The 2013-14 campaign will provide Kyrie Irving with an opportunity to lead his Cleveland Cavaliers to the playoffs for the very first time.
After posting a combined winning percentage of .304 over the last two seasons, Cleveland will now have pieces around Irving capable of helping his Cavs compete on a nightly basis.
Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and Tyler Zeller will look to build on their experience, and the Cavaliers added rookies Anthony Bennett and Sergey Karasev along with a trio of veteran free agents: former All-Star Andrew Bynum, steady and dependable Jarrett Jack and ex-Laker Earl Clark.
Coaching this revamped roster is newly re-hired Mike Brown, who will also bring an attention to defense necessary for winning at a postseason-qualifying clip.
Irving emerged as an All-Star last season, and as he continues to improve as a player and leader, the Cavaliers will have a legitimate chance of claiming one of the last three playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.
Three Playoff Spots Potentially Open In Eastern Conference
Among the eight teams that qualified for the Eastern Conference playoffs in 2013, the Miami Heat, New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers, Brooklyn Nets and Chicago Bulls appear to be postseason locks again in 2014.
The three spots previously occupied by the Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks, meanwhile, are anyone's guess at this point. All three teams suffered major personnel losses: Josh Smith left the Hawks in free agency, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce departed the Celtics via trade and Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis fled Milwaukee for free-agent dollars.
The Cavaliers have an opportunity to pass by the Celtics and Bucks, specifically, while competing with the Detroit Pistons, Toronto Raptors, Washington Wizards and Hawks for the final three spots in the East.
If Irving and the Cavaliers were in the Western Conference, to say that he could compete for a playoff spot during his third professional season would be a bit premature. But with the opportunity that currently exists at the bottom of the East, securing the seventh or eighth seed seems likely for Irving and the Cavs.
As Irving transitions from a first-time All-Star to a veteran superstar, he will begin to be judged on his ability to help his team take advantage of these opportunities.
Pieces Around Irving to Help Cavs Compete
The free-agent signing period could've ended with Jarrett Jack, and the Cleveland Cavaliers would have over-delivered on what most people thought was possible heading into the summer.
Instead, they also added Earl Clark while inking former All-Star Andrew Bynum to an incentive-laden contract.
As the third guard in support of both Irving and Waiters, Jack will provide the Cavaliers with backcourt scoring on a consistent basis as well as being able to create for others. Earl Clark will also strengthen Cleveland's overall rotation while adding length to the small forward position as a complement to Alonzo Gee.
While Bynum is less of a known commodity due to health concerns, the Cavaliers may also be aided by Anderson Varejao's return from injury.
Varejao averaged 14.1 points and 14.4 rebounds during the 25 games he played last season. If he can stay healthy enough to average a double-double for the season, the Cavaliers will have a great chance of creating the presence needed inside to open things up for Irving on the perimeter.
Dion Waiters will look to build on a strong rookie season in which he scored 14.7 points per game, second-best on the team. Tristan Thompson, who averaged 9.4 rebounds and 11.7 points last year, is the front-runner to lead this group in rebounding. Meanwhile, rookie Anthony Bennett could emerge as an additional difference-maker in both categories.
During Irving's first two seasons, the current level of talent surrounding him in Cleveland simply did not exist.
A Defensive-Minded Coach with a Postseason Track Record
Byron Scott often spoke about his desire for the Cavaliers to play team defense following the many losses he observed from the Cleveland sidelines. During his tenure as coach over the last three seasons, however, the Cavaliers were among the worst defensive teams in the league.
In addition to having far better overall talent than the group that finished with an NBA-worst opponent field-goal percentage of .476 last year, Mike Brown will bring a dedicated approach to defense.
His defensive expertise previously helped his teams advance to the playoffs during each of the five full seasons he coached with the Cavs, as well as his one full campaign with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2011-12. Just as he helped LeBron James lead the 2005-06 Cavaliers to the postseason as a third-year NBA player, he will help Irving do the same this year.
What Brown will bring specifically is not only a defensive strategy designed to collectively defend the paint and basket area as a unit, but also an ability to teach those principles to a young and growing team.
This unique combination of strategy and leadership from Brown will be another factor in helping Irving and his teammates take the next step toward the playoffs.
The Evolution of an All-NBA Leader
The opportunity to claim a postseason berth in the Eastern Conference, coupled with the dramatic improvement of the Cavaliers roster, will coincide with Irving's individual growth as a player.
After emerging as an All-Star last season, Irving has a chance to earn All-NBA honors in 2013-14.
As he continues to score with the same effectiveness he has throughout his career, Irving's assists project to improve simply based on who he's now passing to. As a result, his offensive numbers should rank with the top 15 players in the league by season's end.
Under Mike Brown, expect significant improvements from Irving as a defender as well.
As this evolution continues, the example Irving sets on a nightly basis should be enough to lead Cleveland to the playoffs for the first time since 2010.