If you thought that 2012 was one crazy year in the world of Cleveland Sports, 2013 proved that there is rarely a dull moment. There were good times and bad, hirings and firings, wins and losses, and appearances in postseasons and courtrooms. As the year comes to a close, like we have done the last five years, WFNY will take a look at what we view to be the ten biggest sports stories to grace our local sports scene over the last 12 months. Each day through the rest of the year, we will be counting down from ten to one. Do enjoy.
Since the moment that LeBron James packed his bags for South Beach, the NBA Draft lottery has been the Cavaliers’ proverbial ticket out, a glimmer of hope amid a barrage of lopsided losses and blown leads as part of the #TankStrong three-year movement under fired Coach Byron Scott. For every minute logged by Luke Walton, Jeremy Pargo, and Omri Casspi, for every game missed by Anderson Varejao or Kyrie Irving, there was a wishing star that it would lead to a brighter tomorrow. Finishing at 24-58, the wine and gold had the third best odds at gaining the top pick, behind both the Charlotte Bobcats and Orlando Magic. When their numbers were drawn, celebration ensued, but it was immediately replaced by uncertainty at who the pick would be come June. When the commissioner stepped to the podium on June 27, he read a name that surprised most Cavaliers fans and scribes worldwide, forward Anthony Bennett out of UNLV.
Before the man or the pick, there was the losing, and there was no shortage of it. In the final 24 games of the season, the Cavaliers won just four times, and they had losing streaks in that span of ten and six to conclude the season. Directly prior to those final 24 contests, the Cavs had a stretch where they went 15-15 in a thirty game stretch, making some wonder whether the veteran bench of Shaun Livingston, Wayne Ellington, Marreese Speights, and yes, even Luke Walton, coupled with the star performances of Kyrie Irving could propel the Cavaliers into an incredibly improbable playoff push.
Well, we all know that didn’t happen, and when the final odds were set, the Cavaliers had 156 combinations out of 1000, or 15.6-15.7% odds each for the first, second, and third picks. Owner Dan Gilbert kept his tradition going of three straight seasons with a large representation heading to New York for the draft lottery. Included in the convoy this year were radio personality Tony Rizzo, chef Michael Symon, rapper Machine Gun Kelly, and a lucky contest-winning fan. There was also Dan’s son, Nick Gilbert. Nick famously dropped the “What’s not to like?” line when interviewed during the 2011 draft lottery that netted the Cavaliers the pick that secured Kyrie Irving. This year, Nick said that this will be their last trip back to New York for some time, implying a playoff appearance. Well, luck smiled upon the Cavaliers one more time as deputy commissioner Adam Silver unveiled the card showing the Cavaliers logo last, cementing the top pick. The Cleveland contingent went bonkers, Rizzo screaming “ATTA BOY, NICKY! ATTA BOY!” over Silver’s announcement.
As everyone began to pour through the options for the top selection, there was no shortage of candidates. With no sure-fire number one like in most seasons past, there was a large amount of discussion. Injuries further complicated the process as centers Alex Len (Maryland) and Nerlens Noel (Kentucky) along with Bennett (UNLV) were unable to workout for teams due to injuries sustained during the college basketball season. There were wing options to be had as well with Kansas’s Ben McLemore, Georgetown’s Otto Porter, and Indiana’s Victor Oladipo. With a smoking crater of spare parts on the roster at small forward, I was clamoring for the Cavs to select Porter for his potential fit with ball-dominating guards like Irving and Waiters. We had guys on the site pulling for Noel, Oladipo, Porter, and McLemore. Meanwhile, there was a lot of smoke going on that Alex Len would be the selection. There was also little talk of Anthony Bennett, other than a passing murmur that second-time-around Coach Mike Brown had familiarity with Bennett’s game. He was largely considered to be the longest odds of that six-pack of players. Then, David Stern came to the podium.
Anthony Bennett was the selection, and pandemonium ensued. Why would Chris Grant select Bennett when the Cavaliers have a young, talented power forward in Tristan Thompson? Had the injuries of Noel and Len just scared them off too much? Following the draft, we heard rationale about Bennett being able to score from anywhere on the court, an inside-and-out guy who can grab boards, run the floor, and finish in traffic. Many wondered how Mike Brown would use a rookie drafted so high, considering his past treatment of J.J. Hickson and others.
Mike Brown warned us that due to his game shape and shoulder injury rehab, the plan was to bring Bennett along slowly. Well, we’re one-third of the way through the season now, and the results have been less than expected. Bennett has started out incredibly rocky and appears to be very out of shape. In 21 games, Bennett is averaging 2.4 points and 2.0 rebounds while shooting a shade over 29% from the field (not to mention, 4-of-24 from three and 4-of-10 from the line) in 10 minutes per night. He’s firmly behind Tristan Thompson, Anderson Varejao, Andrew Bynum, and Earl Clark, and attempts to play him at the small forward position have not been successful. In the last couple of weeks, Bennett has abandoned hovering around the three-point arc, chucking bricks, and has started to work in the post to get the ball. There were a couple of nice returns in last night’s game against Detroit, where he scored a second-best-on-the-season 7 points.
So, as we head into 2014, the early returns on Anthony Bennett have been, quite frankly, nightmarish. But, most of the top picks that were under consideration from the Cavaliers have met a similar early season fate. Nerlens Noel hasn’t played a game this season, Alex Len has seen 31 minutes in four games, Otto Porter has just started playing with 63 minutes in six games, and McLemore is starting for Sacramento, averaging 9.1 points, but shooting just 38%. The one exception is Victor Oladipo. In 28 games for the Magic, Oladipo is averaging 12.9 points on just under 40% shooting to go with his strong floor game (4.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.8 blocks) and defense while learning the point guard position (3.9 turnovers).
As far as stories go, winning the right to the top pick for the fifth time in franchise history was a great moment for Cleveland given the four top selections that preceded this one (Carr, Daugherty, James, and Irving, for anyone that forgot). However, the momentum and goodwill from that win has soured, and it will be up to Bennett to get into game shape, get into the post, and make this a more positive Cleveland sports story in 2014.