The Cleveland Cavaliers got tarred and feathered by the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday night and came away 126-96 losers. However, they can take solace in the fact that Andrew Bynum played in back-to-back games for the first time this season and scored a season-high 16 points, pus six boards and a block.
Coach Mike Brown limited Bynum to 21 minutes, tying his high for the year, although the game was over by halftime. The Cavs headed to the locker room trailing 65-32, and Bynum had nearly one-third of Cleveland's points with 10 in the first half.
If Bynum is able to remain healthy and be a nightly contributor, he gives Cleveland a legitimate shot at making the postseason. Despite the 4-10 record, the Cavs are only 1.5 games out of eighth place in the weak-as-an-infant Eastern Conference, and they have the talent throughout their roster to contend following their rough start.
Considering that he had not played in an NBA game since May of 2012, Bynum has gotten off to a very encouraging start in a Cavs uniform. Through nine games he has pretty stats when rated per 36 minutes: 13.4 points, 7.6 boards, 2.8 blocks and even 2.5 assists (per NBA.com). That said, he's only averaging around 16 minutes per game.
Bynum showed everything he has to offer Saturday night. His quickness is gone for good, but he is still savvy enough to use his size in space. Surprisingly, he tortured the Spurs defense in the mid-range with all eight of his made field goals coming from at least eight feet out. And he did this one night after clashing with Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans for 18 minutes.
Finishing off the back-to-back set with his best game of the season signals that Bynum may be healthier than previously thought, and it comes just two weeks after he openly discussed the possibility that his career could be over.
As he told reporters after practice on Nov. 8, "Retirement was a thought, it was a serious thought. It still is. It's tough to enjoy the game because of how limited I am physically...I'm a shell of myself on the court right now. I'm just struggling mentally" (via Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com). The 16-point performance in San Antonio should buoy his spirits.
If Bynum can continue to play in back-to-back games, he gives the Cavs a scorer who can shore up their frontcourt defense and do work on the glass. Recall that he posted 18.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game for the L.A. Lakers in 2011-12. Though he will never return to that level of proficiency, he still offers a tremendously high upside for this season.
He also has a very strong supporting cast around him, led by electric point guard Kyrie Irving. The first overall pick in 2011 is looking to play his first full season as a pro, and if he avoids injury he is potent enough to carry Cleveland almost single-handedly.
Irving has been mimicking his strong showing from last season with 21.8 points, 6.5 dimes and 3.8 boards per game through 13 contests. If he can improve on his 41-percent shooting, a 4.2-percent dip from a season ago, the Cavs offense could really start cooking.
Despite Irving's prowess, Cleveland has sputtered so far. Their defense ranks 20th and their offense ranks 28th, measuring efficiency by points per 100 possessions (per NBA.com). They have shot just 42.3 percent from the field and clearly need to tinker with their playbook. The Cavs should remain hopeful however, as there is too much quality in the rotation for them to continue struggling to this degree.
They have one of the most underrated young power forwards in the league in Tristan Thompson. The 22-year-old Canadian has blossomed into a double-doubles dynamo, and he has averaged around 12 points and nine boards since the start of last season. And to demonstrate how well Bynum has played so far this year, his player efficiency rating is nearly identical to Thompson's.
He is joined by Anderson Varejao, who averaged 14.1 points and 14.4 rebounds per game before breaking his wrist in February. So far, Varejao has lacked the burst he displayed last season, but like Bynum he is a player with a 20-point, 20-rebound game on his resume. Cleveland also has Earl Clark up front who flashed his strong potential last season as a Laker.
Second-year shooting guard Dion Waiters is averaging 13.2 points and 1.5 steals per game, providing a nice complement for Irving in the backcourt. Like Irving, Waiters will need to find a way to improve his shooting percentage, as he's converting at just a 38.6-percent clip.
If Jarrett Jack can cast off his inconsistency and find the super-sub form he showed with the Golden State Warriors, Cleveland's offensive attack would improve drastically. In the meantime, C.J. Miles has been a creditable sixth man.
Another breakout player from Saturday's game was Australian shooting guard Matthew Dellavedova, who scored a career-high 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting. Even 2013 No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett showed signs of life on Saturday. After tallying 13 points in his first 10 games, Bennett busted out with nine points on 4-of-5 shooting against the Spurs.
Cavs beat writer Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal expressed cause for optimism despite the 30-point loss. After all, it came on the road against one of the best teams in the league, so they get a pass.
Cleveland has every reason to be hopeful as the team continues to cohere during the early games on the schedule. There is no need to panic about their poor record and lackluster offense just yet, as they play in a conference that is rife with mediocrity. The Toronto Raptors lead the Atlantic Division with a 6-7 record, so the Cavs should have a shot at one of the lower playoff seeds despite sharing a division with the Indiana Pacers.
You can count on Kyrie Irving raising the offensive efficiency of the team as the season progresses, and that will come through improved play from his teammates including Waiters, Jack, Bennett, Bynum and Varejao.
All the Cavaliers need from Bynum is somewhere in the neighborhood of eight points and six rebounds in 25 minutes per game, but they will need him in there on a regular basis. He fills out the frontcourt and remains a competent defender despite having lost a step or two. If the rest of the rotation plays to their potential, Cleveland will be right in the playoff hunt come April.