The Cleveland Cavaliers are 9/82nds through the season and signs thus far are at best “mixed” and at worst “why did this team pass on a lot of talented guys who fit a series of team needs for a dude who has more combined fouls and turnovers than points?” There is the undefeated home record, but also the 0-and-6 mark on the road. Mike Brown’s initiatives to shore up the defense have produced impressive results, as the currently average defense represents a massive turnaround, but the offense feels like it has all the sophistication of a symphony played on kazoos. There are good spots and bad spots, as there will be with any team in any year, but the frustration stings a bit more. Basically, things were supposed to make more sense by now.
When a team makes its initial moves toward competitiveness and starts signing veterans, expectations follow. This glare reflects most harshly onto the star. We’re seeing this happen in Houston, where the arrival of Dwight Howard has attracted a lot of attention, and that attention has revealed that James Harden doesn’t play defense. With Kyrie Irving, there’s an unsettledness to his game that’s disconcerting. His numbers are relatively stable, (assists are up, field goal percentage is down) but he floats in and out of games, and is receiving scrutiny for it. Before the Cavs played Chicago, there was a lot of hype about the first Irving vs. Rose matchup, but it was an anticlimactic clash, one out-of-sync virtuoso against another.
Kyrie’s is at his best when he’s direct, using his ability to slice through defenses with his handle, pulling the right strings, and scoring or finding the right pass. Right now, Irving is not attempting to dismantle defenses to the degree of which he is capable. This is partially because he’s playing with a relatively new-look team–one with a new coaching staff, too–and this combined with his unassailable talent level should assuage any fears that his career has peaked prematurely. Team success does flow from him most directly however, and he needs to assert himself more. Of course, it doesn’t exactly help when the offense he has the keys to can generously be described as “pick and roll-centric.” The logical takeaway is to wait and see. Only 1/9th of the season has elapsed, and Mike Brown will presumably add some plays at some point.
Who those plays will be run for is a bit cloudy. Kyrie is playing vaguely up to his level but the preseason hope of steady, across-the-board improvement has yet to be realized. The small forward hole has been as vacuous as many feared it could be, save for some spot minutes from a surprisingly effective C.J. Miles. Earl Clark has been plain bad. Problems at the 3 were expected coming into the year, but seeing it in practice is another thing entirely. But hey! The Cavs can at least use road games as a chance to give the ball to Sergey Karasev and/or Anthony Bennett, shrug and say “Good luck fellas! Here’s to hoping you’re above-average!” Andrew Bynum has yet to be fully weaponized in the post, but he has shown he is probably the Cavs’ second-most talented player. What’s worrying is his apparent apathy towards basketball. He oozes talent, but he seems half-awake and frankly depressed. His quotes thus far have indicated he is feeling the many knee surgeries he has endured in his career. A healthy, invested Bynum is a huge bargain, but it’s murky what is happening in dude’s headspace.
Perhaps the most important key to a successful season involves three of the team’s high-lottery picks not named Kyrie Irving showing, you know, improvement. It’s been 11 percent of the season, nothing really, but thus far, only Tristan Thompson has looked promising. Dion Waiters is on the upswing after a brutal start. Once again, a competent offensive scheme may help mask his deficiencies but the eye test shows that those deficiencies mainly center around his inability to know what to do when he has the basketball. Waiters was in a series of pick & rolls with Anderson Varejao in the game against Chicago, and every time, he went around the pick, cut back under Varejao and launched a fadeaway. I hesitate to go in on Anthony Bennett as much as his play perhaps warrants because there is a lot in the way. Rookie big men typically struggle early on with the adjustment, as do players coming back from injury. That being said, he has been horrendous and barely looks like an NBA player. Thompson himself hasn’t been perfect, but the new shooting stroke is solid. Still, out of three top four picks, you expect more than solid or mediocre. Patience is a virtue and all that, but these player’s developments are crucial to the success of the Cavs.
It would be utterly premature to declare the season a wash, set fire to the ships and google “tank gif” for a few months. There is real talent on this team, maybe not quite enough to push anyone in the Eastern Conference hegemony in a playoff series, but enough to justify working toward that end. Nine games into the season and the team has yet to hit its stride, but there are still positives. This is who the Cavs are: a mixed-bag of a team that could be average if pieces fall into the right place. The team will be clawing at stability and wins and a lot hangs in the balance. It’s a big season simply because it could swing either way. Welcome to the post-offseason-expectation Cleveland Cavaliers.