INDEPENDENCE: Three years into this massive rebuilding project, the Cavaliers’ overhaul is nearly complete. There’s only one problem: They’ve yet to truly address the one position that forced this roster gutting in the first place.
The Cavs have spent three years looking for a reputable small forward and a viable replacement for LeBron James. Jamario Moon was always considered an interim at the position, but Omri Casspi was a bust and Alonzo Gee has likely maximized his talent and still isn’t a starting-caliber small forward on a contending team.
They preferred Dion Waiters to Harrison Barnes in last year’s draft and skipped Otto Porter in favor of Anthony Bennett in this year’s draft, leaving Earl Clark as the latest temporary fix. Only one year of his deal is guaranteed, although the Cavs hold a team option for next season.
The small forward position throughout the league has become an explosive, scoring-driven collection of stars.
Three of the league’s four top scorers last season (Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant and James) were small forwards. Of the eight teams to make the playoffs out of the Eastern Conference, six were led in scoring by a small forward.
The Cavs have used No. 1 overall picks on a point guard (Kyrie Irving) and a power forward (Bennett), No. 4 picks on a shooting guard (Waiters) and another power forward (Tristan Thompson) and took a risk on Andrew Bynum to fill the center position. That leaves some rope, a hanger and duct tape to get by for now at small forward, but coach Mike Brown doesn’t believe that leaves the Cavs at a disadvantage.
“We can have scoring from other areas. I don’t think your small forward has to be your leading scorer or a high-level scorer in order to win,” he said. “I think a small forward for us has to be a guy who is a high-level defender who has some size and toughness.”
Former coach Byron Scott often raved about Gee’s defensive ability and never hesitated to use him defensively at any position but center. Clark similarly flourished last season splitting time between power forward and small forward for the Los Angeles Lakers, although he is expected to primarily play small forward with the Cavs.
“I don’t think I really have a position. I can guard a ‘2’ or a ‘3’ or a ‘4,’ I can shoot 3s and run the floor,” Clark said. “I think the game where you have a position in basketball is almost over. I’m a basketball player. I like the fact I can play the ‘3’ or ‘4.’ The fact I’m versatile and can do a lot of things is going to help me get a lot of jobs in the NBA.”
Clark was traded along with Dwight Howard from the Orlando Magic to the Los Angeles Lakers before last season, but he was considered a throw-in to the deal that centered on Howard. Yet Clark became a key piece to the Lakers’ playoff push, averaging career highs of 7.3 points and 5.5 rebounds.
Still, neither Clark nor Gee is considered a threat offensively. They have combined to score 2,773 points in eight years in the NBA. Durant scored 2,280 points last year alone.
Brown doesn’t expect the Cavs’ collection of small forwards to shut down the elite guys like James and Durant, but he is hopeful they can adequately defend Eastern Conference scorers like Paul Pierce and Josh Smith without constant double teams.
C.J. Miles is the best scoring option the Cavs have at the position, but he is best suited in a reserve role as a shooter off the bench. Besides, both Gee and Clark are better defenders than Miles, which obviously is more important to Brown than scoring.
“He preaches defense every day,” Gee said. “I don’t think anybody preaches defense like him. Every little thing counts. He sees everything. I’m amazed at how he sees everything.”
Brown isn’t close to naming a starter at the position yet, but Clark is expected to win the job, at least for one season. Whatever happens next summer, when James can again become a free agent, remains to be seen.
For now, everyone is essentially playing for their next contract. Miles is a free agent after the season and the team holds options next season on both Clark and Gee.
“We don’t need a fourth or fifth guy that’s going to take six, seven, eight dribbles and hold onto the ball and try to create all the time,” Brown said. “We need a guy that’s going to be a facilitator and make quick decisions.”