The Year of Dion Waiters.

October 14, 2013

I’m all in on this Cleveland Cavaliers team. One big reason: Dion Waiters.

Aside from Andrew Bynum’s health, Dion’s physique appears to be the story of training camp. A guy whose weight drew the ire of Byron Scott during last year’s Summer League, the Syracuse product has apparently slimmed down for his sophomore campaign. Waiters did yoga over the summer — in addition to these workout videos posted to YouTube.

So far this preseason — of course an extremely small sample size of two games against likely lottery teams in Milwaukee and Orlando — Dion leads the Cavs at 16.5 points per game in 24.5 minutes. (That’s a per-36-minute scoring average of 24.2, about a 6-point improvement over the 2012-13 season.) He’s shooting 50% from the field, 67% from 3-point territory and 88% from the foul line. He’s attempted as many free throws, 8, as Kyrie Irving. (Last season, he shot 41.2% from the field, 31.1% from deep and 74.6% from the FT line.)

Of course this is all with the preseason caveat. Dion’s not only had the benefit of weak opponents, but also of playing teams wary of showing too much scheme in meaningless games.

That said, you can’t help but marvel at the year-over-year progress. Dion — and the rest of the Cavs — appear to have completely bought into MB’s defensive intensity. Two more reasons to be optimistic:

* Dion’s got a year under his belt playing with Kyrie Irving. As Waiters told the media, per Bob Finnan: “[The coaching staff] put us in a position where we can feed off one another. They want me to play strict the ‘2.’ We never really established that much of a connection [last year]. This year, he knows where I like the ball, and I know where he likes the ball. We can work off one another and make each other better.”

* Also, the addition of Jarrett Jack as a backup PG and secondary playmaker allows Waiters to focus on one thing on offense: scoring. Barring an injury to Irving or Jack, Dion should never have to dribble the ball up.

To be a playoff team, Cleveland needs Dion to be a 16-20 points guy. Earl Clark and Alonzo Gee are defensive-minded players, Anderson Varejao’s points usually come off pick and rolls and offensive rebounds, Tristan Thompson’s still developing as an interior scorer, and Andrew Bynum (health) and Anthony Bennett (development, conditioning) remain big question marks. Aside from Irving and Jack, Waiters is the only player on this roster who can consistently create his own shot.

Dion had games last season of 25 in Chicago, 26 in Miami, 20 vs. San Antonio and 28 at the Clippers. This year, he just needs to fill the bucket on a more consistent basis. If he does, chances are this is a playoff team.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


Cavs top (really bad) Bucks in preseason opener

October 9, 2013

This is Mike Brown’s basketball team. That’s the most important takeaway from Cleveland’s 99-87 win over Milwaukee tonight at The Q, a game that was even more lopsided than the score suggests. Cleveland displayed a defensive intensity from the jump I don’t think we’ve seen since MB 1.0 ended in 2010.

The Cavs forced 23 turnovers — but had 26 of their own — and held Milwaukee to 37.7% from the field and 22.2% from distance. MB’s defense closed well on shooters across the floor, protected the rim and won the rebounding battle 50-38 minus two rotation bigs in Andrew Bynum and Tyler Zeller.  The Bucks managed just 38 points in the first half, and their starters combined for 27 points in 90 minutes, led by O.J. Mayo’s 7 on 3-10 from the field.

Let’s compare this to Cleveland’s 2012-13 D under Byron Scott:

  1. The Cavs allowed opponents 101.2 points per game (No. 25 in NBA).
  2. Cleveland opponents shot 47.6% from the field (No. 30).
  3. Cleveland opponents shot 37.2% from 3 (No. 25).

I’m not saying it’s all peaches and roses, or that the Cavs’ D is suddenly good again. Keep in mind this is a Bucks team without a real offensive threat, outside shooter, except for Caron Butler in the corner, or offensive identity. I’m just saying I like the progress and MB’s attention to detail — he must have called five timeouts tonight after missed assignments handed Milwaukee open shots.

All right, on to five quick observations:

* Dion Waiters impressed on both ends. He abused O.J. Mayo head-to-head. Waiters finished with 12 points on 4-11 shooting in 24 minutes and a game-high +/- of +23; Mayo’s +/- was a game-worst -24 in only 19 minutes. Dion’s shooting form looks much improved, and I loved his willingness to attack the cup. Twice he was rejected by LARRY SANDERS! only for Tristan Thompson to clean up the mess.

** The second unit is in good hands with Jarrett Jack and C.J. Miles. I tweeted during the game the closest thing the reserves had to glue last year was Luke Walton, perhaps the reason why Cleveland lost so many games in the second quarter. Jack’s a superb facilitator — he dished out a game-high 5 assists in 16 minutes — and can score in bunches, as he proved for Golden State in last year’s playoffs.

And C.J. is arguably the team’s fourth-best wing scorer, behind the obvious Kyrie Irving, Waiters and Jack. He drilled two from distance tonight and tallied an efficient 12 points on 4-7 in 19 minutes. Of the three vying for that starting SF spot — Alonzo Gee, Earl Clark and Miles — I think C.J. has the slimmest chance but may be most important to this year’s success. Gee and Clark bring athleticism and length, but C.J.’s the far superior scorer of the three, and this team needs his instant offense when Kyrie and Dion sit.

*** Like Saturday’s Wine & Gold scrimmage, No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett started slow. Bennett’s still struggling with his jumper, especially from deep, where he finished 0-3 tonight. Bennett air-balled two 3-point attempts Saturday, air-balled a third tonight and hit nothing but backboard on a fourth. Similar to Saturday, Austin Carr commented he’s fading rather than jumping straight up, much like Dion in his rookie campaign. This guy shot 53% from the field and 38% from 3 last year at UNLV, so I trust he’ll figure it out.

Despite his 2-12 showing, Bennett impressed me inside. He was blocked on his first few interior attempts, but then started attacking his defender. He attempted eight foul shots in 23 minutes; unfortunately, he missed five of them — another issue he’ll need to correct with the coaching staff. Bennett also tied Anderson Varejao with a game-high 10 rebounds, four of which came on the offensive end. The aggressiveness is clearly there; the confidence just has to follow.

**** Of the mop-up guys, Kenny Kadji looked the most NBA-ready … and may very well be playing himself onto this roster. Henry Sims was inserted before Kadji in the first quarter, but Kadji ultimately tallied more minutes, 12; more points, 15; and more rebounds, 5. Kadji almost had a nice chase-down block, too, but was whistled for a first-half foul.

Kadji has a nice inside-out game, can move up and down the floor, is a strong interior presence and possesses a nice frame — 6’10”, 242 pounds. If he doesn’t make it in Cleveland, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s on a 15-man roster in another city by the end of November. (And if that doesn’t work out, he can always go to work for his family at Kadji Beer, the Budweiser of Cameroon!)

***** The Bucks are bad. Like really bad. I put out a Twitter message asking Bucks fans to chime in on their team’s offensive identity and/or who’s their primary option. One response read: “Hopefully [Andrew] Wiggins.”

LARRY SANDERS! is LARRY SANDERS! Milwaukee probably has something in Greece’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, who finished with 14 points, but the Kevin Durant comparisons need to stop. O.J. Mayo’s an overpaid volume shooter at $8 million per year on a team where he’s probably the No. 1 late-game option. And Brandon Knight’s done nothing to prove he’s a starting-caliber PG at this level.

MVP OF THE GAME

This award goes to Tristan Thompson, who finished with 17 points and 8 rebounds, 5 offensive, in 25 minutes. Thompson was a vacuum around the hoop; between he, Varejao and Clark, I see no reason why Cleveland can’t lead the league in both offensive rebounds and second-chance points. Thompson’s right-handed foul shot also looked good; he finished 3-4 from the line.

ON TO THE NEXT ONE

Cleveland’s in Orlando at 7 p.m. EST on Friday night. The game’s on NBA TV. A good chance to see Orlando’s young wing talent, particularly Victor Oladipo, who had some, um, not-so-nice words for Cleveland a month ago, and Tobias Harris. I’ll be at a hockey game, but try to catch a replay and blog some observations over the weekend.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.

RELATED: KYRIE IRVING SHINES IN CAVS’ WINE & GOLD SCRIMMAGE


Andrew Bynum to Cavs: All reward, no risk

July 12, 2013

Andrew Bynum is your newest member of the Cleveland Cavaliers. The news of an incentive-laced 2-year, $24-million deal, first reported Wednesday by ESPN’s Chris Broussard, brought out excited Cavs fans on Twitter. And why not.

Admittedly hesitant at first, here’s why I love this deal.

Not a lot of financial risk.

$6 million guaranteed in Year No. 1, Year 2’s a team option. Sign me up!

If Bynum flops, Chris Grant lets him walk next summer and maintains flexibility to sign a max-contract player, such as a LeBron James. Even after the signings of Earl Clark and Jarrett Jack, the Cavs needed to spend to reach the $52-million salary floor. Why not spend it on a 7-footer who’s still only 25 and has averaged double-figure scoring every year he’s played since 2007-08, all while carrying the burden of being Shaquille O’Neal’s successor in L.A.

If Bynum plays well, Grant owns a team option for an affordable $12.5 million, barely $1 million more than DeAndre Jordan and JaVale McGee are scheduled to make, next season. Trade Anderson Varejao and decline team options on Clark and Alonzo Gee, and, boom, you’ve got your max slot again!

Or, Grant could pick up Bynum’s team option and then shop him. L.A. picked up Bynum’s option last summer, only to deal him to Philadelphia in the Dwight Howard trade 2 months later.

The injury history is real, but doesn’t bother me.

Not every day does a team add a 19-point, 12-rebound-a-night center. Those were Bynum’s stats in 60 games in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign, under current Cavs coach Mike Brown, while sharing touches with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. He’s a 2-time NBA champion with 74 postseason games under his belt, easily the most among any current Cavs player barring a Luke Walton return.

Sure, Bynum’s a health risk. He’s played only one 82-game season throughout his 8-year career, and he’s missed at least 15 games 5 out of 7 times since he started earning meaningful minutes in 2006-07. Much is made of how Bynum’s knees, re-aggravated during a November bowling injury, kept him out of all last season in Philly, and how many, including Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, have questioned his work ethic.

But now, Bynum’s legitimately playing for his NBA career. If he flops in Cleveland, and if the knee issues return, he’s going to have a hard time finding anything more than veteran-minimum dollars in free agency next summer.

Look at this roster. This is a playoff team.

There’s five teams in the Eastern Conference above everyone else — in no particular order, Miami, Brooklyn, Indiana, Chicago and New York. Boston traded 2 of its 3 best players, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, to Brooklyn, sent their Hall-of-Fame coach to L.A. and could be shopping Rajon Rondo. Atlanta lost Josh Smith to Detroit, and Milwaukee’s likely to lose Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis and J.J. Redick.

I see the Cavs, next to Washington and Detroit, competing for those 6-8 playoff spots, along with Atlanta, maybe Toronto and whatever Boston throws on the floor.

The Cavs needed an offensive punch, so here comes Bynum, Jack and No. 1 selection Anthony Bennett. The Cavs needed a defensive mentality, so here comes Mike Brown, Clark and Jack.

Barring any other major moves or injuries, that’s a rotation of Kyrie Irving and Bynum, 2 of the league’s top 30 players when healthy; Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters, Bennett, Jack, Clark, Tyler Zeller, C.J. Miles, Gee and maybe Sergey Karasev. That’s 11 quality NBA talents.

And when they need buckets, a 3-guard lineup of Irving, Waiters and Jack, coupled with Bynum and Bennett would give defenses a lot to handle.

Yeah, I really like this team.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


Assorted thoughts on Jarrett Jack to Cavs

July 7, 2013

Two days removed from the Earl Clark addition, about which I published 700 giddy words, Chris Grant made another move, this one much more unexpected. The Cavs and Jarrett Jack have agreed to terms on a 4-year, $25.2-million deal, with a team option for year No. 4. The move was first reported by Marcus Thompson of the Contra Costa Times.

What follows are unorganized initial thoughts on the move.

Pro: Cleveland adds a Sixth Man of the Year candidate

Golden State’s not a playoff team last without Jack. A sixth man who started 4 regular season games, Jack averaged 12.9 points, 5.6 assists and 3.1 rebounds in 29.7 minutes per game. On his 5th team in his 8-year career, Jack shot 45.2% from the field, 40.4% from 3 and 84.3% from the line, all super-efficient numbers. Per 36 minutes, Jack netted 15.7 points and 6.7 assists. He finished with 14 first-place votes for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award, finishing 3rd behind J.R. Smith and Jamal Crawford.

For a 6’3″ guard, Jack’s an incredible finisher and all-around offensive talent, with an ability to attack, score in isolation and distribute. A very physically imposing, strong guard, his Draft Express profile from 2005 noted Jack might be the best defensive point guard in that year’s draft, one that saw 3 — Deron Williams, Chris Paul and Raymond Felton — selected in the top 5.

In the NBA, Jack’s been a solid role player from Day 1. He’s played in at least 79 games all but 1 year; he missed 21 games in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season as a member of the New Orleans Hornets. He’s a career 11-points-a-game scorer, who’s averaged 4.4 assists and 27.9 minutes. His career high for scoring is 15.6 points in 45 games for the ’11-12 Hornets. Given his consistency, I’m comfortable in not attributing his success last season to ‘contract year’ status.

In last year’s playoffs, Jack really flourished. His minutes jumped to 35.5 per game, in part thanks to Stephen Curry’s bum ankle in the San Antonio series, and he averaged 17.2 points per game on an unreal 50.6% from the field. It was the first time Jack won a playoff series; his only other postseason appearance, in 2010-11 with the Hornets, ended in 6 games to the Lakers.

Con: Terms of the deal

My only reservation with this contract is its length — 3 years with a team option for a fourth. Jack turns 30 in October, but Cavs fans can take assurance in a) Jack’s worth ethic, and b) his relatively clean injury history. Still, a 32-year-old guard, probably still coming off the bench, could make Cleveland fans uneasy 28 months from now.

At the same time, Grant’s not going to receive the luxury of underpaying. For one, Cleveland’s not New York, Miami or L.A. And, secondly, this team’s simply not a title contender. The Darren Collisons of the world are not headed to Cleveland on tragically underpaid $1.9-million contracts to chase a ring, at least right now.

So, I guess I talked myself out of that concern?

Question: What does this mean for backcourt rotation?

This move leaves a lot of rotation questions for Mike Brown. In Golden State, Mark Jackson often, and with success, used a 3-guard lineup of Curry, Jack and Klay Thompson to suit his team’s up-tempo style. But Brown loves his big guards — think Larry Hughes and Sasha Pavlovic, the latter of whom started over 100 games as a Cavalier because he’s 6’7″ — and it’s hard to imagine him resorting regularly to a Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Jack backcourt.

And, in that case, who gets the crunch-time minutes alongside Kyrie? A cold-blooded scorer like Jack or Dion, and what does that mean for Dion’s future in Cleveland? I’m assuming Brown will ride who’s hot on a night-by-night basis, but still an interesting subplot headed into what’s bound to be an increasingly interesting season.

Then, there’s those behind Kyrie, Dion and Jack. C.J. Miles is likely to return on an affordable $2.25-million player option, but you’d have to think Wayne Ellington’s now the odd man out. The Cavs declined to extend a qualifying offer to Ellington before free agency started, yet hinted at a desire the UNC product return. With 6’8″ guard-forward Sergey Karasev and maybe even No. 33 overall pick Carrick Felix looking for minutes, I’m not sure where Ellington fits in.

Pro No. 2: Cap flexibility remains for summer of 2014

Cleveland still has plenty of room to potentially slide in a max contract next summer, as Fear the Sword‘s David Zavac explains here. Anderson Varejao has a partially guaranteed team option of $9.8 million for Anderson Varejao in 2014-15, as well as team options of $4.5 million on Earl Clark and $3.25 million on Alonzo Gee.

By my calculations, even if the Cavs pick up team options on AV, Clark and Gee, a very unlikely scenario, Grant would still have about $14 million in cap space to play with, if the cap were set at $62.5 million. A note: That does not account for any 2014 draft selections, or any additional free agent acquisitions. Scratch Clark and Gee, a much more feasible scenario, and that frees up $7.75 million more in cap space.

Where Dan Gilbert’s wallet will start to take a beating in luxury taxes is 2015-16, if the Cavs happened to land a max free agent next summer. Irving and Tristan Thompson are both in line for lucrative extensions next October, which would kick in for the ’15-16 season. The following October, Waiters and Tyler Zeller, depending on how they develop, could be in line for similar raises. And the following October, the same for Anthony Bennett and Karasev. Oh, the joys of the lottery!

Conclusion: I like the Jack signing!

OK, it took me 900 words, but I like this deal. One reservation I did not include above is Jack’s tendency to sometimes dominate the ball, especially in late-game situations. This Cavs team needs scoring, so I welcome any offensive addition, but it also needs to be made clear, particularly in the last 5 minutes of games, this is Kyrie Irving’s team.

I’m done this time.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


3 reasons to love the Earl Clark signing

July 5, 2013

About 86 hours into free agency, Chris Grant made his first move. Enter Sporting News’ Sean Deveney.

And TNT’s David Aldridge.

Boom. And here’s 3 reasons why I love this deal.

1. It’s all about the $.

A team option for year No. 2 of this deal means zero risk for the Cavaliers, a team clearly trying to preserve at least enough cap space for next summer to make a run at a max free agent. If Clark fails to meet expectations, Grant can easily wash his hands of the former Louisville product a year from now, and we’re right back where we started.

Should he so desire, Grant could still throw $15 million a year at a Nikola Pekovic, Paul Millsap or Andre Iguodala and remain firmly under the cap, though I’d guess those are unlikely. Or, Grant could fill out his roster with short-term deals and rookie contracts, then leave ample room for a major splash next summer, should LeBron James explore the market. Until this year’s rookie class is signed, the Cavaliers actually have $0 on the books for next season, just team options.

On Clark’s end, after a breakout year in an ugly situation, I expected more potential suitors. Clark had never played more than 12.5 minutes per game before last season, and still only averaged 7.3 points with the Lakers. But his age, 25; size and versatility, 6’10” and can play the 3 or 4; and range, 34% from 3 last year and improving, make him an appealing target.

Now, he’s in Cleveland on essentially a 1-year, $4.5-million deal. And you know he’ll work his ass off because it’s very much a contract year.

2. Versatility, baby.

That Mike Brown loved this kid enough to help lure him to Cleveland, after coaching him for only 5 regular season games in L.A., tells me a lot. Mike D’Antoni said last year that Clark could guard all 5 positions. With Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao at the 4, early reports indicate the Cavs plan on using Clark at the 3. Clark should compete with Alonzo Gee and No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett, another stretch 3-4 at 6’7″, for a starting spot.

A thrown-in part of the Dwight Howard deal, Clark averaged a very respectable 11.4 points and 8.6 rebounds per 36 minutes. L.A.’s most commonly used 5-man lineup — Clark, Howard, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace and Steve Nash — left Clark at the 4 for close to 340 minutes. D’Antoni loved Clark so much, he started him in 36 games, often over 4-time All Star Pau Gasol.

Clark immediately becomes the best perimeter defender on the Cavs’ roster. In a conference with LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson, he’ll draw a range of assignments.

Consider these words from ESPN L.A.’s Dave McMenamin, who covers the Lakers.

3. Another weapon for Kyrie, Cavs.

Just add another face to a team loaded with young, quality talent. I’m not suggesting Clark is as important to Cleveland’s long-term future as Kyrie Irving, Thompson, Bennett or even Dion Waiters, but it’s not every day you add a playoff-caliber role player. (I’m not concerned with his dismal postseason stats against the Spurs — 3.5 points, 3 rebounds and 37% shooting — given how short-handed L.A. was for that series.)

I anointed Clark one of my 5 second-tier free agents to watch last week, before I knew Cleveland had interest. If there was any doors open on a Luke Walton or Omri Casspi return, those are, thankfully, shut. With team options on both for 2014-15, I’m guessing Clark and Gee will spend 2013-14 fighting for one spot, unless the Cavs strike out next July.

This move was made because of Clark’s defensive prowess. But he can grow as a 3-point shooter — hopefully enough to stretch the floor for Kyrie-AV pick-and-rolls and Tristan post-ups — and rebounder.

By no means is this a blockbuster move. But be excited, fellow Cavs fans.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


DRIBBLES: Byron Scott’s future in Cleveland.

March 31, 2013

So Saturday night, while most of America was fixated on the Final Four — and most Ohioans on the Buckeyes’ in said Final Four — the Akron Beacon Journal‘s Jason Lloyd dropped a bombshell: head coach Byron Scott’s job may not be as secure as most assumed. His story, which you better read if you have yet to, directly cites concerns from at least two players and another member of the organization, all anonymous, about Scott’s rotations, reluctance to use timeouts and the team’s overall poor defense.

As a fan, many of these concerns are ones the Cavs’ Twitterverse has spent the last three years lamenting. I would agree that Scott’s received a bit of a pass, from the Northeast Ohio media and even many fans, given the tough hand he’s been dealt: LeBron James’ departure, inconsistent lineups due to injuries to the team’s top talent, etc. The offense has improved, but the defense is a shed of what it was during the Mike Brown era, going from proverbial first to worst; the Cavs are surrendering a woeful 110 points per 100 possessions, according to 82games.com.

But, in Scott’s defense, the team’s best defensive player — Anderson Varejao — has suffered season-ending injuries each of the past three seasons, playing in a combined 81 games. Cleveland’s franchise talent, Kyrie Irving, himself a putrid defender, missed 15 games last year and 22 (and counting) this year. And No. 4 overall pick Dion Waiters, another core piece, has missed 14 games.

In a game this week against Boston, Scott fielded a backcourt of Chris Quinn and Daniel Gibson. Before a few weeks ago, Quinn had not played NBA ball since the 2010-11 season in San Antonio, and Gibson’s logged more than two dozen DNP, Coach’s Decision’s this season.

I do not want to sound like a Scott apologist, but the potential cons of firing Scott far outweigh the pros. Lloyd would know much better than I, but Scott seems to have a good relationship with Kyrie — look no further than their friendly trash talk prior to this year’s 3-point contest — like he did with CP3, and I fear dumping Scott tosses two years of development out the window. I mean, look what Scott’s done with Tristan Thompson — last year, Cavs fans were openly questioning whether the team made him a mistake in drafting him No. 4 overall, and now he’s a candidate for Most Improved Player of the Year.

******

Regardless of whether the Cavs land LeBron in the summer of 2014, the 2014-15 campaign, I believe, is the season everyone has circled. Kyrie will have three years under his belt and will face restricted free agency the following summer, if the team’s yet to lock him up long-term by then. Same with Thompson. And Varejao, assuming he’s still around and the team picks up his $9.8 million team option, will be trying to prove he can stay healthy before hitting the market for probably his last contract.

Add at least two more lottery picks and at least one regular contributor via free agency to a core of Irving, Varejao, Thompson, Waiters and maybe Zeller — the jury’s still out — and, with the right hand, that’s at least a playoff team capable of winning a first-round series. Miami’s ‘Big 3’ presumably will have dissolved, and with a shuffling of talent, who knows which teams will be players and which will not.

This is a long ways down the road, sure, and maybe I’m just grasping at straws. But I do think the Cavs, a very young, developing team, could benefit from consistency. Is there a coach out there, one better than B. Scott, that’s worth risking so much over? I just don’t see it.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


30 in 30: CLEVELAND CAVALIERS

February 8, 2013

The strategy employed by Chris Grant in building the post-LeBron James era Cleveland Cavaliers is quite simple — be really, really bad and accumulate as many draft picks as possible. Well, the Cavs, though in the midst of a far from terrible 9-11 stretch that includes wins over Boston and Oklahoma City, are not very good; the team’s 15-34, last in the Central Division and well out of the playoff race. The Cavs have acquired 4 additional first-round picks, in addition to the team’s own, from now until 2020, and if the Lakers earn a postseason bid, have the ability to swap a likely late first-round selection this June, via Miami in the LeBron trade, with L.A.’s, via the Ramon Sessions trade.

Believe it or not, Cleveland’s in a really good place right now. In the last 2 years, Grant’s acquired 4 promising young players through the NBA Draft. Kyrie Irving, in only his sophomore year at age 20, is an All Star reserve and arguably the league’s best point guard, with 23.9 points per game far and away tops at the position (all due respect to Chris Paul). Tristan Thompson, last year’s No. 4 overall selection, is really coming along in 2012-13, showing a wider variety of post moves, improved body control and an ability to play under control. As for rookies Dion Waiters and Tyler Zeller, it’s still too early to tell. Both have shown flashes — Waiters as a capable slasher at the 2, with an ability to attack the cup and a streaky outside jumper that demands respect, and Zeller as a stronger-than-expected 4 not afraid to fool around inside but also with an ability to step outside and stretch the defense.

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — BROOKLYN NETS

But depth has been an issue. Kyrie’s missed 11 games, Dion 8 and Anderson Varejao, whose 14.1 points and 14.4 rebounds per game had him on an All Star pace, 24 and counting. Varejao was first sidelined indefinitely with a right knee injury, then news of a blood clot ended his season early for the 3rd consecutive year. And Cleveland’s 27.9 bench points per game, helped immensely by the acquisition of Marreese Speights and Wayne Ellington a few weeks ago, still only ranks 24th in the NBA. (In 6 games with the Cavs, Speights has averaged 14.7 points, second best on the team, and 7.3 rebounds in less than 25 minutes per, accumulating a 22.2 PER.)

Cleveland could use a healthy Varejao in February, if at the very least to entertain any and all trade offers. Financially speaking, Cleveland’s in very good shape, with their largest salary — Baron Davis’s amnestied, and thus off the books, $14.85 million — expiring this summer. Speights, with a $4.5 million player option for next year he’s likely to opt out of, is the only question mark. Luke Walton’s $6.1 million expires, as does Daniel Gibson’s $4.8 million, and both are unlikely to return. Wayne Ellington, a restricted free agent, has a $3.1 million qualifying offer the Cavs should extend for his outside shooting. Omri Casspi, who’s struggled immensely in his 1.5 years here and fallen to the end of Byron Scott’s bench, is a restricted free agent the Cavs are likely to let walk.

Cleveland only has $32.5 million committed next year, and $0 on the books for 2014-15, with team options held on Varejao, Irving, Thompson, Waiters, Gee and Zeller, all of which are affordable and very likely to be extended. The point: Cleveland’s in the running for at least one max free agent in the summer when all 3 of Miami’s stars can opt out, including LeBron James, who’s been speculated to be weighing a potential return to his native northeast Ohio.

RELATED: I’M DONE WITH LEBRON

Pipe dreams aside, at the very least, the young core is in place for years to come. Irving and Thompson are all but locked in through 2015-16, and Zeller and Waiters through 2016-17. Should Speights return on a reasonable contract, say in the $6-8 million per year range, Scott would have four very solid frontcourt guys, assuming full health, in Andy, Zeller, Thompson and Marreese, three of whom (Zeller excluded) are capable of giving you 10-15 any given night. Since LeBron’s departure, SF has been a glaring weakness, as Alonzo Gee, who averages 10.3 points per game (ironically, the same as his 281st-ranked PER) on 40% shooting and 29.5% from 3, struggling to ascend.

The Cavs aren’t terrible on offense, averaging 96.5 points per in a division with some really good defensive teams in Indiana and Chicago, but defensively, the team oftentimes lacks energy, starting with Irving, and surrenders 101.1 points per. A far cry from Mike Brown’s elite units — granted those teams had LeBron — Cleveland allows opponents to shoot a league-worst 47.5% from the field and 26th-ranked 37.6% from 3.

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — CHICAGO BULLS

For Clevelanders, the key word is patience, a concept not exactly new to Ohio sports fans. Cleveland’s definitely not postseason-bound this year and likely not again next year, though there’s enough talent on the roster to make a fringe run, again assuming full health. But if Scott can continue to develop the young guys and receive more of a defensive commitment from a franchise guy (and leader) like Irving, if Grant can continue to acquire young talent with his first-round picks and if owner Dan Gilbert can persuade a stud free agent, like a LeBron James, to ink a long-term contract in 2014, the sky’s the limit for this team in a few years.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.

ALSO: 30 IN 30 — CHARLOTTE BOBCATS


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