It was another disappointing season for the Cleveland Cavaliers this past year, as the squad finished 24-58, good for third worst in the NBA. However, there are many reasons for optimism in Cleveland, as some of the team's young players, such as Tristan Thompson and rookie guard Dion Waiters, showed vast improvement as the year went on, while Kyrie Irving made what looks to be his first of many future All-Star appearances.
Add the 1st, 19th, 31st and 33rd picks in this year's upcoming draft and a plethora of cap space, and the future looks bright in Cleveland. With that said, the Cavaliers have key positions that they need to upgrade in this pivotal offseason in order to become what they hope will be a perennial contender in the East in the future. Here I have addressed the three most important positions for the team to upgrade in the upcoming year, and some ways the team could fix these weaknesses.
Ever since LeBron James left Cleveland in 2010 to join the Miami Heat, small forward has been the Cavaliers' weakest position by far. This year saw Alonzo Gee as the team's starting small forward for all 82 games, averaging 10.3 points, 3.9 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game, while providing adequate defense, averaging 1.3 steals per contest.
While these numbers are respectable on the surface, digging deeper one can see that Gee was not a very efficient player for the Cavaliers this season, especially for a starter. He had a player efficiency rating (PER) of 10.56, good for 48th in the league among 70 qualifying small forwards.
Additionally, Gee was one of 22 small forwards in the NBA this year to average 30 or more minutes per game, and he ranked second to last in PER among this group of players, ahead of only John Salmons of the Sacramento Kings.
Gee's PER is dismal compared to that of league leader LeBron James, and significantly lower than that of the 25th-best small forward in PER, Charlotte Bobcats rookie Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
If the Cavaliers want to compete for a playoff spot they absolutely have to address this position of weakness, and they have a number of options. First, in the draft the team could decide to use the No. 1 pick on Otto Porter of Georgetown, a player very high on many draft boards that would instantly fill this need for the foreseeable future.
If the Cavaliers don't tap Porter with the No. 1 pick, they may look for a small forward at No. 19, such as Sergey Karasev of Russia. Some experts (Chad Ford of ESPN included) project Karasev as more of a shooting guard, but at 6'7'' he's certainly capable of playing small forward as a slasher with a high basketball IQ.
Unfortunately, the free agent market doesn't provide many small forward options, as notable players such as Andre Iguodala and Andrei Kirilenko both have player options to remain with their teams. Outside of those two the pool is relatively weak, with players such as Chase Budinger and Kyle Korver some of the next-best options. For the Cavaliers, their worst position last year may be the most difficult to fill.
Before everyone goes up in arms over me placing this as a position of need, let me clarify. Kyrie Irving is without a doubt the star of this team, but behind Irving the Cavaliers were relatively weak in the point guard department.
Before picking up Shaun Livingston on December 25, 2012, the Cavaliers' backup point guard duties were rotated between Donald Sloan and Jeremy Pargo, both of whom were eventually waived by the team. And with Livingston's impending free agency, the Cavaliers currently don't have a backup point guard.
While the Cavaliers certainly won't address point guard with the No. 1 pick in the draft, they have some options with the 19th pick to fill this position of need. At pick No. 19, players such as Miami's Shane Larkin or Dennis Schroeder of Germany could be available.
Larkin is small, even by point guard standards at 5'11'', but he had very impressive numbers at the NBA Draft Combine that rate him as one of the draft's best athletes. Schroeder has been flying up draft boards recently due to his speed and athleticism, and some have compared him to Rajon Rondo. He's also only 19 years old, so he has time to grow.
If the Cavaliers pass on a point guard at 19, they could also target players such as Baylor's Pierre Jackson or Murray State's Isaiah Canaan with their second-round selections.
There are many notable free-agent point guards, but the Cavaliers aren't going to break the bank for someone that will be a backup for the team. Guys such as the Indiana Pacers' D.J Augustin or Will Bynum of the Detroit Pistons could be solid and affordable options, or the team may opt to re-sign Livingston if he isn't out of the team's price range.
Yes, the Cavaliers have Anderson Varejao, and when he played he was phenomenal, averaging 14.1 points and a league-leading 14.4 rebounds per game. However, he only played 25 games last season and has proven to be injury-prone throughout his career.
The past three seasons Varejao has played 81 games total, and he has only played over 75 games in three of his nine NBA seasons. Add this to the fact that Varejao will be a free agent at the end of next season and it's fair to say this position isn't stable for the Cavaliers. And while the team also has Tyler Zeller, who had a solid rookie season, it's hard to picture him as a starter on a contending team.
Again, the draft is probably the best place for the Cavaliers to address this weakness, and luckily the No. 1 prospect in this draft is Kentucky's Nerlens Noel, a 7'0" center. There are concerns about Noel, as he weighs only 206 pounds and is coming off an ACL tear, so his contributions next year would likely be minimal. He also has a very raw offensive game, but translates as a real difference-maker on defense, as he averaged 4.4 blocks per game last year at Kentucky.
As we have seen in the NBA playoffs, defensive-minded centers such as Roy Hibbert and Marc Gasol made huge impacts on their teams and brought them very deep into the postseason.
The Cleveland Cavaliers definitely have a lot of improvements to make to the roster in order to improve on last year's poor performance, but certainly have the draft picks and cap space to fill in some of these major needs. Look for this team to be much improved by the time next season rolls around.