What Is Cleveland Cavs' Quickest Path to Success Without LeBron James?

Alec Nathan@@AlecBNathanFeatured ColumnistJuly 8, 2014

Apr 5, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving (2) celebrates a three-point basket in the first quarter against the Charlotte Bobcats at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

As the state of Ohio holds its collective breath and pines for a return from its prodigal son, the Cleveland Cavaliers have some plotting to do. 

You know, just in case LeBron James doesn't make a decision that rocks the NBA landscape for the second time in four years. 

Here's where things stand at the moment regarding James' free agency. 

According to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, James' agent, Rich Paul, has revived the plan to bring LeBron back to the place where it all began: 

For years, Paul has confided to people that bringing back James to Cleveland has been something of a mission for him, and he's encouraging Cavaliers officials to offer no restraint in the recruitment of James, sources said.

ESPN's Marc Stein and Brian Windhorst have more: 

But James' agent, Rich Paul, has already sat down with Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert in what is regarded as the first formal step toward trying to shrink the gulf between James and Gilbert after the ocean of hard feelings stemming from James' departure from Cleveland in 2010 to sign with the Heat.

Sources say that the Cavs' pitch made to Paul last week -- which they also hope to make this week to James in their own face-to-face meeting -- revolves around Kyrie Irving and the other young prospects they have, in addition to the numerous options Cleveland possesses to add to the roster over the next year.

Those reports unanimously indicate one thing: The Cavaliers are in the mix to acquire James' talent just a few years after he boldly proclaimed he was packing up and taking it to South Beach.

However, we're still very much in the dark regarding James' actual line of thinking, as Stein and Windhorst noted by reporting, "There has yet to be a firm indication that James actually is ready to leave Miami after four years and two championships with the Heat..."

So before we jump the gun regarding James' tantalizing future prospects, it's time to examine how the Cavaliers can best accelerate their path to glory and land outside of the draft lottery sans the four-time MVP. 


Embrace David Blatt's System

Jun 27, 2014; Independence, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers head coach David Blatt speaks to the media at Cleveland Clinic Courts. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The Cavaliers' offense was more anemic than efficient last season. 

Under Mike Brown, Cleveland ranked among the league's least efficient offenses (104.2 points per 100 possessions, No. 22 overall) and failed to share the ball at even an average clip (20th overall in total assists). 

And then there's this: According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), the Cavs ranked among the league's 10 least efficient teams in seven of 11 specific play types, including, but not limited to, isolations, roll man scoring in the pick-and-roll, off screens and cuts.

But now that head coach David Blatt is in charge, expect a more fluid system to reign supreme. 

Bleacher Report's Stephen Babb has the details on Blatt's preferred offensive stylings: 

The Princeton offense is essentially the polar opposite of isolation-heavy, one-on-one ball. It's all about sharing and sacrifice, generating movement from a variety of positions—including big men. That's one of the reasons the Kings were such a good fit for the system. Chris Webber and Vlade Divac were great passers as far as big men go. That helps fuel Princeton motion, obviating the need for a point guard to handle all the playmaking.

To the extent this kind of offense is gaining traction in a league that's realizing the limits of hero-ball, it's no surprise that Blatt has been in high demand.

And after Kyrie Irving was saddled with the primary scoring and distributive burdens under Brown, Blatt's system, which is devoid of an individual focal point, should give the club's prized point guard more breathing room, as Babb mentions: 

Priority one will obviously be installing some version of the Princeton. That could do wonders for Kyrie Irving, freeing him to find his offense in the flow of the game rather than being forced to initiate so much of the offense on his own.

Imagine Irving playing a role more akin to Tony Parker, and you get some sense of what could be in store.

Precise and consistent ball movement has eluded the Cavs since they emerged as Central Division champions in 2009-10, the last time the franchise ranked better than 20th overall in terms of total assists. 

With Blatt and his reformed scheme set to bring an even-keeled approach to the offense, expect an uptick in wins to be facilitated by principles that demand a selfless approach. 


Find Ways to Properly Utilize Anthony Bennett

Jan 28, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers small forward Anthony Bennett reacts in the fourth quarter against the New Orleans Pelicans at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

An unfortunate refrain regarding failed lottery picks stalked Anthony Bennett during his inaugural season in Cleveland: Bust. 

That said, the chorus of digital boos that tracked the No. 1 overall pick's putrid rookie campaign was justified. 

After all, he finished with a player efficiency rating below seven and shot worse than 30 percent from the field in every zone beyond three feet, according to Basketball-Reference.com

Anthony Bennett's rookie shot chart
Anthony Bennett's rookie shot chartNBA.com/Stats

But those who tracked Bennett's progress (or lack thereof) all season long are well aware that the former Runnin' Rebel showed signs of life down the stretch. 

Over the course of 13 games in February, Bennett averaged season highs of 7.2 points and 4.8 rebounds in 17.4 minutes a night, a period during which his field-goal percentage topped out at 44.2 percent (his highest one-month mark, minimum five games played) 

Learning Curve: Anthony Bennett vs. Recent No. 1 Picks
Anthony Bennett (2013-14)
Anthony Davis (2012-13)
Kyrie Irving (2011-12)
John Wall (2010-11)

And as former head coach Mike Brown said shortly before season's end, according to The Plain Dealer's Mary Schmitt Boyer, Bennett has the tools to improve in short order: 

"He showed flashes in practice. He showed flashes in the game. We were able to feel his talent. So I look forward to him having a good summer and continuing to rise in the right direction.'' 

If he is, in fact, going to improve in year two, Bennett will need to become a capable off-ball mover under Blatt. 

In a system that's predicated on constant movement, court awareness and precision, the Cavs could seek to maximize Bennett's effectiveness off the ball in a number of situations. 

Feb 21, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Cleveland Cavaliers forward Anthony Bennett (15) dunks the ball against the Toronto Raptors at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Specifically, Bennett could be used to help the offense flow by moving effectively without the rock in his hands. 

According to Synergy Sports, Bennett scored 0.94 points per possession off of cuts last season, his second most productive play type after offensive rebounds (0.97 points per possession). 

And although his jump shot is still very much a work in progress and he appeared to plod around in the half court at times, Bennett showed he's capable of functioning as an effective off-ball weapon when cutting on the baseline or off of a variety of pick-and-roll actions. 

So while discouragement may be the emotional flavor of the week when discussing Bennett's future prospects, the 21-year-old's journey is likely just beginning. 


Install Andrew Wiggins as a Type-A Defender

INDEPENDENCE, OH - JUNE 27:  First overall draft pick Andrew Wiggins #21 of the Cleveland Cavaliers poses for portraits at The Cleveland Clinic Courts on June 27, 2014 in Independence, Ohio in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

Aside from preaching a new offensive philosophy, Blatt must also find a way to remedy Cleveland's most glaring defensive woes. 

Brown has always been lauded as a coach who preached defense first, but even he couldn't turn the Cavaliers into a seemingly average unit. 

Last season, the Cavs ranked 19th in defensive rating, surrendering 107.7 points per 100 possessions. Additionally, Blatt's newly inherited club saw opponents attempt 2,083 threes last season, the worst mark in the league.

Tale of the Tape: Cleveland's Defensive Struggles Sans LeBron
YearDefensive Rating (Rank)
2010-11111.8 (No. 29)
2011-12108.9 (No. 26)
2012-13109.4 (No. 27)
2013-14107.7 (No. 19)

Factor in the oppositions' 36.7 percent conversion rate (No. 22 overall) from beyond the arc, and the Cavs were clearly in need of defensive stalwarts on the perimeter. 

Fortunately for the Cavs, a potential savior arrived with yet another selection atop the NBA draft in the form of Kansas' Andrew Wiggins 

Formerly lacking a capable lockdown defender on the wing, the Cavs are now strapped with an elite athlete whose lateral quickness gave collegiate ball-handlers fits.

And guess what? According to Bleacher Report's Dylan Murphy, Wiggins shares many of the same defensive qualities that a certain former Cavalier has boasted en route to two NBA titles:

He's a lot like LeBron James in this way: Though a lofty comparison, Wiggins has already shown a LeBron-like aptitude for utilizing the right talents at the right moments. Bodying up quicker players to bother their space while using lateral quickness and length to discourage shots in the restricted area is what James typically does to Tony Parker, and Wiggins has shown his willingness to adapt similar techniques.

It's this competence in varied one-on-one defensive battles that will ultimately carry him forward into the upper echelon of NBA defenders.

Sure, his offensive development will take time. But considering Blatt's system is ostensibly aiming to reduce the burden on any one scorer, Wiggins' primary focus should be on leading a defensive renaissance. 

A game-changing presence whose physical gifts alone will help take some of the pressure off of Irving and Dion Waiters on the wing, expect Wiggins to improve Cleveland's defensive competency on the perimeter immediately. 


Putting the Pieces Together

Should the free-agent frenzy come to a close with LeBron residing elsewhere, the Cavs will still have plenty going for them. 

Irving, Wiggins, Waiters and Tristan Thompson comprise one of the league's more versatile young cores, and management appears to be in the market for additional solutions at the 3 should they swing and miss on James. 

According to Wojnarowski, there are several other swingmen who intrigue general manager David Griffin: 

Cleveland will work to sign James, but, failing that, they'll try to divide the cap space among second-tier free agents – including candidates Channing Frye and Trevor Ariza – whom they believe can help get them to the playoffs, sources said.

With the foundation necessary to compete for a playoff spot in the talent-parched Eastern Conference, veterans presumably on the way in one form or another and a head coach renowned for offensive innovation ready to push his team to its tactical limits, the Cavaliers finally look poised to move up a few rungs on the NBA ladder. 

Even if it's without James. 


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