On paper, you could say the Cleveland Cavaliers have improved this season. They've matched their previous win total, 24, with 18 games remaining on the schedule. The roster sports legitimate NBA talent thanks to in-season trades for Luol Deng and Spencer Hawes. They're about one late-season winning streak away from the postseason if Atlanta continues to bottom out.
But have they actually developed any players under head coach Mike Brown at the helm? Now that's a thornier issue.
Anderson Varejao is back on the injury list and has generally looked like he's lost a step. Kyrie Irving's career trajectory has seemingly taken a step back at times. Tristan Thompson still hasn't pushed the needle on either ends of the floor.
In fact, it's hard to say that any key players have seen real improvement, which hasn't seemed to matter much given how forgiving the Eastern Conference has been to any team willing to not throw away the season.
With that in mind, there have been some improvements of note in names you might not have expected.
Break out your saltshakers for this one and hear me out.
We all know the Anthony Bennett pick will probably go down as one of the worst draft selections of the past decade. There's a chance he never lives up to the hype of being the No. 1 overall selection.
But considering how low the bar seemed back in November, and the collective struggles that have plagued player development in Cleveland, the fact that Bennett has at least worked himself into serviceable NBA shape and was a slight net positive in February counts as a huge improvement.
In fact, to put his averages of 7.2 points and 4.8 last month in perspective, his numbers were superior to the current overall work of fellow rookie and No. 4 pick Cody Zeller—and Zeller has been one of the better rookies this season (although that still isn't saying too much).
He may be out for the season, but that doesn't alter the fact that prior to injury, C.J. Miles was having a relative career year.
Through 50 games, Miles put up a career-high 16.28 player efficiency rating. His true shooting percentage (.569) and win shares per 48 minutes (.124) are both also the highest they've been since the 2007-08 season, per Basketball-Reference.com.
But perhaps most importantly, he's helped Cleveland win games. He's one of just two players on the roster (the other being Varejao) with an overall positive plus/minus rating, and the team went 21-29 when he was healthy (as opposed to 3-11 when he wasn't). The offense simply runs smoother with him involved, and the defense is stouter with him patrolling the perimeter.
Yes, Spencer Hawes has only played nine games for the Cavaliers.
Yes, his hot shooting from behind the arc will likely die down as opposing teams adjust to contain his shooting. However, in the short time since he has arrived in Cleveland, Hawes has already begun producing at a level reminiscent of much better days in Philadelphia.
His PER has noticeably jumped from 15.3 to 17.5 since the trade, and he's leading the team in three-point shooting even while Irving is adjusting to having a true pick-and-pop big man. He's scored in double digits in every game following his debut against the Toronto Raptors on Feb. 21, and he's registered four double-doubles despite transitioning to a slower pace. So much for statistical inflation.
Furthermore, Hawes just seems happy to be in Cleveland and on a team that hasn't decided to throw in the towel on the season. He earns the nod on this list for the immediacy and leap of his improvement, given how much he seemed to be slumping during his final days with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Tyler Zeller receives only an honorable mention based on his minutes for the season as a whole.
Trapped behind Varejao and then Hawes, his production has been stunted, but overall, he's had a few big games recently. Zeller averaged 10.6 points and 6.7 rebounds during one 10-day stretch from Feb. 18 through Feb. 28, which was the impetus behind some reported interest from other teams in his services.
For now, how Zeller ultimately stabilizes within the rotation depends on what moves the Cavs make this offseason. If they do move Zeller, they could get serviceable return given what he's flashed recently.
On the subject of Dion Waiters: Sure, he's flashed an improved outside shot and his defense has improved this season compared to last, but inconsistency and poor overall shot selection still plague his game. For a No. 4 pick, he just hasn't shown the same relative level of improvement as the above names.
The same can be said of all of Cleveland's young players, but Dion especially should be capable of improving so much more.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats provided by NBA.com and are current through Sunday, Mar. 9.
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