Full disclosure: I almost picked the Cleveland Cavaliers to win the No. 8 seed in the East. Many tag that East as unworthy, and perhaps my consideration of the Cavaliers (who were 21-45 last season) just proves that. But to be honest, the last playoff spot in the East was much more difficult to pick than its counterpart in the West. Out West, you're picking which couple of good teams will stand out. In the East, you're guessing which bad or damaged team will surprise. It's a messy decision.
I almost picked the Cavaliers because of Kyrie Irving. I couldn't pick the Cavaliers because of everything other than Kyrie Irving.
FEATS OF STRENGTH
Irving really is something to behold. He had an incredibly productive season not just by rookies' standards, but by Rookie of the Year standards. Only three active players had higher rookie PERs than Kyrie: Tim Duncan, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. CP3 is an interesting comp both in describing the confidence in the two point guards' games, but also in greater team impact. For a few years there, CP3 drove the Hornets to contention. Can't Kyrie do the same?
We may forget, though, that CP3 had some help. In New Orleans' best season with Paul, Peja Stojakovic and David West were healthy, and Tyson Chandler was at his pre-championship best. Irving is surrounded by fellow young players, but none appear to have the sort of plug-and-play ability of Kyrie. It's going to take time for Tristan Thompson, Tyler Zeller and Dion Waiters to catch up.
That said, this is a lovely way to build a team. The Kings, who built through the draft, basically acquired one young prospect per year. This rebuild job is taking forever. The Cavaliers have had two awful years, and have four nice prospects to show for it. Landing Irving was supreme luck, sure -- but remember that Cleveland had agreed to take on Baron Davis' salary in exchange for the Clippers' unprotected lottery pick. That lottery pick became Irving. They used their own unlucky pick (No. 4, the lowest it can be for the league's worst team) on Thompson. This season, the team took Waiters with their own pick, then packaged three "dice-roll" picks for Zeller, a better-than-dice-roll prospect. Now Chris Grant has a young point guard, two-guard, power forward and center. That's a great place to be.
The team also has some interesting veteran pieces, from cult favorite Alonzo Gee to villain Anderson Varejao, and newcomers Kelenna Azubuike and C.J. Miles. There's just enough here to be interesting ... and make believers like me consider a playoff spot within reach.
AIRING OF GRIEVANCES
But really, this team is raw. Thompson didn't exactly look like a star in the making last season, which is understandable: he was a 20-year-old rookie. But usually promising big men have either high conversion rates from the field or gaudy per-minute numbers. T.T. had neither. He shot just 43 percent from the field and averaged 12-10 per 36 minutes, and he's not considered a can't-miss defender. By comparison, Enes Kanter scored the same amount shooting 50 percent, and had more rebounds per minute. And Kanter was considered a rookie disappointment! Without having developed my own clustering or comparison model, Thompson looks like a "solid role-playing power forward" at his peak to me. I hope I'm wrong: again, I like what Cleveland's doing, and I was a Thompson believer in the 2011 draft.
Waiters was a stunning pick in June, and I'm still not sure what exactly Grant was doing there. Is Waiters really a future star? Does Irving really need a scorer running with him? If Thompson doesn't work out and Thomas Robinson (picked just after Waiters) does, and Waiters doesn't develop into a star, we're going to remember Grant's apparent decision to go with positional need over the best player available. And it's not going to be pretty.
Getting Zeller for three late-first and early-second picks is, in my opinion, a coup, and I'm not even that high on Zeller. But coups in the trade market and on-court results don't always match up. The coaching staff has its hands full turning one of Thompson and Zeller into a reliable threat if this team is going to do anything. Zeller certainly doesn't seem like a fit for that role -- he's a very tall role player, in my estimation.
This team is young, yes. But outside of Irving, I'm not sure they have anyone worth hanging their hats on. This season will, obviously, tell us a lot more about the future of the team.
It will be miraculous if ...
Omri Casspi has no complaints about his role.
We don't get a Tyler Zeller-Zydrunas Ilgauskas comparison by New Year's.
The Cavaliers go .250 in games Kyrie Irving misses.
Byron Scott goes full handlebar on the mustache.
We don't get some melodramatic Woe Is Cleveland story in the national press when the Heat visit.
Dan Gilbert fails to give us a reason to troll hard.
THE HUMAN FUND
Let's get sincere.
Team MVP: Kyrie Irving
Team X-Factor: Dion Waiters
Team Finish: 5th in Central | 12th in East
Best Championship Hopes: Kyrie Irving All-Star Game MVP
The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.