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The additions of Nene, Emeka Okafor, Trevor Ariza and Bradley Beal have the Wizards eyeing the playoffs, but it's a tougher Eastern Conference than you remember. This week, Path to the Playoffs takes a look at the Cleveland Cavaliers.
A Cleveland Cavaliers franchise devastated by the circus departure of LeBron James received the mother of all consolation prizes when they won the 2011 draft lottery, courtesy of Baron Davis and the Los Angeles Clippers. The consensus No. 1 pick in a weak draft, Kyrie Irving was nevertheless anything but a slam dunk, having played only 14 games during his collegiate career due to injury. And then, he had the rookie season he had. Welp.
The future of the guard position may as well be etched in stone following the 2012 draft. The Cavs grabbed Dion Waiters and may field the combo guard backcourt from hell in the near future. There are plenty of questions about Chris Grant's decision to draft him so high, especially after Waiters never worked out for the team ... or spoke to them.
Depth in the backcourt is respectable. CJ Miles and Jeremy Pargo will account for Kyrie's unused minutes while Daniel Gibson and Kelenna Azubuike help man shooting guard. Gibson may earn the nod while Byron Scott makes Waiters "earn" the starting spot a la Jordan Crawford/Bradley Beal.
Where does Wizards cult/D-league hero Alonzo Gee fall? Gee has seen time at SG and SF during his stint in the NBA and depending on what Coach Scott decides, Gee could start at SG or SF depending on how training camp goes. Barring a disaster, it's going to be small forward. Gee beat out Omri Casspi last season and right now it's an open question as to whether the acquisition from the Kings can be a dependable backup. Of course, he came gift-wrapped with a first-rounder, so whatevs. Is there a chance Luke Walton takes his minutes? If the Cavs start making a run and need dependable play from SF to back up the firepower in the backcourt ... yes!
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Power forward is something of a question mark for the Cavs, not necessarily due to upside, but rather how much will be realized and how soon. The extremely raw Tristan Thompson was drafted at No. 4 in the year of Irving to a few raised eyebrows. The absence of a training camp didn't help his development any, but he still managed to take care of the ball while rebounding well and even scoring at a respectable clip. I'm watching him closely this year, but there's more behind him this year than the wake of Antawn Jamison's departure.
Rather than extoll the virtues of Luke Harangody, I'm interested in Jon Leuer. Milwaukee's 2011 second-round pick was part of the Samuel Dalembert trade and was immediately waived by the Houston Rockets. Leuer is one of those typical Bucks draft picks that slide their feet well on defense and play competent, if not inspiring, offense. Thompson and Leuer might form a capable rotation at power forward for the foreseeable future (both are in their second year). If Leuer pans out as a backup in that regard, the Cavs got an absolute steal on the waiver wire.
Cleveland enjoys some stability in the middle, which buys some much needed development time for 2012 first-round pick Tyler Zeller. The book is out on Anderson Varejao and there really isn't much to say. Grant & Co. would no doubt be willing to trade him if the right partner and package came along, but that price will probably be too steep this season unless Zeller explodes out of the gate. Which is extremely unlikely.
The Cavs and the Washington Wizards both reloaded in a big damn hurry, hmm? If Waiters has a respectable start while Thompson and Leuer build on last season's results, this team could easily surprise observers (Marc Stein, cough). But if it comes down to battle for the eighth seed, I'm betting on the Wizards (provided John Wall is healthy). The Wizards youth is more seasoned and their veterans are higher impact. The wild card here is what their backcourts look like. I don't think Waiters is going to explode onto the scene, while Bradley Beal's complementary game gives him the early edge.
There's room to go either way, but the Wiz take it, this year.