Ponder this starting lineup for a moment: Andrew Bynum at center, Anderson Varejao and Earl Clark at forward, Jarrett Jack and Kyrie Irving at guard. Off the bench: Alonzo Gee and C.J. Miles, with Clark sliding over to power forward and Jack playing point guard when needed. You have a two-deep of established NBA players at every position, which the Cavs haven’t had in years. Is it a playoff team? If they play Mike Brown defense, they would certainly have a shot.
Of course, the puzzle is missing a couple of pieces. No Dion Waiters, no Tristan Thompson, no Tyler Zeller. And no Anthony Bennett or Sergey Karasev. Is it possible that the Cavs could begin the season with none of their vaunted youngsters in the starting lineup save Irving, or even in the rotation? Probably not, but the important thing is that it is possible. Folks are assuming that Jack and Clark were brought on board to assist in redeeming the promises of a playoff spot that were made on draft night. That certainly was a factor, but I think it’s quite likely that Chris Grant, as usual, is taking the longer view. And I would bet Mike Brown played a role as well. The long view is this team is about two years away from being really, really good, and that the main goal for the 2013-14 season is to figure out which players have the talent, toughness, and intelligence to be part of the core of that good team.
Last year was a non stop comedy of bad defense, turnovers, and ill-considered shots. Some of it was due to inexperience, some was due to, in my mind, to a lack of emphasis on fundamentals, and some, without a doubt, was due to a sense of entitlement. There is no question that Brown will stress fundamentals more than Byron Scott did, but at the end of the day players respond to the incentives that are placed in front of them, and last year’s players knew two things: that there was nobody else with enough talent to threaten their playing time, and that they weren’t going to win many games regardless of whether they worked hard on defense. Mike Brown knows that both of those things had to change.
So, assuming Varejao and Bynum stay somewhat healthy, Zeller will play when his performance dictates it, not when the team is desperate for a big man. You think Waiters didn’t look at Jarrett Jack signing a four-year deal and realize he was staring at four years of coming off the bench if he didn’t get serious about defense and make better choices on offense? Not even Kyrie is untouchable. There’s enough talent on this team now that Kyrie should sit a while any time he decides to play matador defense, unless the Cavs are so worried about making him happy that they let him do what he wants.
Giving the team a legitimate chance to win also holds players accountable. Last year there were so many things wrong that nobody really cared whether Kyrie played defense. This year it could be the difference in whether the Cavs make the playoffs. The players know this. They know that they will take the court every night this year with a chance to win, and nobody wants to be the guy who is out of position when the winning points are scored against us. Ratcheting up the pressure like that will make every player on the team better, or at least weed out the guys that can’t handle it.
There’s another very big reason why now is the time to figure out who can play. There are six first round picks on this roster, and over the next few years all of them will reach the end of their rookie contracts. Right now all of them probably think they will be getting max extensions, but there’s no way to make that happen under the luxury tax rules, so it is crucial that Chris Grant identify the guys who are going to be indispensible and spend his money on them. Everyone else will be offered lesser deals or traded for guys who cost less. Those decisions will make or break this team. Ask Oklahoma City if they still think Kendrick Perkins is more indispensible that James Harden. That decision may have closed their championship window; with any luck the Cavs will be facing similar decisions over the next few years. Likewise, it is important to figure out what a player is worth before it becomes obvious to the rest of the league. If Grant decides quickly that Tristan Thompson, say, will not be a core player when the Cavs are contending for a title, he can trade him quickly while Thompson is still perceived to be valuable. If he waits until a player has sat on the bench for a year, he will be lucky to get a second round pick in a trade.
If this plan goes the way the Cavs hope, guys like Clark and Jack will be traded before their contracts expire because the younger guys are playing so well there is no playing time available. We may not know for a year or so whether things work out that way, but we will know early this season whether players are responding the way the front office hopes. The defensive numbers will tell us loud and clear whether the message was received.