Most media members and draft experts were shocked when the Cleveland Cavaliers drafted Anthony Bennett with the first overall pick in the 2013 draft. The Cavs also caught a good amount of criticism for their choice to gamble on free-agent big man Andrew Bynum when it seemed so few others would. And why wouldn't Cleveland trade Anderson Varejao? He certainly can't stay healthy.
Many have questioned the decisions the Cavs and general manager Chris Grant have made in recent years. While the individual decisions may seem puzzling, the final picture is starting to become clear.
This is a playoff roster.
Bennett and Bynum represented the players with the most upside available for the Cavs. Keeping Varejao meant retaining the only player on the roster who played under Mike Brown four years ago and is familiar with his terms and defensive schemes.
Indeed, this roster was built with lofty goals in mind.
With the bottom half of the Eastern playoff picture wide open, making the postseason is a very realistic goal.
That being said, here are four things that have to go right in order for this playoff goal to be achieved.
Taking the fourteen players the Cavaliers currently have under contract, and the average age of Cleveland's roster is just 23.8 years old.
This actually makes them younger across the board than they were last season, when players averaged about 25 years in age. For comparison, the Miami Heat and their championship roster last season averaged nearly 31 years.
While youth can be a good thing, it also means the Cavs still have plenty of growing pains.
Varejao is the only player on the roster (31) not in his 20s or even teens (Sergey Karasev, 19). As previously mentioned, he's also the only player remaining from the last time the Cavaliers made the playoffs in 2009-2010.
Given their youth, the Cavs made an absolutely huge signing when they inked 29-year-old Jarrett Jack.
Jack helped turn a young Golden State Warriors team from lottery-bound to championship-contender in a single year. He helped lead them past the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs and push the San Antonio Spurs to six games.
Besides Varejao and Jack, the only other Cavaliers with playoff experience are Andrew Bynum, C.J. Miles and Earl Clark.
These five players will be relied upon to serve as leaders on the Cavaliers, so that this time next year every returning Cav will have playoff experience.
Mike Brown's Offense
This can't be a "stand around and watch Kyrie Irving create" offense.
It just can't be.
Unfortunately, that seemed to be Brown's best plan the last time he was in town with his last star player.
While he's revered as a defensive guru, his coaching on the other side of the ball left something to be desired. Take a look at the Cavaliers' offensive stats in five seasons under Brown, per basketball-reference.com:
While Cleveland did climb up to ninth during Brown's last season, they had added offensive weapons in Antawn Jamison and Shaquille O'Neal.
The pace actually got slower as Browns' tenure went along, something that should have been revved up with LeBron James, Mo Williams, J.J. Hickson, Delonte West and Jamison.
One encouraging sign that the offense will be better is that the Cavaliers have a very strong supporting staff of coaches.
Led by assistants Jamahl Mosley, Bernie Bickerstaff and Jim Boylan, Brown should have enough help when it comes to the offensive side of the ball.
The Cavs should also have five players that can create their own shot in Irving, Dion Waiters, Jarrett Jack, Anthony Bennett and, when he's healthy, Andrew Bynum.
During Brown's last stay in Cleveland, you could argue that only James, Delonte West and occasionally Mo Williams were capable of such a feat.
The offense has to be better than it was the last time Brown was in town, and it should be.
You can't talk potential Cavaliers' success without mentioning the health of its key players.
We know Bynum hasn't played in 15 months and that Varejao has played 81 total games the past three years. Irving has also missed a quarter of the games he's been eligible for in his first two seasons.
Cleveland parted ways with longtime athletic trainer Max Benton this offseason and is now taking a more proactive approach to injuries rather than a reactive one.
From Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal:
Cavs General Manager Chris Grant spent nine months researching injuries, which led to an overhaul of the Cavs’ “performance team” staff. Alex Moore, previously the strength and conditioning coordinator for the U.S. Ski team, was hired as director of the Cavs’ performance team, which essentially puts him in charge of the training staff.
The Cavaliers have become more serious when it comes to preventing injuries, which have robbed so much time from Cleveland's best players.
With Bynum and Bennett, Varejao won't have to carry as big of a load and play the exhausting 36 minutes a night Byron Scott had him at a year ago. Varejao will begin the season as the starting center, but should come off the bench once Bynum is ready to play. Coming off the bench will allow Varejao to stay fresh throughout the season while limiting his minutes.
Irving looked stronger and in great shape during the Cavaliers media day. He also wasn't slapping any wall pads this summer, so that's good.
The Cavs have much greater depth now than in the past few years, so little injuries here and there shouldn't bother them too much.
Keeping key players like Irving, Varejao and Bynum on the court come playoff time will ultimately dictate how far this team can go.
Rising Teams in the East
As good as the Cavaliers could be, it's worth noting that a lot of their competition improved this offseason.
Take a look at what some of the other Eastern Conference teams did this summer:
|Team||2013-14 Record||Notable Moves|
|Washington Wizards||29-53||Signed John Wall to extension, drafted Otto Porter Jr. and Glen Rice Jr.|
|Toronto Raptors||34-48||Signed Tyler Hansbrough and D.J. Augustin, traded for Steve Novak|
|Detroit Pistons||29-53||Signed Josh Smith and Chauncey Billups, traded for Brandon Jennings, drafted Kentavious Caldwell-Pope|
As shown, Cleveland wasn't the only rising young team to make some moves.
While it's hard to argue that any team added as much as Cleveland did by bringing in Bynum, Jack, Bennett and others, the Cavs will certainly have some stiff competition in the East.
With five of the playoff spots locked down barring any cataclysmic injury, it will likely come down to the Cavs, Atlanta Hawks and one of the teams listed above.
The Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks have all but assured themselves of a lottery-bound year, trading away or losing Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry, Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis to free agency.
To make the playoffs, Cleveland will have to prove they can handle the lottery-bound teams while also rising above all, or at least two, of the other young playoff-hopefuls.
Not everything Cleveland has done has been well regarded at the time, this we know.
This is the season we should really see if Grant and his surprising draft picks were really the best ones to make. While Irving was an easy choice, this is the time that players like Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett really need to step up and prove that they're worthy of a top-four pick.
The Cavaliers shouldn't just believe they can make the playoffs, they should expect to reach the playoffs.
If the veterans can offer leadership, Mike Brown can coach an offense, the team can stay healthy and Cleveland proves itself over the other playoff-hungry Eastern teams, you'll definitely be seeing a return to the postseason for the wine and gold.