After the ping-pong balls bounced the right way for the Cleveland Cavaliers at the 2013 NBA draft lottery, Dan Gilbert mentioned his hope that this was the last time the Cavs would be in attendance for the annual gathering of the league's 13 worst teams. The success rate of Gilbert's public proclamations notwithstanding: as presently constructed, is this iteration of the Cavs good enough to make the the playoffs this season?
Realistically and barring any major injuries, there are five teams in the Eastern Conference that have playoff spots locked up. Miami is still the presumptive favorite, and then Indiana, Chicago, New York and Brooklyn should round out the top five in some order. That leaves three spots for the remaining 10 teams.
A handful of teams have ruled out contending for the playoffs this year. Philadelphia has committed to a quick rebuild, trading away its All-Star point guard and looking unlikely to re-sign Andrew Bynum. Orlando and Charlotte are still in the early stages of rebuilding as well. Those three are more likely to make a play for Andrew Wiggins than the eighth seed.
The Celtics seem destined for that route as well. Ditching their two most talented vets for future draft picks signals the end of an era in Boston. Atlanta, as soon as it loses the Dwight Howard sweepstakes, is likely to join them.
Milwaukee is about as directionless as it is possible to be. The Bucks seem like they want to compete, but short of facilitating three-way trades in which it makes everyone much, much better while receiving zilch in return, they've done little to accomplish the goal. Those three should fall from the playoff ranks.
That leaves four teams for three spots: Toronto, Detroit, Washington and Cleveland.
I think it is fair to pencil in the Wizards right now. Washington put together some very nice stretches when both John Wall and Bradley Beal were healthy last season. Otto Porter fits nicely as well. If Nene can stay on the court, that is a playoff-caliber starting five, at least in the East.
Free agency should play a large part in determining the final two teams. The Raptors have a brand new general manager and at least one offer on the table for Rudy Gay. Should they take it, they effectively resign themselves to the lottery and likely open up spots for Detroit and Cleveland.
If the fringe contenders in the East stand pat, Cleveland will be in a dog fight to make the playoffs. As it stands right now, they are talented enough to sneak in, but that assumes Anderson Varejao stays healthy all season. Since he's played just 81 games in three seasons, that seems unlikely. The way things stand right now, the Cavs may be on the outside looking in.
Of course, Cleveland has a vault filled with cap space right now, so a sneaky free agent signing would swing things. What if they convinced Andrew Bynum to take a one-year flier? What if the Lakers decide to dump Pau Gasol? Even finding a competent small forward somewhere could be enough to swing things in Cleveland's favor.
For Cleveland to make the jump from the No. 1 pick in the lottery to a playoff team, a few things will have to happen.
First and foremost, Kyrie Irving will need to play a full season. Or close to it. He doesn't have to play much better than he did last year, although I'm sure he will improve. But 80 games from the team's best player is non-negotiable. Anything short of that and the postseason remains a pipe dream.
Dion Waiters needs to make a Tristan Thompson-level jump. There were times during his rookie season that it was fair to ask if Thompson would be an absolute bust. His offensive game was painfully raw and he looked lost for long stretches, more so than a top-five pick normally does. But something clicked in his second season: he developed a go-to move when he faced up in the post, along with a nice counter move. He added a weird little floater/runner thing that he made an astonishingly high amount of the time. And he hit the glass hard, regularly throwing up double-doubles.
Waiters needs to make the same leap. While occasionally making some brilliant plays and going on fun-as-hell to watch hot streaks, Waiters struggled with his decision making at both ends of the floor. He forced difficult shots and looked like a bystander on defense. If he can even out his play while still maintaining his aggressiveness, it will go a long way to easing the offensive burden Kyrie has been carrying.
But maybe most importantly, the team defense has to improve. With no talented one-on-one defenders, this falls squarely on Mike Brown. You could argue it is the sole reason he was hired. Cleveland has the fourth-worst defensive rating in the NBA last year; no team that bad at that end of the court even sniffed the playoffs.
So can Cleveland sneak into the playoffs this season? Sure, but a lot of things are going to have to break their way. They very well could, and the roster is not yet set, but as things stand right now the Cavs are sitting squarely on the bubble.