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Enemy: Cleveland Cavaliers
3SOB Forecast*: 36-46

Credit: Jeff Gross / Getty Images

What’s up in Cleveland?

If the historically reliable TrueHoop forecast holds a decent degree of accuracy as an indication of what is in store this year, the Cleveland Cavaliers will be the top turnaround team of the 2013-14 season. For a team that landed the number one draft slot with its own pick, it would not take much of a bump to sway the balance in the right direction, but the title “top turnaround,” implies a bit more optimism than a slight nudge forward.

After winning the draft lottery for the second time in three years, owner Dan Gilbert stated that this trip to the lottery should be the “last one for a while.”

So the logical next step is to ask why such strong optimism prevails — the answer to which is largely rooted in the projection of a big step ahead for point guard Kyrie Irving. In the NBA, you generally begin to get a good gauge of the type of trajectory (barring injuries) that a player’s career will follow, when he reaches his third season. For those that have brushed off the dreaded and fabled “sophomore slump,” good vibes begin to reign supreme at this time. Irving has placed himself firmly within this category. His sophomore year was a coming out party of sorts, culminated by no moment greater than his absolute robbery of the All-Star weekend stage, where he dazzled in the Rising Stars Challenge (abusing poor Brandon Knight), took home the 3 point shootout honors, and held his own against the big boys in the main event.

The next major source of optimism is one of the cautious sort, regarding the off-season acquisition of free agent big man, Andrew Bynum. Bynum, as has been well documented, possesses the knees of a guy that is as old as Kyrie’s alter-ego, Uncle Drew, which have plagued him for years. As so unfortunately often is the case with talented big men, the qualifier of “if and only if he stays healthy” overshadows the potential benefit that he offers as an asset to this Cavaliers team. Now he is about to be reunited with the coach that has had the best luck of any, when it comes to the seven-footer’s ability to remain on the court for him.

For all of their differences, newly returning head coach Mike Brown was able to tap into the well that is Andrew Bynum’s potential and extract the most out in a single season than had ever been done before. Bynum was able to stay on court for the greatest percentage of games since his second year in the league, started for the all-star team and posted career highs on a per-game basis in points and rebounds by a landslide. By the end of the season, the discussion for best center in the league was trending more and more towards a toss up between he and his short-visited Los Angeles successor, Dwight Howard.

Brown’s returns to Cleveland already etched in the books as the winningest coach in franchise history, but there has always been an air of unfinished business about him, as the team was never able to fully seal the deal in the LeBron era. While the expectations are certainly far from as lofty as those that he faced in his previous stint with the organization, there is a definite pressure to get the ship righted, and fast.

Who are they cooking with?

PG: Kyrie Irving
SG: Dion Waiters
SF: Anthony Bennett
PF: Tristan Thompson
C : Andrew Bynum
6 : Jarrett Jack

After knee troubles forced Bynum to spend the entirety of the 2012-13 season somewhere between the sidelines and the hair salon, he should be ready to rock and roll in Cleveland. Bynum is a well-polished post player with a sound array of post moves and the ability to alter shots while keeping away from foul trouble on the defensive end.

In a similar story to Bynum, Anderson Varejao was off to a monumental start last year, averaging north of 14 and 14 in terms of points and rebounds per game, before his season was derailed by a blood clot. Varejao has eclipsed the 70 games played mark only three times in his nine year NBA career.

If between the two of them, they can keep the center position on lock and absorb the beatings down low, it would go a long way towards freeing up the wiry Tristan Thompson to migrate in and out of the paint, where he does the most of his damage. Though he lacks the true size of a big man, 78.8% of his shot attempts came in the restricted area last season, so having a true center beside him to keep bigger defenders at bay could be a dangerously valuable development. Also as an interesting note, keep an eye on his jump shooting, which he will be switching from left-handed to righty.

The frontline will be complemented by surprise first overall pick Anthony Bennett, whose physical profile projects as a stockier Thompson, and can potentially make waves as a truly unique tweener forward. With Bennett also nursing an injury (shoulder), it is possible that free agent pickup Earl Clark mans the starting role for the time being. Clark had a breakout season in Los Angeles last year, earning the right to double his career high in minutes per game for Mike D’Antoni’s Lakers. Clark rejuvenated his game with the addition of a 3 point shot, and as a result could serve as a combo/stretch forward in his own right for the Cavs.

I’m the blogging equivalent of out of breath at this point, prior to even diving into analysis of the revamped guard rotation, which simply put infuses sixth man of the year candidate, reserve ball-handler Jarrett Jack into an internally improving perimeter rotation composed of skilled second-year shot jacker Dion Waiters, and of course, the uber-talented Irving.

Needless to say, this team is deep, talented, and ready to cause some serious vibrations in the Eastern Conference if blessed with good health. At the bare minimum, a healthy incarnation of the roster will be boatloads of fun for NBA League Pass subscribers.

How do the good guys stack up?

Credit: Joe Murphy / Getty Images

Lee Eric Smith:

The Cavs are another one of those “on paper” teams that looks pretty good — when healthy. When healthy, Kyrie Irving may be the best rookie-ish PG in the league. When healthy, Andrew Bynum is in the conversation for best Center in the league. Of course, “when healthy,” Rudy Gay would have helped the Grizz beat OKC in 2011. “When healthy,” Zach Randolph would have helped beat the Clippers in 2012. So, “when healthy” matters, and I expect we’ll see Irving and/or Bynum in street clothes for at least one matchup with Memphis (maybe both) due to injury.

But in the grand scheme it won’t matter — it’s one thing to be talented on paper; another thing to have on-court chemistry. And quite another thing to go up against a tough, veteran, defensive-minded, WCF-tested team like the Grizzlies. The Cavs may give the Grizz a scare in one of these two matchups, but I expect veteran savvy and lockdown defense to carry the day for the Blue Bears. Grizz sweep the season series 2-0.

Robert Attenweiler (of Cavs: The Blog):

What a (possible) difference an off-season makes. Think about your Cavs/Grizz match-ups from last season. In November, the Cavaliers visited Memphis fielding a starting line-up of Jeremy Pargo, Dion Waiters, Alonzo Gee, a pre-breakout Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao. Not surprisingly, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph led the way with 19 points each in a Grizzlies win.

By the time the teams met in March, Varejao was out, but the Cavs had Kyrie Irving back, both Thompson and Waiters playing better and a competent bench (almost all thanks to a trade with the Grizzlies). The Hollins honed Grizzlies defense beat up on the Cavs young starters (and their Scott-sickened defense) and, even without Zach Randolph, won by 11. In all, the biggest gaps between the two teams last year – defensive effectiveness, size and experience in the post and overall talent level (cough…cough) – are all things the Cavs organization would like you to believe they have closed, significantly, if not all the way, this off-season.

Every Cavs forecast has to come with the caveat that “this is our prediction if Irving, Bynum and Varejao can stay healthy” (a caveat that must be included or else every preview would run the risk of being too darn bleak), but if they are healthy the Cavs/Grizz are suddenly a very fun match-up. Once and future coach, Mike Brown, will make sure that the Grizzlies are not the only team on the floor playing defense and the Cavs can now combat Randolph/Gasol/Davis/Koufos with a group of talented, versatile bigs of their own: Thompson, Varejao, number one pick, Anthony Bennett, Andrew Bynum, and Tyler Zeller.

In the frontcourt, I’ll be keeping my eye on the offense Bennett should be able to generate against most of his second-unit opponents. In the backcourt, it’s probably safe to say that Tony Allen is already in Dion Waiters’s head and, while Kyrie Irving is one of the rising stars of the NBA, Mike Conley’s own strides this past season combined with Irving’s struggles on the defensive end should make Conley effective enough to render that match-up a push.

Where does that leave us? Oh, yeah, with the advantage coming from whichever combination of reserves plays the best: do Jarrett Jack or C.J. Miles go off or is it Mike Miller and Quincy Pondexter filling it up from deep. Wait, I thought I said this was supposed to be a fun match-up. Geez…

Brian Duff (of BUCKETS Magazine):

Although routinely shorthanded and undeniably terrible, Cleveland played Memphis tight in their five post-LeBron matchups, and the Cavs spent the offseason dramatically improving their overall talent level. Workmanlike former Grizzlies Mo Speights and Wayne Ellington have been replaced by splashy free agent signees Earl Clark and Jarrett Jack, and number one draft pick Anthony Bennett rounds out a quartet of recent top four Lottery choices that includes 20-10 threat Tristan Thompson, intriguing combo guard Dion Waiters and transcendently talented point guard Kyrie Irving. Cleveland also rolled the dice on a low risk / high reward deal for one time All-Star Andrew Bynum, who projects as either a distraction with bad knees or a seven foot force.

Ominously, the Cavs’ three best players – Irving, Bynum and Anderson Varejão – are all injury prone, and the team will not be successful without a near complete season from its third year superstar. Assuming that, and one full season’s worth from the Bynum / Varejão center combo, however, Cleveland will have a legitimate 10 man rotation capable of both mitigating Memphis’ frontline advantage and lining the perimeter with dual shooting and driving threats. The Cavs were very bad at both team and individual defense last season, but new/old coach Mike Brown should help on that end of the floor, especially against middling offenses like Memphis’. Indeed, while the Cavs’ ceiling probably tops out 10 wins shy of the Grizzlies’, Cleveland stacks up surprisingly well overall. Both of their matchups this year are trap games for Memphis, and a season split is not out of reach for the Cavs’ striving youngsters.

When and Where do they square off?

February 9th: 5:00PM at the Quicken Loans Arena
March 1st: 8:00PM at the FedEx Forum

For more Cavaliers content, check out our TrueHoop comrades at Cavs: The Blog.

*3SOB forecast projections are derived from an average of the contributing staff’s predicted win totals.

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