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In the 2014 NBA Draft, the Road Diverges for Cavaliers

Draft day mistakes are common, but the Cleveland Cavaliers simply cannot afford to botch another lottery pick.

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With a midrange touch, exquisite timing and a raw game that has scouts and front office staffers salivating, Joel Embiid has tickled the imaginations of many.

But after an uneventful rookie campaign by last season’s number one overall pick, Anthony Bennett, the Cleveland Cavaliers simply cannot afford another pick that fails to make an immediate impact. That is especially true with Kyrie Irving approaching free agency.

Once upon a time, back in 2007, Greg Oden was considered to be in special player—the second coming of Bill Russell, perhaps.

Five years later, the same was said of Anthony Davis after an impressive championship season at the University of Kentucky.

Now, two years later, the dichotomy between Oden and Davis is stark. Oden recently called himself one of the biggest busts of all-time while Davis seems poised to be the most positionally ambiguous big man since Kevin Garnett completed his ascension to being the league’s Most Valuable Player back in 2004.

Now, the Cavaliers have the difficult task of trying to determine where Embiid’s trajectory lies. In many ways, the franchise may have been better off with the third overall pick. At least in that instance, the Cavs would have no concern over potentially picking the wrong guy the way that the Portland Trail Blazers did in 2007—back when they selected Oden over Kevin Durant.

Back then, the Blazers were coming off of a 32-win season but believed that a nucleus was assembled. With Brandon Roy, Martell Webster and Travis Outlaw, the Blazers’ front office was reasonable in believing that they had a bigger need at center than on the wing. With Jamaal Magloire playing the lion’s share of available minutes at center, Oden was believed to have represented the final piece to a young team that would have an opportunity to contend for championships for 10 years.

That, obviously, was not the case.

Today, with the aforementioned Bennett, free agent Luol Deng, Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters, the Cavs, on paper, seem to have more of a need at center, as well. But Embiid has only recently begun playing basketball and is believed to have the requisite skills of an impactful center in the NBA.

That was essentially the take of Ryan Blake, the Senior Director of the NBA Scouting Operations. Blake spoke with Basketball Insiders, providing in-depth insight on some of this year’s draft class studs. In Embiid, he sees loads of potential, but points out the injury concerns that have become synonymous with the 20-year-old Cameroonian.

“His back injury is a big red flag right now,” Blake mentioned in Basketball Insiders’ 2014 NBA Draft Magazine, which is on sale now. “However, when you have someone who hasn’t played basketball for that long, who has done what he’s done this year, that moves so well laterally, an excellent shot blocker and we add those instincts, he’s improved his mid range game, he can even shoot the three, he’s got a handle and he’s a hard worker – when you get a seven footer with skill, sky is the limit.”

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Yet still, there are quite a few who are not as high on Embiid, the primary reason being, yes, his injuries.

Thus far, the narrative on Embiid has been that he has made major strides as a prospect, despite being on a Kansas team built around perimeter players. His ceiling is believed to be quite high, but the ultimate question that the Cavaliers must attempt to answer is whether his body will give him an opportunity to actually reach it.

Almost every year and in any draft, there are tough decisions to be made. Back in 2004, the Orlando Magic had a tough decision to make between a high school kid named Dwight Howard and the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA’s 2004 Final Four, Emeka Okafor.

In 2005, coming off of a 13-69 season in which Tyronn Lue, Royal Ivey and Kenny Anderson were their point guards, the Atlanta Hawks, with the second overall pick in the draft, decided it would be wise to select Marvin Williams at that spot, passing on both Chris Paul and Deron Williams in the process.

In 2008, armed with just a 1.7 percent chance of winning the draft lottery, the Chicago Bulls put their first overall pick to good use, selecting Derrick Rose. Michael Beasley was considered the second-best prospect at the time and was selected second overall by the Miami HEAT. O.J. Mayo was selected by the Minnesota Timberwolves at number three before being traded for Kevin Love (selected fifth overall by the Memphis Grizzlies). Between those two picks, Russell Westbrook was selected by the Oklahoma City Thunder.

How different could life have been for the HEAT had they selected Westbrook or Love?

How different could life have been for the Grizzlies if, in 2009, instead of using their second overall pick on Hasheem Thabeet, they had selected James Harden or Stephen Curry?

Years from now, the NBA world will collectively look back at the opportunities and good fortune that the Cavaliers have had with their post-LeBron James draft picks. In 2011, Irving and Thompson were selected first and fourth, respectively. In 2012, Waiters was selected with the fourth pick while Bennett was selected first overall in 2013.

Now, in 2014, with their third number one overall pick in four years, the Cavs simply cannot afford to lose again. As to whether Embiid is the right pick over players like Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker, it is a question that is being posed just as frequently as the one that the Blazers had to field regarding Oden or Durant seven years ago.

On draft day, when the Cavs give their answer—whatever it is—they will make history.

If Embiid is their man and he fulfills his potential as, perhaps, the second coming of Hakeem Olajuwon, Irving will have a running mate and the franchise will have an appreciable array of youngsters who will still be on rookie contracts. Come July 2015, with potentially enough cap space to pursue a maximum-salaried player, the Cavs would have an opportunity to take a considerable step forward.

If they miss, however, the already rumored departure of Irving will be hastened and the franchise may continue to find itself in the draft lottery for the foreseeable future.

As it stands, there are questions about both Parker and Wiggins, as well.

The Cavaliers find themselves in the unenviable predicament of having to choose one of three prospects and needing to make the correct decision. The first overall pick, in many ways, is a blessing and a curse.

After an uneventful rookie campaign from Bennett, the Cavaliers cannot afford a repeat. In 2011, with Irving, they hit the jackpot. In 2013 with Bennett, they failed to take a step forward.

Now, in 2014, one way or another, history will repeat itself. For the Cavs, again, the road diverges. The route to becoming a contender has two paths.

For newly installed general manager David Griffin, with Embiid and his tantalizing potential, his first go at serving as navigator is far from a slam dunk.

But here and now—no excuses—that is exactly what the Cleveland Cavaliers need.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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