Can Cleveland Cavaliers Compete in Tough Central Division This Season?

Patrick ForteCorrespondent IJanuary 28, 2012

PHOENIX, AZ - JANUARY 12:  The Cleveland Cavaliers stand attended for the National Anthem before the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at US Airways Center on January 12, 2012 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Cavaliers defeated the Suns 101-90. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Led by early Rookie of the Year front-runner Kyrie Irving, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been one of the most surprising teams a quarter into the NBA season.

After going a dismal 19-63 last year, the Cavaliers are not only well on their way to getting more wins this season, but they’re also competing for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and are competing in the Central Division. An assumed rebuilding year has actually been surprisingly successful for the Cavaliers, so it's only fair to ask if the team can compete this year.

The Central Division is always tough, and this year has been no different. The Chicago Bulls have the best record in the Eastern Conference, even with injuries to many of their key players such as reigning MVP Derrick Rose and Luol Deng.

With their pick-up of free-agent power forward David West this offseason, the Indiana Pacers have also improved from last year, after making the playoffs for the first time in five years last season. Led by Danny Granger and the newly acquired West, the Pacers currently have the third-best record in the East.

This is all without mentioning the Milwaukee Bucks, who are also competing for a playoff spot after acquiring Stephen Jackson on draft day, and the Detroit Pistons, who are struggling but have great young pieces in Greg Monroe and Brandon Knight. 

So, do the Cavs have what it takes to compete in this tough division this year? The answer, surprisingly, is yes, and it all starts with Irving. After only playing 11 games for the Duke Blue Devils last year, Irving has exceeded all of the expectations that come with being the No. 1 pick in the draft. Irving leads the Cavaliers in scoring with over 16 points per game, and also leads the team with close to five assists a game. 

However, Irving’s scoring is even more impressive when compared to the rest of the league. He ranks 11th among all NBA guards in points per game, while ranking only 48th in minutes per game among guards. 

It’s not just stats that make Irving impressive, though. His ability to take over games in the fourth quarter and lead the Cavaliers to victory has been very impressive this early in his NBA career. As the season continues and his confidence grows, he can only improve. Additionally, coach Byron Scott has been limiting Irving's minutes thus far, but as the season goes on one can only assume Irving will see more playing time, especially if the Cavs are contending for a playoff spot.  

Outside of Irving, many other Cavaliers have also been impressive.

Antawn Jamison
may be on the downswing of his career, but he still puts up 15 points per contest and is the clear veteran leader of this squad, something very important for a young team that’s looking to contend. Center Anderson Varejao is having a career year for the Cavaliers, ranking fourth in the NBA in rebounds per game while playing stellar defense as usual. Anthony Parker has struggled thus far, but he also provides a great veteran presence for this young team.

Another key component to the Cavaliers success this year has been their bench. They’re getting stellar play from Ramon Sessions, who is able to take over when Irving isn’t on the court and be the leader and scorer of the second unit.

Alonzo Gee has made vast improvements from last season after spending the summer playing in Poland, and his defense has been very valuable. Daniel Gibson is able to nail three pointers at a high efficiency as he has his whole career, and rookie power forward Tristan Thompson has shown flashes of brilliance with his play on both sides of the ball.

So with a roster led by a future star in Irving, veteran stalwarts such as Jamison, Parker and Varejao, and a deep bench, there is no question that the Cavaliers can turn this assumed rebuilding season into a quest for the playoffs, and even a possible playoff appearance. Even in their tough division, the Cavs have what it takes to play with the big boys of the Eastern Conference.