The Cleveland Cavaliers shocked everybody when they selected Anthony Bennett with the first overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. The incredibly slow start to his rookie season has some people to immediately conclude that the Cavs made a mistake. While it's too early to judge on that point, there's no denying that Bennett has struggled. Four games, zero buckets -- what should the Cavs do?
Sam Vecenie and I exchanged some emails about the Bennett situation. It got a little heated...but I can't afford to lose Sam now, so he isn't fired. Check out our thoughts.
Hey what's up Conrad? I know that we've had differing views on Anthony Bennett to this point in his career. While I'm not concerned about his long-term play, I do think it's pretty fair to say that at this moment he's not an adequate NBA rotation player due to his body being out of shape and his mind being a step behind from missing Summer League and a bit of training camp. What say you?
I guess I'm gonna need you to define what you mean by adequate NBA rotation player. Does that mean he wouldn't play for most NBA teams right now? Should he get nothing but garbage time on the Cavs right now? What are the implications of saying he isn't an adequate NBA rotation player right now? Obviously, it's hard to argue that he is contributing much to the Cavs right now. But what does that mean?
I would answer by saying Bennett is simply not providing any sort of skill that actually helps a team win, therefore he should only be getting mop-up duty at this point in time. He's obviously not scoring, but that's not necessarily a surprise given the shoulder injury. His mind is a step behind on the defensive end in every aspect, even as it pertains to rebounding -- which was potentially his most NBA-ready skill coming into the draft. There are too many times right now where he's simply forgetting to box out his man and stands around.
It's almost like he expects his athleticism to simply be able to carry him through games like it did in college. The problem with that though is that because he's out of shape, his athleticism is lacking at the moment. He's not nearly as explosive as he was at UNLV because he's carrying an extra 20 pounds after being unable to work out in the offseason. That, along with just the normal rookie growing pains as far as how fast the game moves and reaction times, have conspired against him to produce a rough start to his career so far.
It's not a disaster or anything. I don't think these things say anything about his long-term potential. Eventually he will get into better playing shape, and his athleticism and footwork will become quicker/stronger. However, the problem is that right now he's not helping himself or the team by being out there 20 pounds overweight. He needs to simply take a step back, get into better playing shape, and come back when he's actually ready to play.
If this was a team like Charlotte or Boston, these things wouldn't be a problem and he'd be able to play himself into shape. However, the Cavaliers are in what is shaping up to be a tight playoff race in the East. Early games still count. I'm not sure the team can afford to have him out there, and I don't think it's helping him being out there at the moment either.
See, I'm not sure I agree that he's been entirely useless. His rebounding numbers are quite good (9.4 per 36 minutes, 22.9% DREB), pretty much what we'd expect for the whole season. He's had some mental lapses in other phases, but nothing unusual for a rookie in his first few games. Mike Brown has said that he's been pleasantly surprised with his defense. The team's defense hasn't suffered with him on the floor. He's had active hands and produced a lot of steals in very limited minutes. There certainly hasn't been a lack of effort. He's trying hard. He's trying too hard.
I'm not sure what the other options are. He's not playing huge minutes, but he needs to get some game experience if he's ever going to learn. The worst thing you could do right now is bench him right now before he has even one good game in the NBA. You want him to have these four games hanging over his head while he tries to learn and practice with the team? That sounds like a great way to completely shatter the confidence of a 20-year old rookie.
I'm not sure we're attaching the same games. Bennett's rebounding has been worse than expected, both statistically and visually. He's not boxing out -- just watch this clip at the 10 minute mark of Monday's 4th quarter where he stands at the foul line and watches as his man (Dante Cunningham) flies in for a put back.
But just in case you're worried I'm simply looking at this one sample, let's delve beyond the simple rebounds-per-36 minutes number, where Bennett is performing at a good rate of 9.4. Because the Cavaliers have a top-five defense and the worst offense in the NBA through their first four games, there are many more opportunities for Bennett to rebound, thus inflating this number. Bennett's 14.5% rebounding rate so far would be good 27th among power forwards. On top of that, his contested rebounding percentage of 23.2% is good for 149th out of the 242 players (including guards) in the NBA that have averaged at least ten minutes over at least three games this season. In fact, 2.5 of the 3.3 rebounds per game that Bennett is averaging thus far have been of the uncontested variety. Obviously this is a small sample, but it's the sample we're discussing. I'm not sure there's any way that we can possibly say Bennett has been solid on the boards thus far.
As far as Bennett's defense is concerned, I think there's a difference between Brown being pleasantly surprised and Bennett being good. I agree with you that the effort is there. He's certainly showing a whole lot more energy and aggressiveness on that end than he ever did at UNLV. The problem is though that the defensive lapses are hurting. The simple fact is that he's a rookie and NBA defenses are complicated. Very few rookies have a positive impact on that end of the court. Bennett isn't an exception in this regard. I have a lot more faith in his potential defensive acumen in the future right now than I ever did pre-draft, but he's not there yet.
So he's not defending well, he's not rebounding well, and he's obviously had a rough start offensively that we don't need to really spend time on. My position here is that because the Cavaliers have aspirations of contending, I'm not sure there's a reason to have him on the floor. They could run out a lineup of Irving-Waiters-Gee-Thompson-Bynum with Jack, Miles, Clark, and Bynum/Zeller off the bench, and be better off at this point. Clark can split time at the 3 and 4, and potentially play crunch time depending on who is playing well.
It probably would hurt Bennett's confidence, but I would hope that he's tougher than that. I would hope that Brown and the rest of the coaching staff would push him to get back down to his collegiate weight of around 240, restoring some of that explosive athleticism that made him the first overall pick in the draft, and make him more prepared to be a rotation player down the stretch for a playoff team. That's not the way it works sometimes, but that's what has to happen in the NBA when a guy isn't performing up to replacement-level standards for a playoff contender.
Okay, so we've established that his defense isn't a problem right now. It's not any worse than we'd expect and it's not really hurting the Cavs at the moment. If he were playing well offensively, we wouldn't care about his defense - so I don't really factor that into the equation right now. His rebounding is whatever. Again, it's too small of a sample size for me to care where he actually ranks right now. The Cavs drafted him with the belief that he was a good rebounder and that opinion isn't going to change after 50 minutes of game action.
I saw the clip when it happened and I recognized that it was bad immediately. He looked surprised that the guy just ran past him. It's a rookie mistake and I'm sure Mike Brown chewed him out for it. But that's the thing: he's going to make rookie mistakes and he's going to have to make those mistakes so that he can learn from them. If you take him out of the rotation after the first four games of the season, when does he get that experience? Sending him to Canton is a ridiculous idea because he'd dominate on physical ability alone. He needs to play in NBA games. He needs to get minutes against actual NBA players and in the lineup with his NBA teammates. That's the only way for him to get better and learn. What's the endgame of benching him now? You want him to get into better shape by practicing and then he'll magically be able to hit shots and rebound when the Cavs decide to play him again?
Where's the logic that says a guy who gets benched after he plays four crappy games will suddenly be able to be a "rotation player down the stretch for a playoff team"? It makes no sense.
So basically there's two major problems here: 1) the sample size is way too small for us to say anything definitive about what kind of player he is right now. Do you want to bench any player that has four bad games throughout the season? And 2) Even if the sample size was big enough, you just don't really have any other options with Bennett. He needs the playing time. He needs experience. It's the only way he'll learn and get better. He's 20 years old and has barely played since recovering from offseason surgery. It's absolutely the wrong move to prevent him from getting the necessary game experience to improve and get used to playing in the NBA.
Okay, let's answer the two main problems that you have head on.
The sample size is clearly small. I don't deny that. But in his four games thus far, he hasn't shown us anything outside of "defensive effort," which hasn't translated to actual "good defense" on his part. The Cavs drafted him as a good rebounder, but he hasn't shown any of the athleticism that made him one in college so far. I couldn't care less about his physical rankings either, but they're a decent frame of reference for what we're discussing here. It's simply that because of his athleticism deficiency and mental acuity right now, he's losing competitive rebounding battles. Remember, this is a 6'7" power forward -- his ability to go explode upwards for the ball is essential. He might be learning by being out there, but it's not beneficial for his confidence either to continually be beat out for rebounds.
So to the second problem, I don't see how the Cavs don't have options here. The "bench everyone if they have four bad games" is about as awful an argument as you get. This is a guy with no NBA track record coming off of a serious injury that put him 20 pounds overweight for the start of training camp. There are very clear extenuating circumstances here. As a staff, I would have no problem telling a player that he simply needs to get into better shape and get his touch back after a long lay-off. This Bennett isn't even close to the same guy that played at UNLV last season. We haven't seen anything resembling his awesome ability from the triple-threat position because he doesn't have the explosive first step right now. He's not elevating for rebounds. His touch is clearly problematic from being out of practice due to the shoulder injury. It doesn't have to be a confidence back-breaker to sit him down and say: "Anthony, we think we rushed you back a little bit from your surgery. You may feel healthy right now, but we need you to take a step back, take a deep breath, and let your game and conditioning come back organically during practice."
Like I said to start this, I'm not worried about his start from a long-term perspective. He'll be fine once he's back in shape. Eventually, he'll get the confidence back in his shoulder, the touch will return, and he'll be able to make shots consistently. People don't forget how to shoot like he can at 20-years-old. It'll probably happen at some point this season. However, this is a results-based industry, and he's not actually bringing any skill to the table at this specific juncture that helps a team win. It's an unusual circumstance to have a non-consensus number overall pick on a potential playoff team. Not playing him doesn't have to be the end of the world. We aren't having this argument if he goes sixth overall, which was probably more likely than going first overall going into draft night.
The Suns sat Alex Len Sunday night and don't want to rush him. I see no reason why the Cavs can't take the same route with a high draft pick coming off of a serious offseason injury.
Wait, so now this is about the injury and him being out of shape? I think it's a little bit silly to assume that his struggles have been purely because he's not in great shape yet, especially when we saw him being effective during the preseason. He practices everyday with the team and the team felt he was in good enough shape to contribute initially, so what changed? He missed some shots? My point is that the sample size is so incredibly small that we don't even have enough to say that something is definitively wrong. You can say that he's out of shape and that's why he's not playing well, but he didn't look like this during the preseason. More than anything, this seems mental. He's pressing, trying too hard, whatever. It looks like he doesn't know how to fit in with this team right now. He's rusty from having not played that much since his surgery. How is sitting him down and telling him he's not good enough to play on this team going to help that?
I agree that I think he needs some time to get his mind right and let the game come to him. But how can you possibly say that the solution to him needing to get his "touch back after a long lay-off" is to give him another lay-off? His ability to play like he can play is not going to come back until he scores a bucket and feels comfortable on the floor with his teammates. He's a 20-year old kid struggling in his first four NBA games. This isn't the time for tough love.
This is getting really long, so I'm wrapping it up here. I think it's an interesting case and it's definitely true that we've never seen anything quite like this before. And it's hard for us to know the situation exactly because we don't know Bennett personally and we don't know what kind of physical condition he's in right now. But I do know that I'm most likely going to be right. The Cavs aren't going to bench Bennett. They're going to let him work through this and figure things out as he goes. Mike Brown has made it clear that this early part of the season is still about learning and teaching. He doesn't mind doing things that might cost them a few games now if he thinks it will pay off in the end - and this is a perfect example of that.
I know it's not fair that I got the last word, but I'm the editor and that's what happens.
More from Fear The Sword:
- Cleveland Cavaliers defeat Minnesota Timberwolves: Quotes from Andrew Bynum, Mike Brown, and Kyrie Irving
- Cleveland Cavaliers Vs. Minnesota Timberwolves: The Twitter Experience
- Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Minnesota Timberwolves Final Score: Cavs escape with 93-92 win
- Cleveland Cavaliers intro video for 2013-14 season