By Larry Durstin
As all Cleveland Cavalier fans know, there’s no need to dwell too much on the Cavs performance over the past three seasons, otherwise known as the Wilderness Years, since the dismal record speaks for itself.
After being left for dead by LeBron James in July 2010, the team has averaged a measly 21 victories per season while muddling through — among numerous indignities both great and small — an NBA record with 26 consecutive losses; the throwing in of the towel by a highly respected coach; and the numbing experience of watching a grisly string of “developmental” (read minor league) players attempting to impersonate real NBA players and fooling absolutely no one.
But while the team was wandering the NBA desert for three tortuous years, the Cavalier fans remained remarkably supportive, averaging over 17,000 per game in attendance during that time – an amazing figure that ranks in the top third of all 30 NBA teams and ahead of several squads that had far better won-lost records than the Cavaliers. Now, however, based on the activities of the team so far during this off-season, the Cavs appear to be primed for a legitimate run at the playoffs and a return to, at least, respectability and perhaps long-term success.
The first and foremost reason for fan optimism is the work of General Manager Chris Grant, who was promoted to his position in the wake of LeBron’s leaving and the jumping of ship by previous GM Danny Ferry, leaving Grant the monumental task of sorting through the rubble left in the wake of both King James and King-of-Smiles Ferry. But through deft drafting and shrewd wheeling and dealing to acquire first-round draft picks, Grant has been able to resurrect hope for the franchise.
With the two first-round draft picks in both 2011 and 2012, Grant has acquired a potential superstar and franchise point guard in Kyrie Irving, a relentless power forward in Tristan Thompson, a dynamic shooting guard in Dion Waiters and a solid back-up center in Tyler Zeller. Each of these players made either the first or second team All-Rookie squads, with Irving being named Rookie-of-the-Year in 2012.
With the re-hiring of Mike Brown, by far the most successful coach in Cavalier history, Grant has brought back a young, totally focused, defensive-minded coach to lead a youthful, talented team in need of the kind of direction and structure that was absent during the Wilderness Years.
Brown’s reputation as a winner and his history of having coached both James and Kobe Bryant has certainly helped in the recent signings of key role players Jarrett Jack and Earl Clark, both of whom cited the opportunity to play for Brown as a significant factor in their choice to become Cavs.
But the primary reason for fan optimism is the signing of free agent center Andrew Bynum, the oft-injured former Laker all-star who had his best year while being coached by Brown in LA and possesses as much all-around talent as any big man in the game but is coming off a year of not playing at all because of knee injuries.
Bynum’s contract is only guaranteed for the upcoming season, so there is little risk to any long-term team plans – such as having a good enough team and enough salary cap space to go after James in the summer of 2014 – while at the same time acquiring a dominant big man to pair with Irving and a solid supporting cast.
If Bynum can play 55-60 games even at 80% of his ability and be relatively healthy should the Cavs make the playoffs – a distinct possibility in this scenario – Cleveland becomes a dangerous team because they would have two players, Bynum and Irving, each of whom possesses that rarest of rare talents: the ability to totally dominate playoff games.
As a small market club far removed from the LA, Boston, Chicago, New York, Miami glamour destinations that automatically attract high-profile free agents, assembling a team in Cleveland capable of challenging for championships is a daunting task. And for the past three years, Grant has painstakingly pieced together a young squad that has certainly taken its lumps.
Now, with this summer’s additions of Bynum, Jack, Clark and number-one overall draft pick Anthony Bennett, Grant has built a team primed to compete for the playoffs. The Cavs have numerous versatile players capable of playing multiple positions – a must in the new NBA, which puts a premium on line-up flexibility. Significantly, Grant has accomplished this extreme roster makeover without giving up any of the six first-round draft picks the Cavaliers have over the next four years.
With 30-year-old Anderson Varejao being the oldest player on the team, the Cavs are the second youngest squad in the league. The average age of their projected starting line-up is 23. They also have salary-cap room for next summer’s glittering free agent class, which is headed by – you guessed it – LeBron James.
So not only is the future now, but the Impossible Dream might be just around the corner.
[Photo via NBA.com]
Larry Durstin is an independent journalist who has covered politics and sports for a variety of publications and websites over the past 20 years. He was the founding editor of the Cleveland Tab and an associate editor at the Cleveland Free Times. Durstin has won 12 Ohio Excellence in Journalism awards, including six first places in six different writing categories. LarryDurstinATyahoo.com