Draft day: the Super Bowl of Cleveland sports.
Kind of harsh, but not entirely untrue.
For the Cleveland Cavaliers, drafting the best player available regardless of position was the strategy in 2011 and 2012. That's because the team roster was left so desolate after the 2010 NBA season that literally every single position, and bench slot, needed an upgrade. A quick recap:
In 2010 the Cavaliers mysteriously played their worst basketball of the season in a second-round playoff series against the aging Boston Celtics. Despite having the best record in the NBA for two years in a row, they were bounced in six games.
Not only did the Cavs lose James in 2010, they also lost Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Shaquille O'Neal and Delonte West. Nearly three years later, the only players remaining from the Cavs' final season of relevancy are Daniel Gibson and Anderson Varejao, both of whom were reserves. The only way forward was to replace every single position on the floor, and its backup, with new, young, talented players.
That was painful.
So how is it going so far?
So far so good. In 2011 the Cavs drafted Kyrie Irving out of Duke with the first-overall pick in the draft. In less than two short seasons Irving has won the Rookie of the Year award, Rising Stars Challenge MVP, the 2012 Three-Point Shootout and was named to the 2012 NBA All-Star Team. He's good.
The Cavs may have solidified the backup point guard roster spot as well when they signed Shaun Livingston in December. Once considered to be a future elite guard, his play off the bench has been outstanding and he provides a much-needed veteran presence.
Dion Waiters, the fourth pick in the 2012 NBA draft, had a rough start to his rookie season. In December, Waiters shot 34.2 percent from the field and averaged 11.8 points per game. Those numbers have improved each month since, and currently he's shooting 43.4 percent from the field and averaging 16.2 points per game for the month of March. He's solidified his position as the shooting guard of the Cavs. If he continues to improve his game, he is a future all-star.
If there is one position where the Cavs are deep, it is at shooting guard. Daniel Gibson will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, but C.J. Miles and Wayne Ellington each have one year left on their respective contracts and both have been solid.
Alonzo Gee is such a hard-working guy that it's tough to not like him. Let's be honest here, most of us wouldn't have gotten up from this fall; Gee laughed it off and kept playing. Most fans would be satisfied with Gee as the backup off the bench, but he's the starter, and after reading about the backups, you'll understand why.
When the Cavs selected Tristan Thompson with the fourth pick in the 2011 NBA draft, fans stood up and collectively shouted, "huh?" His rookie year wasn't bad, but it wasn't stellar either. So far this season he is averaging 9.3 rebounds and 11.4 points per game, and he's still improving. Barring a major setback, Tristan has secured his role as the starting power forward, and the draft bust shouters have been silent.
Today the Cavs are strong in depth at power forward because of Marreese Speights. Coming to Cleveland in a mid-season trade with Memphis, Speights has been a spark off the bench with hard work and hustle. He has a player option in his contract for $4.5 million in 2013, but at the time it is unclear whether he will exercise it, or if the Cavs will try to move him again for additional future assets.
When healthy, Anderson Varejao is in the conversation for the best five centers in the NBA. From sixth man in 2010 to an elite rebounder in just over two calendar years, Andy has evolved his game from role player to dominant NBA center. Health problems have cut his season short three years in a row, but the Cavs will not get equal value for trading the Brazilian.
Thrown into the fire when Varejao went down, Tyler Zeller has struggled as the starting center for much of the season. If Tristan Thompson's evolution has taught us anything, it is that big men in the NBA need time to develop. As long as Varejao is playing, Zeller can be a sufficient backup. Although, an upgrade here would not be out of line.
Why'd we go through all that? Because the Cavs are currently on pace to pick in the top five in the upcoming draft this summer—especially with Kyrie Irving and Anderson Varejao wearing suits through April. Recent mock drafts show a class top heavy in small forwards and centers, with Georgetown SF Otto Porter and Kentucky C Nerlens Noel respectively leading each position and falling within the range of where the Cavs might expect to be drafting.
It's clear that the position of most need is small forward, and Porter would look fantastic donning the wine and gold. Even if Porter is off the board, Shabazz Muhammad and Anthony Bennett would almost certainly be options.
Nerlens Noel, despite tearing his ACL in February, is the top choice at center, with other names such as Cody Zeller and Alex Len as potential top-10 candidates.
Clearly, the top of the draft is deep at both positions, with small forward gaining a slight edge. A perfect match right? Not so fast.
The wild card in this equation is the free-agency class of 2014. Another way of saying it is that the best small forward in the NBA, who used to play for the Cavs, will be a free agent in 2014. That's LeBron James, folks.
Executives and agents around the league are convinced the Cavaliers won’t do anything to jeopardize their ability to sign a free agent to a max contract during the summer of 2014, when LeBron James can again become a free agent. As fans in Northeast Ohio continue to howl and remain divided about the possibility of his return, more and more people around the league believe there is a strong possibility James will indeed return to Cleveland after next season.
Pretty strong words that briefly stirred the nest of frantic sports-writing hornets. It's fun to speculate, but could this actually happen?
If the Cavs honestly believe that LeBron James is going to return to Cleveland in the summer of 2014, then why in the world would they draft a small forward in 2013 when they could solidify a weak center position instead?
We've already established that their biggest position of need is small forward, and that the draft is top heavy in talented small forwards, but drafting Otto Porter or Shabazz Muhammad only fills a need for one year if LeBron James is going to take their spot in the starting lineup the following summer.
On the contrary, if the Cavs do not intend to sell the farm to bring LeBron back to Cleveland,drafting the top small forward available is the only option that makes sense.
The sports world is already waiting impatiently for the summer of 2014. Pay close attention, because the Cavs will be forced to show their hand in the upcoming draft.