POSTED: Sep 7, 2012 9:46 AM ET
Kyrie Irving averaged 18.5 points a game in his rookie season.
This is the ninth in a series of articles on the teams that did not make the playoffs last season, previewing their prospects of making it to the postseason in 2012-13. Coming Friday: the Brooklyn Nets.
Two years ago, scorned Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert famously guaranteed his team's fans that the Cavs would win a championship before Miami-bound LeBron James did. Nobody really believed Gilbert at the time. James and the Heat won the title in June in their second try. The Cavaliers haven't come close to a winning record in the past two seasons, let alone a trip to the playoffs.
Still, Cleveland has recovered better than we might have expected after James' departure, and have a brighter future than a lot of other NBA teams. The key to all that is Kyrie Irving, the NBA's Rookie of the Year.
Irving exceeded expectations, averaging 18.5 points and 5.4 assists, while shooting a relatively efficient 47 percent. He showed an ability to attack the rim and was still the second-best 3-point shooter among the rookie class. And at the age of 19, he was one of the league's best clutch performers.
Despite Irving's readiness, though, the Cavs finished with the third-worst record in the Eastern Conference. They remain a few steps from competing for a playoff spot.
From the top to the bottom. The Cavs had the league's best record in James' final two seasons in Cleveland. Then he left and they bottomed out at 19-63 in 2010-11, losing an NBA-record 26 straight games at one point.
Last season, the Cavs won just five of their last 27 games, and they were only better than the Bobcats after the All-Star break. In fact, they ranked 29th in both offensive and defensive efficiency after the break.
But they played the last 41 games without defensive anchor Anderson Varejao. At 10-15 before Varejao broke his right wrist, the Cavs were actually just a game in the loss column out of a playoff spot on Feb. 11.
After two bad seasons, the Cavs have three top-five picks from the last two Drafts (no other team has more than one). That puts them comfortably in Stage 2 of their rebuild, moving forward with Irving leading the way. They're not ready to compete with the best in the East, but few teams have as much long-term promise.
Last year, the Cavs drafted Irving and power forward Tristan Thompson in the top four. This year, they added shooting guard Dion Waiters (No. 4 pick) and center Tyler Zeller (No. 17 pick). So a young core is coming together.
But while the Cavs added two rookies with promise, they lost veteran starters Antawn Jamison and Anthony Parker, and didn't replace them with any vets of note. Varejao and Daniel Gibson are now the only Cavs remaining from the LeBron era.
The return of Varejao should actually make more of an impact than the addition of either rookie, especially defensively. He was a key part of a team that ranked in the top seven defensively three times under Mike Brown.
As much as the return of Varejao will help on defense, the departures of Jamison and Parker will hurt the Cavs offensively. Cleveland scored a solid 105 points per 100 possessions in 897 minutes with Irving, Jamison and Parker on the floor together, but just 100 per 100 in Irving's other 661 minutes.
Even with Jamison and Parker, the Cavs were the only team in the league to shoot less than 50 percent in the paint last season. If they're going to survive offensively, they'll need Thompson to improve inside. Jamison was the only Cav to take more shots from the paint than Thompson, who connected on less than 46 percent of his 414 paint attempts.
Priority No. 1 for Cavs head coach Byron Scott in 2012-13 is player development. Really, with a lack of experienced talent, he has no other choice.
It's safe to assume that Irving is going to be a star at the point, but the Cavs' questions lie with the rest of their young core. Can Waiters be the secondary perimeter scorer that his team needs? Can Thompson partner with Irving to form a potent pick-and-roll combination? And can Zeller become a defensive anchor when Varejao moves on?
We're not going to get final answers to those questions this season, but we'll certainly get some clues as to where the Cavs are heading. And they have plenty of payroll flexibility to add veterans and accelerate the rebuild when the time is right.
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