Basketball is back and all is right in the world again. We finally have a reprieve from the constant state of depression that is the Cleveland Browns because the Cleveland Cavaliers are primed and ready to take on the league and go on a playoff run.
It’ been a fun offseason in Cleveland with Mike Brown coming back as head coach, the additions Andrew Bynum and Jarret Jack, the drafting of No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett, and the hand-switch of Tristan Thompson.
The projections for this team have been all over the board. Bill Simmons had the Cavs all the way down at No. 21 in his preseason rankings and still many others have had them as high as 5th in the East. That of course is because there are so many if’s with this team. If Bynum can get healthy. If Anderson Varejao and Kyrie Irving can stay healthy. If Anthony Bennett is actually good. If Mike Brown can figure out offense. If Dion Waiters can improve that jumper. If Chris Grant can swing some of those assets in a big trade.
These will all be fun storylines to explore as the season rolls along and they do have a very real impact on the eventual outcome of the 2013-14 Cavaliers season. But for me the success of the Cavs this season hinges on the two key points…
1. Mike Brown instilling a defensive mindset on the whole team
It’s no mystery to anyone who watched the Cavs under Byron Scott the past three years that the team was a joke defensively. Now a lot of that had to do with the fact that the team was very young and typically young players are bad at defense. But under Scott it appeared most of the time that there wasn’t much of a defensive system and that guys were almost just running around out there without much communication on whether to show on screens or how to rotate. And furthermore the team never really showed any improvement at all on that end…something you would expect to see out of young players.
Dan Gilbert left no doubt through tweets and comments that this was his biggest issue with Scott and was probably the driving force to bring back Mike Brown as the head coach. We all have our issues with Brown’s offense since at times during the LeBron era it looked like they ran two plays: iso-LeBron or pick-n-roll for LeBron. I worry a little bit that that might be something we see again, this time with Kyrie having the ball.
But as I was listening to Bill Simmons podcast the other day with Joe House where they did the over-under’s for all 32 teams—in which they picked the Cavs under 41 wins—and Simmons made an interesting point when arguing that the Dallas Mavericks would actually be pretty good this year. His point was essentially “When has a team coached by Rick Carlisle ever been bad?” This question made me think instantly about Mike Brown. “When has a Mike Brown-coached team ever been bad either?”
In his six seasons as an NBA head coach where he’s actually been able to finish the season (I’m throwing out what happened last year in LA) he’s never had a losing record. He’s won at least 50 games four times and would have five if not for the lockout-shortened season where his Lakers were on a 50+ win pace (41-25). He’s twice coached the team with the best record in the NBA. Simply put, Mike Brown teams are never bad, and they’re usually pretty good.
It all starts with the defense. Because of Brown’s commitment to his teams being solid on the defensive end that mentality drives them to victories. Teams who are good on defense are always going to have a chance to win night in and night out. Just look at the Bulls. Even last year without Derrick Rose they still made the playoffs and were a tough beat because they played hard defense all the time.
While on the surface the Cavs roster doesn’t look like one that will be particularly intimidating defensively, especially since they were so bad last year, don’t forget that Brown had great defenses with guys like Damon Jones, Donyell Marshall, and Mo Williams getting serious minutes. With Brown it’s about instilling a team defensive concept; five players playing as one cohesive unit. We didn’t see that at all under Scott.
And while they may not have played well to this point in their careers necessarily you can see the potential in most of the Cavs players to be good defenders. Kyrie with his quickness is a great defensive asset. Dion Waiters has the size and build of a prototypical defensive wing stopper not to mention his great athletic ability to boot. The small forward guys in Earl Clark and Alonzo Gee are in the NBA because of their defense. Tristan Thompson and Anthony Bennett certainly have the physical makeup with their large frames and long arms as well as great “hopping” ability to be very good post defenders. While Andy isn’t a shot-blocker at all we know that he is a very good defender in the post as well as out on the perimeter hedging on screens and recovering. And when healthy, Bynum is one of the best defensive centers in the league.
So this team clearly has promise because the roster has potential. Now it’s just up to Brown to mold them into that dominant unit…which is exactly what I expect him to do. It won’t happen overnight but we’ve already seen in preseason that they look improved defensively so expect to see them continue to grow at that end as the season progresses.
Now I do have some concerns about the offense. I really worry that the last four minutes of close games will be all iso-Kyrie ball. But hey, that’s what the NBA is now and it’s not like under Scott, an offensive guy, we saw much in the way of creativity late in games. So while we could sit here and fret about the offense, take solace that we were actually a pretty good offensive team last year for stretches and this team has guys that can score, both in the starting lineup as well as coming off the bench.
So when you’re tempted to worry about Mike Brown as the head coach again just remember that defense makes everything better. I feel safe in saying that a Brown-coached team will never blow one, let along multiple, 20-point second half leads.
The Cavs will be a good defensive team this season and in turn will be able to compete for the playoffs.
2. Kyrie becoming a transcendent NBA superstar
I feel like there has been so much noise about everything else going on with this Cavs team that the fact that Kyrie Irving is an incredible player has become such a marginalized topic of conversation. I realize that people would rather speculate about the rotation, or lament how the Cavs should have drafted Jonas Valanciunas over Thompson and/or Harrison Barnes over Waiters because those discussions spark debate and conversation.
But I’d rather talk about what is the most important key to the Cavs’ 2013-14 season and that’s Kyrie making the leap from All-Star to Superstar. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the video game covers and the Uncle Drew commercials and miss that most of the time when Kyrie steps on the court he’s head and shoulders the best player out there. He showed his greatness this past summer when competing with the other Team USA young guys and it was clear to everyone that there wasn’t another player out there who could even approach Kyrie’s greatness.
I wrote about this back in the slowness of late July but I’ll bring it back up again here. I believe that a case could be made that by the end of the year Kyrie will be looked at as a top five player in the East and a top ten player in the NBA. And the teams of the guys who are in that discussion usually finish at the top of the conference.
I look at Kyrie’s progression as a player as mirroring that of Derrick Rose’s progression through his first three season. Rose went from Rookie of the Year, to All-Star, to MVP. I’m not saying that Kyrie will win the MVP this season but I think he’ll be in the discussion. Check out the comparisons of Kyrie and Rose’s point and assist numbers from their first two seasons:
Rose—16.8/6.3, 20.8/6.0…year three—25.0/7.7
And while Kyrie had a slightly worse two point percentage than Rose through their first two years, Kyrie was a way better three point and free throw shooter and also has better steal numbers. Why then, with an improved roster around him, wouldn’t we actually expect Kyrie to put up those same third-year numbers as Rose or even better?
Now those Bulls teams went from 41 wins in each of Rose’s first two seasons to 62 in year three. I don’t think the Cavs will break the 60-win mark this season but would it really be all that crazy for them to jump 20 wins considering that the Bulls did it? And a large reason for that jump was a change in head coaches to a defensive guy. Hmmmmmmmm. Would it be crazy if the Cavs who won only 24 games last season won 45 this season?
I, for one, expect it to happen. I expect to Kyrie make that jump to becoming a superstar player who throws his team on his back and drives them to the playoffs and beyond.
I expect the Cavs to finish somewhere in the fifth or sixth spot in the East but I wouldn’t rule out them going higher. We all expect the Heat, Bulls, and Nets to be the top three teams and barring injuries to key players on those teams I wouldn’t expect the Cavs to crack that top three. But after that it’s open for debate as far I’m concerned if Kyrie is able to reach superstar/alpha dog status. The Pacers are a good team but not a great team. I expect the Knicks to drop off—I mean, have you seen their roster? And I don’t look at the Wizards, Pistons, Hawks, Raptors, or Bucks as being any better than the Cavs. Kyrie is certainly a better player than anybody you’ll find on any of those other teams despite how Brandon Jennings and Brandon Knight think about themselves.
Look, I’m an eternal optimist but I really truly believe that this year’s Cavs roster is greatly improved to be able to contend for the playoffs and even to make some noise when we get there. I loved the signing of Jarret Jack to help out a porous reserve squad. Having him come off the bench with Alonzo Gee and Bennett is a pretty good rotation to go with the guys that the Cavs have starting. I fully expect Thompson and Waiters to continue to get better at their games and grow as players and play smarter basketball. I have no idea if Andy can stay healthy or what we’ll get out of Bynum but if we can squeeze 82 combined games out of those two then I really like our chances.
But more than anything else I am sure that we are in for a monster of a season from Kyrie Irving. And with Kyrie playing like a superstar there’s no telling what the ceiling for this team can be.
I’m not saying that the Cavs are going to the Finals or anything…but I’m also not not saying it.
 Varejao’s absence from the lineup for those extended stretches the past several years I believe led to many of the defensive issues the Cavs had. They still didn’t run much of a system under Scott but the drop off from Andy to Tyler Zeller or Ryan Hollins was pretty stark.