The Cavaliers will open training camp this week with legitimate hopes of making the playoffs for the first time since 2010. A three-year roster overhaul is complete, thanks to free agent additions of Jarrett Jack, Andrew Bynum and Earl Clark, the selections of Anthony Bennett and Sergey Karasev in the draft and the return of Mike Brown.
But plenty of questions still remain. With media day scheduled for Monday afternoon and the start of camp on Tuesday, here are five burning questions facing the Cavaliers entering training camp.
1. Health class
This is easily the most important issue this team will face all season. It’s probably the top three concerns entering the season, since the three best players – Kyrie Irving, Anderson Varejao and Bynum – have all suffered significant injuries the past few years.
If all three play in at least 65 games, the Cavs are in the playoffs. That seems highly unlikely, however, since Bynum isn’t even playing 5 on 5 yet and likely won’t be ready when the regular season begins Oct. 29.
The Cavs have overhauled their training staff in an effort to be more proactive to injuries rather than reactive. They know the season’s success is directly tied to the health of their stars.
Varejao has played the equivalent of one season over the last three years. Irving has missed one-fourth of the Cavs’ games since he entered the league and Bynum missed all of last season with knee problems that aren’t going anyway. If all three spend significant time injured again this season, all of this could unravel quickly.
2. Learning to defend
One of the biggest reasons Byron Scott was fired at the end of last season was the lack of improvement defensively during his three seasons. The Cavs were last in the league last season in defensive field-goal percentage, allowing teams to score on 47.6 percent of their shots.
Scott never really implemented a defensive system. They consistently failed to defend on pick-and-rolls and constantly struggled to defend the 3-point line. That all changes under Brown, who demands his teams to defend. How quickly players like Irving and Dion Waiters adapt to his style will be worth watching.
Waiters, for one, was shocked during summer league when Brown lined the team up on the baseline for the first practice in Las Vegas and taught defensive positioning for three hours. Get used to it.
3. Chemistry class
Speaking of Irving and Waiters, a focus for this coaching staff will be getting the young stars comfortable playing together. The on-court chemistry was often clunky between the two, with both players wanting the ball in their hands and unable to determine who should initiate and when.
Scott never seemed sure how to play them together, and injuries to both stars complicated the issue last season. He tried starting them together, insisting they needed time together on the court to figure it out, then inexplicably benched Waiters when the season was lost and going nowhere. He eventually relented and reinserted Waiters into the starting lineup, but the two never really flourished as the team had hoped.
Brown is hoping to fix that by telling Waiters to run. When he was first hired, Brown had thoughts of using Waiters as a backup point guard, but after watching a couple of practices and seeing how often Waiters circled back for the ball following a defensive rebound, Brown quickly changed his mind. He made it clear that any time Waiters does not grab a rebound, his job is to get out and run the floor. If Waiters gets the rebound, he’s free to keep it and initiate at the other end, but only in that scenario. Irving is the point guard, Waiters is the shooting guard. Their roles have been defined, now they need to execute it.
4. New blood
While Bynum’s signing grabbed all of the attention, the acquisition of Jack will likely be the most important of the offseason. He is a veteran with a commanding presence in the locker room, something the Cavs sorely lacked last season.
He is durable and he’s in the conversation as the league’s best backup point guard, which allows Brown to play Waiters exclusively at the 2.
And perhaps most importantly, Jack’s presence will keep Irving from pouting as much as he did last season. Jack has the attitude and pedigree to grab Irving by the throat (figuratively, of course) if he starts sulking again as he did last season. There was no one in that locker room last year capable of standing up to Irving. Now there is.
Jack played an instrumental role in the Golden State Warriors’ turnaround and march to the Western Conference semifinals. While the second round of the playoffs is a longshot, he is expected to fill the same role here.
5. Who plays small forward?
It has been three years since LeBron James left, yet the small forward position remains the one spot the Cavs have struggled to address. They tried Omri Casspi and Alonzo Gee, but Casspi flopped and Gee was exposed last season as a nice reserve, but his limited scoring ability prevents him from being a legitimate NBA starter.
The Cavs signed Clark over the summer, whom Brown had in Los Angeles and who seemed to improve as the year progressed. But with a No. 1 overall pick at point guard, No. 4 overall picks at shooting guard and power forward and Bynum and Varejao available at center, finding a viable 3 remains the team’s biggest need.