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Why The Cleveland Cavaliers May Be Headed Back To The Lottery

Cavs General manager Chris Grant is not in danger of losing his job, writes the Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s Mary Schmitt Boyer in this weekend’s mailbag. He’s drafted well, and the Baron Davis trade that landed the Cavs presumptive franchise player Kyrie Irving was a smart move when combined with lottery luck. But the optimism heading into next season should be tempered by the countless injuries the Cavs have suffered in the wake of LeBron’s (original) Decision.

This is by no means an excoriation of the Cavs’ moves this summer, or over the four years of Chis Grant’s reign as GM. But with so much hope for this year’s squad, it’s hard not to poke holes in all the buoyant projections for next season. It’s also important to remember that most NBA fans want to see the Cavs back in the playoffs if only to witnessâ„¢ (sorry) Kyrie Irving on the big stage. His career is just getting started, and its fun to envision him taking it to LeBron and Co. in the first round as an eight seed, or possibly going mano a mano against Derrick Rose and the Bulls.

But the injury history of their front court stacks the odds against the Cavs even with all their moves and the maturation of Irvin and off-guard Dion Waiters.

Andrew Bynum may never play another minute in the NBA again. Chances are he will, but it’s almost as likely his knees can never again handle that 280 pound plus body while he runs and jumps on a hardwood floor. That’s not to say people (outside Philadelphia) aren’t rooting for him to get back to his 2011-12 form, it’s just that seven-footers with a history of knee problems are almost always battling them for the rest of their lives.

Seven-footers are sparse to begin with, but combine that with the athleticism and timing of a healthy Bynum, and there are only a few in the world at his level. The same could be said about Dwight Howard, Tyson Chandler Joakim Noah et al. Bynum is in rare company though; he’s a skilled seven-footer that’s made an All-Star team and won NBA titles, but even though he’s turning only 26 next month, trusting his health is foolish. Most smart Cavs fans know this.

Unfortunately, the man who will back him up hasn’t played more than 31 games in a season since LeBron James was still in town. But Anderson Varejao did increase his production enough in the first couple months last season — he led the league rebounding with over 14 per game to go along with a career high 14.1 PPG — to be a very real candidate for the All-Star game. But he injured his knee, and after surgery he suffered a blood clot that threatened his life!

That’s bizarre even for a Cavs player. Varejao’s offensive game was a nice surprise for Cavs fans last season. After dinging his knee — no surprise — he was only out 6-8 weeks to recuperate. Augment that knee injury with a life-threatening blood clot and all the bad juju in the world appears directed at Cleveland (we’ll ignore their other sports teams, but Cleveland sports fans know exactly what I’m talking about).

Keep reading for more Cavs injury question marks, and a better-case scenario next season…

Anybody that watched Varejao and Irving last season knows there’s plenty of talent on this team even before the additions. Grant improved the team even more over the summer. Anthony Bennett is an adept scorer at the 4-spot; except, Tristan Thompson is already in place. Sure, depth is important and the 2013 draft is supposed to be one of the weakest in history (those pronouncements are always premature), but Bennett is battling his own shoulder issues, though both Varejao and Bennett were cleared to begin practicing again this weekend. Thompson — for his part — has switched his shooting hand and it’s already paid dividends on the free throw line.

Alonzo Gee will hold it down at the small forward slot with Earl Clark, Russian import Sergey Karasev and rookie Carrick Felix backing him up. Gee is entering his fifth year in the league after stints in Washington, and a brief trip south to San Antonio before coming to Cleveland in the malaise that was the 2010-11 Cavs. Gee’s shooting from the field and beyond the arc dipped in his second full season in Cleveland last year, but the signing of free agent Earl Clark should be a sturdy replacement or interim starter if Gee continues to flounder near the Mendoza line (40 percent shooting).

That leaves Irving and Dion Waiters in the backcourt. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the Cavaliers offseason — neglecting to mention Bynum and the selection of Bennett — is the free agent signing of third guard Jarrett Jack. The four-year, $25.2 million price tag (fourth year is only partially guaranteed) appears a tad overpaid for a team that has one of the finest guard tandems in the league already. Waiters played well in his first year out of Syracuse last season. If fans are worried Waiters’ shot selection will continue to go bonkers on occasion, wait till you watch Jack every other night.

Longtime Dubs fan Hoop Speak’s Kevin Draper did a good job explaining how infuriating Jack’s dribble-heavy game could be Warriors fans despite an excellent 2012-13 campaign for the team. The Georgia Tech product loves to dribble, and more than that, he’ll settle for a contested 18-footer if the shot clock is winding down after all his iso fiddling at the top of the key. That occurred with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson coming off screes along both wings and an All-Star forward in David Lee. Imagine Jack paired with Waiters and Irving in a three-guard lineup with scorers Bennett and Bynum playing in the front court?

The return of recent head coaching hire Mike Brown doesn’t help alleviate those offensive concerns. Brown has never shown much foresight on the offensive side of the ball. But he should do a really good job getting the Cavaliers to care about defense again. Only the Hornets, Kings and Bobcats gave up more points per possession than the Cavs did last season, and Brown will help turn them into at least league average on that side of the ball.

But — and not to harp on the injury issues, Kyrie Irving has played 110 games in the first two years of his career. Sure, he’s a top offensive player you can build around, but will be finally be able to stay healthy, especially when he’s giving a lot more effort on defense (we hope)? You can point to the dearth of offensive firepower the last two years as the reason Irving has gotten so beat up, but his injuries shouldn’t be overlooked when forecasting long term. But the return of Varejao, the signing of Jack, another year of experience for Waiters and a chance for Bynum to show what he can still do, might change that. And it might not. Cavs fans should prepare themselves for disappointment if Irving goes down for extended time this season.

In a perfect world, the Cavs largely stay healthy, make the playoffs and we get that Rose-Irving dual I mentioned earlier; or LeBron and the Heat struggle against the pressure of playing LeBron’s old team in the first round while whispers swirl about his impending decision to opt-out before the 2014-15 season. But the world isn’t perfect and the injury history of the best Cavs players and recent acquisitions, combined with the somewhat mismatched personnel on the offensive end and Brown’s inability to shape a team’s offensive identity makes for the very real possibility the Cavs are back in the lottery next summer for their fourth straight summer.

BUT, I’m hoping they get a final seed in the Eastern Conference and scare the bejesus out of Miami, Chicago, Indiana or whomever they face in round one. Cavs fans deserve a winning team, so lets hope God has had enough fun at their expense. At the very least, a season without significant injuries to their key personnel is in order, and if that happens they might even compete for something better than a 7 or 8 seed. But if — like it’s been shown in the past — they lose some key players for more than superficial ailments, Nick Gilbert could again be back using his powers for the right ping pong balls.

Do you think Cleveland makes the playoffs this season?

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