Welcome to “Pretty Much Screwed,” our 2012-13 guide to the upcoming NBA season, in which we identify the reasons why your favorite team might have to start looking forward to 2013-2014 — and highlight at least one reason for you to be hopeful. Today: the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Beyond the “still have yet to fully recover from losing LeBron” thing, the 40-108 record over the last two seasons, and that their draft this year was viewed anywhere from mediocre to downright bad, never forget that this is also true of the Cavaliers:
The Cavaliers play in Cleveland.
Cleveland sports has something going for it: fans. Great, devoted fans who’ll always keep coming back no matter what happens. But in Cleveland sports, what happens one way or another since 1964 is ultimately failure. Because what Cleveland sports doesn’t have going for it: good teams. You can call it a curse or call it something else, but until proven otherwise, bad things will happen to Cleveland teams. This year’s Cavaliers, still not ready to become a post-LeBron contender yet, will, alas, be no exception.
Why? Well, besides that the fates have for now determined that every Cleveland team must end its season amid one crushing disappointment or another, the Cavs don’t have enough around Kyrie Irving. Irving showed last year that he has the makings of a very good player. His teammates? They’re either unproven (Dion Waiters, Tyler Zeller), or they have proven… that they’re no more than complementary pieces on a serious contender (looking at you, Anderson Varejao and Daniel Gibson). Varejao’s also proven something else: he gets injured a ton (56 combined games played over the last two season).
The most proven NBA player the Cavs had entering last year was Antawn Jamison. He’s gone now, off to the Lakers to chase a title. Long-term, not having Jamison around anymore makes sense. The Cavs are rebuilding, and he’s 36. He’s not someone you build around for the future. But this year, the Cavs are worse without him.
Consider the Cavs’ non-Irving nucleus for the foreseeable future.
The team’s other top draft picks over the past couple years: Waiters, Tristan Thompson, and Tyler Zeller. Waiters is gifted, but never played more than 24.1 minutes a game during his two seasons at Syracuse, so he’s still by and large an unknown commodity. Many thought he was a reach as the fourth overall pick in the draft this year. Thompson showed some potential last year (8.2 points, 6.5 rebounds a game), but has a long way to go (his field goal and free throw percentages of 43.9 and 55.2, respectively, both have to go way up). Many thought he was a reach as the No. 4 overall pick last year. Sees any patterns here – patterns that might be unsettling for a team that’s had a ton of high draft picks recently?
And Zeller is talented, averaging a 16 and 10 at UNC last year on 55 percent shooting and almost 81 percent from the line… but also, again, unproven. He’s a rookie, after all. And the Cavs gave up a ton to get him – namely, the 24th, 33rd, and 34th picks in the draft this year. Will Zeller prove himself worthy of such a move, especially now that he’s not surrounded by a team with enough talent to overwhelm most opponents? As of today, we have no idea.
And don’t sleep on Irving’s potential to leave Clevelanders crushed, either.
In his case, the most likely thing to go wrong is an injury. And it’s no supposed Cleveland curse that tells us that: it’s history. In his one season at Duke, Irving was playing exceptionally well. Then, he got hurt and missed the majority of the season. Last year, with the Cavs, he played exceptionally well, more than justifying being made the No. 1 pick in the draft… then hurt his shoulder, missing most of the season’s final 15 games. And then, that broken hand this summer. He even injures himself. And if he can’t stay on the floor, add one more injury to the mix: the collective psyche of Cleveland sports fans.
One reason you might not be screwed: There is some good young talent there. It’s too early to know if the Irving/Waiters/Thompson/Zeller quartet will pan out, but there’s a chance it will. Those players provide hope, and hope is more than Cavs fans had when LeBron skipped town two years ago. And we already know Irving’s good – who’s to say he won’t get even better, or, failing that, lull opponents to sleep by dressing up as Uncle Drew? There’s still a chance Irving could be this kind of player:
…and the Cavs are banking on it.
Actual season prediction: 36-46, 10th in the East. Last season was better than the season before it, and this season should be better than last. But it’s going to be a gradual climb, especially when you have as few proven pieces as this Cavs team does. Maybe Irving takes a quantum leap forward, but a better bet is that he keeps gradually progressing, and so do the players around him. In a couple years – and, potentially, with a few more good players in place – that might be enough to make some noise. For now, the Cavs and their long-suffering fans will have to wait.
Photos via Getty