Initial Report Card Grades for Every Key Cleveland Cavalier Player
Though the Cleveland Cavaliers are only four games into the 2013-14 NBA season, the team has already shown both the talent and skill that made them a trendy postseason pick, as well as the inconsistency and mental lapses that could keep them out of the playoffs.
New head coach Mike Brown has already begun to put his mark on the young Cavaliers as a collective unit, as Cleveland is second in the NBA thus far in defensive rating, or points allowed per 100 possessions.
Unfortunately, the Cavaliers also happen to be dead last in the league in offensive rating, scoring just 90.6 points per 100 possessions. Both statistics are based on small sample sizes and aren't likely to hold up over 82 games.
In the meantime, the team has held its own on its own home court, winning home games against a healthy and improved Minnesota Timberwolves team and a Brooklyn Nets squad that hopes to be a championship contender.
Going through the players who have thus far been a part of Brown's rotation, it becomes clear which players will need to improve and which players are due to come back down to earth after fast starts that will be difficult to sustain.
Let's take a look.
Alonzo Gee: B
Alonzo Gee is a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers that a lot of fans love to hate. A year after starting 82 games, Gee has been given a much more manageable role off the bench so far in 2013-14.
In four games, his minutes are down, but his efficiency is up. While his turnover rate is sky-high, his shooting numbers have improved and his usage is down. In other words, he isn't taking a bigger role in the offense than what is called for.
This allows him to do what he does best: defend. While his reputation as a defensive stopper might be overstated, it isn't surprising that a defensive minded head coach like Mike Brown appreciates having a guy like Gee than can slow down players like Kevin Martin, who got off to a fast start in Monday night's game against the Cavaliers.
Gee's defense will keep him in Brown's rotation and might even have him starting games. Whether his turnovers or shooting will allow him to stay there will be the question.
Earl Clark: C-
Earl Clark was the Cavaliers' first big move of a free-agency period that ultimately led to Andrew Bynum and Jarrett Jack joining the team. The Louisville product has seen NBA action at both small and power forward, but Clark was signed by the Cavaliers primarily in hopes that he could fill their void at small forward and take pressure off of Alonzo Gee.
Clark subsequently earned the starting small forward spot in the preseason, though his hold on the job seems tenuous after a few uneven games. Clark is long and athletic and can disrupt perimeter players defensively.
His jump shooting is not advanced, but if he is able to make a decent percentage of three-pointers, he can help spread the floor for teammates Kyrie Irving, Jarrett Jack and Dion Waiters and allow them to attack the basket.
But Clark needs to buy into the role of solid defense and three-point shooting. In four games, he has attempted just two three-pointers and instead often looks to create for himself off the dribble. Clark's defense was a liability against the Charlotte Bobcats, as raw second-year player Michael Kidd-Gilchrist got off to a fast start in a game the Cavaliers ultimately lost.
If he buys into his role, Clark can help the Cavaliers win games. That doesn't appear to be happening just yet.
Dion Waiters: C+
Dion Waiters was a controversial fourth overall selection by general manager Chris Grant in the 2012 NBA draft, and his play during his rookie season was polarizing. While he made the All-Rookie First Team and improved his shot selection over the course of the season, his shooting numbers invited the reputation of an inefficient gunner without a conscience.
Waiters' defense, perhaps stunted by his time in the zone defense at alma mater Syracuse, was disastrous in his rookie season. His athleticism and length give him the tools to be an excellent defender, but whether he would buy in and put in the work was an open-ended question.
Four games in we can say that Waiters' defensive concentration, at least in the halfcourt, is leaps and bounds better than it was last season. Near the end of the season-opening game against the Brooklyn Nets, Joe Johnson posted up Waiters in isolation. Waiters stood his ground and forced an off-balance shot, and the Cavaliers win was all but secured.
At the same time, Waiters continues to lose focus and fails to play transition defense. Grantland's Zach Lowe isolated a play from that same game against the Nets where Waiters spots up in the corner for a Jarrett Jack drive.
Once it became clear that Jack was going to attempt a shot, Nets guard Joe Johnson leaked out into transition. Waiters stood in the corner watching the action, forgetting briefly that he was in fact a participant in the game. The first game of a player's second season is the time for such defensive lapses, but they need to get fixed sooner than later.
Waiters has also exhibited some of the same bad habits offensively. He falls in love with inefficient mid-range jumpers while he falls away from the basket, and when he does attack the rim, he avoids contact and fails to get to the free-throw line. There is still all kinds of promise, but he has to get better.
Jarrett Jack: B-
Jarrett Jack has been almost entirely what was advertised when the Cavaliers made the surprising move to sign him in the offseason. He has stabilized a bench that challenged the Portland Trailblazers for worst in the league last season, while also taking shots that you really wish he would pass up on.
Jack's defense is an overall negative, but the Cavs have been able to play effectively on that end with him on the floor. His role as a leader of this young team will be valuable; he is one of the few players on the team that has real playoff experience.
That being said, in both the loss to the Charlotte Bobcats and a win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, Jack took contested shots and used up possessions that would have probably been better with Kyrie Irving taking control of the situation. How the two of them coexist over the next couple years will have serious ramifications for how successful the Cavaliers can be.
Tristan Thompson: B+
Tristan Thompson continues to be an uneven player offensively, but his potential on the defensive end is really starting to pay off. In this young season he has already disrupted stars David West, Kevin Garnett and Kevin Love. He is quick enough to disrupt point guards trying to execute the pick-and-roll and has been the anchor of a defense that has been one of the league's best.
After switching shooting hands in the offseason, Thompson has seen an uptick in his true shooting percentage, which is in large part a result of an early mark of 77 percent from the charity stripe. Keep in mind, Thompson is just two years removed from shooting under 50 percent from the line at the University of Texas.
After playing and starting in every game for the Cavaliers last season, Thompson is now leading the team in minutes played per game. His defensive abilities make him a solid NBA starter. Whether he can continue to evolve offensively will determine just what type of ceiling Thompson has. If there is one at all.
C. J. Miles: A+
C.J. Miles is best cast as a spark off the bench who can score in bunches. In four games, he has done this and more.
He leads the Cavaliers in Player Efficiency Rating and is shooting 38 percent from three-point range with a healthy amount of attempts. He is taking a lot of shots, but they have come within the offensive system and he isn't forcing anything.
Miles is 26 years old, but for the Cavaliers he is a savvy veteran. His defense has been solid, and he is forcing Mike Brown to keep him in the rotation. It is unlikely he can keep up his play at this pace, but if he replicates the season he gave Cleveland last season when he was a quietly efficient option off the bench, Mike Brown will be happy.
Anderson Varejao: C+
Anderson Varejao is coming back from a life-threatening blood clot that caused him to miss most of the 2012-13 season. With this in mind, any type of production the Cavaliers can get from Varejao has to feel like a blessing. Still, Varejao has gotten off to a slow start.
A certain amount of rust is inevitable as Varejao becomes accustomed to the rough play of the NBA again and works himself into shape. For a player like Varejao who thrives off energy and hustle, it may take time for him to get back to the style that has made him a fan favorite in Cleveland.
For now, Varejao's rebounding numbers are down, and the timing of his passing has been off. For a team that often runs a basic Princeton offense that requires him to facilitate from the high post, the consequences have been severe and help explain the Cavs' early-season offensive woes.
Varejao, though, appears healthy. If he gets his timing back, and it is a good bet that he does, the upside of this team goes up a notch.
Anthony Bennett: D
Anthony Bennett was a surprise first selection in this summer's NBA draft. He hasn't done much to vindicate Chris Grant's decision to select him thus far. Four games in, he has yet to score a basket.
There are all kinds of caveats and excuses that go along with and can help explain Anthony Bennett's play. He was limited all summer after shoulder surgery and hasn't had time to get back into shape or get his body to where it needs to be to succeed in the NBA.
He has also played in only 50 minutes across four games, hardly enough time to get in a rhythm or really play through mistakes. His three-point shooting touch is missing, and he doesn't appear to have the lift or athleticism to get his shot off cleanly inside.
The hope in Cleveland was that asking Bennett to play a smaller role behind entrenched starter Tristan Thompson would allow him to develop at his own pace. Time will tell if this strategy is tenable.
Andrew Bynum: A
After missing a full year due to several knee issues, Andrew Bynum has surprised the NBA world and has been a major factor for the Cavaliers. Many wondered if his knees would ever allow him to step onto the court again, but Bynum has played—and played well—in three of the first four games of the year.
Bynum isn't as explosive as he once was, but he is in tremendous shape, can get up and down the court and remains an effective force protecting the rim. In fact, in an admittedly small sample size, Bynum is averaging 4.9 blocks per 36 minutes for a team that was starved for shot alteration last season.
He has shown some rust offensively but scored 10 points in 19 minutes against the Timberwolves Monday night. It is impossible to know how or if Bynum's knees will hold over the course of the season, but the early returns are quite good.
Kyrie Irving: D+
Expected by many to take a big third-year leap and cement his status as a superstar in the league, Kyrie Irving has instead found difficulty with his normally outstanding shooting and ball handling.
Irving made significant strides limiting turnovers in his second season but struggled against the Timberwolves in this regard, handing the ball over nine times.
Over his career there have been times where Irving has appeared to have had too much confidence in his impressive handles and attempts to do too much with the ball. This season, though, it appears more that Irving is over thinking things and hesitating. He needs to trust his natural ability.
While his shooting has been bad (42 percent true shooting, down from his career average of 55 percent), it is likely that this is merely a slump. Irving's assist rate is up, and he is unquestionably playing the best defense of his career. I wouldn't rule out that third-year jump just yet.