The 2013 NBA playoffs are a nexus of forking paths for a directionless Cleveland Cavaliers franchise that clinched their third No. 1 overall pick in four years on Tuesday night. Winning the 2013 NBA Draft Lottery was akin to receiving a positive Maury paternity test. The 2014 Lottery is Oprah leaving Steadman for Kyrie Irving.
In the eyes of Cleveland Cavalier fans, the roster is a deck of hastily cards waiting for a brisk wind to break their front office into an impromptu game of 52 Pickup. This prospect field features an opportunity to U-Turn off of their dimly lit road leading towards an Eastern Conference watery grave — if they play their cards right.
Andrew Wiggins’ latent potential could unlock a unique perimeter force and Jabari Parker is more refined as a high-volume scorer at the moment, but the NBA Draft is a practice in futurology.
Parker is a terrestrial court rover with a ceiling because of his subpar defensive skills and okay athleticism. Wiggins’ stereotypically amicable Canadian demeanor is worrisome for franchises who need him to be an alpha dog with an edge night in and night out, but that’s a product of youth. He’s still figuring this thing out emotionally at 19 against brasher, yet inferior athletes. He’s not the next LeBron as the preseason hype billed him to be–at least not until he develops his ability to break down defenders off the dribble or improves his vision to become a better distributor.
However, there’s a common theme in play watching the NBA’s final four teams.
Former Cavs league LeBron James is currently ensnared in a 1-1 death grip with the Indiana Pacers, but is struggling against the size of Indiana’s paint protectors. Roy Hibbert’s mastery of verticality has made him the NBA’s most unique defensive weapon since Bruce Bowen was practicing unethical shutdown man-to-man defense for San Antonio.
San Antonio’s Tim Duncan is still schooling Oklahoma City’s frontcourt like Uncle Drew on the playground, while the Thunder are scrambling like chickens with their heads cut off trying to substitute for Serge Ibaka’s irreplaceable defensive hand of god blotting out the goal.
The golden age of the prototypical post presence are behind us, but scarcity doesn’t equal irrelevance. Guards and forwards now dominate the league, but that’s only if you’ve been hypnotized by the prevailing highlight culture. Small ball is a placebo. The trenches are where championships are won just as often. For the most part, the one constant among the potential 2014 NBA champions still straggling through the postseason desert feature formidable low post presences.
There a litany of mutant physical specimens cluttering the top seven picks, however Embiid is the Sentinel of the bunch that could make their matchups miserable.
Wiggins could join a cluster of great small forwards in the league and would complete the Drake, Manziel “Draft Day” triumvirate. There's a chance that this Cleveland Rat Pack could lure LeBron James back against all odds.
Embiid is a rare mineral though who could accomplish as much in Cleveland as Olajuwon did in Houston. He’s a throwback who could awe Cleveland with his silky low-post moves, defensive instincts, mobility, ability to run the floor fluidly, uncanny vision, deft passing skills and soft touch around the rim.
Embiid’s already nearing Serge Ibaka territory as an overall talent and his primitive skills are still treading upwards. Think Andre Drummond, but without the rickety low post footwork and wild touch.
He’s not just a catch and lob offensive opportunist along the lines of Tyson Chandler or DeAndre Jordan. His syrupy movements that create space in the paint have caused scouts to peg him as the Cameroonian Olajuwon. At this nascent stage of his developments he’s probably on par with Olajuwon at the same age, but there’s no clue where his developmental roof will settle.
Unfortunately, there is a potential pitfall teams are hoping Embiid and his 7-5 wingspan will clear. If you need a reminder, just peer into the depths of the “lost and found” potential folder towards the shadows of Ibaka, Hibbert and Duncan at Heat 7-0 benchwarmer getting more South Beach sunburn than floor time burn.
Greg Oden’s injury-riddled career is a worst case scenario that may ultimately derail Embiid’s draft stock. A Durant-Oden redux in Cleveland would be catastrophic. He moves less like Greg Oden, but more like Gregory Hines. However, his feet aren’t the problem.
Towards the end of his freshman year at Kansas, Embiid developed a stress fracture in his lower back that ultimately ended his season. Back injuries aren’t as dispiriting as knee injuries on a lumbering 7-footer or the expletive-inducing procedure known as microscopic surgery.
It was reportedly the second lower back stress fracture that Embiid has suffered in the past two years, but it’s an injury that don’t expect there to be complications in the long-term after recovering for the past two and a half months.
Drummond suffered a similar spinal fracture during his rookie season that caused him to miss 22 games, but hasn’t had a recurring back injury since.
Reportedly, the Cavs are leaning towards Embiid. However, they must also be sensitive to fragile big men because of their particularly nasty history when it comes to associating themselves with injury prone centers. The No. 1 pick isn't just an external choice between Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid. It's an internal battle that pits talent evaluation of a high-risk, high reward conventionaly talented, conventional big man and a potential franchise forward against a quarter-century of inauspicious kismet.
The Andrew Bynum experiment is a sore subject over an open wound for Cleveland and Zydrundas Ilgauskas’ bionic feet were a blight upon the franchise, but talk of Brad Daughtery’s premature retirement is a hemorrhoid for Cavalier zealots.
After averaging 20 and 10 in three of his final four seasons, the 1986 Draft's No. 1 overall pick retired at the age of 28 from the 47-35 Cavaliers due to recurring back pain a. The year prior, they'd won 54 games in Lenny Wilkens' final season as head coach and two years earlier the Cavs had a banner season winning 57 games en route to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Darko Milicic’ing a second consecutive first overall pick in the deepest lottery crop in decades could send the franchise spiraling into a depressing lost decade.
The Portland Trailblazers recovered from both Brandon Roy and Greg Oden’s shredded knees, but that’s a franchise which had superior front office management and LaMarcus Aldridge to ease the transition. Some franchises are born with a silver spoon in their mouths and others get government cheese. The Cavs and Blazers are the latter except one clawed their way out of a rough neighborhood and the other is still parked on the same trailer park lawn.
The Blazers ignominiously chose Sam Bowie over Jordan and Olajuwon during the ’84 Draft, were robbed of Bill Walton’s gifts because of back injuries and acquired Arvydas Sabonis after chronic leg injuries grounded his explosive athleticism.
Kyrie Irving’s bubbling frustrations would erupt if another combustible variable mushroomed and a safe choice would relieve a fan base always on edge, waiting for an anvil to fall through the roof and onto a star player.
On the other hand, risk is a part of life and Embiid is one worth taking. Wiggins should suffice as a wing mate, but the league is rife with great scorers and versatile wingmen.
Kevin Durant, James Harden, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, comprise the upper crust of the NBA’s glamour finesse forwards, but they’re also more fungible pieces on the NBA market. Cleveland could avoid rolling dice by mimicking the synergy between Durant and Westbrook with Irving and Embiid, but a low post threat of Embiid’s ilk comes along as often as a razor across Harden’s face.
In the playoffs when the game slows down to a grind, the frequency of highlight dunks dwindle and the physicality gets punched up a notch, frontcourt bangers become scene stealers.
George is the NBA’s premier two-way player, but it’s Hibbert’s verticality on defense that accounts for Indiana’s offensive hypoglycemia. Against Miami’s undersized perimeter-oriented lineups, Hibbert’s low post game is at its most proficient.
If healthy, Embiid would be a gateway to Cleveland’s chance at a come-up into the Eastern Conference’s elite. That’s how much of a game changer he could be. Every prospect has holes. Wiggins’ growth spurt could halt somewhere between Clyde Drexler, Paul George or (gulp) Rudy Gay. Jabari Parker may unfortunately live up to the ‘Melo comparisons—on both ends of the floor. Embiid is the only one with a physical malady that compounds the stress over his pro potential. His jump hooks are ambidextrous and he’s a rare dual force on both ends of the floor.
Four years after LeBron's decision burned the Cavs and set the city on fire, the 2014 Draft could be the beginning of a new dawn for the Cavaliers. Or that radiant light emitting from the Cavs facility in future horizons could be a brush fire setting what remains of Cleveland's disintegrating optimism ablaze. We can prognosticate until our gums are bleeding, but it's up to the Cavaliers management to determine which player's future they're betting betting on and if the specter of past failures plays a role in their process.