American cinema classic Space Jam (which just got its own 30 for 30) features a scene in which a collection of skilled NBA players and Shawn Bradley have their talent stolen by stumpy extraterrestrials employing a plot device slash basketball. Said scene raises important questions about what exactly happened to Cleveland Cavaliers rookie non-sensation Anthony Bennett in this draft night photo. Positing that the no. 1 pick in the NBA draft had his talent absorbed by a magical alien basketball may seem a heuristic leap, but not much else stands up to Occam's razor here. This much is certain though -- Bennett is having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad rookie season.
The season began with Bennett shooting 0-8 over his first four games and, well, it hasn't gotten much better since. He's shooting 21 percent from the field, his shot chart looks like an especially grisly homage to the Red Wedding and that Player Efficiency Rating of 2.3 he's rocking projects major bummer vibes 24/7. Really though, statistical measures don't do justice to the plain fact that Bennett looks out-of-shape and has yet to do anything terribly useful in an NBA game. Long shots of an understandably moribund Bennett riding the bench have become the defining visual of his young career. And thus there is an obvious argument for the Cavaliers sending him to the D-League with the contra argument amounting to what already feels like depressingly false hope. Again, the no. 1 pick in the 2013 NBA draft is the target of D-League debates. None of this is supposed to happen.
Sure, Bennett would not be the first no. 1 pick who failed to meet the near-impossible standards set by demi-gods such as LeBron James, Shaquille O'Neal and Allen Iverson, but it's a painfully lonely list of players who failed to contribute anything beyond maddening futility and screaming despair. Going through the last 30 years of NBA drafts, there are no. 1 picks like Danny Manning, Greg Oden and the fabulously nicknamed "Never Nervous" Pervis Ellison, all of whom could ball, but were cruelly sabotaged by injuries. They are more tragic heroes of the Greek tradition -- by unseen circumstances that were sealed upon birth -- than the actual busts whose respective legacies are punchlines.
We're talking about your Joe Smiths, your Michael Olowokandis, your Kwame Browns and… well, that's mostly it unless you feel a burning hatred for the Inflatable Breezy Geezer known as Andrea Bargnani. Of the lot, Smith made the most of his bustdom by becoming a reasonably decent role player, while Brown and Olowokandi became infamous for not liking basketball very much (a somewhat inconvenient condition when your job involves playing basketball). Still, none of them can step to Bennett's in-progress triptych of basketball-ian horrors; there is no precedent and the only comfort is that its continuation would be further unprecedented by orders of magnitude. That Bennett was supposed to join franchise point god Kyrie Irving as the 1-2 punch that would entice possible free agent to-be LeBron James into pulling a prodigal son move is not helping matters.
However, the greater reality here is that the Cleveland Cavaliers have become a years-long raging bonfire of the vanities. The original occasion of sin being owner Dan Gilbert's comic sans fonted anti-ethering of James upon his South Beach relocation. Despite Gilbert's attempted transference of the supposed Cleveland Curse juju to James, it's been the Cavaliers that have played out the cycle that led to James' departure in the first place.
This time around it's Irving who's stuck playing the James role as franchise player stuck with a team that has no idea what the hell it's doing. Since drafting Irving, the Cavaliers have had three top-four picks and none of them resemble a suitable complementary player. Since drafting Irving, the Cavaliers have concocted a quarter-baked plot to lure back James while ignoring the fact that this plot is akin to asking an escaped prisoner to come crawling back to the warden. Since drafting Irving, the Cavaliers have, of course, posted a total record of 49-113.
Clearly, it wasn't the magical alien basketball that stole Bennett's talent, it was playing amid the noxious fumes generated by Gilbert's perpetual greasy oligarch tantrum.
If nothing else, Bennett has the benefits of time and the knowledge that small sample sizes are every bit as unreliable as, well, small sample sizes -- eleven games, after all, is not a career. Even if it never gets much better for Bennett in Cleveland, he has some small solace in knowing that it won't get much better for anyone else playing there either. Maybe he'll even get a chance to take his talents to South Beach someday.