Cleveland Cavaliers: Early Impressions of the 2011-2012 NBA Team
History has taught us, if nothing else, when it comes to sports, one game does not define a season. Especially when that game is the first of a long, albeit shortened, NBA season.
One year (and a couple months) ago, the Cavaliers kicked off their season of uncertainty by crushing the Boston Celtics. Months later, the Cavaliers' season would be over after compiling the worst record in the league, and the Celtics would be battling the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
So, after just one game of the 2011-2012 season, what can really be determined about the Cavaliers? What conclusions can be drawn, or predictions can be thought up, after watching a team play just one game?
After attending the game on Monday, here are some early impressions I got about the 2011-2012 Cleveland Cavaliers.
Alonzo Gee Is Better Than I Remembered
Last week, I wrote an article breaking down each player on the Cavaliers' roster. In that article, I predicted Alonzo Gee would be nothing more than a mop up player at the end of the bench.
After just one game, boy do I feel wrong.
Alonzo Gee was one of the first players off the bench to come in at the shooting guard/small forward position, and he contributed immediately, and in an impressive way.
In 28 minutes, Gee scored 15 points, shooting 5-of-7 from the field and 4-of-5 from the free-throw line. He was aggressive, he looked fast and he showed flashes of the athleticism he was famous for when he came out of Alabama.
Gee's athleticism was on full display when he took off for a soaring two-handed dunk in the first half. Gee leaped over two Raptor defenders, slammed the ball with two hands and nearly back-flipped before landing on his back/neck. Gee turned out to be alright, but the dunk was not, as Gee was called for a travel.
Regardless of the violation, the play itself was spectacular, and showcased the capabilities of a player who, if he can continue to play the way he did Monday, will be a crucial role player for the Cavaliers.
Monday night ended in disappointment for the Cavaliers, who were looking to score an early win this season. Looking back, the night had several bright spots, and Alonzo Gee just may have been the brightest.
Ryan Hollins Is Just as Bad as I Thought
Heading into the 2011-2012 season, there was a lot of buzz surrounding quite a few players for the new-look Cavaliers. None of that buzz was for backup center Ryan Hollins, and for good reason.
Hollins is a 7'0'', 240-pound big man with all the athleticism one could ever want in a center.
The problem is that Hollins has no idea how to effectively use his athleticism to help his team. How many times can a guy 7'0'' get his shot blocked? How many times can a guard get a rebound over a true center with hops? It happens all the time with Hollins! Ryan Hollins is truly a player that defies all logic in the NBA.
Of all the weaknesses Hollins displays on a nightly basis, his biggest, and most frustrating, problem continues to be his terrible hands. At the very least, Hollins should get a few buckets every night off of a pick and roll, where he can just throw down a dunk. The problem has always been catching the ball when someone passes it to him. It was extremely frustrating to watch last year, and, after just one game, it doesn't seem to have changed this year.
After hearing Byron Scott rave about Semih Erden before the season, it would seem like Hollins' days as a main role player are coming to an end, and that should be just fine with most Cavaliers fans.
The Shortened Offseason Hurts the Defense the Most
Byron Scott is not a coach who has always been widely renowned for his defensive-oriented teams. On the other hand, over the past five years or so, the Cavaliers have become used to being a stout defensive team who could contend in any game solely for that reason.
The lockout hurts a young team like the Cavaliers in many ways. Limiting practice time hurts everyone, especially the rookies. Timing on offensive sets won't look quite right, shooting percentages may be down for a couple weeks and turnover numbers may be higher than usual.
Of all the problems that may be caused by a lockout, team defense may be the biggest. Watching the Cavaliers play defense on Monday night was like watching a YMCA league team scramble all over the court to cover open shooters.
It is impossible to downplay the difficulty of getting on the same page defensively in the NBA, and the time that takes. Eventually, players on really good defensive teams understand the tendencies of the other players on the court. That's when switches look seamless, and backside help comes at just the right time.
Clearly, on Monday night, the Cavaliers were not at that point. Toronto is a team filled with players who will certainly make you pay if you leave them open, and that happened far too frequently in their matchup with the Cavaliers.
The good news is the Cavaliers have some really promising young players who have shown that they will work hard in any area of the game, and that will help to improve the defense as the season goes on.
Byron Scott's Offense Works
Opening night for the Cavaliers presented several concerns for the Cavaliers and their fans. It also presented some positives, not the least of which was Byron Scott's modified Princeton offense.
Though the shooting percentage doesn't reflect it, the Cavaliers had open shots all night long. The passing was crisp, the turnovers were rare and the Raptors defense was off-balance. The Cavaliers did everything right on offense except for putting the ball in the hoop.
Kyrie Irving and Ramon Sessions will turn into the focal points on the offensive end, not for their abilities to score, but for their abilities to find open teammates.
Irving finished the game Monday with seven assists, and he should have had plenty more if Jamison wouldn't have missed 14 shots, or Hollins wouldn't have gotten blocked every time he went to the hoop, or if Casspi would have shown a little interest in attacking the hoop. Sessions finished with six assists to go with his 18 points.
Coach Scott has to be thrilled with his options at the point guard position, and he should take comfort in knowing that the Cavaliers will not shoot that poorly in most games. Most importantly, he should continue to build on an offense that saw great ball movement and player involvement in the first game of the season. Scoring points won't be a problem for too long this season, as long as players start to make open shots.
Kyrie Irving Doesn't Play Like a Rookie
With only a very small sample to judge by, it's hard to not be extremely excited about Cavaliers' rookie point guard Kyrie Irving.
Everyone knows the upside of Irving, who is a great passer, a very good shooter and a player who will hustle for loose balls and on defense.
There was one thing that really stood out in Irving's first game as an NBA player, and that was his poise. Sure, he missed most of his shots, and he didn't play the 20 point, 10 assist game that some fans dreamed of, but he looked like a seasoned veteran on the court. Never once did he make a play, or a mistake, that made him look like a rookie struggling to see in the bright lights for the first time.
Always in control, always emotionally stable, Kyrie Irving proved more with his demeanor Monday night than he ever could have with stats. In a league with so many talented-but-unstable stars, it was great to see Irving face his first NBA game with the poise of a seasoned veteran.
Stats will come for Irving. In the meantime, it's great to see that the Cavaliers have hit on a true court general, team leader and stabilizing force with their rookie point guard.
Tristan Thompson Will Continue to Surprise Cavaliers Fans
After dealing with the likes of Drew Gooden and J.J. Hickson, Cavaliers power forward Tristan Thompson appears to be the type of player fans have been begging for for years. While Gooden and Hickson may have had talent, they didn't have the desire to play their hardest every minute they were on the court. Tristan Thompson clearly has that desire, and it was on full display Monday night.
Thompson is a powerful and athletic big man who finishes with extreme force when he gets the ball under the hoop. Equally as impressive as his big dunks, was his physicality in the rebounding game.
Next time the Cavaliers play, focus on Thompson when shots go up. He seems to have a real enjoyment for getting physical and boxing out, trying to get the best position for rebounds.
Once he polishes his craft a little bit, the Cavaliers will have quite a tandem with Thompson and Anderson Varejao hitting the boards.
The big positive scouts talked about with Thompson coming out of college at the University of Texas was his ever-running motor. Imagining that is tough, but watching him play Monday night made it very clear to understand what those scouts were saying.
Tristan still has work to do. He struggled getting into good defensive position a few times, and he allowed a few open shots, but there's no reason to think Byron Scott and his coaching staff won't be able to help Thompson with that.
His other weakness was supposed to be his free-throw shooting, but Thompson hit 6-of-8 free-throw attempts in his debut, showing that he spent some time in the gym improving from the line, where he will continue to find himself multiple times per game.
Fans questioned the Cavaliers for selecting Thompson with the fourth overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft. On Monday, Thompson began to answer those questions with a big statement!
The Cavaliers Are Set at Point Guard
Kyrie Irving may get the majority of attention over any other Cavaliers player this season, but it will be the tandem effort of both Irving and backup Ramon Sessions that will push the Cavaliers to major improvements.
Ramon Sessions joined the Cavaliers before the 2010-2011 season, and provided solid point guard play off the bench during a year of tremendous positional instability for the team. Sessions managed to average more than 13 points and five assists, primarily as a bench player!
Prior to this season, the Cavaliers drafted Irving with the No. 1 overall pick, and released veteran Baron Davis just before the start of camp. This basically allowed Sessions to enter the year knowing that he would still be the primary backup again, as opposed to having to split time among three players.
Sessions is a versatile, quick guard who will serve as a perfect compliment to Irving, all while making sure opposing defenses never get a break. Both Irving and Sessions have tremendous court vision, high basketball IQs and the physical gifts to allow them to play well, and make their teammates better.
With Sessions and Irving in the mix, the Cavaliers are now set at the point guard position for as long as they can keep the two together. That's a luxury they haven't had in more than a decade.
Omri Casspi Will Benefit from the Improved Point Guard Play
Every player on the Cavaliers will undoubtedly benefit from the massive improvement at the point guard position. Few, if any, will benefit more than new small forward Omri Casspi.
Casspi is a player who will be most successful either on the run, or when making cuts to the hoop. He will certainly love playing with two point guards who have such great court vision. His real skill for running the floor and finishing at the rim were on display during the preseason. The Cavaliers seemed to slow things down in the opener, and Casspi's numbers suffered for it.
Casspi is a creative offensive player, but he's not entirely proficient in creating his own shot in the half-court game. He's not the quickest of players, and can struggle when trying to take bigger defenders on in a one-on-one showdown.
The best news for Casspi is that he will be able to play to his strength on this Cavaliers team. Both Irving and Sessions love to get out and run, whether off a miss or off a made basket. They will have a very talented running mate this season as Casspi will be able to make a living off of finishing on the break.
Fans Shouldn't Get Too High or Too Low This Season
There is very little doubt that 2011-2012 will be a season of serious ups and serious downs for the Cleveland Cavaliers and their fans.
The Cavaliers are talented enough to compete on a nightly basis. With super talented youth, veteran leaders and good coaching, the Cavs will most definitely win some games that nobody gives them a chance to win.
The youth of the Cavaliers, combined with the shortened offseason, and the still-present holes on the team, will also cause the Cavaliers to lay some complete duds, and lose games people don't think they should lose.
The exciting part about this season will be watching the future of the team as they grow together and experience their first NBA season together. Having said that, not too much can be expected from the Cavaliers as far as the wins and losses are concerned.
All fans want to watch their teams succeed, and Cavaliers fans are no different, but they need to be patient with this young team that is clearly being built to contend sooner, rather than later.
So my advice to all Cavs fans is to enjoy this season. It should truly be the start of something that will hopefully bring pride to the city for years to come. It should be an interesting time for all Cavaliers fans as well, as the organization is really focused on building a "team" and not a group to compliment one player. If it works, the Cavaliers should go right back to their place as perennial contenders!