Is a hard charging Kyrie Irving enough to get the Cavaliers into playoff contention?
Our look at the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team slowly on the rebound after LeBron chose to go elsewhere. They're getting some support as a potential playoff team by pundits. Is that merited?
Last Season – 21-45 Last place in the Central. Rookie of the year Kyrie Irving gives hope in the back court but also misses over 20% of his games. Other high lottery pick Tristan Thompson starts very slow.Off-season moves – The key losses include Antawn Jamison who signed with the Lakers, Anthony Parker who retired, and Semih Erden, who returned to Turkey. They did resign Luke Harangody as a backup PF. They may not be done as the status of RFA Alonzo Gee hasn't been determined and Boobie Gibson is still supposedly on the trading block.
UPDATE: Alonzo Gee signs multi-year deal with Cavs today and solidifies SF.
Trades – Only one off-season trade for the Cavaliers and it was about using their cap space to help Memphis with too many guaranteed deals. They acquired the intriguing Jeremy Pargo for free basically. Pargo saw action in 44 games last year as a 25 year old rookie for Memphis. He had some exciting lines in summer league this year and will back up franchise player Kyrie Irving.
Free agency – The Cavaliers made two moves in free agency. First they used a waiver claim on the Peachtree Hoops legend Jon Leuer when Houston cut the stretch PF. Their second and more high profile move was to sign CJ Miles. The 25 year old Miles has spent his entire 7 year career with Utah. Although Miles has started more than a third of his games in Utah I think he is seen as a 6th man providing scoring punch off the bench.
Draft – The Cavaliers are another franchise that realistically must do most of there rebuilding through the draft. This year they spent the #4 overall pick on a player who didn't start much in college, Dion Waiters of Syracuse. They fell in love with his potential to score the ball at the SG position. Unfortunately Waiters came to summer league overweight and the whispers already surround him as a potential bust, but it's only fair to give that a little time to pan out. They also traded a pile of picks to move up for Tyler Zeller, a C/PF from North Carolina who scouted pre-draft as one of the most offensively ready bigs to make the jump to the NBA. That's a good need move because the majority of Cavalier bigs are offensively challenged. Technically, a free agency move the Cavaliers have signed Michael Eric as undrafted free agent. The 6-11Temple Owl from Nigeria played 4 seasons and is primarily known for shot blocking and rebounding.
Their Roster – Cavaliers have a star in the making with Kyrie Irving. Entering his 2nd season they've had 2 other top five picks and a mid-round first and the skeptics are already saying that while improving they've blundered on most of their picks except Irving. The thought isn't outright flops but not getting the best player available with their picks.
Point Guard – When healthy the Cavaliers sport a tremendous young PG in Kyrie Irving. His eFG was 51.7%, he shot 40% from 3 and had a PER of 21.4. Impressive stats for any PG let alone a rookie. He's a score first PG who distributes off the threat of his scoring. The problem with Irving is the when healthy part. He missed 20% of his games as a rookie and his driving style leads me to believe that isn't an anomaly. Last year the backup role was another strong score first PG in Ramon Sessions, but this year the role will likely fall to Jeremy Pargo. Boobie Gibson strikes me as a catch and shoot guard who only gets listed at PG while playing with a F or SG who handles the ball in the half court (like Lebron was). Donald Sloan is also signed and could be the 3rd PG if they can find a taker for Gibson.
The head-to-head breakdown is the same against the Hawks as it is against most of the East. Advantage to the Cavaliers if Irving is healthy and if he's out the pendulum swings the other way. On the positive side the Hawks have enough backcourt speed to at least harass Irving.
Wings – The wing position of SG and SF is a weakness for Cavaliers. Alonzo Gee was a pleasant surprise last year, but has yet to re-sign. Omri Casspi may get a chance to prove himself at the SF position but he's been in a steady slide since a promising rookie year. We already discussed rookie Dion Waiters who was one the bigger disappointments of summer league and CJ Miles who rarely rose above mediocre in his time in Utah. EDIT - With Alonzo Gee signing they have depth now at SF, but I would classify the position as okay, but not an area of strength. Helps the Cavs but doesn't guarantee an advantage on the wings.
The Hawks aren't certain on the wings. The one thing that seems likely is that whomever we put on the floor at those positions can shoot like Anthony Morrow, Kyle Korver, and John Jenkins. There is also the posibility of Devin Harris starting at SG which would give Cavaliers a size advantage, but might create a speed mismatch. There are so many questions here that I consider the wing positions a draw at this point.
Bigs – Cleveland's only veteran presence left on the roster is C/PF Anderson Varejao. He's a dirty work player who has always given the Hawks fits on the boards, but outside of offensive rebounding contributes little offensively. PF Tristan Thompson was the #4 draft pick last year and proved to be very raw. It's possible he could make a big jump in production, but given the rate he was progressing I wouldn't expect much this year if I was a Cavs fan. The Cavs are likely hoping for early impact from rookie Tyler Zeller. He runs the floor very well and is a smart C but he didn't dominate in summer league like one would hope. Beyond those players they have a lot of role players like Harangody, Samardo Samuels, and Jon Leuer who don't have a large sample size of games to analyze fully.
You'll probable hear this a lot, but big advantage to the Hawks bigs. Josh, Al, and Zaza have the experience and productivity to overcome the length advantage of the Cavalier bigs. If Ivan Johnson is back you have to give him the advantage over any of the players deeper on the Cavs bench. I give the Cavs credit that defensively they can harass the Atlanta bigs and maybe even win the boards, but Atlanta has more fire power and should be able to shut down the bigs of Cleveland from doing much offensively.
Coaching – Byron Scott returns for a 3rd season as the Cleveland coach. He's had success in his two previous NBA head coaching jobs, but each time it was a major acquisition that put them over the top. In New Jersey they jumped from 26 to 52 wins when acquiring Jason Kidd. In New Orleans they went from 39 to 56 by adding Peja Stojakovic to the Chris Paul, Tyson Chandler, David West core. They didn't get that type of addition in Cleveland this year. I'd give Byron Scott a draw when comparing him with Larry Drew. Drew doesn't have as much head coaching experience, but does have a ton of assistant coaching experience.
Outlook – A lot of people like Cleveland to push for a playoff spot. I'm not so convinced and see them on the outside looking in. Looking at their gains and it is primarily all Kyrie Irving. It's a lot to expect a 2nd year player to carry your team to playoffs on his own. Their 21 wins last year would have been 26 on a full schedule. I see them continuing the climb to 31 wins this year, but unless the other lottery picks outside of Irving don't step up it will likely be a very slow climb for Cleveland overall. The Hawks were 3-0 against the Cavs last year although we barely escaped at home 103-102 when Irving went off for 29-9-9. Also in that game perennial thorn to the Hawks Antawn Jamison scored 23 and had 12 rebounds. This year we play them 4 times and while we are capable of winning all, I have trouble projecting that. I see us 3 up and 1 down. I see December 28 as a trap game because we fly up to Cleveland after being at home over Christmas and then return home to play Indiana on the 29th. Classic overlook potential in that one.
Beyond this season I see Cleveland as having a viable superstar in Irving who will likely even make at least one teammate look a lot better than he is. I see them struggling to surround him with real talent though. Waiters or Thompson may still pan out, but if they don't I see the Cavs as wasting the Irving years as a low playoff seed unable to make a true run.
What do you think about the Cavaliers? Do you agree with many of the pundits that they are a possible playoff team this year? Or do you agree with my analysis of still having a long way to go? How close are they to the new look Hawks?