Posted Aug 19, 2013 2:19 PM
This is the latest 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 2013-14. For a look at other teams in the series, click here.
More than at any point in the last decade or so, the Cleveland Cavaliers for 2013-14 would seem to be all about turning question marks into exclamation points.
And as far as punctuation goes, that's way better than this *&@%# stuff, which is how the more recent seasons have gone.
For Chris Grant, the Cavaliers' general manager who ascended to his position -- ominously enough -- in June 2010, this has been an endless summer of work. But with a Beach Boys soundtrack, because it so beats the alternative.
"Of whatever, my 20 years [in or around the NBA], this has been the busiest offseason I've ever been involved in," Grant said in a phone interview. "I haven't had an opportunity to step away. ... We're excited. We've got a lot of new significant pieces, so we're excited to see what it looks like when we step out there."
Cleveland, by cratering in the wake of LeBron James' departure three years ago and catching some lottery luck, was able this offseason to work both sides of the improvement street, making over its roster while developing young talent on hand.
Few if any teams rounded up more intriguing additions: No. 1 draft pick Anthony Bennett, surgical acquisitions Jarrett Jack and Earl Clark, back-from-exile head coach Mike Brown and the low-risk, high-reward potential of center Andrew Bynum. Meanwhile, a slew of budding Cavs reasonably can be expected to step up simply from experience and exposure, including Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters, Tyler Zeller and even point guard extraordinaire Kyrie Irving.
The Cleveland roster looks deeper than it's been and fresher even than in James' final seasons of veteran patches and plugs. And the expectations of a return to the playoffs -- encouraged by owner Dan Gilbert, fueled by Byron Scott's dismissal -- seem fair as the bottom berths of the Eastern Conference bracket possibly change hands by next spring.
Wait, did someone say "change hands?" That's what Thompson has been working on, in the fairly unprecedented move of switching from left to right as his primary shooting hand. That's pretty fundamental and essential stuff ... and about as good a metaphor for the 2013-14 Cavaliers as anything.
2012-13 record: 24-58
Division finish in 2012-13 (place in conference): 5th (13th)
Offensive rating in 2012-13 (NBA rank): 100.8 (23rd); defensive rating (NBA rank): 106.9 (27th)
Never mind the "or." What Cleveland has gone through has been feast, then famine since you-know-who took his you-know-whats to you-know-where. After five consecutive years advancing at least to the second round (and once to The Finals) while going 272-138 (.663), the Cavaliers flailed through three seasons at 64-166 (.278). At that rate, it would take 12 seasons to match the victory total of James' final five years.
But the potential turnaround in northeast Ohio looks to be coming more quickly, courtesy of four Top 4 picks in the past three drafts. The team's offense has picked up, even as the defense spiraled down under Scott. Plus,Cleveland had 35 games last season decided by six points or less, tied with Dallas for the most in the NBA. That's a stat that suggests a team in transition -- either on the decline coughing up close games it used to win or gaining ground as it sheds its training wheels.
Irving, who had another breakthrough among elite peers at the USA Basketball mini-camp in July, has been the catalyst and remains the greatest source for optimism. He demonstrated an ability, a willingness and, yes, a need to grab hold of games last season, averaging 6.8 points in the fourth quarter, fourth-most in the league. But he also averaged a modest 5.9 assists, when he really should be cracking the top 10 or at least top 20 in that category.
The Cavaliers ranked fourth in second-chance points (14.9), seventh in offensive rebounding and seventh in turnovers. Only five teams in the league took more shots than they did last season -- though only one of the other 29 did so with less accuracy than Cleveland's 43.4 percent. Bottom line: the Cavs got off 372 more shots than their opponents but scored 116 fewer buckets and 374 fewer points. That should improve some, at least, this season.
Stopping the other guys? That's a different story. Cleveland had an opponent's effective field-goal percentage -- an important measure of how well a team defends -- of 52.3. Only Charlotte, at 52.4, was worse.
The onus is on Brown and the players to clean up the defensive end -- and quickly.
As Grant said, "Defense is the big area for us. We were not very good defensively last year, really in any category."
From new guys Bennett and Bynum to returnees such as Waiters and Thompson, the talk has been about pleasing the defensive-minded Brown. Irving, too, can pick up his game at that end. When he was on the floor in 2012-13, the Cavs' offensive rating was 2.7 points better. But its defensive rating was 1.7 points worse.
Here's another challenge: Cleveland has to impress its neighbors. It went 3-13 within the Central last season, where at least three of the four rivals -- Indiana, Chicago and Detroit -- now appear to have upgraded.
Figuratively as well as literally, this is Bynum's turf. After a lost season due to knee problems and major backfire on the Philadelphia 76ers, the big man -- who will turn 26 at the end of the preseason -- has more of a Greg Oden scent about him than a Derrick Rose fragrance. If healthy, he could return to his former status as the league's second-most valuable center. If not, the Cavs and their fans won't get much solace from reminding themselves they'll save $18 million of the $24 million Bynum's two-year deal theoretically is worth.
So far, so good, though it's only August. "I have absolutely been blown away by his approach," Grant said. "Literally, [from] the day we signed him, the next day he was here and he has been here every day but Sunday working. During this rehab, this progression, obviously we have a very detailed plan that he's been on and he's following it to a T."
Anderson Varejao and Irving have injury or durability issues too, but Bynum controls the paint of that topic. He's a reasonable gamble -- up until the point where the wager gets lost.
Gilbert targeted 2013-14 for a return to the playoffs and, in the East, it's doable. The Cavs still are young and have pieces to rearrange, but the key ones are in place, and the bench -- with Jack, Clark or Alonzo Gee, Bennett, Zeller and C.J. Miles -- is respectable now.
As the surprise No. 1 pick in June, Bennett has an NBA body (maybe a little too much of it, according to those who saw him in his summer of limited workouts after shoulder surgery). After missing the summer league, his preseason will feel accelerated as he gets in shape, learns his responsibilities, faces new pressure and earns some trust from his coaches. He's an instinctive scorer who might not fit naturally into the small forward spot where the Cavs need the most help.
Cleveland might need better shooting, but won't want to use its greatest trade asset (Varejao) to add to that until it knows how reliable Bynum is. The early schedule is soft enough, but that's usually not a problem for younger teams anyway -- their challenge comes in pushing through the grind of 82.
Irving is worth the price of admission on most nights and will try to stay on the LeBron Track for the Cavs (Rookie of the Year, All-Star in Year 2, playoffs in Year 3). Speculation about his future whereabouts vs. James' possible return will remain inversely related, rising or falling along with the team's winning percentage this season.
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