NBA draft offers hope to the depleted Cavs

NY Times News Service, NEW YORK

Thu, Jun 23, 2011 - Page 19

For a franchise that lost 63 games and stopped playing in mid-April, the Cleveland Cavaliers have had a rather glorious spring, full of charmed ping-pong balls and perverse satisfaction.

The Cavaliers won the draft lottery. LeBron James lost the championship. Karma is running victory laps through Cleveland’s Warehouse District. Optimism is staging a comeback.

And come tonight, the downtown arena affectionately known as the Q will be rocking again, in a celebration of blind hope.

Cleveland will make the first pick of the NBA draft, most likely selecting Kyrie Irving, the talented Duke point guard. The Cavaliers will select again at No. 4, perhaps with a chance to take Enes Kanter or Jonas Valanciunas, two intriguing international centers.

At Quicken Loans Arena, fans will gather for a draft party that may be as therapeutic as it is celebratory.

“There’s just a feeling that forces have really changed in the right way for the Cavs,” said Mike Snyder, the sports director and morning talk-show host for WTAM 1100-AM, the team’s flagship station.

Optimism? In Cleveland?

“Absolutely,” Snyder said. “This is the time to be optimistic.”

In a sports town that is numb to heartbreak, optimism is a necessarily relative term. And in this case, it will be tempered by the reality of a dismal draft class — one that scouts have called the worst in years. There are no franchise saviors or guaranteed All-Stars on the board.

At least 10 top prospects — including several likely lottery picks — stayed out of the draft, largely because of the threat of a lockout. What results is a two-man draft, with Irving and Derrick Williams, the Arizona forward, viewed as the only players worthy of much excitement. The drop-off in talent and marquee value is precipitous.

Even Irving, a 1.93m 19-year-old with enviable athleticism and playmaking skills, is a bit of a vague commodity after a truncated college career. He played only 11 games as a freshman because of a toe injury, averaging 17.5 points and 4.3 assists. He led Duke to the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament, losing to an Arizona team led by Williams.

However, after James’s cruel departure last summer and the depressing season that followed, Cavaliers fans are overdue for a mood enhancement, and Irving is their St John’s wort. He might not return the Cavaliers to immediate glory, but he represents the first step toward a semi-respectable post-LeBron era.

Draft watchers and team executives expect Cleveland to take Irving with the first pick, leaving Williams to the Minnesota Timberwolves at No. 2.

Although Irving’s resume is incomplete — “When he was on the court, he did some electric things,” said Fran Fraschilla, the former college coach and ESPN draft analyst — Fraschilla called Irving “one of the best shooters I’ve seen” among point guards coming into the league.

“He’s got holes, but he’s a very safe pick whether you take him one or two,” he added.

That Cleveland is in a position to draft Irving is, in itself, a sign of changing fortunes. In February, the Cavaliers traded Mo Williams, their starting point guard, to the Los Angeles Clippers for Baron Davis and a first-round pick. Despite just a 2.8 percent chance, that pick turned into the No. 1 selection in the draft lottery held on May 17, sparking a modest celebration in Cleveland.

Four weeks later, Cavaliers fans rejoiced as the Dallas Mavericks won the championship, beating James and the Miami Heat.

“It sure makes people feel better,” Snyder said.

Yet only a full-fledged Cavaliers revival can give fans any lasting relief and that day may be years away. Fortunately, they are used to waiting.

“Cleveland fans are resilient,” said Scott Sargent, a cofounder of the Cleveland sports blog Waiting for Next Year. “They’re just hopeful that — I don’t want to say, ‘Pain,’ — but that after all the turmoil that the franchise went through over the last year, that there is some end story to it that it is worthwhile.”