INDEPENDENCE — There was a different vibe Monday afternoon when the Cavaliers held their annual media day at Cleveland Clinic Courts.
With veterans like Andrew Bynum, Jarrett Jack and Earl Clark in the fold, along with No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett and No. 13 choice Sergey Karasev, optimism was everywhere.
Toss in proven players like Kyrie Irving, Anderson Varejao and Dion Waiters and there was no shortage of playoff talk for a team that posted season records of 19-63, 21-45 and 24-58 the last three years.
There was, of course, one big caveat.
“We have a chance to be really special this season,” Varejao said. “All we have to do is stay healthy.”
Recent history strongly suggests that will be a tall order.
Varejao appeared in just 25 games last season before developing a blood clot in his lung and has played the equivalent of one full season over the last three years.
Bynum didn’t play at all last season after his latest knee surgery and is expected to be sidelined for the majority of training camp, which officially starts this morning, if not longer.
Irving, who said his goal is “to be the best player in the league,” missed 25.7 percent of the Cavs’ games (38 out of 148) over his first two seasons due to a variety of injuries.
“That is a concern,” said Mike Brown, who is back for his second stint as coach of the Cavs. “We need to stay healthy. The healthier we are, the better opportunity we have to reach our goals.”
Brown didn’t hesitate to say the Cavs were a playoff team — if they stay healthy — but also said he wouldn’t waste time worrying about who is available and who is not.
“Whoever can play, whoever can practice, I’ll see them on the floor,” he said.
At least for a couple weeks, that won’t include the 7-foot Bynum, who has resumed running and is doing some basketball drills, but is not ready to take part in five-on-five drills.
“There isn’t a hard timeline on any drop-dead date,” general manager Chris Grant said. “We’re going to go through the process. We’re not going to skip any steps.”
Still just 25 years old but in his eighth year in the league, Bynum averaged 18.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and made the All-Star team when he last played, for the Los Angeles Lakers, in 2011-12.
“Once I’m on the court, I’m going to be productive,” he said. “I don’t see why not. When I’m feeling well, I’m playing well.”
Bynum, who had a traditional haircut instead of some of the wild ones he sported last season while not playing for Philadelphia, said he’s begun doing some explosive drills and has dropped 18 pounds, to 290. His goal is to get close to his listed playing weight of 285 or maybe even a few pounds under that.
“It’s mentally taxing, but these people have my best interests at heart,” he said. “I’m here and I want to play.”
The 6-11, 260-pound Varejao, who got married in the offseason, was averaging 14.1 points and a league-high 14.4 rebounds when he went down last season. The previous two seasons, he was sidelined by wrist and foot injuries.
“I won’t change anything,” he said when asked about his reckless playing style. “The injuries I had in the past, they were all freaky injuries.”
Varejao, who will likely start at center until Bynum returns, said his goal this season is to play in all 82 games “and then the playoffs.”
“My goal is the same — stay healthy,” he said. “If I stay healthy, I can really help this team.
“This organization is putting together a team to win a championship. That is what we want.”
The 6-3, 191-pound Irving, who suffered a concussion and injuries to both shoulders, his left index finger, knee and jaw during his first two seasons in Cleveland, remains the most important piece in the Cavs’ puzzle.
Already an All-Star, his next goal is to become the best player in the NBA.
“I’m the leader of this team,” the 21-year-old said. “I’m ready to take responsibility for it.
“This is the best I’ve felt coming into a season. I’ve been healthy all offseason.”
If Bynum can get healthy and Varejao and Irving can stay that way, the Cavs, who went 64-166 over the past three seasons, should be a much-improved team.
How much improved remains to be seen, but Jack, a 29-year-old who signed with Cleveland as an unrestricted free agent, says aiming for the whole ball of wax should be the goal.
The combo guard provided the best quote of a long afternoon when asked about making the playoffs, putting added emphasis on the word “just” each time he said it.
“People may look at me crazy, but I’m not the type of guy who puts a ceiling on anything,” Jack said. “Why would I be happy with just making the playoffs?
What’s the point of that?
“Why can’t we just go to the championship and just win it? If that’s not the goal you’re trying to play for … you should just go home right now. What else are you playing for, at the end of the day?
“Who cares if you get a free certificate for the playoffs and you get the free T-shirt they hand out for the first round? So what? Nobody cares or remembers that.
“If you’re about to take a test, you don’t just want to get a 72. You want to get 100, if possible. Who wants to come in fifth place? It’s cool, but everybody should strive for first.”