Monday, January 16, 2012

Are the Cavs too good for their own good?

2011 is a rebuilding season for the Cavaliers, the first real attempt at repairing the destruction of the "Decision" tsunami. Last year's wrong-headed stab at quasi-contention could have set the franchise back years, but a 26-game losing streak, a moronic dance partner willing to trade an unprotected lottery pick for Mo Williams, and a rare piece of good luck that landed the Cavs a No. 1 draft spot all combined to set the foundation for the future.
Not much was expected much from this year's Cavs, however. Kyrie Irving was a clear-cut top pick in an on-paper weak draft, but a toe injury had limited him to 11 games the year before at Duke. Tristan Thompson, the Cavs' second lottery pick selected fourth overall, was a larger question mark, with many fans wondering why the team took the relatively unknown Texas center/forward tweener over a couple of high-ceilinged European prospects.

The surrounding cast, made up of many of the same faces that floundered their way to two dozen straight losses the year before, had its share of naysayers, too. The only significant non-rookie addition to the team was a hard-nosed, three-point shooting Israeli who had come off the bench for the Sacramento Kings.
These factors seemed to make the Cavs' 2011/12 won-loss record a moot point. This was a year to watch the rookies progress, with contractual millstones like Antawn Jamison getting traded for additional draft picks and cap space.  These Cavs wouldn't win anymore than 20 games in a shortened season, and they would be lucky to reach even that pedestrian plateau.  Or so was the thought going in.
A funny thing has happened in the first few weeks of the new season. These Cavaliers are not bad. In fact, they're a competitive, fun to watch, surprisingly deep little team that's the very definition of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.
Let's state the obvious first: Kyrie Irving is The Truth. I don't care if he's played only a dozen professional games, our rookie point guard is passing the "eye test" with fluid ease. After a rough opening night against Toronto, Irving has displayed the quickness and ability to beat his man off the dribble that drew those lofty draft night comparisons to Chris Paul. The 19-year-old pushes the ball like an old vet, seems like he can score from anywhere on the floor and has shown a deft shooting touch from range.
Irving's first year court-mate Thompson, meanwhile, has so far surpassed the expectations pinned on him by some pundits. The young forward is a bit of a black hole in the paint, and his free throw touch is as poor as advertised, but Thompson's activity and hustle off the bench has netted him 8 points and 5 rebounds a night while also earning him the team lead in blocked shots. Although he may never top out as a true offensive threat, as a starter Thompson could be a double-double guy replete with  pogo-stick hops and a penchant for swatting shots into the second row.
So far, so good with Irving and Thompson, then. Those two growing together would be enough even if the Cavs were still losing every night. But the rest of the team's energy has matched that of the young pups.
Byron Scott treats the roster almost like a college squad, spreading out the playing time with nobody averaging any more than 31 minutes a game. While Casspi has struggled as the starting small forward, Jamison is doing his volume shooting thing and a healthy Anderson Varejao is grabbing 11 rebounds a game in what's shaping up to be one of the best years of his career. Contributions are also coming from some unexpected quarters. Ramon Sessions has been very good in spelling Irving, while Alonzo Gee has hit half his shots in becoming a go-to guy off the pine.
The Cavs' six wins in 12 games include a rugged West Coast road trip that ended with a near comeback against the Lakers, the same team that belted the wine-and-gold out of Staples Center last year by an embarrassing 55 points. The Cavs have their problems - among them some stretches of truly awful team defense and the old bugaboo of mediocre free throw shooting - but this is far from the sleepwalking squad that spent most of last year in basketball purgatory.
Studying the play of these refreshingly not-terrible, lively-legged Cavs, a question has arisen: Is this team too good? This matter was brought up by former Cleveland beat reporter Brian Windhorst  on local radio last week, and it's an inquiry worth exploring as the season progresses.
Because as enjoyable as it is to watch these plucky Cavs so far, the best they can hope for this year is a near-.500 record and the role of first-round cannon fodder for the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed. Learning to win is important, granted, but there's nothing wrong with staying close, playing well, and losing by four or five points in the fashion of Friday night's Lakers' game.
Don't get it twisted- it's not about rooting against the Cavaliers, it's about cheering for victories while taking well-played defeats in stride. The one place any NBA team doesn't want to be is in the middle, particularly with the difficulties this franchise will have in bringing in top free agents. Creating an attractive situation through strong drafts and smart trades could very well draw complimentary free agent pieces to round out a championship-hopeful roster, but odds are the Cavs going to have to lose big to eventually win big.
There are no guarantees in the lottery, of course. High draft picks have garnered more than a few Olowokandis and Bradleys over the years to go along with franchise changing superstars. Still, that's a path the Cavs must take. The franchise as it exists within the current context of the NBA must go through the draft to get that much-needed wing scorer to give Irving the dynamic court partner that LeBron never had.
None of this means the Cavs should tank the season. But if they can find a team that wants Jaimison, who will not be on this roster once the Cavs are ready to contend again, by all means dump him, and sooner rather than later. Same goes for Daniel Gibson.
Losing now is not a terribly palatable proposition - rooting for draft picks is a rusty merry-go-round we've been on with the Browns for years - but if you want an Oklahoma City scenario where a mid-market team bit the bullet for a couple of years to reap the whirlwind later, then that's how it has to be.
Rome wasn't built in a day, friends and neighbors. A half-finished Cavs' team, even one as likeable as this one, simply won't become the dynasty we all hope for without some stronger groundwork.