It seems old struggles have followed the Cleveland Cavaliers into the new year. Kyrie Irving's latest injury—a knee bruise suffered on New Year's Eve versus the Indiana Pacers—coupled with Andrew Bynum's "paid leave" means two of the top three from my previous power rankings have fallen from the starting lineup. This has left a free-for-fall vacancy for teammates such as Anderson Varejao, Tristan Thompson and yes, even Dion Waiters.
Elsewhere, Cleveland head coach Mike Brown has relented on giving oft-maligned rookie Anthony Bennett more playing time, while fellow freshman Matthew Dellavedova was promoted to the startling lineup in lieu of veteran Jarrett Jack's back spasms Sunday night versus the Pacers at home. Will their respective upticks be enough to boost either Cavalier from the cellar of this week's rankings?
As always, all players here are ranked according to their overall production, albeit weighted toward any significant recent progress. Eye-popping numbers are nice, but who leapfrogs who is based on more than just highlight reels or box scores—defense, hustle and praise from friend or foe alike all matter. With that in mind, let's begin.
*Unless otherwise noted, all stats provided by NBA.com and are current through Monday, Jan. 6.
15. Carrick Felix
Carrick Felix has registered just 23 total minutes this season, which means extrapolating to even 36 minutes would be a stretch. He has seven points, four rebounds and one assist to his name.
14. Henry Sims
Interestingly enough, Henry Sims could qualify for a triple-double, with totals of 10-18-10 in his 41 total minutes this season...his own point-rebound-personal fouls triple-double.
13. Sergey Karasev
Despite a weak small forward spot, Sergey Karasev has done little in the 124 minutes of playing time he's received in total this season, an amount just slightly more than half of what the next player has received.
12. Tyler Zeller
With the big-man rotation cut short, Tyler Zeller has been quietly receiving rotation minutes recently. Overall, he's still a garbage-time player, but he's grabbed an impressive 18 total rebounds in the two games this season in which he's played at least 20 minutes.
11. Alonzo Gee
Alonzo Gee's minutes have been dwindling, and the Cavs' Dec. 26 double-overtime thriller marked the first game Gee did not play in at all. He's still an okay defender in certain matchups, but has otherwise been a minus where team offense and defense are concerned.
Previous Rank: 11
Stats: 2.5 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 0.3 APG, 27.8 FG%, 60.0 FT%
Congratulations, Anthony Bennett. You've finally cracked the top 10.
It wasn't easy, and to be honest, I'm not sure if your recent boost in minutes should warrant the leap over Gee's collective body of work. But you've got potential. Admitting that you were still a little clueless was a good first step—self-awareness will set you free in this disastrous rotation!
Just keep moving your feet, grab the occasional rebound and try your best to keep yourself in peak conditioning and you too could be the next Earl Clark!
In all seriousness, Bennett deserves this ranking. The days of ripping on him as a forgettable No. 1 pick are over, but if recent trends are any indication, it does seem as if Coach Brown is encouraging Bennett's development, and he hasn't let the time go to waste. Time will tell whether Bennett does solidify himself as a rotation player.
Previous Rank: 9
Stats: 6.0 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 0.4 APG, 37.4 FG%, 64.7 FT%
Earl Clark narrowly earns the nod over Gee and Bennett as the team's best small forward, although that still isn't saying much.
He's regained his position as the starting 3, although that has generally led to either botching plays or jacking shots with little rhyme or reason.
He's still an above-average three-point shooter from above the break, connecting on 40.3 percent of his shots, and he's even managed to hit a respectable 46.15 percent from just outside the restricted area. For virtually any other zone, and virtually any other assignment for that matter, the ball and ensuing responsibility would be better left to any of the above eight players.
Previous Rank: 10
Stats: 4.7 PPG, 1.3 RPG, 1.5 APG, 45.3 FG%, 76.2 FT%
Take heed, young fella.
Any time one of the league's premier small forwards calls you out for the way you play, as the Indiana Pacers' Paul George did, according to Fox Sports Ohio's Sam Amico, you should just take it as a compliment.
"Doing too much" is a nice way to describe Matthew Dellavedova, who seems to only play the game at a singular mode of relentless intensity.
From "Who?" to "Woah!", Dellavedova has earned more than his fair share of fans as an absolute revelation from the end of the Cleveland bench. He is, for all intents and purposes, a miniature version of Anderson Varejao—someone whose play overshadows visible statistics, invades the minds of opposing players and inevitably leads to wins.
It also doesn't hurt that the Australian native leads the team in three-point shooting, effective field-goal percentage, true shooting percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio. But for the purposes of these rankings, he could just as well have been mediocre in all four categories; that's just how valuable his style of play is to the team.
Previous Rank: 3
Stats: 8.4 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 1.1 APG, 41.9 FG%, 76.2 FT%
Who could have guessed that Andrew Bynum's biggest contribution to the Cavaliers would be serving as salary-cap savings for another team before the trade deadline?
With the big man's looming Jan. 7 deadline to either waive or guarantee his contract, the Cavs effectively parlayed Bynum along with three future draft picks into Chicago Bulls small forward Luol Deng, per ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst.
Make no mistake, Cleveland will miss its lone lumbering center about as much as the Philadelphia 76ers did. Since Bynum's suspension-turned-paid-leave, the Cavaliers have played much better, especially on defense. Their efficiency rating on that end improved to 96.8, compared to 104.1 prior to the suspension, according to Fear the Sword's Conrad Kaczmarek.
In the end, the team never had the players nor the personnel to figure how best to calibrate around a space-devouring 7-footer. While Bynum had value as a rim protector—and believe me, he was better than you think—that singular pro just wasn't enough to justify all the cons, both as an individual and as a teammate.
I think I speak for all when I say I can't wait to see Deng suit up in wine and gold.
Previous Rank: 7
Stats: 9.9 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 4.0 APG, 40.7 FG%, 85.7 FT%
For all the in-roster redundancy that exists in playing both Jarrett Jack and Dion Waiters off the bench, Jack has mostly recently earned his keep as backup starting point guard. Prior to Sunday's back spasms, Jack tossed up 14 assists and only two turnovers in two games as a starter.
Of course, for four years and $25 million, the Cavs were hoping for quite a bit more, as explored at length by Bleacher Report's Greg Swartz.
To be fair, the arsenal of players Jack has to work with in Cleveland is a far cry from the dynamic pace-and-space machine he ran with the Golden State Warriors. But rather than attempt to elevate his teammates with his usual characteristic swagger—a duty that has, for better or worse, fallen to Waiters—it seems that Jack has settled just a bit, his future already secured.
Just as well, Jack remains at No. 6 as a beneficiary of Bynum's fall from grace and the disparity between the top five or six players on the Cavs roster and everyone else. To rank him lower would be a disrespect to his consistency and the playing time he's earned, however fruitful that time has been.
Previous Rank: 5
Stats: 9.3 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 1.0 APG, 41.1 FG%, 81.0 FT%
C.J. Miles is one of several players to have stepped up of late, though it's still hard to understate the way he quietly paced the Cavs offense through three quarters Sunday night versus the Pacers. He finished with 21 points on 8-of-13 shooting, one point short of his season high and his third consecutive double-digit scoring game.
On the other end, Miles is still a underrated defensive player with a deft shooting touch, his on/off court details a testament to the subtle two-way impact he's made on the team. For the season, he swings games by a total of 10.4 points per 100 possessions. Only the Cavalier at No. 1 matches those marks.
The only thing holding Miles back—aside from an unimpressive, regressive December—is a dearth of minutes with which to work his magic. While his early calf injury certainly sapped him of valuable playing time, he's still 282 minutes behind Dion Waiters, despite the latter having played just one fewer game due to alleged illness.
It's a trivial factor that's unlikely to matter if Miles can continue producing in his newfound 2014 form, but 34 games in, it's hard to compare against teammates with at least 50 percent more playing time.
Previous Rank: 4
Stats: 11.9 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 0.9 APG, 44.9 FG%, 67.6 FT%
The good news: Tristan Thompson is quickly becoming Cleveland's most consistently reliable player.
The bad news: By that same merit, he's shown virtually no improvement, posting identical point and rebound numbers per 36 minutes as in his first two seasons.
Rest assured, Thompson earns major points for leading the team in starts and total minutes. He's young, durable and attacks offensive boards with appropriate gusto. But he ultimately retains his initial ranking precisely because the improvement he has taken on just isn't what the Cavs need. Having serviceable adequacy from mid-range has its value, but in Thompson's case, he's suffered noticeably in both shot selection and shot performance at the rim.
To wit: Only 41.98 percent of his shots this season are coming within the restricted area, where he's finishing at a below-average rate of 47.22 percent. By comparison, last season he took 49.56 percent of his shots down low and finished at a respectable 58.84 percent.
Consequently, Thompson is also barely providing any rim protection. His 0.4 BPG is less than half of what he's provided in either of his previous seasons, and with Bynum's departure, the Cavs will require Thompson to rededicate himself next to the basket.
Previous Rank: 6
Stats: 15.2 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 2.5 APG, 41.9 FG%, 70.1 FT%
It might have taken a while, but Dion Waiters finally won me over.
It's not just the fact that, entering Sunday's game versus Indiana, Waiters led all Eastern Conference reserves in scoring, per The Plain Dealer's Mary Schmitt Boyer. Nor is it just the fact that, during that pivotal fourth quarter, Waiters exploded for 12 of his 14 points and nearly tied the game on an ill-advised drive that dug straight to the heart of the Pacers' defensive anchor.
Nope. What ultimately won me over was his postgame interview.
All kidding aside, Waiters is inarguably the team's second-best offensive player. His defense, while still a work in progress, has shown flashes of promise. Above all else, though, he's settled into his niche within the team and has excelled ever since.
There's a truth to the notion that on another team, Waiters could be starting again and flourishing to a greater degree. For now, however, general manager Chris Grant has remained adamant in his refusal to move Waiters, despite burgeoning interest around the league. If that doesn't justify Waiters' promotion here, I don't know what does.
Previous Rank: 1
Stats: 22.2 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 6.1 APG, 42.8 FG%, 84.1 FT%
If these rankings included tendency toward injury as a major detriment, there's a chance that both players at No. 1 and No. 2 on this list could have fallen out of the top three.
Fortunately for Kyrie Irving, these rankings don't. Therefore, I can't justify dropping Irving lower than here. His play throughout December showcased the level of improvement that fans hoped would continue throughout the season—24.1 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 6.2 APG, 46.1% FG, 40.8% 3PT, 89.7% FT.
So why bump Irving down a peg?
Despite the All-Star credentials, it's hard to argue that the 21-year-old has been a game-changer. While his presence provides the Cavs with an identity, what that identity is remains an inconsistent mystery—they opened December on a tear, winning four of five games before promptly dropping eight of the next nine.
In three Irving-less games this year, Cleveland has held its own thanks to an increase in aggregate effort, and the team has actually been slightly better with Irving on the bench, according to on/off court details. The same can't be said regarding the player at No. 1.
Previous Rank: 2
Stats: 8.1 PPG, 9.6 RPG, 2.0 APG, 47.5 FG%, 72.1 FT%
The jury's still out on whether Anderson Varejao can remain healthy for the rest of the season. If he does, it'll be the first time since the 2009-10 season. His 34 appearances thus far are already more than he's accumulated in each of the past three seasons—a fact that is as harrowing as it is encouraging.
But these rankings are about what has happened, not what will happen. And what the evidence suggests, as it has all season, is that no Cavalier impacts the game to the extent and with the consistency that Varejao has.
I've gushed about it before, but it merits repeating: Cleveland's Wild Thing is inordinately important to the team's offense. As it stands, the Cavs score 8.5 more points per 100 possessions when Varejao is on the floor. Factor in his defense, and Andy alone is worth nearly 11 points per 100 possessions—an impact only matched by fellow unsung hero C.J. Miles, who's played 410 fewer minutes.
He may never carry the team on his back the same way a Kyrie Irving or Dion Waiters can, but rest assured, you can win—and win big—with someone like Varejao in your top five.