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Published: Tuesday, 10/29/2013

CLEVELAND CAVALIERS

High expectations

Brown returns to coach Cavaliers’ budding nucleus

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Kyrie Irving drives past Charlotte Bobcats defender Kemba Walker during an exhibition game. Irving was an all-star last season and has his sights set on being the league's top player. Kyrie Irving drives past Charlotte Bobcats defender Kemba Walker during an exhibition game. Irving was an all-star last season and has his sights set on being the league's top player.
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CLEVELAND — He was fired in the early days of that infamous summer three years ago when a "Decision" changed everything for the Cavaliers.

Now after a short, tumultuous stay in Los Angeles, the bald, bespectacled, defensive-minded coach often criticized for his stagnant offense has returned to lead Cleveland out of the NBA's darkness.

Mike Brown is back.

Is LeBron James next?

Dismissed in 2010 by owner Dan Gilbert after the Cavs were eliminated in the playoffs, Brown inherits a team similar to the one he had in 2005, when James blossomed into a superstar and Cleveland won 50 games to get back into the postseason for the first time since 1998.

Since Brown left, the Cavs have lost 166 games, a downward spiral that began when James packed up his MVP trophies and talents for Miami. But with All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving, a revamped roster, and playing in the top-heavy Eastern Conference, Cleveland should return to contention and may be one of the league's surprises.

"I feel we definitely have the pieces this year," said Irving, who averaged 22.4 points and 5.9 assists last season. "We have the chance to be something special."

Irving's health holds the key.

He has missed 38 games in his first two pro seasons with a variety of injuries, raising concerns about his durability. But the 21-year-old reported to training camp looking stronger physically, and he seems to have done some mental maturing.

Irving wants to be the game's best player, and after coaching James and Kobe Bryant, Brown sees many similarities between his young star and those two icons.

"They want to be coached hard. They want to not only be better, they want to be great," Brown said. "Just being around Kyrie this short amount of time, I'm starting to feel that. He's young and has a ways to grow, but he's hungry to not only be better, but to be the greatest."

The Cavs, too, have a chance to bloom into something this season as well. With Irving, guard Dion Waiters, top overall draft pick Anthony Bennett, third-year forward Tristan Thompson, and scrappy forward/​center Anderson Varejao, Cleveland has a solid core to build around before next summer, when James may again test free agency.

He'll consider a return home, and here are five things to watch this season as Cleveland tries to make itself attractive to the world's top player.

BYNUM'S BUM KNEES: Needing a big man for Irving, the Cavs signed free agent center Andrew Bynum to a two-year contract this summer.

Bynum's only 25, but his knees are worn. He didn't play one second last season with Philadelphia because of issues with his knees. The 7-footer has been making good progress, and the Cavs are crossing their fingers that he will help them.

NOT TONY BENNETT: The No. 1 overall pick, Bennett has all the tools. He's big, strong, can create his own shot, and Brown believes the 6-foot-8, 250-pounder's defense will improve.

Cleveland needs a dependable scorer to complement Irving, and although Bennett may begin the season coming off the bench, it may not be long before he's starting.

JACK OF ALL TRADES: Among the Cavs' most notable offseason moves was the signing of free agent guard Jarrett Jack to a four-year $25 million contract.

Jack, who played with the Warriors last season, is more than a serviceable backup at point for Irving, assuring there won't be a huge drop in production when Brown pulls his starters. Jack can play either guard position, making him an insurance plan in case Irving gets hurt.

RIGHT-HAND MAN: A left-hander his entire life on the floor, Thompson switched to his right this summer.

Thompson felt it would improve his touch around the basket and especially at the line, where he made just 61 percent of his free throws last season.

SUMMER PLANS: The Cavs are staring at another monumental summer in 2014.

Irving is expected to be offered a maximum, five-year contract extension. If they can lock up Irving, Cleveland would still have the salary-cap space to offer James a big contract.



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