Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Kyrie Irving, Future Top-5 Player? - Cleveland Cavaliers Season Preview

(Some magic from The King, who's mobile today and so I'm posting on his behalf)

Starting Five: PG Kyrie Irving, SG CJ Miles, SF Alonzo Gee, PF Tristan Thompson, C Anderson Varejao

Key Bench Players: PG Donald Sloan, SG Daniel Gibson, SG Dion Waiters, SF Omri Caspi,  PF Jon Leuer, and C Tyler Zeller

Notable offseason additions: Dion Waiters (4th overall pick), Tyler Zeller (17th overall pack), C.J. Miles
Notable Offseason subtractions: G Antwan Jamison

Losing LeBron James was the best thing that ever happened to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

I certainly didn’t think this was true at the time, but in hindsight, this was the only possible way for the Cavaliers to win a championship. If the Cavs had resigned LeBron, they would have become a rich man’s version of the late-1980s Hawks: a team with one star player surrounded by limited talent that was not good enough to compete with the league’s current elite, yet too good to pick early in the draft where the vast majority of stars emerge. Not to mention, the Cavaliers had zero payroll flexibility with gigantic contracts for overpaid players--in other words, they weren't going to be able to get better through free agency. The Cavs’ hopes for a championship would hinge on unearthing an All-Star (or perhaps two) with cheap, late round first draft picks to compete with the league’s up-and-coming teams such as the Chicago Bulls and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

With LeBron gone, the Cavs were essentially assured to be one of the worst teams in the league. This meant two things: (i) the Cavs’ draft pick was guaranteed to be in “superstar” drafting territory and (ii) with no hope of competing, the Cavs could trade their (few) marketable assets for draft picks such as Mo Williams, who, in what may turn out to be one of the greatest trades of all time, they turned into the #1 pick in the 2011 draft.

What it didn’t mean was that the Cavs fans would be doomed to years’ worth of pitiful basketball. Often times, rebuilding a team into a playoff contender can take half-a-decade or more. Watching your home team during those rebuilding years can be brutal – ask the Washington Wizards fans.  If you had talked to any Cavs fan during the 2010-2011 season, they had resigned themselves to the fact that they would endure 5-7 years of uninspired basketball like so many of the rebuilding teams before them. Yet, if you had spoken with those same fans a year later, you’d notice that they were decidedly more upbeat about the Cavs’ prospects. The reason why: 2012 NBA Rookie of the Year Kyrie Irving.

Simply put, Kyrie Irving is the next NBA superstar. Coming out of Duke after playing only 11 games during an injury-riddled freshman year, there was some that questioned whether he should be chosen over Derrick Williams with the first pick in the draft. That question doesn’t exist anymore.

Kyrie did it all in his rookie year, putting up the highest Player Efficiency Rating for a 19-year-old in NBA history. His quickness and ability to finish with both hands at the rim seemingly allowed him to score at will, as evidenced by his great TS% (56.6%) and his ability to get to the line. He was able to show off his distribution skills that wowed scouts in college, averaging 5.4 assists per game despite being surrounded by limited talent. He also shot 40% from 3-PT range in 87% from the FT line, silencing (the few) critics that questioned whether he was a good enough shooter to become a NBA superstar. While he struggled on defense some, he has the necessary defensive skills to turn into a great defender with experience.  If Kyrie Irving doesn’t become a top-5 player in the NBA, I’d be shocked. He’s essentially a slightly better-scoring, slightly worse-distributing version of Chris Paul.

This whole preview could really be an ode to Kyrie Irving, but he’s not the only young asset the Cavs have.  Tristan Thompson is still extremely raw, but showed a lot of promise. He improved substantially last year, posting better aggregate and per-minute numbers after the All-Star break. In build, in talent and in rookie performance, he is extremely similar to All-NBA Defensive Team member Serge Ibaka. Again, I can’t stress enough that he is raw and still needs to improve a significant amount, but he has the talent to become as effective as Air Congo in the coming years.

With the caveat that I watched a limited amount of college basketball last year, I’m not sure the Cavs made the right decision by choosing Dion Waiters over Thomas Robinson, but there are those that are certainly bullish on him. With that said, I could see him becoming one of the top sixth men in the league with his dynamic scoring skills and the physical ability to be a great defender. In the same night, the Cavs traded three top-35 draft picks to move up and select Tyler Zeller with the 17th overall pick. That seems like an awful lot to give up for a player that’s very unlikely to be a star. He does have the potential to develop into a decent NBA center however and has limited down-side, so it’s not an indefensible move by general manager Chris Grant.

In addition to the young guns listed above, Omri Casspi, Alonzo Gee and Jon Leurer are all intriguing players. I doubt any of them develop into starters on an elite team, but all have the potential to become playoff rotation players.

As far as veterans go, the only useful asset now that Antawn Jamison has departed is Anderson Varejao. Relying on energy and above-average athleticism, Varejao has been one of the better defenders in the league the last few years. Last year though, he took his game to another level by posting a career best 20.8% rebound rate and being more aggressive on the offensive end (thanks in no small part to Kyrie Irving, who helped get him better looks). There was a lot of chatter this past offseason that Varejao may be traded, but in the end he remains a Cav. With three more years left on his contract, the decision to keep or trade Varejao will say a lot about how management views their team’s ability to contend in the near future.

Besides the players listed above, the other big asset for the Cavaliers is their cap space. The Cavs have very limited money committed now and in the future. This salary cap flexibility may allow the Cavs to pick up some attractive first round draft picks if they take on a bad salary, similar to what they did in the Mo Williams-Baron Davis trade.

As one of the youngest teams in the league and a roster lacking in playoff-ready talent, the Cavs are likely in for another losing season. With that said, the Cavs have probably the brightest future of any rebuilding team and in Byron Scott, a coach with a proven track record in turning around losing teams. With the next NBA superstar in Kyrie Irving, a solid veteran signed to a long-term contract who could be traded or retained for the future, several promising young players and a ton of cap space now and in the future, the Cavs are poised for future success.  If the Cavs use their draft picks and cap space wisely, three years from now may be the opening of a long title window.

Best Case Scenario: Kyrie Irving continues to improve and cements himself as the league’s next superstar. Tristan Thompson continues to develop and looks capable of becoming an above-average NBA PF. Dion Waiters shows why some scouts believed that, outside of Anthony Davis, he had the most star potential out of anybody in the NBA draft, allowing Cavs to dream of a dominating backcourt for years to come. The Cavs miss the playoffs, but garner another lottery pick and improve significantly enough on the court that gives both players and fans hope about the future.

Absolute Apocalypse:
The Cavs play better than expected and one of the “sure-bet” playoff teams struggles unexpectedly or from injuries, allowing the Cavs to slip into the playoffs. Confidence and playoff experience are important, but Cleveland would benefit far more from a lottery pick.

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