Once No. 1 pick, Bennett now Cavs' No. 1 problem
NEW YORK -- They leaned against a padded wall in the back of the gym at Baruch College on Thursday morning, the maligned No. 1 pick and the even more maligned executive who drafted him. Some days it's difficult to discern who is under more pressure, Cavaliers rookie forward Anthony Bennett or general manager Chris Grant, the man who badly needs Bennett to deliver.
It has been seven months since Grant surprised everyone by selecting Bennett first overall in the 2013 draft, and the results haven't been pretty. The 20-year-old is averaging 2.8 points and has the worst Player Efficiency Rating (2.35) among 334 players in the league. He has racked up 12 DNP-CDs. He has made a minimal impact with the exception of a 15-point, eight-rebound effort against New Orleans on Tuesday. In a forgettable 23-minute stint against the Knicks on Thursday, Bennett committed three fouls in his first six minutes, which included two truly defenseless possessions where J.R. Smith and Carmelo Anthony blew right past him.
With a hole at center, Grant passed on Maryland's Alex Len and Kentucky's Nerlens Noel to take Bennett, and this is what he has to show: a player without a position, a dynamic college offensive talent who is losing confidence by the day. Scouts who have watched the Cavaliers regularly say Bennett looks lost on offense, often thinking when he should be reacting, a shadow of the player who tormented the Mountain West Conference at UNLV. Bennett missed the first 16 shots of his NBA career and even Cavaliers coach Mike Brown admits his lack of offensive rhythm has rattled him.
"My thing with him is, 'I don't care if you make a single shot,' " Brown said. "Just keep playing."
But he can't play, for no other reason than Brown has shown little interest in playing him. A torn labrum kept Bennett out of most offseason activities and caused him to be, Bennett estimates, 13-15 pounds overweight in training camp. With a mandate to make the playoffs, Brown has been unwilling to let Bennett play himself into shape.
"In the summertime, that's when a lot of young guys have the opportunity to get hit in the head a little bit and figure out how hard [the NBA] is going to be," Brown said. "In training camp, everyone is out on the floor playing together so you don't feel the impact of how hard it's going to be until the season gets going. In the summertime, as the No. 1 pick, a lot of focus and attention would have been on him in summer league games. People would have been going after him. He would have had a chance to work out some of the kinks. It is what it is."
Added Bennett: "When I got out of surgery, the first month they told me to chill, the second month I couldn't do anything, the third month I couldn't do anything. I was chilling the whole summer. I'm trying to get back to having fun and going out there and playing hard no matter what. It's coming back slowly but surely."
There would appear to be a simple solution to Bennett's playing-time problem: the D-League. An assignment to the NBDL would give Bennett the playing time he needs to get in shape and a chance to rebuild his confidence against lesser competition. Bennett is open to that option.
"I heard it helped out Shabazz [Muhammad] real well," Bennett said, referring to the Timberwolves' rookie who was drafted 14th. "Any way to help, I'm with it."
The Cavaliers, somewhat mysteriously, are not. Brown offered little specifics when asked about a D-League assignment, saying staying up with the Cavaliers will help Bennett "get to know the league." But rival executives believe there is another reason Bennett hasn't been sent down. Bennett would be the highest pick ever sent to the D-League, and there is widespread belief that the Cavaliers view a demotion as an admission of failure.
The Cavaliers can't afford that. The years since LeBron James left have ended with lottery trips that too often have not yielded results. They landed a franchise player in Kyrie Irving with the first pick in 2011, but missed on an impact player with the fourth pick that year, Tristan Thompson, leaving Jonas Valanciunas and Klay Thompson on the board. They pulled another surprise with the fourth pick the next year, taking Dion Waiters, who this season has been on the trade block. And they drafted Bennett and Sergey Karasev (No. 19) last June, two players who have had virtually no impact.
Changes could be a coming after another lost season, and everyone in Cleveland knows it. Owner Dan Gilbert stood in Times Square last May and declared it the Cavaliers' last lottery for a while. But an embarrassing 117-86, nationally televised loss to the Knicks on Thursday dropped the Cavaliers to 16-30 and has them headed right back for it. It seems doubtful Gilbert would give Grant another crack at a high draft pick, and a new GM may not want Brown as his coach. As Bennett fights to stave off comparisons to Michael Olowokandi and Kwame Brown, the organization needs him to produce, now more than ever.