In the Summer of 2010, LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers. After a strange, terrible season marked by a surprise decent start from Mo Williams, Daniel Gibson, and Antawn Jamison, followed by a stretch of some of the worst basketball of all time, during which Williams was traded for mercurial Baron Davis and an unprotected first round draft pick, the Cavaliers and General Manager Chris Grant were left with the first and fourth pick in a draft widely considered to be the worst in years, and the prospect of an NBA lockout shortly after. There was speculation that the blow of of James leaving put the viability of the NBA in Cleveland into doubt. The stakes were high for Grant. The rebuilding process was going to take time regardless, but messing up the 2011 draft with two top four picks would have been devastating for the organization. One need only look at the Charlotte Bobcats to see what happens when you hover around the top of the lottery, always failing to bring in an actual NBA star. Hindsight is convenient, but with Davis on the roster, Derrick Williams blowing up in March Madness, and a gaping hole at small forward in the wake of James leaving, Kyrie Irving was not everyone's first choice. He was Chris Grant's. And with observers expecting Jonas Valunciunas with the Cavs' 2nd choice, Grant went with a guy many projected to be picked out of the lottery, Tristan Thompson.
Two difficult seasons later, it appears that the Cavaliers are finally ready to challenge for a playoff spot again. A team that was a fixture in May basketball for so many years is aiming to get back there, and if they do, Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson will be major reasons why. It isn't necessarily that they are the two best players on the team, though Irving certainly is. Anderson Varejao, Andrew Bynum, and perhaps Jarrett Jack or Dion Waiters are in the conversation with Thompson. But Thompson's constant motor, outspoken and good-natured personality, as well as will to work and try anything (I mean, the guy decided to learn to play with a new hand) to get better makes him a clear leader for Cleveland. Irving, by his status as one of the up and coming stars of the NBA, doesn't have a choice in the matter.
Kyrie Irving embraces his next challenge: leading
There is very little about basketball that comes difficult to Kyrie Irving. In fact, there doesn't seem to be much at all that comes difficult for the 21 year old, who writes, directs and produces hugely successful promotional ads for multi-national corporations, and travels the world doing charity work that gives him the opportunity to show off his dance moves. There has been unending talk of Irving's inability or unwillingness to defend at the NBA level in his first two seasons. But the real issue, in my mind, was Irving's inability to stomach the shortcomings of his teammates. Now, being a 20 year old basketball prodigy and offensive wunderkind passing to Kevin Jones is not a situation that is easy to relate to. And being so good, and being on a team that is so bad, would have to be frustrating. But this, from an NBA scout via Sports Illustrated, is illuminating:
I saw a lot of issues last year that showed how impatient Kyrie Irving was with his teammates. He was like a quarterback who makes a good throw, but when the receiver drops the ball he lets everybody in the stadium know it was the receiver's fault. He knew he was the best player on the team, and he wanted everybody else to know it wasn't his fault that they were losing.
The end of last season showed the tension. Irving went to All-Star weekend, stole the show and enjoyed the full adulation of the entire NBA world for the first time; when it all ended, it was back to Cleveland to complete the tank. He chafed, visibly, at being held out for injuries longer than perhaps he wanted to. Bill Livingston of the Plain Dealer called him a diva-in-training. While that label is absurd, Irving's body language and treatment of the local media were less than ideal. While this was all understandable (Irving's 21st birthday was around this time, when many people his age struggle to maintain a full course load of general education classes as undergrads) it wasn't ideal. Irving's next step towards superstardom was going to require some introspection. If he was going to lead, he was going to need to own it.
It appears he did just that. By all accounts he worked harder than he ever has before to get his body ready for a full 82 game season. While the Cavaliers don't need Irving to be a defensive workhorse, it would be beneficial for him to lead by example, and that involves putting in the effort on that end of the court. Kyrie is incredibly aware of the impression he leaves upon his teammates at this point of his career. New coach Mike Brown is known for attention to detail, and his team's spend plenty of time in the film room. After the game against the 76ers, Irving opened up on the subject.
"There is a lot more attention to detail on that end. We know our defense. We know our roles ... everyone has to be accountable, for all actions,and that includes myself, if I miss a box-out that's going to be on film and I'm the leader of this team so I have to do that, lead by example."
Everyone can say the right thing after a game, but the most promising thing about this quote is that he realizes the impression his actions leave on his teammates. If Irving, the All-Star, buys in, his teammates don't have a choice in the matter. If he is surly, that undermines what Brown is trying to accomplish.
But it went beyond getting himself ready individually. Irving invited his teammates out to California to work out with him. As he told Dime Magazine, "Not everyone was together at the same time, but most of them were everywhere I was." Irving also showed that he was committed enough to the Cavaliers organization to ask Chris Grant for Andrew Bynum's phone number, ultimately giving the former second team All-NBA center a sales pitch. Bynum chose Cleveland.
Tristan Thompson reinvents his game, but keeps the motor and determination
For Tristan Thompson, being a leader comes a bit more naturally, but with a pretty big caveat. It is difficult to be a true leader in the NBA if you aren't a good player. Guys can respect your work ethic and your drive, but they are going to listen to you if they have seen you take that drive and get somewhere with it. Thompson is far from a finished product, and his ceiling is unknown, but it increasingly looks like he will get to a level that demands the attention of not only his teammates, but the NBA at large. Drawing conclusions from preseason is a fool's errand, but Thompson finished the eight games with Cleveland's highest Player Efficiency Rating per laughingcavs.com. Playing with a brand new hand, Thompson shot 52% from the field and 67% from the free throw lane, clear improvements over his second year in the NBA which was in itself a big step up over his rookie season. He continues to mature as a passer.
But Thompson's greatest potential remains on the defensive end. We know that his quickness, athleticism, and size allows him to guard almost any kind of power forward. His strength and length allows him to hold his own with many of the league's centers. Excelling at defense in the NBA, though, involves learning concepts, natural ability, and the willingness to take pride in your work on that end of the court. Tristan Thompson does all of the above. Mike Brown has gone so far as to say he can be one of the great post defenders of all time. Hyperbole aside, Thompson has embraced it.
"It's a compliment, but that's a way of challenging me. I am going to accept that challenge. I have to pick it up a notch ... he planted the seed, so now I have to get it done."
Talking to Thompson about his defense is fun, because it is clear that he enjoys the challenge. In the span of two days in the preseason, he was asked to guard big, strong David West, quick, shifty, skilled Thaddeus Young, and the huge Spencer Hawes for extended periods of time. All three have offensive games with skillsets that don't overlap, and Thompson provided capable defense of all three. The Cavaliers blitzed a lot of pick and rolls in the preseason so I asked him about it.
"If you have athletic bigs who can move their feet and are active, I think it plays in their favor. For our team, we have Anderson (Varejao), we have myself, we have Tyler (Zeller) ... so it plays in our favor."
He compared Young and West for me:
"They are different players. Thaddeus is more hustle, on the floor, dump off passes ... David is more elbow, left block isolation, back you down, face up jumpers."
Thompson also has a powerful advocate: Kyrie Irving himself. When I asked Mike Brown whether he had been impressed with the development of the 3rd year power forward's offensive game, Brown quickly minimized the importance of such development, noting that he wasn't sure if he had even called a play for Thompson.
"Tristan is getting his points the right way. I don't even know I've called a play for him this preseason ... maybe his best buddy Kyrie has," Brown said.
He went on to talk about how Thompson will get most of his points from getting up and down the court and being in the right spot and dominating on the offensive boards, before predictably, without prompting reverting back to excitement over his defensive potential. But it was neat to hear that Irving was trying to take care of his guys. If Thompson is going to work as hard as he does in other facets of the games, why not reward him by trying to set him up and give him opportunities? One of the most promising aspects of the preseason was the apparent chemistry of Irving, Thompson, and Varejao. If it can continue into the regular season, the Cavaliers could make real strides.
The Cavaliers season kicks off against the Brooklyn Nets
and the preseason is always the time for optimism. No one has a losing record before they have played a game yet. We can't know what will happen to Irving's body language in the 4th quarter as the Cavaliers drop their third straight game, something that will almost certainly happen at some point this season. In the same vein, Thompson is sure to face the adversity you would expect from a 22 year old project big making a severe change in the way he plays the game of basketball. What will happen when the Cavaliers get hit in the mouth? For better or worse, these are the guys Chris Grant chose to start to work back towards championship-caliber basketball. Irving is still just 21 years old, Thompson 22. The Cavaliers have as many question marks as any team in the NBA heading into the season, but a major one that has hovered over the team for two years appears close to finally having an answer.
That 2011 draft is working out just fine.