Over the three years of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ rebuild, there has been much speculation as to the “model” that general manager Chris Grant is following. There is the OKC model; stripping down to nothing and building by stockpiling draft choices. There is also the San Antonio model; relying heavily on foreign players and winning by culture. There is one that fits almost perfectly that has gotten little notice.
Of all the great point guards in NBA history, the one whom Kyrie Irving matches most perfectly in skill set and personality is Isiah Thomas. The fearless drives to the hoop, the shooting stroke, the killer instinct behind the big smile — it’s all there. Well, guess what the Pistons did a couple years after they got Thomas? They drafted another undersized combo guard, Joe Dumars. When they did this, they already had Vinnie Johnson on the roster, so the addition of Dumars made them filthy deep in guards who could shoot, handle the ball and defend. This became the nucleus of the team that won two NBA titles.
As I said, Irving plays almost exactly like Thomas. Dion Waiters is the same height, build, demeanor and all-round talent as Dumars. All the Cavs needed to complete the trifecta was a cold-blooded shooter like Johnson. Hello, Jarrett Jack.
It goes further than that. The final piece for the Pistons in building their roster was Mark Aguirre, a bull-in-a-china-shop small forward who could score from anywhere on the floor. Aguirre was listed at 6-6, 232 pounds, but he had the ass of a man 20 pounds heavier, perfect for posting up and jostling underneath. Does that sound like anyone the Cavs have drafted recently?
I can keep going. Varejao/Rodman: play like a madman, rebound, defend, dive all over the place. Earl Clark/John Salley: athletic big who can defend several positions and finish on the break. Maybe Tristan Thompson doesn’t line up perfectly with Rick Mahorn, mostly because he has yet to actually commit a felony on the court, which Mahorn did on a few occasions. But Thompson has shown a willingness to do the dirty work like Mahorn did, and his offensive skills show the potential to be better than Mahorn’s ever were.
The biggest stretch right now is finding someone like Bill Laimbeer. Tyler Zeller has the skill set: the ability to rebound, the shooting ability to play the high post so that the lane is open for the driving guards, the post-up by Bennett and the pick-and-roll by everyone. The question is whether Zeller will ever develop into the type of badass that Laimbeer was. Laimbeer floundered around the league for quite a while (he was actually drafted by the Cavs) before becoming an elite center, so it is probably too soon to give up on Zeller, but I will feel better when he packs on 20 pounds and throws an elbow. Maybe the idea of getting schooled by his kid brother will be the perfect motivator.
There are two major differences between those Pistons and these Cavs. One is toughness. Even Jordan and LeBron had to become tough as their careers progressed, so we can hope that by the time he is 25 we can watch Kyrie drive the lane without being afraid he will miss 20 games. The biggest difference between those Pistons and the Cavs, though, is defense. People remember how physical the Pistons were, but the fact is that they went head to head with more talented teams like Bird’s Celtics, Magic’s Lakers and Jordan’s Bulls and more than held their own because they played great defense. Therein lies the challenge for Mike Brown. The Cavs are never going to have three or four superstars on the roster, but if they play elite defense they can eventually compete for championships with the core they have assembled. In today’s NBA, defense begins on the perimeter by not allowing the opposing point guard to get the ball to a place where easy baskets can happen. Kyrie and Dion have the athletic ability to do this, they just need the will. If I am Mike Brown I would sit down with Kyrie and find out whether he wants to do the work necessary to become a great defensive player, because if he doesn’t, the Cavs can never win a title with him as the focal point of the team.