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With Saturday’s win over the Clippers, the Cavaliers played their 20th game of the 2013-14 season – reaching the quarter turn of the campaign.
It hasn’t been an easy 20-game stretch to start the season, but that can be said for almost every team in the Eastern Conference, save Miami and Indiana. But the Wine and Gold have just won three straight home contests and it looks like guys are beginning to settle into their roles.
As Mike Brown’s men prepare to host one of those struggling Eastern Conference squads, the Knicks, on Tuesday night, here’s a look back at the first quarter of the season – where the Cavaliers came from and where they might be going over the next four months.
Large, In Charge – The Cavaliers have dealt with some serious health issues in their frontcourt over the last three seasons. And at the center of those concerns – no pun intended – has been Anderson Varejao, who was limited to a total of 81 games over the previous three years. This season, not only is Andy healthy, but he’s part of an active, daunting frontline that’s been carrying Cleveland over the past few games.
Of course, if we’re going to talk about big men getting healthy, we have to discuss Andrew Bynum – who some felt might return to the floor by mid-season, if he did at all. Instead, Bynum was ready to roll by the season opener and ready to play both ends of a back-to-back before Thanksgiving.
Bynum has shown great progress this season, having missed an entire year of basketball last year. Over the past week, he turned in a pair of 20-point, 10-rebound performances and is averaging 18.0 points, 9.0 boards and 2.0 blocks over his last four outings. And just as importantly, it looks like Cleveland’s young guards are learning how to play with him.
Bynum’s been tremendous over the last week, but the Cavaliers’ Mr. Consistent – Tristan Thompson – has been rock-solid all season, taking averages of 11.5 ppg and 10.3 rpg into the quarter turn. On Saturday night, the third-year forward notched his 10th double-double of the season.
And back to Varejao, the Wild Thing looks like his old self, no more evident than in Cleveland’s last two victories over a pair of Western Conference heavy hitters. In last Wednesday’s win over Denver, Andy doubled up with 18 points and 13 boards. On Saturday, he grabbed a season-high 17 boards. And in both contests, he fully flummoxed Timofey Mozgov and Blake Griffin, respectively.
Over Cleveland’s last three games, the trio of Bynum, Thompson and Varejao has averaged 35.6 points and 41.1 boards per contest.
Changing of the Guard – Through the first 20 games of the season, Mike Brown has already used eight different starting lineups. And he’s vowed to keep making changes until he finds the combination and rotation that’ll give him the best result.
Kyrie Irving has started every game at the point this season and, again, he’s been playing at an All-Star level. The third-year former Blue Devil is one of only three players in the East to average at least 19 points and five assists per game. He’s led the Cavs in scoring nine times this season, in assists on 12 occasions.
Dion Waiters began the season in the starting lineup, but was moved to the second unit on November 15 – where he’s flourished ever since. Waiter missed two games with an illness after the move, but returned to notch double-figures in all but two of his last nine games. He netted 20-plus points off the bench in three straight games and, regardless of roles, is averaging 15.1 ppg so far this season.
Eight-year veteran Jarrett Jack has posted solid numbers (9.5 points, 3.7 assists) this season, but much of his value has been as a leader off the bench, keeping the squad on the same page on the floor and in the locker room.
C.J. Miles got off to a strong start this season, but has struggled since his return from a right calf strain. Still, the Wine and Gold have been their most successful with C.J. in the starting lineup – going 3-1 in games which he’s started across from Irving.
Youth Is Served – The Cavaliers entered the 2013-14 season as the second-youngest team in the NBA with an average age of 24 years and 156 days. (Only the 76ers are younger.)
Unlike Mike Brown’s first go-round with the Cavaliers – a team loaded with older veterans – his second incarnation with the club sees him working with extremely young veterans and – at any given time – as many as five rookies.
As with most first-year players, it’s been a series of ups-and-downs for most of them.
Second-round pick, Carrick Felix looked great in Summer League, but a mild sports hernia forced him to miss most of Training Camp and much of the first 20 games of the regular season. He and Henry Sims – who’s shown some solid moments in the post this year – were both assigned to Canton late last week and recalled early this week.
A pair of rookie two-guards – Sergey Karasev and Matthew Dellavedova – each got a start for the Wine and Gold this year. Both rooks have drastically different games. The angular Karasev is a crafty lefty whose calling card is his outside shot. Delly can hit the outside shot, but he hangs his hat on toughness and leadership. It isn’t always pretty with Dellavedova, but the Aussie finds a way to get the job done.
Naturally, Anthony Bennett has gotten the most ink of all Cleveland’s freshman because he was the top pick in this past June’s Draft. It’s no secret that the former UNLV standout has struggled to find his game. But Mike Brown has been quick to remind fans that he’s a 20-year-old who’s essentially one-year removed from high school – and that he frequently shows flashes from his Runnin’ Rebel days in practice at CCC.
Mike Brown has also noted that Bennett (and the team) has the luxury of letting the young Canadian work his way into the league – without having to depend on him to produce this early in his career.
Weak East – As previously mentioned, the Cavaliers aren’t the only Eastern Conference team that’s yet to find its stride.
Right now, only three teams in the Conference are above .500, and the third team in that trio – the Atlanta Hawks – sits at 11-10. The cream of the Conference, Indiana and Miami, are a combined 34-8, with Indy pacing the entire league at 18-3. In the East’s Atlantic Division, Boston is in first place with a 10-12 mark. The Knicks, who come to Cleveland on Tuesday, are in last place in that division at 5-14, slightly behind the Brooklyn Nets at 6-14.
In the Central, Detroit has begun to make some waves, but the Bulls have slumped after losing Derrick Rose to another season-ending knee injury. The Cavaliers have won three of their last four and, despite the 7-13 mark, are just two games out of the eighth-seed (and just 3.5 games out of the third-seed) in the East.
With three-quarters of the season still ahead of us, several storylines will unfold and that muddled playoff picture will begin to sort itself out. In the meantime, the Wine and Gold prepare for the next quarter of what’s already been a fascinating campaign in Cleveland.