Originally posted on Waiting For Next Year  |  Last updated 12/12/11

In two weeks, the Cleveland Cavaliers will kick off their 2011-12 season against the Toronto Raptors. That gives the Cavaliers just two weeks of practice to be ready to go. There’s been a lot of talk about the NBA lockout, the new CBA, emails, national trade drama, etc. In other words, a lot of talk about everything except the Cavaliers themselves.

So it would seem prudent to begin to think about what this team will look like, what their goals should be, what type of basketball we should expect to see, etc. In normal years, we’ve always done a formal preview of the NBA as a whole, and that included a major season preview of the Cavaliers. This year, with such a short timeframe to work with, doing a formal NBA preview just wouldn’t be feasible. At least not with any quality.

Instead, we’ll just focus on our beloved Cavaliers today and look at their upcoming season a bit.

The New Guys

Everyone knows the Cavaliers drafted Kyrie Irving with the #1 overall pick. Truth be told, though, it seems to be a subdued #1 pick. It’s a little surprising to see the lack of excitement among Cleveland sports fan with regard to seeing the player we hope can become the new face of this franchise.

Perhaps the general fan apathy in the wake of the lockout is to blame. Maybe it’s because we’ve heard ad nauseam how weak the last draft was and therefore people infer that Kyrie Irving must be an inferior #1 pick. Or maybe it’s because, sure, he’s the #1 pick, but he’s not LeBron James. Whatever the case may be, it’s time to get excited.

From the moment I saw Kyrie Irving play at Duke, he was the player I wanted the Cavaliers to draft. Last season, I wrote quite frequently about Irving and my hopes that he would be a Cavalier. I don’t know if he’s a franchise player. But he’s a remarkable PG and in a Byron Scott offense, he is going to have the chance to blossom into a great player that can lead this team.

The compressed NBA schedule will be a blessing and a curse for Irving. Recovering from the toe injury which severely limited his only season at Duke, playing fewer NBA games is nice. However, having more games crammed into the weeks may put more pressure on his health status. It’s not uncommon to see NBA rookies wear down from the marathon schedule. Watching how Irving’s foot recovers from this hectic schedule will be something to watch.

More importantly, though, this season will be about learning what type of player the Cavaliers really have. There seem to be more questions surrounding Irving than most recent #1 picks. Irving on his own probably won’t be able to lift the Cavaliers back into prominence. But what he can do is show the skills that, when eventually paired with a more talented roster, will be an important focal point of this team.

The other top 5 pick starting his career will be Tristan Thompson. If Kyrie is considered somewhat of a question, then Tristan is akin to the questions of the meaning of life. There was certainly some shock when the Cavaliers picked Thomspon at #4. Considered a project more than a solution, Thompson’s skill set mirrored Anderson Varejao’s and he played the same position as JJ Hickson.

So all eyes will be on Thompson to see if he can live up to his billing as the #4 pick. Specifically, though, Cavalier fans would be well served to keep an eye on Tristan’s offensive development this season. Nobody should question this kid’s athleticism, and his defensive skills will be welcomed on a team that was, frankly, pathetic at defending other teams last year. But how he develops as an offensive player will be the key to his eventual overall value.

One of the comments I recall NBA draft pundits frequently using with respect to Tristan’s strengths was his ability to play off the ball on offense. In other words, he doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective on offense. He moves well without the ball, he’s a tenacious offensive rebounder, and he tries to outwork everyone with hustle and energy on that side of the ball. Thinking about that, it becomes clear what GM Chris Grant was trying to do with the Thompson pick.

With Kyrie Irving as the hopeful franchise player running the offense from the point, and with the way Irving loves playing off the pick and roll, Thompson could be a nice fit with Irving in Byron Scott’s offense. Last season the Cavaliers sorely missed Zydrunas Ilgauskas’s ability to operate the high screen and come up with big offensive rebounds and tip ins. Tristan Thompson has the potential to fill some of that void, and how he develops into that role will be key.

Finally, the more overlooked new guy will be Omri Casspi. When Tristan Thompson was drafted, many fans feared that was a sign of the end of JJ Hickson in Cleveland. I was always a fan of JJ’s, but his inconsistency and his frequent mental lapses made him a frustrating player to defend as a fan. In the end, the Cavaliers felt they needed to move him while his trade value was still somewhat high.

They looked to fill a need, and SF was without a doubt a gigantic need. That black hole of a void left by LeBron’s defection won’t exactly be filled by Casspi, but it’s a nice start. Casspi began his career being miscast as a PF, but with his frame and skill set, he’s better served as a SF. He’s not a great player by any means, but he is at least an NBA caliber starting SF. He’s athletic and plays well in the open court, suiting him for Byron Scott’s preferred up tempo offense.

Like Thompson, Casspi isn’t much of a creator on offense. He prefers to be set up with his shots. The hope here, again, will be that with the quality of PGs the Cavaliers have in Irving, Ramon Sessions, and possibly Baron Davis, Omri won’t be asked to create too much. Instead, he can feed off the opportunities created by ball movement in Coach Scott’s offense.

Learning and Building From Last Season

Last year was a disaster. We knew the Cavs would be worse. We feared it might be ugly. We never in a million imagined it would be as bad as it turned out to be. Suffering through an NBA record losing streak was something the Cavaliers will hopefully never experience again. However, the Cavaliers did turn things around somewhat and ended up playing decently slightly-below-average basketball in the final part of the season.

The team went 11-18 in their final 29 games after the epic losing streak. Nothing to get excited about, but it showed a certain determination in a lost season. So called moral victories are ok, and I will always appreciate the spirit the team showed in ending the season as strong as they could, but now it’s time for the team to learn from it and get better.

What areas do the Cavaliers need to improve in? To begin with, everywhere. The Cavaliers were 25th in the NBA in points scored, 23rd in points against. They were 2nd to last in offensive efficiency and 2nd to last in defensive efficiency. They were 28th in eFG%, 25th in ORB rate, 29th in opponents eFG%, and 18th in DRB rate.

Looking at the individual players in terms of Efficiency Rating, you had:

38. Ramon Sessions (19.01 PER)
71. Baron Davis (17.05)
73. Antawn Jamison (16.91)
112. JJ Hickson (15.67)
129. Anderson Varejao (15.21)
186. Daniel Gibson (13.27)
241. Samardo Samuels (11.76)
270. Alonzo Gee (10.81)
275. Ryan Hollins (10.69)
278. Anthony Parker (10.56)
280. Manny Harris (10.49)
283. Semih Erden (10.30)
289. Luke Harangody (10.16)
311. Christian Eyenga (9.08)
327. Joey Graham (7.78)

It’s clear the Cavaliers don’t have the talent to be a competitive team. But in terms of a systematic approach to basketball, there are plenty of areas they can improve in, and as a result, this can become a better basketball team.

The glaring lack of creativity on offense will continue to be a problem. You can’t have all your offensive playmakers playing the same position. Unfortunately for Cleveland, that’s pretty much the case. This means the Cavaliers will have to immerse themselves into an offensive system that revolves around a lot of ball movement and a lot of movement off the ball. Last season the Cavaliers never seemed to fully grasp the offense. A shortened training camp isn’t going to help, but adding players with some degree in offensive ability in Kyrie Irving and Omri Casspi should help.

Welcome Back Andy

The Cavaliers were surprisingly atrocious on defense last year. After years of Mike Brown’s focus on defense and being one of the top defensive teams in the NBA, the bottom completely fell out in their first year without Coach Brown.

A big part of the problem (besides the loss of one of the best defensive players in the league in LeBron James) was Andy’s season ending injury. Having Varejao back will be an enormous boost to the team. Andy is another player who plays exceptionally well in the pick and roll, is always active, fights for rebounds, and agitates opponents.

But the biggest impact may be on defense. Varejao is one of the best post defenders in the NBA and he’s extremely good at clogging the driving lanes on defense. He has great hands and body control on defense, and has a keen sense of where to be within the system. Tristan Thompson should be a better defender than JJ Hickson was, and Kyrie Irving should be a capable defender at the point. This gives the Cavaliers three defensive upgrades, all of which should be a help on that side of the ball. Again, the Cavaliers probably won’t be in the top half of defenses this season, but you would hope to see some improvement there.

Veteran Leadership or Future Trade Bait?

An ongoing story line this season will be the futures of players like Antawn Jamison, Baron Davis, Ramon Sessions, Anthony Parker, and Daniel Gibson. Guys like Jamison, Parker, and Davis should be leaders, but it’s hard to be a leader with an unstable future. None of those players figure into the team’s long term plans other than possibly Ramon Sessions.

Baron Davis could still be an amnesty victim. The Cavaliers will certainly look to trade Jamison. Even though Parker just re-signed with the team, if he has a good season he could be a potential trade bait for a playoff team looking for some help at SG. Daniel Gibson’s role on this team has yet to be solidified, and he will always be a trade option should he demonstrate trade value.

But for me, the biggest one to watch is Ramon Sessions. The PG had an up and down year last season, but at the end of the season, he was firmly planted as the player playing the best basketball. Drafting a potential franchise player at his position probably didn’t sit well with Ramon, and there were rumblings post-draft that he would like to be traded.

However, he would be a great option to keep as a backup PG in case of fatigue, injury, or lack of realized potential on Kyrie Irving’s part. One of Byron Scott’s more difficult tasks this season will be to find a balance in playing time and figuring out a role for Ramon Sessions. How he and Kyrie Irving coexist will go a long way toward determining Sessions’ future in Cleveland.

Final Outlook

This is going to be a season of transition for the Cavaliers. More so than last season. Last season was about dealing with the fallout and coming to grips with reality. This season is about moving on.

Look for the Cavaliers to find improvement in the margins. What I mean by that is to not expect a huge gain in wins this year, but look for improvements in the number. Efficiency, eFG%, rebound rate, turnover rate, assist rate, free throw rate, etc. Look for them to begin to develop an identity within their system. Watch the development of players like Irving, Thompson, and Sessions.

This will be a season about improvement. I’d expect to hear (or shall I say, read) us discussing improvement quite a bit this season. With a more talent heavy draft class coming in, Cavalier fans will be balancing that desire for improvement with a desire to pick toward the top of the next draft class. It may not be a totally unfamiliar position for many fans, but last season some fans were still talking playoffs. This season, there will be no such illusion.

For this version of the Cavaliers, a successful season would entail showing improvement in multiple facets of the game, independent of winning or losing more games, and being in position to continue to infuse new, young talent into the organization through the draft. Trades may come into play in that, the lottery outcome will come into play, protection on the Kings pick will come into play, and the level of improvement (or lack thereof) will also come into play.

Beyond improvement, though, for me this is a season of excitement. I can’t wait to see Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson begin their careers in Cleveland. I can’t wait to see Andy back on the court, giving all the intangibles we know to expect from him. I can’t wait to see Byron Scott’s influence on the team in year 2. Above all else, no matter how much I disagree with the way the NBA handled the lockout, I’m excited to welcome basketball back to Cleveland.

_____

Image Credit: Cavs.com

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