"Playoffs," Irving said, according to Mary Schmitt Boyer of The Plain Dealer. "That's it. That's the main goal and I'm looking forward to it."
Irving's presence on the Cavs roster makes playoff discussions reasonable, even for a team which finished with the third-worst record in the NBA last year. But in order to maximize Irving's ability to lead Cleveland to the postseason for years to come, a sustainable culture of winning must be established in 2013-14.
The Cavaliers took steps to begin establishing that culture this summer. By acquiring free agents Jarrett Jack—whom TNT analyst David Aldridge recently called, "the best free-agent pickup this side of Houston"—along with Earl Clark, Andrew Bynum and rookie Anthony Bennett, Cleveland dramatically improved its supporting cast.
This year specifically, however, the Cavaliers must begin to identify how these pieces fit long-term alongside Irving.
While qualifying for the postseason would represent a tangible step forward, it's also important to understand that sustainable progress extends much deeper than an eighth seed.
To achieve that progress and establish the foundation for what could become a championship-contending team, the Cavaliers will need to first compete defensively with the playoff teams in the Eastern Conference.
From the second-leading scorer, to defensive leader and captain of the reserve unit, the newly re-hired Mike Brown must also identify roles this year that are embraced by the players surrounding Irving's brilliance.
Establishing a defensive culture of winning
The Cleveland Cavaliers finished last in the NBA in opponent field-goal percentage during 2012-13. As the chart above highlights, they allowed opponents to shoot 47.6 percent on the season.
To compete for a postseason berth consistently, the Cavaliers will need to improve that number to around an Eastern Conference playoff team average of 44.6.
While Mike Brown's defensive system is complex, revolving around not only helping the helper at all times but also defending the rim as a collective unit, it can be accomplished as a team based primarily on buy-in and will.
The Cavaliers will need to establish this desire to play team defense more than anything else in 2013-14. Though Irving will certainly have a role in improving Cleveland's defensive success, his supporting cast can best support him collectively by executing the defensive philosophy that Brown plans to implement.
Establishing a defensive anchor
Tristan Thompson was selected fourth overall in 2011. Despite his continued improvement, however, he may never be the Cavaliers' second-leading scorer.
He may never earn All-Star consideration, either. But what Thompson could truly become for the Cavaliers is the defensive leader on a championship-caliber team.
Like this block against the Brooklyn Nets last season, Thompson made plays on the interior while defending the opposition without much help around him. More important than improving the 11.7 points and 9.4 rebounds he averaged during the 2012-13 campaign will be his progression as a defensive anchor inside for Brown's system.
If Thompson can establish his leadership defensively, a winning culture can begin to truly take shape on both sides of the ball.
Identifying second-leading scorer of future
Dion Waiters demonstrated a unique ability to make the spectacular play offensively last season. None may have been more explosive than this finish against the NBA champion Miami Heat.
But while Waiters finished as the next-leading scorer for Cleveland at 14.7 points per night, behind Irving's 22.5, his field-goal percentage must improve in order to establish himself as a reliable second scorer moving forward.
If the second-leading scorer of the future isn't Waiters, maybe that player is rookie Anthony Bennett. Maybe a healthy Andrew Bynum emerges, too, or maybe it's someone else entirely for the Cavaliers.
On their way to competing for the postseason, however, the Cavs will need to establish a reliable option when defenses attempt to take Irving away—whoever that player might be.
Building second unit around Jarrett Jack
When the Cavaliers acquired Jarrett Jack, they added more than simply a third guard. Hopefully, what they now have in Jack is a player who can anchor the Cavaliers bench for the next few seasons.
While Jack will help Irving and Waiters continue their development in the backcourt, he must also make the transition easier for players like rookie Sergey Karasev while maximizing the opportunity for a second-year pro in Tyler Zeller.
As Cleveland establishes a cohesive core around Irving in the starting lineup, it could also begin to develop its second unit of the future around Jack.
This will not only help keep Cleveland competitive when Irving rests this season, but will also define roles throughout the roster for players like Karasev and Zeller who are under contract for years to come.
Progress goes deeper than an eighth seed
Earning an eighth seed in the NBA represents tangible progress for rebuilding team like the Cavaliers.
Nobody is suggesting, though, that Irving and the Cavaliers are currently constructed to win a playoff series against a top team in the Eastern Conference. What is possible, though, is a sustainable push toward championship contention beginning in earnest during the 2013-14 campaign.
By laying the foundation for a winning culture, developing a commitment to defense and beginning to identify exactly which roles the Cavaliers' young pieces will assume, Cleveland will be able to maximize the unique opportunity it has right now with a superstar like Irving.
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