INDEPENDENCE: Judging by the way the roster is constructed and the minutes are parsed, Earl Clark and Anthony Bennett seem to be tethered to opposite ends of a see-saw. When one moves to power forward, the other moves to small forward.
Clark opened the season as the starting small forward and Bennett was used as a backup power forward. When Clark struggled on the wing, Brown slid him back into the post and Bennett was quietly moved to small forward — a position many in the organization view as his long-term home in the NBA.
Yet small forward remains a glaring hole on this team and Bennett has been deemed not ready to start, so Clark’s outside shooting, length and ability to rebound convinced Brown to give him another shot on the wing even though Clark concedes he’s much more comfortable playing in the post. Inevitably, that means Bennett, who has struggled mightily most of the season, is shifting back inside.
The Cavs’ goal this season was to simplify Bennett’s role and responsibilities, but now they’re complicating it by asking him to play both positions. Brown said following practice Friday that Bennett will likely swing between power forward and small forward, though he wants to get another look at the rookie playing in the post.
Bennett played less than five minutes at power forward in Thursday’s double-overtime loss to the Atlanta Hawks. He only took one shot and missed it, but Brown said he was encouraged by what he saw.
“It was the best five-minute stretch I’ve seen him play,” Brown said. “He did stuff [Thursday] that doesn’t show up in the box score. Sometimes it doesn’t even show up to us coaches on the floor. I wasn’t able to really appreciate what he did until I went back and watched the film.”
Brown thought Bennett ran the floor better than any big man on the team. He defended in the post exactly the way Brown teaches and he thought Bennett was a “physical presence in the paint.” He didn’t grab any rebounds, but Brown thought he boxed out the right way and was active.
Brown knows it sounds absurd, given Bennett’s scarce minutes and mostly zeroes in the box score. He made a similarly bold statement early in the season following a loss to the Indiana Pacers, when he declared it was the best the offense had looked despite scoring just 74 points and shooting 35 percent.
“Everybody thought I was crazy, then it started to show a little bit after that,” Brown said of that early November declaration, believing the same could be true with Bennett. “Keep doing this young fella. Keep doing this.”
Bennett seemed lost after Thursday’s game. When he was asked what his position and role were going forward, Bennett simply shrugged and said he wasn’t sure.
His minutes at small forward have been minimal. He has played about six minutes a game, typically near the end of the first quarter and start of the second. Then he sits the rest of the night.
Bennett has looked good in practice, team sources have privately insisted. There are days he is the best player on the practice court, players have said, then there are days he makes a multitude of silly mistakes and reaffirms he isn’t ready for an increased role.
If he continues to play well, however, there could be more minutes available in the post. Brown is trending toward three-guard sets for most games, leaving minutes on the wing scarce. But Clark was averaging 14 minutes a game as the backup power forward.
Those minutes could now go to Bennett unless Brown elects to give them to Tyler Zeller, whom Brown has been lauding the past few days. Brown could seemingly create an increase in minutes now for either Bennett (backup power forward) or Zeller (backup center), but not both, with Anderson Varejao swinging between the two spots.
Either way, Clark is entrenched again as the starting small forward. With little available on the trade market, it’s a move that could last for awhile as the Cavs search to fill the need for a small forward internally.
“It’s a big difference for me,” Clark said. “I was getting comfortable at the 4 [power forward]. At the end of the day, Mike is the coach and I’ll do whatever he wants me to do.”
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at https://ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.