It takes some franchises years to recover from the loss of a great superstar. Decades even. But for the Cleveland Cavaliers, it’s only taken a few short years to move on from LeBron.
It starts with Kyrie Irving, the sublimely skilled point guard who, despite only playing two games in his lone season of college, entered the NBA as a No. 1 pick two seasons ago and immediately showed why he has the potential to be a top-five player in this league, and the jaw-dropping ability to win over a city of fans mourning the loss of their former hero.
Then there are the complimentary building blocks: Tristan Thompson, the burly forward and a leader of Canada’s national team; Dion Waiters, a stellar combo guard who’s yet to come close to realizing his potential as one of the top shooting guards in the NBA; and Anderson Varejao, a high-quality post-defender (when he can stay injury-free) and veteran, who has been through playoff wars.
Next up are the shrewd off-season moves: This summer’s signing of Jarrett Jack, a Sixth Man of the Year runner-up in 2012 and, simply put, the league’s best backup point guard (who also proved to be effective in a smaller, two-point guard lineups throughout the Warriors’ playoff run). Or inking Andrew Bynum to a deal laced with enough exit-plans to ensure they won’t be financially responsible if he fails to get on the court for the second-consecutive season.
And, last but not least, you need an X-factor. Enter Anthony Bennett, the top pick of the 2013 draft. A beast still adjusting to the NBA game and figuring out what position he’s meant to play, but capable of dominating a quarter and poised to become a game changer as his career progresses.
Add it all together and you have one of the fastest franchise turnarounds in sports history and a roster with enough pieces to be competitive this season, and downright scary in the years to come.
Jarrett Jack, Anthony Bennett, Andrew Bynum, C.J. Miles, Earl Clark, Carrick Felix, Sergey Karasev.
Wayne Ellington, Omri Casspi, Shaun Livingston, Marreese Speights, Daniel Gibson, Luke Walton.
Jack, as mentioned, is an absolute coup for the Cavs, who will need every bit of his well-honed brand of leadership with a young core all under the age of 25. C.J. Miles is a good shooter who can stretch the floor and is likely to start. Bynum, meanwhile, is one of the best centres in the game when healthy, but his injured knee and conditioning are both major question marks heading into the season. Regardless whether he plays or not, the Cavaliers brought in the perfect complimentary players and improved as much as any team in the league this summer.
- How will year one go for Anthony Bennett? In his first pre-season game Bennett struggled, going 2-12 from the floor. But he managed 10 rebounds. In his second game, he started slow, but dropped 16 fourth-quarter points to bring his team back and win the game. The season will likely play out much like those two games: moments of frustration followed by flashes of brilliance. The Cavaliers seem to be taking a slow approach in his development, but if he can put it all together early on, he’ll be a major difference-maker this season.
- Kyrie Irving’s ascent. There seems to be no ceiling for the Cavs’ marquee star. And with more help around him than ever, his team will be less reliant on his ability to run a one-man offence (though they’ll still be plenty of that), so you can expect him to get his teammates involved a little more. Or not. Whatever Kyrie wants in Cleveland, he’ll get.
- Canadian frontcourt. With Varajao and Bynum both out, the Cavs have been playing both Bennett and Thompson at the four and five spots, respectively. So, um, that’s pretty f—ing cool.
It’s hard to put a ton of stock in the Summer League, but Waiters absolutely had his way with the competition in Las Vegas this past July. He’s continued to stay aggressive in the pre-season, and his ability as both a shooter and slasher means he’ll be effective in any offensive set. If he doesn’t lose out on major minutes to Jack (a possibility), Waiters is a serious Most Improved Player candidate.
Quite decent. The Cavs will fight for a playoff spot, along with the likes of Detroit and Toronto. But unlike both of those teams, Cleveland sports a truly transformative player who’s only getting better. Factor in the presence of uber-athletes like Bennett and Thompson and, playoffs or not, this will be an exceedingly fun team to watch.