The Cleveland Cavaliers finished the 2012-13 season with a 24-58 record and third from last in an incredibly weak Eastern conference. Talented young point guard Kyrie Irving emerged as a border-line superstar to offer the franchise a glimmer of hope for a future that had looked uncertain, even bleak, ever since the dramatic departure of LeBron James three seasons earlier. However, as the Cavaliers were voted the top 2013-14 turnaround team on ESPN, it is pretty clear that expectations have sky-rocketed too fast in Cleveland already.
A lot of that additional hype is based upon the fact that the Cavaliers were able to add big time center Andrew Bynum and grabbed the 2013 first overall pick in the NBA draft Anthony Bennett. It is being widely suggested that that combination can seriously transform the front court and provide Irving with just the support he has been needing.
The problem is that a closer inspection of those additions does not really suggest the major bonus that most expect. There are whispered hopes and even expectations that Bynum could be ready for or shortly after the opening of training camp on October 1. The center hasn’t played since May 2012 after missing all of the 2012-13 season due to multiple knee surgeries. The Philadelphia 76ers were the team caught out placing their faith in Bynum last year.
The reality is that injuries have long been a concern for Bynum. Talent and ability have never been in question for a player who has always had the potential to challenge for the title of ‘best big man in the game’. There is still no timetable on Bynum’s return even in spite of the optimism and there is very good reason to be concerned about his long-term durability. Even if Bynum is able to return to the court, will his knees be strong enough and will he ever have the confidence to be the player that he once was?
Meanwhile, top draft pick Anthony Bennett may struggle to get on the court at all. If he is going to play power forward, he will need to compete for court time with another recent high first round draft pick Tristan Thompson. There’s no doubt that Bennett has the tools to be a top offensive player in the NBA after scoring 16.1 points per game with one of the best efficiency ratings in college basketball at 28.3 (PER).
Bennett was a surprise first overall pick in the NBA draft because he is quite clearly a project. He is a very good shooter, but his post-game will need significant refining if he is going to compete on the inside in the NBA. He is also obviously a player who needs to seriously improve his defensive game. It’s hard to see new head coach Mike Brown using Bennett regularly until the rookie has found a ‘niche’ defensively. At the moment it looks like Bennett will struggle to defend small forwards on the perimeter, while also struggling to contain power forwards on the inside. That’s a concern that could take a couple of seasons to unravel. The only obvious role for Bennett this season is as an effective depth scorer from the bench. Useful, but hardly game changing in terms of making the Cavaliers a playoff team.
Of course none of this means that Cleveland will not be improved. Brown will bring a wealth of coaching experience to the job and should start building a more rigid and effective defensive system. They also have a better overall supporting cast than many give them credit for especially after a couple of their lower profile additions. Dion Waiters had a decent rookie season in 2012-13, while Thompson showed significant improvement at power forward.
More crucial yet was the addition of a couple of useful veterans who should be a part of a better overall team in 2013-14. Earl Clark showed that he can be an extremely useful small forward playing sound defense and scoring off the bench for the LA Lakers last season. He ultimately ended up in Mike D’Antoni’s doghouse, but Clark showed enough last season to suggest that he can be one of those key ‘glue’ guys on a successful roster.
Even more important is the addition of Jarrett Jack. The 29-year old back-up point guard was an unheralded part of the Golden State Warriors dominate offense from last season. He played crucial, clutch minutes while subbing for the superstars Klay Thompson and Steph Curry. Jack averaged a little under 30 minutes per game picking up 5.6 assists per game, 3.1 rebounds and 12.9 points per game. There is every reason to think that Jack can be a similar veteran presence supporting Irving and Waiters just as he was with Thompson and Curry in Golden State last season.
The Cavaliers will be better in 2013-14. However, Bynum and Bennett will not offer the necessary upgrades to make Cleveland a playoff team, even in the East.