Upside, upside, upside. Regardless of their postseason destiny, the Cleveland Cavaliers will be looking toward the offseason with an eye for upside.
With more and more teams hoarding cap space and the flexibility that being under the tax threshold offers, the free-agent market just isn't the panacea that it once was—unless, of course, you're situated in New York, Miami or Los Angeles. For everyone else, developing your own star-quality players has to take precedence.
As it stands, the Cavs possess just seven guaranteed contracts for next season. Six of those contracts are rookie deals, and of those, four belong to lottery picks. That is to say, there's plenty of upside to be found.
Here are three candidates—some more accomplished than others—who, given their age and style of play, have a shot as being heralded as the next vital piece for the team in Wine and Gold.
With back-to-back All-Star Game appearances and the MVP secured this season, it's easy to forget that Irving is still just the third-youngest player on his team, just barely old enough to enjoy Bourbon Street during All-Star weekend.
In other words: This kid could be so much better, which is why ESPN pundits hastily christened Irving the league's eighth-best player during the preseason.
Unfortunately for Irving, he's saddled with a 24-37 Cavaliers squad that hasn't been able to produce a reliable secondary scoring option, and his growth has been subsequently stunted at times due to swarming defenses.
And sure, he hasn't responded in the best manner at times as a leader, but Irving nonetheless stands at the first precipice of his young career. No one will directly criticize him while he's putting up 21.5 points, 6.3 assists and a 20.45 player efficiency rating.
But what separates NBA All-Stars from NBA superstars is the ability to read opponents and adapt on the fly. And that's something we haven't quite seen from Irving, or at least not yet. For all the flashy handles and clutch shot-making in his first two seasons, he has yet to match the bar as it's been raised for him this season.
Just as well: If Irving had peaked this early, it would have been unprecedented. But he's making progress, including his first career triple-double in the team's Feb. 28 home victory over the Utah Jazz.
For all the flak Waiters receives, if he were ever released, his agent Rob Pelinka would be fielding a bevy of phone calls from teams willing to take a flyer on one of the league's biggest enigmas.
Waiters may never completely shed the shady reputation he's earned in Cleveland, which isn't even entirely his fault. When your team suffers through an anemic offense for most of the season, it affects everyone, but Waiters' case remains the most prominent because of everything else on his ledger.
That still doesn't change the fact that on a good night, he displays more explosiveness than anyone else on the team.
Complete fearlessness on one end of the floor is a rare calling card in the NBA. Waiters remains the team's third-leading per-minute scorer, behind Irving and anomaly C.J. Miles, but his size and athleticism are a notch above either. It's not every day that you have a player willing to drive into and dunk over a 7-footer.
On the right team, with the right culture, there's no reason Waiters couldn't emulate the role that Lance Stephenson has with the Indiana Pacers, including the clamor for All-Star-level recognition. Whether or not Waiters realizes that skill is another question, but there's no doubting that he has the tools to be a ferocious player.
Despite the unimpressive season, and despite the overall quality of this year's rookie class, to completely close the book on Bennett's potential would still be premature.
Sure, to date, he's only had one "good" game—his 19-point, 10-rebound performance against the Sacramento Kings at home on Feb. 11—but that game showcased the type of multi-faceted game that was worthy of a top-five selection: rebounding and finishing in traffic, sound shooting stroke, dependable face-up game, etc.
Whether or not the team comes to regret blowing a No. 1 overall selection will depend on what Bennett can show with a season's worth of lessons. His Feb. averages of 7.2 points and 4.8 rebounds were a start. How Bennett finishes the season will go a long way toward establishing his confidence within and from the organization.
However, there's no denying that the young Canadian can play on some level. The only question, really, is how soon he's able to work himself into the prime shape required by the NBA, and whether or not that will be enough to impact the team rotation in preparation for an extended in-season run.
Measuring upside is an inexact science.
It's possible Irving never quite puts everything together and elevates the team to a level exceeding the sum of its parts. It's possible Waiters continues mercilessly missing shots while hemorrhaging points to his defender. It's possible the media attention that Bennett has received has cause some extent of damage that will take more than just time to heal.
If I had to make a safe bet on who has the most upside, then Irving would be the clear-cut choice, despite everything he's already accomplished. But if Waiters or Bennett is able to put everything together? I would bank on their size, athleticism and skill sets, were they ever refined, to carry them to being just as impactful, if not more so.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats provided by NBA.com and are current through Monday, Mar. 3.
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