It was not all that long ago when the NBA world was praising the Cleveland Cavaliers’ reserve unit. Ramon Sessions was playing key minutes off of the bench, allowing then-rookie Kyrie Irving to get some much-needed rest; Alonzo Gee was providing instant offense, athleticism and some surprisingly solid defense when subbing in for Omir Casspi; a young Tristan Thompson thrived in limited minutes, providing the athletic and defensive yin to Antawn Jamison’s volume-based offensive yang.
It was even more recent when Gee was ultimately moved into the starting rotation, Daniel Gibson became riddled with injuries and the team lost Anderson Varejao for the duration of the season, thus forcing Thompson into an extended role. As much of a positive as the reserve unit was, once they graduated to no longer being reserves, the 2011-12 Cavaliers became extremely top heavy. Kyrie Irving was the surefire stud surrounded by three legitimate options and Anthony Parker. Once it was up to the supporting cast to, well…support, the legs grew thin and wobbly, and the Cavaliers were on their way to another lottery-bound season.
In an era of “next guy up,” it was the next, next guys who failed to rise.
Fast forward to the 2012-13 and Byron Scott has upgraded over the aforementioned Parker; Dion Waiters has not only put himself in the early race for NBA Rookie of the Year, he’s leapfrogged over Anthony Davis, the first-overall selection. Gee remains in the starting lineup, his sixth man role supposedly replaced by the free agent addition of CJ Miles. And the black hole that was the front court behind Anderson Varejao — formerly Semih Erden and Ryan Hollins — is now Tyler Zeller, a player who should also finish the season in the top 10 among first-year peers.
The bench, however, remains broken.
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Sessions, having been traded toward the end of last season, has been replaced by Donald Sloan, he of the NBDL, and Jeremy Pargo, who was acquired in a trade for DJ Kennedy. Miles has been nothing short of abysmal, looking lost during every offensive set. Zeller took a wayward elbow to the grill and has missed substantial time with a concussion and a non-displaced fracture in his orbital bone. Samardo Samuels has shown some flashes, but not enough to overcome the fact that Luke Walton is Luke Walton and Jon Leuer is Jon Leuer — great guys with borderline NBA-level talent, but not enough to help an otherwise young Cavalier squad overcome the talent gap between them and the top end of the NBA.
Scott, in turn, has been given the task of finding at least three or four players who can be counted on to play key reserve minutes, night in and night out. Thus far, easier said than done.
“The biggest thing is, I’m just looking for somebody besides Boobie Gibson to step up off the bench,” Scott said after the Cavs dropped their third straight contest on Sunday night. “Boobie has been great. I know we’re missing Tyler, but we need somebody else to just step up.”
The most telling statistic: as good as Daniel Gibson was on this evening, adding 16 points on 6-of-12 shooting, he was a part of a unit that saw the Oklahoma City Thunder outscore the Cavaliers by 24 in his 28 minutes on the floor. The Wine and Gold topped the Thunder in the third quarter, climbing back from a double-digit deficit. But the fourth quarter, a period that saw zero minutes played by Dion Waiters and the early portions being played without Kyrie Irving, resulted in the Cavaliers being outscored by nine.
Miles has since been replaced by Omri Casspi in the rotation. This is the third alteration at this spot as it was Walton who received first-quarter minutes during the team’s opening night win over the Washington Wizards. Samuels has been forced into Zeller’s minutes, leaving Leuer to fill in for the minutes Samardo left behind. And Donald Sloan is still the reserve point guard, often doing so with both Irving and Waiters not on the floor, which has proven to be a recipe for disaster.
Scott has stated that his intentions are to leave Waiters, a shooting guard who is actually very good at handling the ball, in the off-guard position as to not overwhelm him with responsibilities during his rookie season. His confidence, however, may lead Scott to amend his wishes, leaving Waiters on the floor for longer stretches as the season wears on. Irving’s ability to play off of the ball may be one of his biggest assets; Waiters’ ability to play with it may be exactly what the otherwise barren second unit needs to flourish.
Zeller will be back, eventually. In the game he sustained the broken cheekbone, the rookie compiled 15 points, seven rebounds and a steal in just 24 minutes of reserve play. But the lack of depth behind him has to give the Cavaliers’ front office considerable pause in any potential trade involving Anderson Varejao. If Scott decided to put Gee in reserve capacity, allowing either Miles or Casspi to run with the starting unit, the reserves could conceivably be Gee, Zeller and Gibson — with Gee and Gibson having the ability to play multiple positions — intertwined with the starting unit to compile an an actual NBA rotation.
Varejao and Thompson can slot in at either frontcourt position. Waiters has shown that he can play both guard poistions. Mixing in the triumvirate above, once Zeller is healthy, should help get this reserve unit off of the schneid, all while allowing Scott to rest his prized point guard in Kyrie Irving.
It’s a puzzle that only Byron Scott can solve, but all of the pieces are certainly in the box. Will it be a rotation that can contend for an NBA championship? Of course not. But it’s also one that should not be outscored by 24 points — by another team’s reserves, nonetheless — on any given night.
Certainly, the Cavaliers’ bench has been bruised battered and broken. But given time and a few tweaks to minutes played, it is not a problem that should last through the duration of the 2012-13 season.