What did the Cleveland Cavaliers just do?
That's what I was asking myself as I sat in my basement watching the NBA Draft. Every single rumor and source had the Cavaliers choosing between Nerlens Noel or Alex Len. There were even reports that guaranteed the Cavs were taking Len. There were reports that Noel had been at the top of the Cavs' board for the entire season. And in a moment, David Stern blew all of that up. In a night that featured a ton of uncertainty and confusion, one thing became clear: nobody has sources on what the Cavs are going to do on draft night. You may think you have sources, but those sources are lying to you. They've been lying to you for the past three seasons. But after Thursday night, none of that matters. We know who the Cavs wanted now. And apparently they wanted Anthony Bennett.
I've been a huge fan on Anthony Bennett all season long. I think he's one of the most exciting players in the draft. He's a dynamic talent on offense. He's potentially a guy than can gobble up rebounds and get buckets from anywhere on the floor. On the offensive end, he could be an elite player. On the defensive end? I don't know.
There's a couple of reason that nobody expect the Cavaliers to take Anthony Bennett. I'll run through those reasons and try to understand why they weren't (and aren't) valid.
I thought the Cavaliers were taking Nerlens Noel
I'll admit to ruling out, either due to logic or wishful thinking, the possibility that the Cavs were taking anybody other than Nerlens Noel. I've been Noel's most vocal supporter here at Fear the Sword for the entire season. As soon as the Cavs won the NBA Draft Lottery, I set my mind on Noel. Quite simply, I struggled to fathom the Cavs taking anybody else first overall. That was a mistake on my part, and on everybody else's part apparently. Nobody had Bennett going first overall, so at least I wasn't alone there. But here's the thing: Noel didn't go 2nd. He didn't even go 3rd, 4th or 5th. He went SIXTH to the New Orleans Pelicans and was then traded to the Philadelphia Sixers. That kind of an unexpected slide says to me that there was something we didn't know. There had to be something with his knee or something that caused him to slide. Or maybe NBA GMs just weren't as high on him as everybody on the internet was.
Nevertheless, once you're passing on Noel, it's basically a free for all. If you don't take Noel, I don't have that strong of an opinion. I soured on Alex Len in the last few days leading up to the draft as I watched more and more film (and had flashbacks of the game that I saw him play live at Boston College. He got shut down by Eddie Odio. EDDIE ODIO). The Cavs could have taken Otto Porter or Victor Oladipo or McLemore. We'd be talking about questions with any of them. Each prospect offers their own problems: limited upside, questionable fit, lack of college productive. In a draft that becomes WIDE open once you rule out Nerlens, I have no problem taking the guy who was an absolute stud in college, is young enough to have a LOT of room left to grow, and could be a rare, elite talent.
The bottom-line here is this: if you told me for sure that the Cavs were not taking Nerlens Noel, I'd probably have considered the possibility of drafting Anthony Bennett a lot more. And the more I think about it, the more I like it simply from a talent and upside standpoint.
I thought Tristan Thompson was the starting power forward
This is still a bit of a problem for me. Tristan Thompson really came into his own last year and started to develop an offensive game. He's going to be great on the boards and is emerging as a very good defender. He played some center in his rookie season, but really flourished at power forward last year. So how does fellow Canadian, Anthony Bennett fit with Thompson? I'll let David answer that in an article a little bit later.
I will say that I do not think this means Tristan is getting traded. I think it gives them a lot of flexibility and versatility. I think the past few seasons in the NBA have shown that we need to not get caught up in positions. More and more teams are playing small ball and mismatching all over the place. Boris Diaw guarded LeBron James in the NBA Finals. And he did it effectively. Think about that for a minute. Just because we don't have a 6-2 guy at point guard, a 6-5 guy at shooting guard, a 6-7 guy at small forward, a 6-10 guy at power forward, and a 7-footer at center, doesn't mean we can't guard anybody. It doesn't mean we have to play some gimmick variety of basketball. It doesn't mean you're going to have a terrible defense, necessarily.
If the Cavs drafted anybody other than Len or Porter, there would be questions about fit. Would those guys have been better picks? I don't know. I don't think they are as talented as Bennett or even McLemore. But they certainly would have made it easier to understand what the plan is for the Cavs. They fit together with the pieces that are already in Cleveland. Bennett doesn't really. There were reports before the draft that said the Cavs believed nobody they drafted would immediately become a starter.
If that's the case, then you can take your sweet time with Bennett and see how things play out with Tristan. Maybe TT ends up getting traded down the road. Maybe he embraces the role as a super-energy big man off the bench. I'm definitely a little skeptical about how this all fits together. I won't deny that. But I'm willing to give it a chance and see what happens. Tristan Thompson is good friends with Bennett and is probably one of the best team players and lowest ego guys in the league. While Dion Waiters may have been a bit of a problem if the Cavs took another shooting guard, I have zero worries about Tristan in the presence of another highly drafted power forward.
I thought this was supposed to be a team with a defensive identity.
This is my biggest question. It's the biggest reason that I thought Nerlens Noel was going to be the pick. Other than Noel's obvious talent and elite shotblocking ability, it just made sense. The Cavs were so bad defensively the last several years and they clearly want to fix that. Dan Gilbert tweeted last year that the Cavs needed to be a defensive team. Mike Brown said that he wants them to be "defensive-first." So my question...why do you take the most explosive offensive talent with significant questions about his defensive ability? Reports (and my own digging has confirmed this) indicate that Mike Brown was a big fan of Anthony Bennett. What? Really? That surprises me. I would have assumed that Brown would be pushing for Victor Oladipo or Nerlens Noel. Those guys are really committed to playing hardnosed defense and working their asses off. That's what Brown wants, right?
Apparently not. Mike Brown is a great defensive coach, but even a great coach needs the necessary talent. The only explanation that makes sense to me is that Brown believes Bennett has the talent. I talked about Bennett's defense before the draft and made the point that much of it had to do with a lack of effort. He's surprisingly quick for a player his size and has an exceptional 7-2 wingspan, despite being slightly undersized at PF. I think he has the tools to defend multiple positions effectively, although I'd doubt he'll ever become a great defender. I do not think that his lack of defensive intensity at UNLV is a death sentence. He was 19 years old, playing on a pretty bleh team, and was the obvious best player as a freshman. He didn't have a coach that stressed the importance of defense and it really looks like Bennett was just never expected to commit himself to that end of the floor. If there's one thing for sure, it's that Brown will expect him to exert maximum effort on defense. I expect Bennett to start the season coming off the bench and he might just stay there for a long while if he doesn't live up to Brown's expectations on the defensive end. Defense in the NBA is as much about team schemes as it is about individual talent. Kawhi Leonard does a great job as an individual defender, but the San Antonio Spurs also do a fantastic job with help defense and communication. Most of the great players in the NBA cannot be defended with one player. It will be a challenge for Brown to drill those things into Bennett's head, but I guess that's the plan. Whether or not you believe he will be able to do that basically depends on how much faith you have in Mike Brown as a teacher and motivator. Clearly, Chris Grant has quite a bit of faith.
I thought this team was going to be boring.
Well, I never really thought it was going to be boring (we still have Kyrie Irving). I just thought it was going to be more like what we've seen with Mike Brown in the past. Along with a focus on defense, he tends to favor a slower paced game. I don't see how that's possible with the talent on this roster. With Irving, Waiters, Thompson, and Bennett, you have four very very good athletes that can cause mismatches all over the floor. Add in Sergey Karasev and Carrick Felix and you have some much needed shooting, length, and defense. The Cavaliers may have tipped their hand when they hired Igor Kokoskov as an assistant coach. He was one of the main offensive minds with the Phoenix Suns and those teams were anything but slow-paced. The presence of Brown as head coach means they cannot possibly abandon attempts at a defensive identity, but the roster is certainly built like a run and gun team. Is that an attempt by Chris Grant to cover up Brown's deficiencies on the offensive end? That's possible. Give him so much offensive talent that he can't possible have difficulty scoring. Let Mike Brown deal with the defense and allow the offense to take care of itself.
Bottom-line: do I like what the Cavs did with the #1 pick?
I think so. If nothing else, Bennett offers a lot of excitement and intrigue. I'm bummed about missing out on Nerlens Noel, but if the knee was the issue then I'll trust the doctors and just live vicariously through the bloggers at Liberty Ballers. Other than that, Otto Porter is the one guy that I can understand being upset about passing on. Porter doesn't give us any of these questions about identity, fit, or defense that Bennett does. He also doesn't offer the same explosive potential.
If we've learned two things from the past two drafts, it's that Chris Grant never tips his hand and that Chris Grant tends to swing for the fences. Two years ago it was Tristan Thompson. Last year it was Dion Waiters. This year it's Anthony Bennett. The Cavs got their guy and he might be the most talented player in the draft -- the rest will sort itself out later.
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