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Cleveland Cavaliers preview: It's time to win

The Cavaliers have been rebuilding/tanking for three years since losing LeBron James. Those efforts have earned them a strong young core, but it's time for that core to achieve meaningful results.

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

There comes a point in any rebuilding project when it's time to shake off the shackles of austerity and try to compete. The trick is knowing when to open the vault without wiping out up all that hard-earned flexibility. Blessed with three years worth of top picks, the Cleveland Cavaliers decided the time was now. It’s hard to argue with their logic.

Kyrie Irving is the centerpiece, of course. A wondrously talented lead guard, Irving seemed in danger of letting the losing get to him last season. His passive-aggressive stance with former coach Byron Scott wasn’t a good look for either of them. That in and of itself necessitated a change, both on the roster and on the sidelines, where Mike Brown returns for a second tour of duty.

Brown may not have been the most exciting choice, but his teams have been solid defensively throughout his tenure, which was the team's biggest issue from a development standpoint. Still just 21 years old, Irving more or less maintained his production on the offensive end in his second season, yet defense continues to be a team-wide malaise.

Irving should take a quantum leap forward this season with a far more talented and experienced roster. If he doesn’t, then most of this is just window dressing.

To that end, GM Chris Grant signed Andrew Bynum to the summer’s most intriguing deal. If Bynum can regain even 75 percent of his former self, then the two-year contract he signed will be one of the league’s best bargains. Grant left himself an out by only guaranteeing a quarter of the $25 million deal, which seems wise.

It’s not as if the Cavs are relying on Bynum the way the 76ers did either. If all goes well, the frontcourt will be deep, versatile and talented. Getting Anderson Varejao back will be a huge boost to their sieve-like defense and will also allow last year’s emergency starter Tyler Zeller to come off the bench and provide depth.

Grant also shored up the small forward position, signing Earl Clark to a two-year deal, and, again, the second year is non-guaranteed. Clark is still unproven, but he was one of the few pleasant surprises for the Lakers last season, and the trio of Clark, C.J. Miles and Alonzo Gee is solidly unspectacular.

The other big free-agent addition was Jarrett Jack, a fantastically confident third guard who never met a big shot he didn’t want to take. That can be good and bad depending on the day, much like second-year guard Dion Waiters. There’s a bit of duplication here and the backcourt is on the smallish side, but with size in the back and length on the wing, that shouldn’t be as much of a concern.

All told, the Cavs have the potential to rise in the standings and grab one of the last playoff spots in the East if everything goes well. If it falls apart, Grant can quickly change gears and shed more than $25 million in non-guaranteed money. We won’t even suggest where that money could go, because you already know.

Where the Cavs will truly go, and where Grant will ultimately be judged, is through the draft. Grant surprised many by taking Anthony Bennett with the top pick in June. Bennett was one of the safer bets in a draft that lacked a sure thing, and his selection was the tipoff that Grant wants to move beyond the incubation period. The issue is that he plays the same position as third-year forward Tristan Thompson, who made huge strides in his second season. Thompson improved across the board statistically and also emerged as a team leader, making this a question of fit.   

This is not the first time Grant has opened himself up to second-guessing. He chose Thompson over Jonas Valanciunas in 2011 and went with Waiters over a small forward like Harrison Barnes in 2012. So far, the results have been mixed. Thompson looks like he’s headed for a long, solid career, but Valanciunas could be special. Waiters is a work in progress, as is Barnes, but the early projections for Barnes look more promising.

All of that will sort itself out, of course. Competition is never a bad thing in the NBA, and having too many options is far better than having none at all, especially for a team in Cleveland’s position.

For all the improvements, this is still a developing group. Grant’s moves should provide support and finally hope for a franchise that quite literally started from the bottom. That, in and of itself, is a good thing.

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