If you watched any Cleveland basketball last season, you know that the center position, outside of Anderson Varejao who was limited to action in only 25 games, was a dumpster fire. A calamity of epic proportions. 1520 minutes were played by Samardo Samuels (not all at the center position), Semih Erden, and Ryan Hollins. The collective average of these players Player Efficiency Ratings (PER) was an atrocious 9.33. League average, of course, is 15. To give some perspective on just how many minutes we are talking about, Kyrie Irving was on the court for 1558 minutes last season. Roughly, for nearly every minute the Cavaliers were buoyed by Kyrie Irving's presence, they were being pulled down by centers who really struggled.
This season should be different for Cleveland, in no small part due to the addition of Tyler Zeller, and even more so if Varejao can stay healthy. Varejao was only out on the court for 785 minutes last season. If he were to stay healthy for 65 games this season and play 30 minutes a game, that would total 1950 minutes. His PER last season was an excellent 18.9, and while his post defense was not elite, he is still a defensive plus. If Ryan Hollins is one of the worst rebounders of all time, Varejao is close to elite, on both ends of the court. If you figure Tyler Zeller plays 70 games at 22 minutes a game, which could be conservative, you see that it equals 1540 minutes, roughly canceling out the minutes that went to the terrible trio of Samuels, Hollins and Erden.
So how good will Tyler Zeller be this season? No way to know, but it is hard not to be encouraged by the early results. Zeller is smart, and doesn't shy away from contact so there is reason to believe that he will be an effective rebounder and defender, perhaps sooner than we think. How his body will withstand the pro game is an open question. Against Orlando the other night (yes, it was preseason, I know) Zeller played 19 minutes and scored 10 points on 4 of 5 shooting. He had 5 rebounds in that time, but only one was defensive. Does he have an effective post game? Maybe not, but the Cavaliers are building around guards who can break people down off the dribble and distribute. Too many times last season guards found our centers for high percentage shots that for whatever reason they just couldn't convert. Tristan Thompson doesn't get a free pass here, either. But it does seem to me like a good idea to simply find guys who do possess good touch and can finish around the rim. Zeller could already be there. He is also a proficient free throw shooter and finds himself at the line regularly.
Worth pointing out that of the terrible centers the Cavaliers employed last season, Samardo Samuels' PER was the highest at 11.1. He now looks like an entirely different person and feels confident. This is a good development to be sure, especially from the perspective of depth. I remain much more excited about Tyler Zeller, though. Varejao and Zeller are much more promising in the pick and roll, which is likely to be a big part of the Cavalier's offense moving forward. Zeller will go through growing pains and be frustrating at times for Cavs fans. He is older and more polished but it doesn't change that he is a rookie. Coach Scott, stylistically, is very different from Roy Williams.
There is reason to be optimistic, though. Anderson Varejao for 60 games is better than Anderson Varejao for 25 games. Tyler Zeller will almost certainly be better than Ryan Hollins and Semih Erden. And 2012 Samardo Samuels will probably be better than 2011 Samardo Samuels. If you think the Cavaliers are going to contend for a playoff spot, it is likely because of the improvements at center.