When you play poker, it’s all luck. The dealer deals you your cards and you place bets accordingly. In the game of Texas Hold ‘Em, you only get two cards to start. From there, the dealer and shuffled deck of cards control your fate. When the cards are flipped over, you have no control what comes next.
In the basketball world, Cleveland Cavaliers general manager Chris Grant is both the dealer and near broke card player smelling like cheap whisky across the table. Over the course of the last three seasons since taking over for Danny Ferry in 2010, his draft picks have been the equivalent of high stake poker bets whose outcomes have yet to be decided.
The two cards Grant was dealt to start off his career were Kyrie Irving and Anderson Varejao. The latter, the longest tenured Cavalier up to this point, was still seen as a role player back in 2011. But since, when healthy, he’s been the best Cavalier behind Irving and a double-double machine. As for Irving, his on-the-court accomplishments speak for themselves. He won Rookie of the Year in 2011. In his first All-Star game last February, he stole the show by unexpectedly winning the three-point contest, playing well in the actual All-Star Game and having the highlight of the weekend when he broke Brandon Knight’s ankles.
These two players give Grant a very strong base for his hand – even if they have serious injury concerns. He has two proverbial cards that compliment each other well enough and give Grant confidence to take risks with other signings and draft picks.
And without question, he’s done that and bet big. By selecting Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters with his first top two picks after selecting Irving, Grant picked players with more raw upside than set ability. In 2011, when Thompson was the pick at No. 4, it would be fair to say that there weren’t a lot of slam dunk picks to be had. Enes Kanter went off the board the pick before, while players Jonas Valanciunas and Bismack Biyombo had a similar amount of questions as Thompson. Plus, players like Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard that we know now are very good weren’t being looked as top five picks in 2011. Still, the Texas product was – and still is – a raw, unpolished NBA player. As for Waiters, selected at No. 4 in 2012, his selection came as a little bit of a shock. Players like Thomas Robinson and Harrison Barnes were bantered about much more in the media as potential draft picks than the Syracuse sophomore. As it stands now, Waiters probably isn’t even in the top five players in his draft class. At best, he’s six, behind Anthony Davis, Barnes, Damien Lillard, Andre Drummond and Bradley Beal.
The bigger issue with Waiters, though, is a well-documented one. His definitive role on this Cavaliers squad has yet to be figured out. Irving and Waiters didn’t play a ton together last year due to injuries, and Waiters was Irving’s fourth best partner in crime, per Basketball Reference. For Waiters to be a long-term piece, he and Irving are going to have to develop a strong on-the-court relationship that sees both men playing well.
At that point, Grant’s cards were – and still are – a bit shaky. With the first two cards up, he trudged on and took more risks in the ensuing drafts and free agency.
The Anthony Bennett play is a move that has already been broken down at a nauseam. There are issues about his weight, what position he can play and if there is a fit for him on this roster. But due to where he was picked, Grant again bet big in a move that simply made people say “wow”. And remember, a player like Otto Porter would have been safer, while someone like Nerlens Noel arguably has more upside than Bennett.
Then came free agency. Jarrett Jack is a pretty black and white signing, and Grant should have a reasonable idea of what he’ll get out of the former Golden State Warrior. He can play both guards, enable Irving to play off the ball at times (something Waiters couldn’t/didn’t do last season) and give the Cavaliers a real veteran presence on the bench.
The big wager here is Andrew Bynum, the much maligned, often injured center who has created more news for his haircuts than his play on the court in the past year. Granted, his contract is very favorable for Cleveland, but there is a very good chance that provides nothing this season. There isn’t a lot of gray area with his signing. We are either going to see a resurgent Bynum that is a piece moving forward or have a lost bet of $6 million.
This upcoming NBA season is the last card Grant needs to see before we learn whether he will win big or go home broke. This season is important for so many reasons. Grant brought in a “new” coach in Mike Brown and is working with a roster that he created and molded. Outside of Varejao, every player is someone Grant brought in. If we see an improved Waiters, a more refined Thompson, a productive Bennett and healthy, motivated Bynum, that Grant is going to hit big on his bets and snagging him a huge jackpot, making Dan Gilbert a very happy man. And if not? He’ll go home, feeling a mix and shame and guilt, trying to figure where exactly he made the mistakes that made him lose big.