2012-2013 W-L: 24-58
New Faces: Andrew Bynum, Earl Clark, Jarrett Jack, Mike Brown (coach, Lakers/unemployed)
New Places: Omri Casspi (Houston), Marreese Speights (Warriors), Shaun Livingston (Nets), Wayne Ellington (Mavericks)
Draft: Anthony Bennett (1), Sergey Karasev (19), Carrick Felix (33)
Dan Gilbert didn’t make good on his personal Comic Sans guarantee of three summers ago; it’s almost fall 2013 now, and the “self-titled former king” has two NBA championships compared to Gilbert and the Cavaliers’ zero. But no matter. After another fortuitous and prosperous offseason, it’s time that Cleveland finally forgets.
The future is here.
The Cavaliers won the draft lottery. They signed two marquee free agents. Their young core is improving. And they still have Kyrie Irving. This season could be the first of what should be perennial playoff contention in Cleveland, and the Cavs have the summer to thank for accelerating their pace up a steep developmental curve.
This team will be better in 2013-2014, that much is certain. It’s the extent of improvement that’s unknown for now; perhaps no team in the league has a ceiling so high and a valley so low. Health is of utmost importance across the NBA landscape, but its potential influence looms larger in Cleveland than anywhere else.
Why? Irving, Bynum and Anderson Varejao – this team’s three most accomplished players – combined to miss 162 games last season. Their simultaneous absence isn’t a fluke or coincidence, either; each has been notoriously injury-prone throughout their respective careers.
To rely on such considerable impact from multiple players with shoddy health histories isn’t ideal, but commend Cleveland for taking a chance. A healthy Bynum is worth far more than the incentive-laden two-year, $24 million deal he signed with the Cavs in July. His physical and emotional status will always be tenuous, but Bynum’s juice – even as he gets back up to playing speed after missing all of last season – is easily worth the squeeze of his contract.
Best case? He and Irving form the best center-point guard pairing this league’s seen in decades. Worst? Cleveland pays $6 million for a year of his service and moves on next summer.
When – not if – Bynum and Varejao miss time due to injury, the Cavaliers are well-suited to withstand their absence. Third-year big man Tristan Thompson made major strides last season, and is primed for another leap this year after completely reworking his jumper this offseason. It’s been easy to overlook Thompson’s unprecedented effort to change his primary shooting hand, and Bennett’s presence undoubtedly has something to do with it. His unique talent is obvious no matter your position on his draft selection. Few players combine Bennett’s size and athleticism with such a versatile offensive repertoire. And while sophomore center Tyler Zeller is admittedly limited, he’s above replacement-level.
There are redundancies here. Thompson isn’t big enough to play center for extended periods, and Bennet’s chance to play the perimeter likely won’t come this season. Zeller can’t rebound or defend, either. But the Cavs’ post depth is suddenly an envy of many. Even assuming injury complications, the Cleveland frontcourt should be a strength this season.
And taking that into consideration is when it’s easy to get excited about the Cavaliers. Jack is a middling defender at best and sometimes prone to confounding shot-selection, but his two-way versatility is a valuable asset off the bench. Lightening Irving’s heavy offensive burden is important for Cleveland going forward, and Jack’s presence certainly helps in that regard; Irving will thrive as a scorer a la Steph Curry when paired with Jack in the backcourt. Dion Waiters is still in the mix too, of course, and will also benefit from Jack doing a lion’s share of ballhandling when he’s on the floor.
And though a three-headed playmaking monster of Irving-Jack-Waiters obviously presents a laundry list of defensive issues, they’d make up for much of them on the other end. This won’t be Mike Brown’s primary set of perimeter players, obviously, but at the very least offers a scary late-game option when Cleveland needs points.
The Cavaliers are at least a mystery now. Seasons like last year’s and the one before it are a thing of the past, when Cleveland had no realistic aspirations aside from internal development. So questions are a good thing; they mean progress and potential. Will the Cavs stay healthy? Can they play league-average defense? What to make of Bynum? Where does Bennett fit? How much better are Thompson and Waiters? Are Clark, Alonzo Gee and CJ Miles enough on the wing?
The questions are endless and the answers are varied. That’s not enough for some teams, the ones that deserve to dream biggest. But dreaming at all should be enough for Cleveland right now, a mere three years removed from heartbreak and complete destruction. Playoffs for the Cavs? It’s really anyone’s guess, but that alone means they’re headed the right direction.