Raptors-Cavaliers Preview

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.

Ultimately, that could lead to some turnover in Toronto, but the
Raptors have several pieces they hope to build around, including a
talented backcourt in DeMar DeRozan and Jose Calderon.

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.