Given last year's performance, one might consider the playoffs an unlikely destination for the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2012. Really, I could have let the realist in me end the column after that sentence, but today I deliver words of optimism.
Indeed, the glass will remain half full over the course of this piece for the sake of Cleveland fans who want to see their team win now. The Cavs selected two of this year's top four selections in the NBA draft, so why wouldn't a playoff run seem likely?
Unfortunately, there are several overwhelming reasons. For one, if the lockout proceeds without resolution, we may not even have basketball this year. Assuming that it concludes, however, another potential issue is the lack of star power in this year's draft. Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson, while both are talented and fill areas of concern for the Cavs, may not put up big numbers in their first season.
Baron Davis and Antawn Jamison may see the latter stage of their careers take a significant hit in production, and the league-leading Chicago Bulls look stronger than ever entering a new season. Cleveland certainly has the odds stacked against it in the early going, but the Cavs shouldn't be counted out of having a formidable season just yet.
Here are some decisions that would help the Cavs surprise their critics and lead them back to success.
The Cavaliers would need to go on a complete youth movement. Key word in that sentence: complete. When struggling organizations begin a rebuilding process, often times a mistake is made by wasting resources on signing "reliable," or "gritty" veterans—terms used to mask obvious flaws in these aging players' game.
I've never understood why general managers insist on continuing this trend. In the best-case scenario, the veteran will play above expectations and help a 25-win team turn into a 30-win team. Point being, if every player on the roster is young and has a raw skill set, adding one or two veteran presences is the equivalent of putting a band-aid on a broken leg.
The Cavs are better off going onward with their young talent, and letting veterans such as Tony Battie, Francisco Elson, or Kurt Thomas sign elsewhere. Wasting time and money on veteran acquisitions is how middling franchises remain hovering around .500 year after year. And, say, while we're talking about rebuilding...
The Cavaliers need to do all that they can to find new homes for Baron Davis and Antawn Jamison. Last year had potential to be a truly exciting season for the Cavs, had it not been for the obscene amount of playing time given to players who have no place in Cleveland's future.
Anthony Parker's average of 29 minutes played per game while shooting just 39 percent from the field is inexcusable, and can't be repeated if the Cavs look to be a contender in 2012. Opposing front offices know what to expect from Jamison and Davis: Jamison won't contribute much in the way of defense, but he can put up big offensive numbers from the front court, and Davis uses his above-average court vision to put up buckets and set up shots for his teammates.
Despite their lofty contracts (Jamison and Davis each made over $13 million last season), both would be considered assets for big market teams. If any of these players would net a return of of a future first-round draft pick or a young defender to help Anderson Varejao discourage opposing teams' low-post games, would there be any reason not to put Davis or Jamison on the trading block?
As is the case with many young teams, the Cavs have a surplus of enigmatic players on the roster. Guys like Alonzo Gee, Christian Eyenga, and Manny Harris are young and talented, but lack the experience that allows fans to expect NBA level production from them. With established teammates such as Daniel Gibson and Ramon Sessions helping the offensive load, the Cavs can afford to give significant minutes to these young players (Luke Harangody and Samardo Samuels also fit this categorization) to find out if any of them can be instrumental to the team's future success.
Additionally, if the Cavs are active in free agency, these types of young players should be the only ones targeted. Spencer Hawes or Kyrylo Fesenko could immediately provide help to the team's lack of depth at center, while Chris Douglas-Roberts and Luc Mbah a Moute (each just 24 years old) would provide solid numbers on both ends of the court to take some pressure off Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson.
It's obviously difficult to expect a playoff run from a team that won 19 games last year. The Cavs made watching their games an arduous task at times last season, but the pieces are here for a solid 2012 campaign.
Acquiring Omri Casspi and a first-round pick helped both the present and future. Cleveland will continue to stack early draft picks, and Casspi paired along with Ramon Sessions or Manny Harris will be a very difficult tandem to defend. As long as the league's lockout comes to an end, 2012 could prove to be a very memorable year for Cleveland fans.
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