Eight years after Cleveland picked LeBron James first overall in the draft and 17 months removed from James’ infamous “Decision,” there is hope Kyrie Irving may be the piece the Cavaliers can rebuild around.
Irving will make his debut as the Cavs open the season Monday night at Quicken Loans Arena against another lottery team in the Toronto Raptors.
After five straight playoff appearances with James, including an NBA finals berth in 2007, Cleveland plummeted to 19-63 - the NBA’s second-worst record - last season in the wake of James’ departure for Miami.
The mood quickly changed thanks to Irving, the first overall pick after Cleveland won the draft lottery with a previously acquired Los Angeles Clippers pick.
Irving played only 11 games for Duke because of a foot injury, but the 19-year-old point guard is poised to take over as the Cavaliers’ starter right away after the team waived Baron Davis.
Irving scored 21 points and had six rebounds coming off the bench in his first preseason game, but shot 34.6 percent in the two warmups to show he still has room to grow.
“Every day I see glimpses of what this kid can do,” coach Byron Scott said. “Then maybe 10 minutes later, he’ll show me he’s still a rookie. It brings a smile to my face, though, because we’ve got a good one.”
The Cavaliers are also excited about 6-foot-9 forward Tristan Thompson, the fourth overall pick in the draft out of Texas.
However, Cleveland’s second selection isn’t expected to have as big a role as Irving - at least not yet. While Thompson develops, veteran Antawn Jamison and newcomer Omri Casspi figure to start alongside center Anderson Varejao in the frontcourt.
While Cleveland has high hopes for its rookies, growing pains are a near certainty with an otherwise unspectacular roster. Still, Irving likes the idea of being a player the Cavaliers can build around and one that will hopefully stick around - unlike James.
“I really want to be the cornerstone,” he said, “the piece of the team that they build around and have a lot of great players around.”
Like Cleveland, Toronto also saw the bottom fall out last season after Chris Bosh joined James in Miami. The Raptors went 22-60, suffering through their worst season since 1997-98.
They begin 2011-12 with a new coach in Dwane Casey, who coached Minnesota for two years and was an assistant on Dallas’ title-winning team last season. He brings a defensive-minded philosophy to the Raptors, who gave up 105.4 points per game in 2010-11 - 26th in the NBA.
Calderon averaged 9.8 points and 8.9 assists last season, but shot 44.0 percent, the worst since his rookie season. DeRozan is entering his third year in the league, having doubled his rookie scoring average to put up 17.2 points per game last season.
The wild card could be Andrea Bargnani, who is being shifted from center to forward in hopes of improving his rebounding. The Italian 7-footer averaged a career-best 21.4 points last season, but only 5.2 rebounds.
Unlike Cleveland, the Raptors will be without their lottery pick. Jonas Valanciunas, the fifth overall selection out of Lithuania, will play an additional season overseas.
The Raptors are trying to balance fielding a competitive team now and building toward bigger success in the future.
“I want to win, to compete and build,” Casey said. “(But) we have so many fundamentals that are lacking to even be thinking about the playoffs … or being a top-tiered team. We have so many young guys, that’s where we’re at … building.”
Toronto won two of three against the Cavaliers last season.