Last season: Despite the ugly record of 21-45, there was hope last season in Cleveland in the name of Kyrie Irving. The No. 1 draft pick out of Duke was Rookie of the Year and looked like a future All-Star. (Then he carried that over to his performance with the USA Select Team this summer where he impressed.)
That said, the Cavaliers were terrible last season — bottom four in both points scored and points allowed per possession. They might have been the second worst team in basketball, they at least looked like it at times. They have a long, long way to go. But there is hope.
Key Departures: It was time to let Antawn Jamison go, the veteran could not be part of the rebuilding process in Cleveland. But that is still 17.2 points per game gone from an unimpressive offense to begin with. None of the other departures are going to hurt much.
Key Additions: Cavaliers GM Chris Grant is going with the Thunder model of rebuilding through the draft and for the third straight year had a top 5 pick, this time using it on Dion Waiters out of Syracuse, picturing him as a guy they can pair with Irving in the back court. We’ll see.
But the guy that may have a bigger impact this year is draft pick Tyler Zeller, the big man out of North Carolina. He is solid, runs the floor well and may never be an NBA star, but he can be a solid part of what is being built. A couple other pickups to watch are C.J. Miles getting minutes behind Irving, plus Kelenna Azubuike who if he gets healthy could make an impact.
Three keys to the Cavaliers season:
1) How good can Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters be? This is not really a one-year question. We will not have all the answers come April. But it may be the biggest question facing Cavaliers long term.
Cleveland had three top four picks the last couple years and out of that we are sure that Kyrie Irving is the real deal. But if you are following the Thunder model, you still need to get your Russell Westbrook and James Harden picks, and nobody is sold yet that the Cavaliers have those.
Thompson was nice as a rookie, 8.3 points and 6.5 rebounds a game, decent touch around the rim but needs some range. The question is what kind of leap can he make this season. Waiters was unimpressive and not in NBA condition at Summer League, can he show he deserved to be the No. 4 pick? It’s easy to look at the guys taken behind Thompson (Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard) and Waiters (Harrison Barnes, Andre Drummond, Thomas Robinson) but the Cavaliers players deserve the chance to prove they were the right calls. They deserve three years each to show that they can develop.
But that development is key to the Cavaliers’ future.
2) Can Kyrie Irving help generate enough offense for Cleveland? Make no mistake, Irving is very good. He is the face of the franchise, he is the guy people in other markets buy tickets to see. He is a guy who can not only score but make the players around him better.
But can he develop into a true franchise anchor player? Can he generate enough offense for the Cavaliers to be dangerous? Cleveland is young and just figuring out where their points will come from, and a lot of that burden is going to fall on Irving now (especially with Jamison gone).
Again, we don’t know for sure, but this feels more like a yes. Not because of his 18.5 points and 5.4 assists per game as a rookie on a bad team, although that doesn’t hurt. But rather it feels like a yes because of the rave reviews of Irving from the USA Select Team. That squad of young players pushed Team USA in practices and scrimmages before the London Olympics, and the reports on Irving were that he impressed. It feels like he can keep improving and be something special, a guy who can control and generate the offense Cleveland will need. It just might not all come this year.
3) Will Dan Gilbert be patient? Cavaliers’ owner Dan Gilbert was frustrated in the wake of LeBron James leaving, and he said some impatient things. I think we can all understand why, even while we think he should have been more mature.
But can he be patient now. The Cavaliers are on a slow building course and while they will be better this year they will not be the Heat. They won’t even be the Nets. They likely will not even be the Bucks.
Can Gilbert be patient and let this team improve slowly over a few seasons? Or will he get impatient and order young parts to be traded away for veterans that can win now? My belief is that he can be patient, that he is willing to take the long view. But if there are bumps in the road, how will he react?
What Cavaliers fans should fear: That the answer to No. 1 above — the question about how good Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters can be — is not very good. Drafting is an inexact science and some top picks do not pan out, while others surprise. But Cleveland has had the rare chance at three top 4 picks in the past couple drafts and they need to have more to show for it than just Irving. They need other top players, not just eventual role players. They need Thompson and Waiters to pain out (or at least one of them).
How it likely works out: Cleveland is going to be better this year, they are on the right path to building a good team. Irving is going to make a leap forward and will be a borderline All-Star (it’s hard to be an All-Star point guard in the East with Deron Williams and Rajon Rondo already). Thompson will get better. Dion Waiters will show some promise. Someone like Alonzo Gee will step forward. I think Tyler Zeller will turn out to be a nice pickup.
This is a young team that will take a step forward. But that is not enough to make the playoffs, not yet.
Don’t be shocked if the Cavaliers make trades to stockpile more picks and young players this season. They have about another year of that before then need to start thinking about what veterans to put with their young core.
Prediction: 34-48, finishing around the 10 seed in the East and out of the playoffs. But there will be signs of progress. It’s a slow process sometimes, but the Cavaliers are on the right path.