in order to be great."