Usually NBA season previews are best read in October, back when football games hardly mattered, Midnight Madness was a few weeks away,and baseball was winding down. Perhaps with the last of the offseason's iced tea in hand, as you whiled away on a too-warm-for-the-season afternoon.
Well, pour yourself a glass of bull shot and tighten those mittens, because it's mid-December and the NBA decided to have a season this year. As such, the exegetes at Ball Don't Lie are previewing the 2011-12 campaign in a mad rush, as if you or we would have it any other way. So put down the shovel long enough to listen to Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they break down each of the NBA's 29 teams, plus Toronto.
This time? It's the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Kelly Dwyer's Reasons to be Cheerful
For a team that was massively worked over by a pair of narcissists -- former franchise player LeBron James and current owner Dan Gilbert -- the Cleveland Cavaliers appear to be in fantastic shape moving forward. Not this year, of course. They'll be terrible. The future is bright, though; provided the team does well with all its incoming assets moving forward.
You've seen me work up this dance before, but it bears repeating that the team was too late in its attempt to rebuild. The Cavs should not have attempted to shoot for a mediocre record last season by hanging on to all their veterans and appearing as if they thought a LeBron James-less squad would have a chance at making the playoffs. Antawn Jamison actually had trade value a year and a half ago, Anderson Varejao will be of no use to a rebuilt team once the Cavs find their playoff footing again, and the crew could have been sick with draft picks moving forward had they just accepted their NBA fate in the wake of LeBron James' prick move.
Instead, they dallied. And, while they dallied, they got incredibly lucky. Lord knows they deserved it.
Mo Williams was one of those guys they should have traded, and they did eventually, for Baron Davis' bad back and attitude and what should have been the ninth pick in the draft. Instead, it turned into the top pick in the draft -- a weak draft (Cleveland Fate wouldn't have it any other way), but enough to secure an absolute stud in Kyrie Irving. Then the NBA has to go and lock out its players for five months, saving Cleveland the frustration of having to watch this team in November and December, and the league rewards the Cavaliers with something called "the amnesty clause." Which means they can waive Baron Davis, who was going to be out until February at the earliest.
Antawn Jamison (Getty Images)Couple that with Jamison's expiring contract, and the Cavs will have only two-thirds of their cap space used up heading into next summer. Along with, we're assuming, another high draft pick -- this time in a fantastic draft. All I could have asked for was a few more draft picks in return for other vets, trading in the summer of 2010.
Well earned, certainly deserved.
This season? Cleveland fans will get to watch Irving happily learn on the job, and they'll get to enjoy their team free from any nonsense from Davis behind the scenes. No missed practices or moody post-game quips in response to coach Byron Scott (whom Davis did not get along with during their shared time in New Orleans). All the massive worry we had about Davis poisoning the water in the wake of last February's deal, some two or three years down the line, is gone forever. What incredible, and deserved (for the fans, at least; certainly not the ownership) fortune.
And before that cap freedom hits (though the Cavs, it should be noted, are currently well under the salary cap and could swing a trade if they so desired), the fan base will get to enjoy Omri Casspi bounding around, they'll get to figure out what position Tristan Thompson works best at, and they'll cheer loudest for the relentless Varejao in his prime. No LeBron cloud, no Davis fumes, nothing but optimism and a pretty crummy team.
A fun team, though. Not a spiteful or angry one. An identity all its own, and still growing.
(Great uniforms, too.)
Dan Devine Has Feelings about Your Team: Cleveland Cavaliers
No matter what, last year was going to be terrible for Cavaliers fans. In one offseason, they lost the greatest player in team history, the franchise's longest-tenured and arguably most beloved player, the identity they'd built during a seven-year ascent to the ranks of the elite, and any hope of continuing to compete for championships. Things were about to get bad; it was unavoidable.
In such trying times, fans tend to adopt a bunker mentality, striking an us-against-the-world chord and rallying around whatever totems remain. For the post-LeBron Cavs, that meant Anderson Varejao -- a homegrown link to past glory, a defense-and-rebounding glue guy whose hustle and determination could be the foundation of a new identity for a team that would have to scrap for everything it got. As Cleveland basketball plunged into chaos, the curly-haired Brazilian known for his often frantic play became a symbol of stability. Something to hang on to.
And then, during practice the day after a 120-105 loss to the Toronto Raptors, Varejao fell down. The torn tendon in his right ankle would require surgery; he was done for the season. It was almost unfathomably cruel. After that, the occasional highlight or upset aside, all Cavs fans could root for was a swift end to the season, a little luck in the lottery and a chance to begin rebuilding in earnest.
They didn't get their first wish, as the Cavs closed the season with a dreadful 11-36 mark in their final 47 games. They did get the second, with Cleveland snagging the No. 1 and No. 4 picks to select prized rookies Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson. They got a big head start on the third thanks to the amnesty provision in the new collective bargaining agreement, which enabled general manager Chris Grant to shed the $28 million remaining on Baron Davis' contract from the team's balance sheet.
It'll take time, shrewd management and a lot more luck for the Cavaliers to get good again, let alone great, but after a deep, dark year, at least the process is underway. And when this new era of Cleveland basketball begins on the night after Christmas -- against the Raptors, natch -- their totemic big man will be there in the Q, healthy again, patrolling the paint and giving fans something to hang on to. It'll be an exciting sight.
I'm worried that the most optimistic of Cavs fans -- those good, kind, decent people who look at Kyrie Irving and see Derrick Rose -- might think that momentum has shifted, that the team's luck has turned, that anything can happen in a short season and that hey, these young guys might catch some teams by surprise!
Maybe. But none of that means they'll be any good, though.
Coach Byron Scott has not yet installed top pick Irving as the team's starting point guard, which would worry me a bit if I was a Cavs fan, because it would make me worry that Scott is thinking eternal bridesmaid Ramon Sessions gives the Cavs a better chance to win now. If that's the case, that would (of course) be dumb, because winning 25 games this year instead of 22 doesn't matter nearly as much as getting the 19-year-old face of your franchise -- you know, the one who played all of 11 games in college last year -- every second of floor time you can, so that he can learn by doing. I'd also worry that Scott is thinking more about keeping his job than about developing the team's young talent, which is very reasonable, but not what I'd want to see, because it's not about this year. But then, I'm a worrier.
(Also, if I was a Cavs fan, I'd want to see as much of Irving as possible to maximize the number of what teammate Samardo Samuels referred to as "oohs and ahhs" moments that the former Blue Devil might create. Call it restitution for a year of relatively little worth cheering. But then, I'm selfish.)
Whenever Irving takes over, his quickness, creativity and touch should help breathe at least some life into Cleveland's doornail-dead offense. Likewise, the return of a healthy Varejao and the addition of Thompson -- whose athleticism and 7-foot-2-inch wingspan have many expecting him to make an immediate impact on the defensive end -- should improve a Cavaliers defense that was similarly awful last season.
But considering Cleveland finished second-to-last in the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency, better only than the Milwaukee Bucks on O and their opening night opponents from Toronto on D, the Cavs would have to make a pretty substantial improvement just to become bad. Things should improve this year, if only ever so slightly, but any glass-almost-entirely-full Cleveland faithful should substitute sugarplums for visions of competitiveness dancing in their heads.
What are you, Luke Harangody?
Are you an O'Doyle? I'm pretty sure you're an O'Doyle.
Are you the next Drew Carey? I'm pretty sure you're the next Drew Carey.
Are you a football extra from "Little Giants" all grown up? I'm pretty sure you're a football extra from "Little Giants" all grown up.
You are a mystery, Luke Harangody. A beautiful, corn-fed mystery. And I will solve you.
Eric Freeman's Culture Club
The worlds of the NBA and popular culture intersect often. Actors and musicians show up at games, players cameo in their shows and movies and make appearances at their concerts. Yet the connections go deeper than these simple relationships — a work of art can often explain the situation of an NBA team. Eric Freeman's Culture Club makes these comparisons explicit. In each installment, we'll assign one movie, TV show, album, song, novel, short story, or filmstrip to the previewed team.
CLEVELAND CAVALIERS: "Underworld, USA"
Sam Fuller's 1961 feature "Underworld, USA" is about a young boy who becomes pathologically obsessed with avenging his father's murder. Over more than a decade, Tolly Devlin (played by the recently deceased Cliff Robertson) gets involved in a life of crime, infiltrates a large, uh, underworld, and finally finds the people who perpetrated the killing. It's not a vendetta as much as an entire reason for being — Devlin's so single-minded that at times he comes across as the instrument of a supernatural power. It's enough to ensure that he never has a life outside of finding and killing the people responsible.
Dan Gilbert has interests and passions in life outside of hating on LeBron James, but there are times when he seems interested in little else when it comes to Cavs. Nearly 18 months after "The Decision," Gilbert is still unnaturally fixated on certain superstars leaving their current teams for bigger markets. It's a shame, too, because the Cavs have two promising rookies in Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson along with another high pick likely to come in a loaded 2012 draft. Before long, the Cavs might find themselves playing in May once again.