After yesterday's practice, the Cavs announced an absolute slew of injuries. We already knew about poor Tyler Zeller. He strained his hip on the slippery floor of Baldwin-Wallace, under the blameless Brazilian heft of Anderson Varejao, during the Wine & Gold scrimmage two weeks ago and then required an emergency appendectomy on Friday. (Here I thought only children had appendectomies). Early reports indicate that he'll be out for at least a month. Like his fellow big man Andrew Bynum, there is no timetable for his return.
In addition, star backup PG Jarrett Jack — Grantland's Jalen Rose has predicted that Jack will win the NBA's 6th Man award this year — has inflammation in his knee cartilage and will miss something in the neighborhood of 10 days. With enough rest and nightly prayer, he'll be suited up for the season opener against Brooklyn.
And that's not all, folks. Reserve wing Carrick Felix, the Alonzo Gee surrogate whom Mike Brown loves for his willingness to "do the little things," has a hernia which doctors "discovered" after a recent MRI. Felix, as if to join the club, has "no timetable" for a return. Also, just to complicate the line-ups tonight and Thursday, rookie Sergey Karasev is off getting his visa and won't return until Friday.
To make matters much more consistent with Cleveland's perennial sports-pocalypses, All-Star PG and fan-fave Kyrie Irving has announced that he's been diagnosed with that weird bone-frailty disorder that Samuel L. Jackson had in Unbreakable. He is expected to play one regular season game before non-negligible portions of his skeletal system combust in protest.
That last one's a joke... as far as I know.
Things aren't yet dire by any stretch, but remember when the Cavs drafted Anthony Bennett first overall, signed Andrew Bynum and his knees (which, under X-ray, resemble nothing so much as lurid question marks) and everyone huffed and puffed about the logjam in the front court?
Now, we're talking with straight faces about the Kenny Kadji / Henry Sims "battle" for what appears to be the final roster spot. Brown likes PG Matthew Dellavedova (henceforth only "Delly") and the intangibles and leadership he brings to the table. His services may be called upon more regularly than we'd all prefer, given Jack's current patellar woes, and Kyrie's penchant for improbable hairline fractures. So the notion that Kadji and Sims might both make the roster (at Delly's expense) seems unlikely.
Sims is the 6'10" nuts-and-bolts Georgetown product, belonging to a mighty lineage which includes, among others, Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning and Indiana's Roy Hibbert. He's like Felix in that he doesn't necessarily blow you away statistically but contributes on the defensive and does things like "not blow assignments."
Kadji's the undrafted rookie from Miami who's already 25 years old and doubles as the heir-apparent to a coastal African beer empire. He had a scoring explosion in the preseason opener against the Bucks, but often looks like a motherless deer out there, in terms of confidence in isolation defense. He has made one or two highlight-reel blocks, but unless he puts up dramatic numbers over the next couple of weeks, I give the edge to Sims.
But just to play devil's advocate:
The Cavs are amassing a formidable international fan base, thanks in large part to the Canadian duo Thompson and Bennett, who no-joke grew up down the street from each other in suburban Toronto; and Kyrie and Delly, both hailing from Australia, and who will henceforth be known as the "Rescuers Down Under." With Kadji on the roster, and his father (the magnate Gilbert Kadji) manhandling advertising in Cameroon and the West African coast, the franchise is looking at untold sums in new international revenue streams. (DO NOT PUT THIS PAST DAN GILBERT).
DeSagana Diop, just for the record, should be completely out of the question for all roster considerations. His butt alone weighs roughly the same as the starting back court.
So let's assume the final roster looks like this:
PG: Kyrie Irving
PG: Jarrett Jack
PG: Matthew Dellavedova
G: Dion Waiters
G/F: C.J. Miles
G/F: Sergey Karasev
G/F: Carrick Felix
G/F: Alonzo Gee
F: Earl Clark
F: Anthony Bennett
F/C: Tristan Thompson
F/C: Anderson Varejao
C: Tyler Zeller
C: Henry Sims
C: Andrew Bynum
The only question in the starting lineup, at this point, appears to be Gee or Clark at SF. Gee is slated to start tonight against the Bobcats after missing the past week with a tight hamstring. Tonight's game will be played in Canton, by the way, and because of the appendectomy will no longer feature its marquee matchup: ZELLER vs. ZELLER.
Clark hasn't exactly been a game-changer during Gee's convalescence. He shot 1-5 and 1-7 in the first two contests and nabbed but three boards in each (all defensive) playing 16 and 22 minutes. He also somehow fouled out in that first game. In only 16 minutes on the court. Mike Brown could do little but console via head pat.
Still, Clark moves incredibly well for a 6'10" guy, and you get the sense that the moment he ignites his motor and gets into a shooting rhythm, he could be an offensive force. Let's say Brown opts for Clark's size over Gee's blue-collar defensive ethos to start the season.
So here are our starters:
PG: Kyrie Irving
SG: Dion Waiters
SF: Earl Clark
PF: Tristan Thompson
C: Anderson Varejao
That lineup has much to recommend it, not the least of which is probably the best offensive-rebounding front court duo in the league. Thompson and Varejao own the offensive glass, and it's reasonable to expect tons of second-chance points on their behalf. Additionally, the scoring production of Kyrie and Waiters could be humongous this year. Kyrie looks more or less the same — no new moves or updates to speak of, save for the improved physique; still as spectacular as ever with the ball in his hands — but Dion's jumper looks amazing. He's shooting with increased confidence, consistency and frankly a much more elegant form. Those ludicrous off-balance fallaways and Vaudevillian turnarounds (which he'd certainly sometimes drain) have been largely supplanted with straight-up high-percentage jump shots. With improved shot selection, and better perimeter ball movement, look for both a PPG and FG% increase for Waiters. That's saying something, given that he trailed only Portland's Damian Lillard (Rookie of the Year) in scoring last year.
(For the record, I intend to draft Dion in my fantasy league. After seeing him in practice and in the preseason, he seems to have matured exponentially. I can't predict his ceiling, but it's high.)
The starting line-up has three notable areas of improvement, though, on first blush:
1) THREE-POINT SHOOTING:
Right now, Kyrie remains the preeminent long-ball threat. And he's a stud in that department, though it's not like plays are drawn up specifically for him to take threes. (That said, with what passes for "offense" in Mike Brown's schematics, it's unclear whether plays are drawn up at all).
Kyrie tends to casually bring the ball up the court and then just sort of decide to uncork a three, almost on an impulse, sometimes so deep I'm inclined to call their trip to the basket a commute, with the shot clock at like 17. He makes a surprising number of these, especially at the top of the key. I mean it's lights out.
That said, in today's league, wing players with a consistent three-pointer in their artillery is sort of necessary. It's yet to be determined whether Waiters' improved mid-range jumper will translate to more efficient three-point shooting. He shot 31% as a rookie: not abysmal, but not even close to "threat" territory and certainly nowhere near Kyrie's commanding 40%). Earl Clark doesn't take many threes, and probably shouldn't, so we're slightly handicapped there.
Bear in mind that occasionally Dion will bring up the ball — you get the sense Kyrie enjoys playing the 2 every once in a while — and he'll have plenty of opportunities to shoot in those situations, but until C.J. Miles, Bennett (when he's turned on) or maybe Karasev come off the bench, it's not like we have a "specialist" (whose highest potencies, league-wide, seem inextricably linked to their names being "Steve").
Kyrie remains one of the league's deadliest scorers, but hasn't yet established himself as a "true" point guard who racks up assists inadvertently as he orchestrates the offense (a la, most famously, John Elway, Steve Nash, Franz Welser-Most). In Kyrie's first two seasons, he's averaged 5.4 and 5.9 APG, and though those numbers have often been attributed to a low-caliber supporting cast, Kyrie will never be a 10.0 APG-guy. He just won't. With Varejao back and Thompson continuing to put up impressive FG% numbers, it's conceivable Kyrie could approach 7 APG, but my gut says he'll level out a lot like Mike Conley has as a distributor in the low-to-mid sixes.
With a player like Conley — the former Buckeye who has become one of my favorite PGs in the game with the Memphis Grizzlies — his numbers tend to deflate because he's playing with visionary big-man Marc Gasol, who often makes a perfect extra pass and puts up terrific assist numbers of his own. Kyrie just hasn't yet mastered consistent pinpoint passing. When and if he does, that should elevate him to top-3 PG status almost instantly.
As far as the Cavs are concerned, Kyrie's passing game wouldn't be an issue at all if we had a gifted passing forward (LeBron James or Luke Walton, to name the spectrum's end points) or a sorceror big-man like Gasol or Vlade Divac, on those whimsical perpetual-motion Kings' squads.
But we don't, or at least we might not.
Last year, Anderson Varejao tapped into the reservoir of his passing talent really for the first time ever. During Kyrie's early extended injury (before Varejao's season-ending embolism) Andy was one of only two players league-wide to lead his respective team in points, rebounds, and assists. The other: LeBron James.
As Tristan continues to establish himself as the major scoring threat in the low-post, Andy's getting older and adapting his game accordingly. He's becoming sneakier. He won't grab 15 rebounds a game this year, sorry. He'll play just as hard, but in moderated minutes and a slightly advanced (i.e. older) chassis, he and Tristan will share the rebounding load. Varejao could, however, dish up to four or four-and-a-half APG. Improved interior passing will be key for this starting lineup.
I still have Kyrie as the team's assist leader at season's end, but Jack — a more traditional passing helmsman — will come awfully close in his backup role. And Andy could make a push for respectable third.
3) INDIVIDUAL DEFENSE
Uh-oh. I mean... who guards LeBron in this starting line-up? Who guards Durant and Carmelo and the garden-variety assassins? That's rhetorical. Right now (assuming the line-up wouldn't be jiggered game to game), it'd be Clark. But it's not like that inspires anything resembling confidence. Clark simply hasn't yet proved himself in any meaningful way.
In truth, Brown would probably start Gee for the toughest defensive assignments. He's one of the less statistically flashy players on the team, but he fulfills the Sefalosha Role better than anyone. It's also exciting that Carrick Felix appears to want to assume that mantle as soon as possible.
For your records:
SEFALOSHA (n): The guy you put against the other team's best player, a guy who's supremely (almost unilaterally) psyched by the prospect of shutting a great scorer down. Not a top-producer on the offensive end, but considered by-and-large to be a defensive specialist. SYN: Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler; ANT: Carmelo Anthony, Andrea Bargnani.
Kyrie, widely acknowledged to be subpar on the defensive end, has shown encouraging elements of improvement. In the preseason opener, he pick-pocketed the Bucks twice and even managed a team-high two blocks. In other positive news, he's been seen assuming a defensive stance more often than not.
The blocks thing is a pretty serious deficiency, since we've broached that subject. Last season, our team-blocks-per-game were flirting with "Worst Ever" notoriety. And until Bynum emerges, we don't have an enforcer type. In Tristan's rookie season, he and his long arms were championed as a block machine(s), but managed only one per game. Last year, he fell to 0.9 BPG, notching a team-high 71 through the season.
Mike Brown's insistence on team defense has improved movement and communication, but individual active hands will also be necessary.
Now, assuming Brown opts for a traditional nine-man rotation (and controlling for the current injuries), we'll probably see Jack, C.J. Miles, Alonzo Gee and Anthony Bennett as the primary guys off the bench. Both Miles and Bennett (and Karasev, a deep reserve) will provide three-point shooting; Jack and Gee (and Felix) will provide defensive intensity and veteran leadership.
The biggest concern is obviously the front court. With Bynum out for the forseeable future and Zeller recuperating, Varejao, Thompson and Bennett need to stay healthy and contribute valuable minutes. At media day, Varejao said his number one goal this season was staying healthy — no laughing matter, at this point, if making the playoffs are to remain in the Cavs' crosshairs, which by all accounts it is. Thompson was one of only two players (he and Gee) to play all 82 games last year. That consistency will be relied upon again in this campaign. And with an emboldened right-hand shot, I think it's definitely possible that he could be a top-8 PF talent this year, putting up 20-10s pretty consistently.
Here are some fun potential line-ups to consider and argue the merits of:
Alternate starters (A):
IRVING / WAITERS / GEE / THOMPSON / VAREJAO
(Gee for Clark is only change).
Alternate starters (B):
IRVING / WAITERS / CLARK / BENNETT / THOMPSON
(Assuming Bennett crashes the boards, this would maintain the imposing front court, but give them another shooter with range. When Varejao's resting (in the second night of back-to-backs, for instance) this will be an attractive option. Or, if Brown wanted to keep Varejao to be used as a spark off the bench — how he was deployed for much of his career — he could be unwieldy. Jack and Vareajo running a second team would be unreal.)
JACK / MILES / GEE / BENNETT / VAREJAO or THOMPSON
(Strong defense, good shooting.)
Another likely second team:
JACK / WAITERS / GEE / BENNETT / VAREJAO or THOMPSON
Dual PG, Small Ball:
IRVING / JACK / WAITERS / BENNETT / THOMPSON
IRVING / KARASEV / MILES / BENNETT / VAREJAO
JACK / FELIX / GEE / THOMPSON / VAREJAO
JACK / IRVING / GEE / THOMPSON / VAREJAO