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What if the Cavaliers Didn’t Take Anthony Bennett?

David Richard/USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a short ride in the NBA for former first overall draft pick Anthony Bennett, but it’s been wild. Bennett was drafted in 2013 by the Cleveland Cavaliers, traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves a year later with Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love, and now has been waived by the Wolves just two years into his NBA career.

Bennett just hasn’t put it all together yet in his career, which is somewhat common among players who enter the NBA at just 20 years old. But to find a 21-year-old former top draft pick who’s been waived despite no serious legal issues? That’s rare in the NBA. It leads you to wonder just how bad the Cavs missed on Bennett when they decided that he was the best player in that particular draft.

A lot of this has to do with circumstances, of course. The Cavs were rebuilding when they drafted Bennett, but quickly found themselves moving beyond the rebuilding phase and into the “put a contender together as quickly as possible” phase when LeBron James decided it was time to return home to Cleveland. After struggling to find time on the court in Minnesota, the Wolves’ front office decided that their depth in the frontcourt was enough, and that it was in the best interest of both parties to simply move on.

I’m not really worried about Bennett, as it looks like he’ll catch on with his hometown Toronto Raptors. But the big thing I keep going back to in my head is that the Cavs essentially wasted the draft pick. What if they’d done something completely different with that pick?

Before going too deep into analysis of the Cavs’ drafting methods, I must mention again that the Cavs ended up trading Bennett in the trade for Kevin Love. We never really could know how that deal would’ve been different had the Cavs drafted someone else. But in my view, Bennett was a little more than a throw-in for the Timberwolves. They really wanted Wiggins, and I believe that any trade centered around him probably would’ve gotten it done. After all, Minnesota probably didn’t see Bennett as a huge sticking point in the deal considering they waived him a year later.

So who else was available in the 2013 draft? The players who’ve performed the best from that draft weren’t necessarily the highest rated — for example, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Rudy Gobert — but there were other quality players who were considered worthy of the top pick. Victor Oladipo, who was taken second overall by the Orlando Magic, is one of those players.

Oladipo is a 6’4” shooting guard who’s known for his defense, but is improving as a scorer as well. When he was at Indiana in college, Oladipo drew comparisons to the type of player Michael Jordan was in college; strong defensively, extremely athletic and a spotty shooter. He may not have that kind of ceiling, of course, but many thought Oladipo was a star in the making. Could you imagine a backcourt of Oladipo and Kyrie Irving with James and Love in the frontcourt? The presence of Dion Waiters likely nixed this idea (whoops), but it’d sure look good now.

Another player being considered at the top of the draft was Nerlens Noel. A big man who played his college ball at Kentucky, Noel missed his entire rookie season following knee surgery. Might he have been a throw-in with Wiggins last summer? Maybe. But I’ll maintain that the Cavs could’ve pried the unhappy Love away from Minnesota for the price of just Wiggins, the first-round draft pick they gave up and any single other asset they wanted to give up. Noel bounced back last year with the 76ers, averaging 9.9 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in 30.8 minutes per game, starting 71 of 75 games played.

Noel is a natural center, playing at his best when he can sneak over and block post players attempting to score near the basket. He would’ve been an excellent fit with the Cavs, with Love needing all the help possible keeping opposing teams’ power forwards from scoring at will. Having James and Noel in the lineup would’ve made the Cleveland defense extremely difficult to score against in the paint.

The last option the Cavaliers would’ve had is trading the first overall pick to a team with multiple draft picks. The Utah Jazz held the 14th and 21st picks in the 2013 draft, and with no clear consensus No. 1, it’s possible the Jazz could’ve also coughed up another future first-rounder for the Cavs’ first overall pick in 2013. To get even more creative, let’s say the Cavs use the 14th pick on Antetokounmpo (who was actually taken one pick later) and the 21st pick on Gorgui Dieng (who actually was drafted there).

So long as their odds of winning the lottery again in 2014 don’t get any worse by having the Greek Freak and Dieng, putting together a lineup of Irving, Antetokounmpo, James, Love and Dieng is mind-blowing. Even after James is gone someday, that could still be a very good team. Of course, we again assume that Minnesota wouldn’t have demanded one of those guys in the Love trade, and I’d guess they like Dieng a lot considering they traded Trey Burke for him on draft day. But hypothetical scenarios are just that — hypothetical.

If Bennett does indeed go home to Toronto, hopefully they’re willing to be patient with developing his talent. He played in more than 20 minutes in just eight games his rookie year with the Cavs and just 15 times in 2014-15 in Minnesota. He might still end up being a good NBA player; we just don’t have enough information to know yet.

But no matter what happens with Bennett, the Cavaliers probably can’t help but wonder what could’ve been with their draft in 2013.

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