CLEVELAND: This Cavaliers season was always all about the lottery pick.
But even a front office that knew the team was one more draft away from playoff contention could not have envisioned a 9-28 start and games that have been unwatchable at times.
Cavs owner Dan Gilbert acknowledged as such Wednesday night during the broadcast of a 99-83 victory over the visiting Atlanta Hawks.
“This year has not been an easy year,” Gilbert told Fox Sports Ohio. “This will improve. There are better days ahead. We will get through it.”
Now with center Anderson Varejao sidelined six to eight more weeks after undergoing right knee/quad surgery Thursday, Cavs coach Byron Scott must become the guardian of his young players’ psyches.
He need not worry about last year’s rookie of the year Kyrie Irving, the No. 1 overall pick with mojo to burn.
Perhaps not even the second of 2012’s first-rounders, Tristan Thompson, whose awakening seems to have begun during Varejao’s absence, now at 11 games and counting.
Above all, Scott must protect the head and heart of rookie center Tyler Zeller.
Already thrown to the wolves without Varejao, Zeller will be counted on to start against the league’s superstars. If he is manhandled in the 45 remaining games, he could end up like a young quarterback whose confidence is shattered after too many hits.
Scott acknowledged that he has seen befuddled looks from Zeller.
“Sometimes he’s holding [the ball], he turns around, he’s looking. Maybe from your guys’ standpoint it looks like he panics. Even from my standpoint, at times,” Scott said. “That’s where I tell him he has to be more decisive. I’d rather he’d shoot the ball than turn it over.”
Scott knows Zeller, drafted 17th overall by the Dallas Mavericks then traded to the Cavs, is going to have his ups and downs. Scott will talk to him “almost every day to make sure we keep him upbeat and understand he’s doing the right things.”
Scott said Zeller also must learn the strengths and weaknesses of the league’s centers. The Cavs’ five-game road trip that starts today in Denver includes matchups against the Sacramento Kings’ DeMarcus Cousins and Utah Jazz’s Al Jefferson.
“I don’t think his confidence is going to be shaken, to be honest with you,” Scott said of Zeller. “Tyler doesn’t seem like the type of guy who easily gets down on himself.”
Seemingly honest to a fault, Zeller still talks like a rookie. He conceded Wednesday that playing against backups is a lot easier.
“Now you’re playing against the best that everybody talks about,” he said. “Some games you have a lot of confidence and the next game they’ll destroy it.”
Asked if such challenges will toughen him mentally, Zeller said: “A little bit. You kind of get more comfortable and you start to offensively and defensively see the schemes, what works, what won’t, different adjustments you can make.”
Zeller had some rookie moments against the Hawks. In the second quarter, he went up to shoot over Al Horford and was called for a traveling violation. In the third quarter, he failed to protect the ball at the top of the key, and Jeff Teague picked his pocket for a steal and a layup.
But there was also a sign that Zeller’s teammates realize he’s their future. In the second half when he was cheap-shotted by Zaza Pachulia and fell down, Irving took off his mask to talk to an official, apparently in Zeller’s defense.
Thompson, another of Scott’s seemingly fragile youngsters, has blossomed in Varejao’s absence. Against the Hawks, Thompson had his eighth double-double in those 11 games. In that span, he’s averaging 13.1 points, 12.5 rebounds and one blocked shot in 35.8 minutes.
Thompson said Wednesday that without Varejao, his focus has been “the rebounding,” as the Cavs try to cover Varejao’s league-leading 14.4 average.
Scott said his message to Thompson has remained the same. He wants him to play with energy, be aggressive, rebound and defend.
“He’s getting more comfortable,” Scott said. “Now we’re starting to throw it to him in the post a little bit more. He’s doing a heckuva job of getting into the lane and finishing. That’s the progression of his game.
“He’s a guy who works every day at what he’s trying to do and what he’s trying to be as a basketball player and he’s starting to reap some of the benefits.”
As dire as the Cavs’ situation appeared with the news of Varejao’s surgery, they did not buckle. They survived their trademark third-quarter lull and put away the disinterested Hawks, fourth in the Eastern Conference.
“We’ve proven we can play with the best in the league, we just have to put a full 48 minutes together,” Irving said afterward.
The rest of the season will be a mental test for the young Cavs. On Wednesday, they showed they have not joined the ranks of the downtrodden. It is Scott’s task to keep it that way.
As they forge ahead without Varejao, they need Scott to be their psychologist as much as their strategist, monitoring their spirits along with their minutes. Varejao might have been the Cavs’ heart and soul but might not have been in their long-term plans. His latest injury should accelerate their young big men’s growth.
As ugly as things have been at times, losing him doesn’t have to mean all is lost.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.