Cleveland players, coaches and the fans can take a lot away from the early season stretch.
When the Cavs departed for their six-game trip out west, it was clear this trek would prove to be a pilgrimage in search of an identity. This young Cleveland team is extremely impressionable, and the results of the vision quest would go a long way in determining what the future holds, if not for this season, than for years down the road.
After starting the year with an emotion-filled but sloppy win over Washington on opening night, the Cavs came out flat against the Bulls and never really got going. 1-1 was a fitting record before the Cavaliers packed their bags. There's the sense among Cleveland faithful the team is at a crossroads, even moreso than the small contingent that was clamoring for the eighth seed a year ago.
Many want to see this team succeed and grow together, with players like Boobie Gibson and Anderson Varejao acting as de facto mentors, as the last remaining ties to the LeBron era. Playoff experience is extremely valuable to a young team's psyche, especially to ultra-competitive players like Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters who are at a malleable stage in their development.
Others want one more push into the NBA Draft River Styx, to come back out with as few flaws as possible. Even with the pieces and parts that have been assembled, a slight measure of success is fool's gold, and would hurt the long-term viability of said pieces and parts. There are too many weaknesses in this team as it stands, and the Achilles Heel of the Cleveland Cavaliers resembles more of an Achilles Leg. As evidenced by the Oklahoma City model, this is not an expedited process. True progress takes time and patience.
With the team sitting at 2-5 on the year, 1-4 on the road trip, with one more game remaining before the team gets a chance to recharge in front of a home crowd against Dallas on Nov. 17, the NBA season is almost (surprisingly) 10 percent of the way completed. There is plenty that can be taken away from a trip like this, but as with any road trip movie, there have to be some dogs dragged behind the car and 'those aren't pillows' moments before the denouement or any hope of a sequel.
Dion Waiters is real
Count me as one of the skeptics when the guard from Syracuse was drafted at No. 4. I thought a trade down could happen to still snag Waiters if that is who the Cavs truly wanted. That said, as more came out about Waiters between Chris Grant and Byron Scott, I was cautiously optimistic. If he could step in and immediately provide scoring and defense on the perimeter, he would fill a desperate need on the wing. Then he showed up a bit husky over the summer and was pressing during Summer League. Cavs fans worried more.
The best thing that could have possibly happened to Dion Waiters was his first career NBA bucket coming as a dunk off a steal against the Wizards. The pressure was off. He didn't have to force things to score. He has the skills to be a solid player in the NBA. All he needed to do was get into a rhythm, trust his game and let the speed of the pros come to him rather than forcing against the current. It worked.
He has looked confident and fearless against some pretty solid backcourts on the road. Obviously that shooting percentage (especially on set shots) is going to come down, but I'll take that if the tradeoff is him getting into the lane more often, drawing contact, getting to the line and coming off curls to take more mid-range shots (like the one he hit against Phoenix late in the fourth).
There were worries about how Waiters and Irving could play together when each needs the ball to operate most effectively, but those have been largely squashed. Irving's set shot is proving to be one of his most valuable assets, and Waiters' experience running point early on this season will help the team immensely if he has to stagger his minutes to lead the second unit sometimes. The team still needs more motion on the perimeter, and too many people are standing around, but it's safe to say the starting backcourt is the strength of this team.
The bench is a serious problem
And even when we didn't really know it, we knew it. As is often the case when a team trumpets how great the depth is, the depth is actually awful. There is no reliable backup point guard, the small forward position as a whole is a mess and with Tyler Zeller out, the post play is a serious question mark.
When the second unit is in, the stagnation gives me worry that if the players look like that for too long, they'll freeze and become living art. If there was any doubt about whether or not this team would climb out of the lottery, that doubt has been expelled after this road trip.
The Cavs are not one strong stretch or one player away. They're an entire second unit away. Look up and down that bench. Donald Sloan, Luke Walton, Omri Casspi, etc. are not only unproductive, they're barely even NBA players.
And speaking of one player...
It's almost time to make the decision about Anderson Varejao. After traveling to Brooklyn and a home game against the Mavericks, the Cavs play five of their next seven on the road, including games at Miami, Memphis and Atlanta. They'll be lucky to come out of that segment at 3-4 (a split against Philadelphia and Orlando and a home win vs. Phoenix is possible), which would put the team at 5-10 to close November.
Dec. 1 is the right time to evaluate the value of the Brazilian. Andy is playing well, he's averaging 13 and 13, and his PER is the highest on the team. He's extremely active, making good cuts, hitting that elbow jumper at a rate higher than any other time in his career and is passing better. It's clear he's making this team better, but what is the fit of a hustle-first center when the team is a star, a starter and two or three solid bench players away from contending?
Imagine for a second Oklahoma City comes calling. They want to unload Kendrick Perkins. Andy paired with Serge Ibaka forms a front line that gives OKC its final push toward packing the lane and forcing the Heat to shoot over the top. In exchange for taking Perkins, the Cavs get Perry Jones, Jeremy Lamb and a first rounder. Is that enough?
What about the Atlanta Hawks, who have to answer the question of what to do with Josh Smith and who could make a serious push if they didn't have Zaza Pachulia racking up big minutes in the post? Or the Utah Jazz, who are on the brink of contention and need to trade in at least one of their two rental models (Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, both UFA after this season) for a stronger utility vehicle. With Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors close to breaking out, Varejao could stay fresh and healthy, playing 25-30 minutes a game and providing a spark for the next two seasons.
And then there are teams closer in the rebuild than the Cavs, like Golden State, who have a variety of talented perimeter players, but need help in the post beyond David Lee, Carl Landry and an injury-prone Andrew Bogut. With Varejao under team control for next year and an option in 2014-15, Golden State, with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Lee and Varejao, could make some serious noise after the aging Western Conference stars start to fade.
Obviously the market has to set the price for Andy, but teams who are either overperforming or underperforming based on expectations are going to be evaluating their teams 15-20 games in, just as the Cavs are. That would be the perfect time to pull the trigger on Andy, before his mid-season injury bug hits and his value plummets for the third consecutive trade deadline.
This team is fun to watch
Regardless of how painful it is watching the second unit, this team is immeasurably more enjoyable than they were a year ago. This road trip has been a great indicator of that. They are enjoying playing together. They're hanging in games, Waiters and Irving are getting better by the day and there is a lot of potential in Tyler Zeller and Tristan Thompson. It's going to be a lot of fun to watch who Chris Grant chooses to complement the young core, through a mixture of trades and the draft.
If fans can enjoy the growing pains rather than getting upset, the spoils in the 2013-14 season are going to be tremendous. Next year, this team could be finding its playoff legs, and it'll be done the right way. There's something very rewarding in that.