Now that the dust has settled and the shock has worn off from the Cleveland Cavaliers selecting Anthony Bennett with the first pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, Chris Grant’s bold decision can be analyzed with a cooler head and a clearer mind.
At first glance, the selection is ludicrous. Why draft an undersized power forward who will likely struggle to defend at the NBA level when your team already employs an undersized power forward and a defensive-minded coach?
First, Bennett is not a starter, and the Cavs do not view him as one. According to Chad Ford, they viewed no one in this draft as a starter.
The Cavs believe that given the strength of their roster, it’s unlikely that they’ll draft a starter. They believe their core of Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao is better than anyone they could draft at No. 1. They also believe that while they have a huge hole at small forward, they’ll use their cap space to find a veteran small forward to fill that hole. Regardless of who they draft, he is likely coming off the bench.
If Grant determined that no one in this draft could crack the starting lineup, he was then free to draft the best talent available. There was no need to try to fill a spot or draft for need. In a vacuum, who is the best player? Chris Grant determined that to be Bennett, and at least offensively, he is probably correct.
Finding a pick-and-roll partner for Kyrie Irving seems to have been a big consideration. Bennett has range to at least the college three and is a brutal force when attacking the rim. Catching and finishing on the move should be no problem for Bennett, who seems to want to rip the rim from its foundation on every dunk attempt.
He should also be a mismatch for whatever defender opposing teams throw at him (non-LeBron category). He’s listed at 6’8″ and has a smooth first step but also shows a nice face-up game in the post, although his pure back-to-the-basket game is a work in progress. Still, the old “too-big-for-small-forwards-too-quick-for-power-forwards” cliche is actually appropriate with Bennett.
His ability to defend is another matter entirely. Unless the Cavs can “hide” him on lackluster opponents, Bennett will struggle to guard his position, whatever that might be. Given the number of subpar defenders the Cavs will trot out this season, its unlikely he’ll be hidden effectively. This is where Mike Brown comes in.
Brown’s calling card as a coach is his defense, but Chris Grant has done him absolutely no favors in assembling this roster. The Cavs perimeter defense is a sieve, and they back it up with absolutely zero rim protection. If a ball-handler is able to beat his man off the dribble—which he likely will—there will be minimal resistance in the paint.
While there should be some individual defensive improvement from the youngsters, Brown will have to install basically the greatest team and positional defense in the NBA if the Cavs are going to be competitive. With no one-on-one stoppers, Cleveland’s rotations with have to be blindingly fast, one step ahead of the ball at all times. Defenders will need to help and recover constantly, make smart double teams and then scramble out of them quickly and correctly and be in position to take a charge as much as possible.
That is a tall, tall order. Are the Cavs main fixtures—Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, Anthony Bennett—capable of that style of play? If they are, they haven’t yet shown it.
To play that way, teams must all be on the same page, trust one another implicitly and sell out consistently. It combines smarts with effort. For a defense that had an awful habit of looking disinterested for huge swaths of times and making unintelligent rotations, any change in that direction will be a signal of good things to come.
With the way Grant has constructed the roster, it seems like that is his plan. Load up on offensive weapons and trust that Brown can extract every ounce of defensive ability from his team, either through cajoling or strategy (and preferably both). Bennett’s offense far outweighs his defense. The same can be said for Sergey Karasev, the sweet-shooting, deft-passing Russian the Cavs took with the No. 19 selection.
Despite owner Dan Gilbert declaring that the Cavs must make the playoffs this season, I don’t expect this to be Cleveland’s roster for the next decade. Grant, I believe, is still in asset-collecting mode. He would love to package a few of the young pups for an established super star, so roster fit is not hugely important right now. Down the line, that could and likely will change.
Did Grant make the right call? Maybe. He has a habit of making unconventional picks that seem to work out alright given time. If Bennett is one of those unique talents who can score and rebound despite some physical limitations, then Grant is a genius.
But this feels very much like Grant’s last chance to go against the grain. Three years in a row he has gone off the board to take an outside-of-the-box prospect. It could work, but if it doesn’t, Grant might not be given the chance to try again.