In any sport, depth is a precious commodity. And, after a couple tough campaigns, the Cavaliers look as though they’ve started to accumulate some of it.
The Wine and Gold have their incumbents, especially in the backcourt. But this year, some quality players will be scrapping for quality minutes.
The best battle of Mike Brown’s first Training Camp back has been at the small forward spot. Alonzo Gee has manned the 3 for most of the past three seasons, but he’s been in a positional dogfight this fall. That competition has come in the form of Earl Clark, who inked a free agent deal this past July.
As of Monday’s practice, Coach Brown still wasn’t sure who’d be getting the start when the season tips off on Wednesday night. But he also admitted that it’s going to be a season-long evaluation.
Gee is probably the squad’s best pure athlete – built like a tight end and can jump out of the gym. Over the past couple years, he’s been the team’s top perimeter defender, checking up to three positions. Clark’s advantage is the combination of his length – 6-10 – and the lateral and vertical mobility he brings with it.
“Every guy’s different, you know,” said Clark. “For me, I had to find my role and figure out what Mike wanted out of me out there. It doesn’t matter what you can do, it’s what’s best for the team. So, we’re trying to figure that out.”
Both players have different shapes and styles, but they’re both dogged defenders, and that will always keep them in good favor with the coaching staff.
Neither Clark nor Gee will be required to carry the team’s scoring load. Gee’s averaged 9.1 points per contest over his career, Clark, 7.3 ppg. But both guys can be dangerous when they get warmed up.
“I had to make a few more shots (this past preseason), which I’m still not satisfied with,” said Clark. “But I’m going to continue to shoot and I know they’ll fall when it’s time and have some good games.”
Clark was the 14th overall pick in 2009 out of Louisville. His Cardinals won the Big East Tournament in Clark’s junior year and he declared for the NBA Draft later that spring. He was selected by the Phoenix Suns and appeared in 51 games as a rookie.
During his sophomore season, he was part of a trade that sent Hedo Turkoglu back to the Magic. After a year-and-change in Orlando, Clark was part of the massive Dwight Howard trade and ended up with the Lakers last season.
The Cavaliers are Clark’s fourth NBA team and he’s not yet 26 years old. But he feels like he’s finally found a home in Cleveland.
Clark also has a comfort zone with Cleveland. He’s one of four Cavaliers – along with Andrew Bynum, Tristan Thompson and Kyrie Irving – who played high school ball in New Jersey.
“It’s kind of funny – I knew Kyrie, I knew a few guys on the team before I got here, so it was easier. But when you go to a team where you basically don’t know anybody, you get to know the coaching staff, the trainers. It gets tough, but, like I said, it comes with the job and you just get used to it.”
In his first preseason in Cleveland, Clark started five games and appeared in seven. He averaged 6.7 points and 2.7 boards per contest. He saved his best for last, going 5-for-7 from the floor for 12 points in the finale in Charlotte. Whether that will be enough to earn him a starting spot on Wednesday night is out of his control now.
“I just want to play, man,” said Clark. “I’ve been in this league, going on my fifth year, and I just want the opportunity to play. Obviously, I do want to start. Who wouldn’t want to? But I’m fighting for the job and I think I’m doing a good job. I think I bring a lot to the team and I do things that a lot of people can’t do – and I just want to play.”
Clark will be vying for minutes in a crowded frontcourt. Not only will he have to battle Alonzo Gee for the starting spot, he’ll have swingman C.J. Miles looking for time as well. And then there’s Anthony Bennett, Tristan Thompson, Tyler Zeller and eventually Andrew Bynum requiring time (and space) on the floor.
So how is Clark responding to the competition along the frontline.
“Well, they’re taking a lot of my rebounds – I don’t like that,” joked Clark. “It’s kind of tough to get in there. And it’s different because I’m trying to get used to playing the 3. I’m usually at the 4 in the league, so crashing is one of the things that I did well. I’m quick on my feet, I was able to get to some balls. But now I’ve got to balance the floor, get back, so it’s kind of different and I’m getting used to that.
“It’s been an adjustment, (but) I think I can do it, I think I’ve been doing a good job of guarding 3’s, some 2’s. And it’s just something new to me now.”
Clark takes great pride in his defensive versatility and he knows he’s in the right place with Mike Brown and Cleveland’s young, talented roster.
“(Brown)’s a defensive coach, first of all, and that’s something that I excel in,” said the soft-spoken small forward. “And I’ve never been on a real young team. I’ve always been on a veteran team where I had to learn a lot, play behind some guys.”
Though he doesn’t turn 26 until January, Clark is one of the elder statesman on the squad. He’s made trips to the postseason in each of his first four seasons and brings that veteran leadership to the youthful Cavaliers.
“I’m not somebody who’s gonna come in here and scream my head off; I just try to lead by example, by doing the right thing. And when I see a young guy doing something that he’s not supposed to or making a mistake, I try to pull him to the side and talk to him. And that’s how I deal.”
Whether he’s in the starting lineup or not, Clark is part of the Cavaliers’ newfound depth – and that could make them a dangerous team once the 2013-14 tips off tomorrow.
“I think we can be great if we just buy into what coach is trying to do – play defense first, share the ball,” concluded Clark. “I think if everybody stays healthy, we can be a great team.”