Dennis Velasco: Hey Sarge, let's get it started!
So, the Cleveland Cavaliers seem to be one of those also-ran type of teams that will compete for one of the lower-tier spots in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Obviously, they've been trying to get back to a place of prominence since LeBron James left the team in 2010 (apologies for any pangs of pain) and have hitched their wagon to Kyrie Irving, one of the league's best players... when healthy. There also seems to be a solid cast of youngsters in Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, this year's first overall pick, Anthony Bennett and Tyler Zeller (yes, I said Zeller and will fully disclose my UNC fandom; ZELLER!!!).
That all said, heading into the Cavs season-opening match-up with the Brooklyn Nets, what are three to five things that Nets fans should know about the Cavs? Revealing that Kyrie is actually Uncle Drew might stymie some of us the way it did when we were told WWE was fake, so that doesn't count!
Scott Sargent: "Also-ran" seems so—how can I put it?—demeaning, but given the top-heavy nature of today’s NBA, it’s very true, even if only by definition. That said, one of the key names you left out of your inquiry is Mike Brown. No longer is this a team that will take to the floor and merely try to outscore opponents with a flurry of mid-range jumpers and pick-and-rolls. Kyrie Irving, who should finish this season as a top-five player (thus silencing all the nonsense about #NBARank), will obviously be a key member of what the Cavaliers do from an offensive standpoint. It will be Brown, however, who will spearhead the operation to get the Cavs out of the cellar when it comes to defensive prowess.
Another area where I believe fans will see a change is with regard to the offensive side of the ball, a place where Brown has notoriously fallen short during his previous stints in Los Angeles and, of course, Cleveland. With a solid cabinet of assistant coaches in place coupled with an actual point guard—no offense to Eric Snow—we should actually see improvement on the offensive end in addition to the defensive focus.
With regard to specific players, Cleveland continues to be very high on Tristan Thompson, a player who may very well average a double-double this season assuming that Anderson Varejao doesn’t keep all of the rebounds for himself. We expect Dion Waiters to take that next step, learning how to play without the ball in his hands, becoming that true off-guard to Kyrie. And if anything speaks volumes for what the Cavs have been able to do this offseason, it will be regarding your boy Zeller. Tyler started 55 games as a rookie last season. Given a full, healthy roster, he will be the fourth big man this season behind Andy, Andrew Bynum, Tristan and Anthony Bennett. Talk about depth.
DV: Oops! My bad about sleeping on Mike Brown. It's an excellent point and something that the Nets can relate to with Jason Kidd as its new coach. At least in Brown, you know what you're getting. Kidd? If we're honest, it's up in the air. Yes, he is one of the greatest point guards to ever play the position, and, yes, he was basically a coach on the floor, but he doesn't have any experience on the bench. It's a different world with its own nuances and protocol. Kidd will be relying on Lawrence Frank (who like Brown, is a defensive coach), as well as his other top-notch assistants - John Welch (George Karl's former offensive coach), Roy Rogers and Joe Prunty to name a few. Coaching matters big time, in particular with both teams - new system, new coaches and new players... just very old ones for the Nets if you believe the hype/hate.
Personally, I'm a fan of the Cavs' youth movement (afterall, I just paid $64 for Kyrie in a fantasy basketball $200 budget auction draft last night) and I see a lot of potential there, but how well do you think the pieces fit? I'm not sure how much I like the pick of Bennett, who has shown flashes of brilliance in the preseason, but I'm not Chris Grant. How do you see Bennett fitting into the team this season and would he have been your choice for the first overall pick? Victor Oladipo of the Orlando Magic and Ben McLemore of the Sacramento Kings seem to be the favorites for Rookie of the Year, which, of course, is relative to the team that drafts a player and their current personnel. And, because the team is so young, do you see consistency issues?
Finally, what do you think needs to happen for the Cavs to beat the Nets, and give me a final score.
SS: We’re very familiar with Prunty—he was under Byron Scott (another former Nets guy) during their stint in Cleveland. Your point about importance is spot on, which I believe is why Brown added guys like Bernie Bickerstaff, Jim Boylan and Igor Kokoskov while keeping Jamah Mosley from the previous staff.
It’s funny you mention not "liking" Bennett only because people also questioned Grant when he used a fourth-overall pick on a raw, athletic kid from Texas two years ago, only to watch him grow into a post presence. They did the same when he tabbed a sixth man from Syracuse with the same pick a season later, only to watch him finish first team All-Rookie ahead of NBA Twitter darlings like Jonas Valanciunas, Andre Drummond and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist—all relegated to the second team (with ZELLER!).
My point is sort of what you alluded to: We aren’t NBA front office members despite our penchant for masquerading as some when the NBA Draft nears. There’s a reason why Golden State signed Andre Iguodala despite already having Harrison Barnes, a player many felt the Cavs should have selected. Until proven wrong, I’m going to side with the towering Grant. I don’t think it matters much how Bennett fits with the team this season. I know we all want instant return on our investments, but Bennett serves as a luxury at this point. Guards are always the front-runners for Rookie of the Year, so that is pretty meaningless. Oladipo or McLemore would’ve been in a similar position battle in Cleveland given the presence of Waiters and now Jarrett Jack in addition to the 19th overall pick Sergey Karasev. Nerlens Noel is out for the season. Alex Len is a big man with a medical history. Otto Porter is already hurt.
If Bennett doesn’t win Rookie of the Year, I don’t think anyone will bat an eye. His job this season will be to come off of the bench, learn defense under Brown, and provide high-upside energy and depth behind players who are already established and begin to take form in the next season or two once the Cavaliers are (hopefully) back in contention talks.
I think running an efficient and quick offense will be paramount in beating the aging Nets. Look, I think Brooklyn is a lock to make the playoffs this season based on talent alone. Varejao aside, the rest of the Cavaliers all have considerably fewer miles on their tires than the guys in black and white. If the Cavs can force mid-range shots on defense while executing on offense, I think we could have ourselves one hell of a game. Final score? Cavs 97, Nets 96. Kyrie at the buzzer.
DV: I'm guilty of being a beanbag in my mom's basement pretend GM when it comes to the NBA Draft, but at least I can take solace in knowing that when I'm vetted by BuzzFeed, I'm actually second-best among all make believe decision-makers! Either way, I'll definitely be keeping my eye out on Bennett because I want to see if he's a Michael Olowokandi/Joe Smith type of pick or something better than that.
The Nets have been focusing on defense during the preseason and I think they're going to make it difficult for the young lads from Cleveland. You mentioned depth before, well, I think the Nets might have the most depth in regards to quantity and quality. If the Nets can stop the ball on transition and dominate on the inside like they should, I think it'll be a game where Uncle Drew's geriatric brilliance won't matter. Nets 86, Cavs 78.