The Cleveland Cavaliers will enter the 2013-14 NBA season as one of the league's most intriguing teams. Once-and-future head coach Mike Brown aims to turn around what's been arguably the league's worst defense over the past three seasons. All-Star point guard and noted dance commander Kyrie Irving looks to continue his ascent to the ranks of the game's very best players. A slew of offseason additions, headlined by former All-Star center Andrew Bynum and surprise No. 1 overall draft pick Anthony Bennett, will look to transform the Cavaliers into something more than the relative afterthoughts they've been since the summer of 2010, when LeBron James chose the Miami Heat in free agency and the painful process of rebuilding began anew.
Among NBA observers, Cavaliers fans and Cleveland's players, "playoffs" has been the watchword this offseason. But as one of the newest Cavs sees it, buzzing about mere second-season qualification means everyone around the team's setting their sights a bit too low. From Bob Finnan of Ohio's News-Herald:
[Jarrett Jack] not only expects the Cavs to make the playoffs. He said he thinks they’ll make some major noise in the postseason.
“People may look at me crazy,” he said. “I don’t put ceilings on anything. Why would I be happy just making the playoffs? What’s the point of that? Why would I be happy just playing until April and going home? Why can’t we just go to the championship?
“If that’s not your goal, we should just go home right now. Who cares if you got the free T-shirt they hand out for the first round? So what? No one remembers that. If you take a test, why would you try to get a 72? Why wouldn’t you try to get a 100? Who wants to be in fifth place?”
On one hand, I'd respectfully suggest that after three seasons that saw the Cavaliers ring up a combined record of 64-166 and post three straight fifth-place finishes within their own division, a fifth-place finish in the Eastern Conference would be a pretty darn good cause for celebration. As a matter of fact, after ending the last three years with the NBA's second-worst, third-worst and third-worst records, I wouldn't really bat an eye if Clevelanders responded to slotting in the middle of the East's playoff pack with a rapturous, synchronized-dancing-in-the-streets sort of affair not seen in the city since Drew was rolling with the Presidents.
On the other, though, this is precisely the sort of thing that general manager Chris Grant was looking for when he offered the about-to-turn-30-year-old Jack a four-year, $25.2 million contract in free agency after a stellar season backing up Stephen Curry for the Golden State Warriors. (Jack placed third in voting for the 2012-13 Sixth Man of Year Award won by the New York Knicks' J.R. Smith.)
As presently constituted, the Cavaliers' rotation will rely heavily on two third-year players (Irving and hand-switching power forward Tristan Thompson), two second-year men (shooting guard Dion Waiters and four/five Tyler Zeller) and as many as three rookies (Bennett, Russian swingman Sergey Karasev and skateboarding wing defender Carrick Felix), none of whom have any experience in what it's like to play a meaningful NBA game. The team's two most experienced performers — big men Bynum (74 playoff appearances from his days with the Los Angeles Lakers, including two championships) and Anderson Varejao (71 postseason games) — both represent pretty severe injury risks at this stage in their careers.
With so many questions and so much uncertainty surrounding this year's model of the Cavs, a steady and confident hand — a player whose "bizarre iteration of swagger" enables him to remain convinced that, even when sharing the court with the likes of Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Ty Lawson and a host of other luminaries, he's the one in control — can help find answers simply by repeatedly and firmly saying, "Yes."
Yes, we're good enough to run with anyone. Yes, Dion, you should go off the ball and start slashing like a demon. Yes, Kyrie, you should take some possessions to work away from things and let me find you for that sweet jumper. Yes, young bigs, run the floor hard after getting stops and fight for position, and I'll find you, and we'll get some easy ones. Yes, I want the ball when it matters. Yes, it always matters. Yes, we can matter.
Sure, attitude and assertion alone don't guarantee a trip to the title — it's worth remembering that last year's Warriors went out in the second round to the San Antonio Spurs, and that a Spurs team with plenty of confidence and championship mettle wound up falling to the Miami Heat in the finals — but when you're in the process of establishing a new culture, they can work wonders. When you've never been to that elite level before, your choices are to conduct yourself as such or to act as if you have; in the NBA, the latter seems like a much more sensible approach than the former.
It's an approach and a message that snuck up on an awful lot of people — including the Denver Nuggets — during last year's playoffs, and it's one that Jack's eager to instill in Cleveland, according to Finnan:
“When you have a mindset that you can compete with anybody, you don’t get surprised,” Jack said. “When you beat a team like the Pacers, you don’t jump around like you won the World Series. It’s the same way if you beat the Bobcats. There’s no confetti coming from the ceiling. That’s what you’re supposed to do.
The Cavaliers have shared a lot more in common with the Bobcats than they have the Pacers in the recent past. Cavs fans can only hope that Brown's principles stick, Irving continues his progression, all those offseason pieces click and Jack's gospel hits home, and that the nature of Cleveland's commonality undergoes a drastic change this season, too.