I don’t really believe in “moral victories.” Frankly, I’m not even exactly sure what that means or how you’d define it necessarily. However, I’m not the kind of person who looks at every loss in competition as a complete waste. There’s always learning that can come from any experience, win or loss. That’s not to say that “you have to lose to learn whatever lesson” but an athlete or a coach should always be able to draw something from any experience that will benefit them.
So while I believe that from a holistic standpoint the Cavs recent losing ways, capped by the exceedingly disappointing effort last night against the Pelicans, is entirely bad there was some good that came out of Tuesday night’s game…Anthony Bennett looked like a fairly decent NBA basketball player.
I don’t need to recap for anyone how bad Bennett has been in his rookie season. He’s widely been called the worst No. 1 pick of all time. He hasn’t gotten many minutes and when he has found himself on the court he’s looked lost, out of shape, timid, and just downright awful. Shooting around 25%, scoring 2.4 points per game, and with a PER under one…he just hasn’t looked like anything resembling an actual NBA player.
Until Tuesday night, January 28, 2014.
With Anderson Varejao out and day-to-day that pressed Tyler Zeller into the starting center role. That opened up a spot in the rotation for one of the backup bigs. Mike Brown, in another of his incredibly odd and perplexing rotation moves, played Bennett as the sole backup big for Zeller and Tristan Thompson, completely cutting Earl Clark out of the rotation. That meant that Bennett—a guy who’s been out of the rotation completely going on three weeks, has had six DNP-CD’s in the past seven games, averaging only 10.2 minutes per appearance, and hasn’t played more than 20 minutes in a single game all season—was pressed into service to the tune of 31 minutes battling against one of the rising stars in the NBA and a tremendous defensive player in 2012’s No. 1 pick Anthony Davis.
I wouldn’t say that Bennett held his own or anything. Davis went off for 30 points, 7 rebounds, and 8 blocks. But after a very shaky first half that saw him getting blocked, shying away from short looks in the lane, and picking up stupid fouls, Bennett really acquitted himself quite well in the second half. The UNLV product finished with 15 points on 5-10 shooting (2-3 from three), 3-6 from the free throw line, 8 rebounds, one assist, and one block—on Davis, I might add. Now that line certainly isn’t going to win him rookie of the year, let alone month, and it probably won’t even get him invited to the Rookie/Sophomore game at All-Star Weekend. But it was, was progress. It was the first signs of life from a promising prospect three months into his NBA career.
The points were obviously a career high, it being his first time actually scoring in double figures as a pro, and the eight boards also matched a career best. But what I took away most from this game is the way that Bennett competed. No one thinks or thought coming out of college that Bennett could or will be anywhere close to Anthony Davis as a player. But once he got into the flow of the game a little Bennett actually showed some fight. He probably believes in his own mind that he can be (and maybe even thinks he is) as good as Davis. And he showed that with his play. Like I said, the first half was pretty rough. But to his credit (and I don’t want to give him too much because I hate how he’s handled Bennett to this point) Coach Brown let Bennett play himself into the game a little bit and didn’t just pull the kid after a mistake or two or three. He played ten minutes in the first half and by the end of it didn’t look awful. Then he came out in the second half and played 21 minutes, coming into the game early in the third to replace Zeller and then just never came out. He looked confident in everything he did. He had a nice backdoor cut off a feed from Jarrett Jack that resulted in a thunderous slam. He knocked down a pair of corner threes. He brought down boards. He didn’t have a prayer of actually stopping Davis on defense but he at least used his strength and tried to muscle the skinnier, albeit longer, player and really showed a lot of fight and effort—something that we’ve seen a noticeable lack of this season from the top pick.
Now I realize that many naysayers will argue that this means nothing because it came in a loss where the Cavs spent much of the second half down by about 20 points. I totally reject that notion. And people like that are just sad sacks who would rather wallow in defeat and misery than try and find some positives to get excited about. Sure, I wish that the Cavs were winning more games. Sure, I wish that Mike Brown was doing a better job of coaching this team. Sure, I don’t think it looks good for the Cavs making the playoffs at this point. But if we don’t have hope then we of all people are be most pitied. Because without hope you’re just consigning yourself to being a loser.
Tuesday morning when I woke up I had no conceivable reason to believe that Anthony Bennett would ever do anything this season to help the Cavs actually win basketball games. Frankly, there wasn’t much reason to think that he’d ever amount to much of anything for his career. I was basically resigned to the point where I didn’t even care about the guy. He was a wasted pick.
But all that perception has changed now. I’m probably riding a little too high admittedly but 15 and 8 is actually a pretty decent game for an NBA player—especially a reserve. I don’t think he’ll do that every night obviously. But we at least know now that that guy exists. We know and the Cavs coaches know that he is capable of producing. And maybe most importantly now Anthony Bennett knows himself what he’s capable of. For his first three months he’s looked like a little lost lamb out on the court. He’s looked completely shell-shocked as if the stage is just too big for him. He’s looked like he has no confidence in his ability to produce and compete at this level. That changed last night. Bennett hustled and played with confidence and actually played well. He scored 15 points but it wasn’t like he was just jacking up a ton of shots. He shot 50% on the game, knocked down some threes, went to the line three times…he played an actual game, with meaningful minutes. And he played a heck of a lot better than Thompson who downright awful (5/5, 2-10, -17).
What does this mean ultimately? I have no clue. I’m still super disappointed in this team as a whole and their coach in particular. But that’s another column for another day (probably Friday).
What I do know is that now I have a little hope. I hope that this game will springboard Bennett into playing some improved ball the rest of the season. I hope that he can become a contributing piece to help the Cavs to the playoffs (Lord knows we need all the help we can get). And I hope that maybe now he won’t go down as the worst No. 1 pick of all time.
I’m a Cleveland fan, and sometimes all we have is hope. So I’m going to cling to that for now till something real comes along.
 Henry Simms did get some minutes in the fourth when the Cavs were down 20 and Thompson and Zeller weren’t playing like they deserved to be on the floor. But he certainly wasn’t in the rotation plans for the night—if Coach Brown even has such a thing. I’m not convinced he does.