Mike Brown’s defensive principles made a jarring return to Cleveland in the Cavaliers first preseason game. Defense, the simple art of attempting to disrupt and prevent the opponent from scoring points, an effort based gambit, made its return to the Quicken Loans Arena as the Cavaliers defeated the Milwaukee Bucks 99 to 87. But the game was hardly that close.
Cleveland exploded to a first quarter lead that never seemed in question. More than halfway through the first quarter, as Anderson Varejao zipped through the paint and Tristan Thompson hammered home loose balls and offensive boards, players worked as a team, surrounding Bucks, choking out Milwaukee.
Whatever chaos and disorganization ended the 2012-13 season, died there. Whatever effort issues or coach mutiny issues existed then, have been gone for months. It’s just one game, a preseason game no less, but there’s evidence that everything is now something else.
The April 23, 2013 re-hiring of Brown might not have been entirely fair to Coach Byron Scott, who was undermanned through all three years of his tenure with the team. It happened in the natural course of the evolution of the franchise, a correction that should not have been necessary.
If on that day you said: “If I were running the Cavaliers, Byron Scott would still be the coach.” You were wrong. This is not Mike Brown 2005, or even 2010. This is Mike Brown not only with the know how to make a team play better, but also with the fortitude to demand respect from younger players. There was individual improvement under Scott, and particularly the development of Kyrie Irving into an All Star point guard, but after one preseason game:
1. The team defensive effort improved. Milwaukee is not a poised as a particularly impressive team this season, but Cavaliers players moved in front of Bucks players with purpose and precision. Second line players lined up to stop easy baskets. Players jumped out to trap at the top of the three point line and others switched off while they recovered. It was the best the defense has played in three years since Brown was fired. The system is not there yet. But the principles are.
2. Tristan Thompson’s steps forward over the last 40 games of last season appear to be exponentially continuing. He was a on court leader in a losing streak breaking game in April against the Celtics last season, he was at Summer League mentoring rookies and changing his shooting hand, then he was a leader for the Canadian National Team in FIBA Americas tournament. His hands look quicker, he has more offensive moves, he fires up his teammates, and he plays better, more effective defense working within an effective system. Even as a first overall pick, Anthony Bennett will have trouble displacing Thompson from his starting role now and maybe ever.
3. Brandon Knight went 1 for 8 from the floor. If you’ve seen Knight’s Piston performances against Kyrie Irving, and the chip he somehow wielded on his shoulder for dropping in the Irving 2011 draft, if you’ve seen Knight blow by Irving, then you saw the examples of the worst of Kyrie Irving and the worst of the Cavaliers since the lockout ended in 2011. I mention this in this manner, because this is the single most important part of Mike Brown’s job of returning the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals: To give Kyrie Irving the tools to reach his goal of becoming the best player in the NBA. To take an All Star, and transform him into something more.
4. The team is deep. So much of this year’s improvement will be due to the systemic changes that Brown makes. But the roster has depth. Alonzo Gee, who played every game in 2012-13 was listed as “doubtful” by the organization and did not play. Gee, who fought his way through the Developmental League to the Cavaliers rotation and lineup, is the sole remaining vestige of 3 years of D-League signees starting or playing significant minutes for the team. Many in the media expect that rangy free agent signee Earl Clark will take Gee’s role as a starter. With Gee out, Clark stepped in, showed defensive acumen, workmanlike offense, surprising range, and perhaps why he is expected to start. He is a glue man on a good team, capable of many things without any spectacular singular basketball quality. He is the new Delonte West, minus the fire but also minus the dramatic surprises.