Yes, we all know what happened over the Summer. And, despite making all the moves that would signal an absolute win-now mentality, Lebron James has continued to impress upon us the difficulty of building chemistry and winning a ring right away. Yet, a month later. A month of losing and winning streaks. A month of pundits pointing towards poor defense or roster fit, or defending Lebron by citing Miami’s first 9-8 start, it seems we still don’t really know much about the Cavs. And, as Cleveland enters the 4th quarter of a home game tied 79-79 with 2014’s last place Milawaukee after winning three games in a row decisively, I will admit I don’t know much about what’s happening either.
Here’s what I do know.
Any conversation about Cleveland’s weak defense or lack of bench scoring invariably comes down to the 15 man rotation that David Griffin and GM James put together over the Summer. As San Antonio continues to show the league the value of continuity (Golden State? Memphis? C’mon!) only 1/3 of Cleveland’s players were holding down the Q last year. This alone should give a good amount of credence to the fact that chemistry isn’t built overnight (not even counting forcing go-to first options to unselfishly give up the ball on offense).
The problems begin first and foremost with the guard positions. This was rudely highlighted by Matthew Dellavedova’s sprained MCL, which forced unsigned Will Cherry into the backup PG position. Even that was a little frightening, though, because if THIS is your backup PG, you’re going to be having some difficulty getting through a playoff series. The Cavs do obviously have the ultra talented Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters to hold down the 2 spots (though Dion thankfully comes off the bench) but this roster is paper thin past the two of them. While calling Kyrie the biggest member of the “Big 3” would be some special kind of ignorance, I’m not exactly sure what this team does if he has to miss significant time.
The Center position is a little harder to quantify. Anderson Varejao AKA “Wild Thing” is not much of a shotblocker but he’s a solid, above-average starter at his position. He brings rebounding, smart cutting, floppy hair, and a fairly decent midrange touch to the Cavs. Behind him?? Tristan Thompson can slide down to the 5; something the Cavs would love to do in closing out games with smaller, faster lineups. However, he is really more of a PF and will get swallowed up by some of the East’s bigger Centers like Brook Lopez, Al Jefferson, and Mr. Big Boy Roy. If you count Thompson at his natural position, Varejao’s backups are Brendan Haywood and Alex Kirk who have combined for about 6 minutes per game through the month of November.
GOOD NEWS CLEVELAND FANS!! You are incredibly deep at the Forward spots, sporting arguably the best player in the league at either position (harder argument to make for Love than Lebron but someone could do it). Not only that, but the bench runs deep behind them with Thompson, Shawn Marion (killer signing), and the recently signed James Jones and Mike Miller. I posited a question for a few Cavs fans asking whether this team regretted signing BOTH Jones and Miller (seeing as they play the same position, bring the same skills to the table, and make a combined $7 million) but was shot down. I know they were brought in to appease Lebron (were THESE his two best friends in Miami??) but you gotta think the Cavs are at this point a little too stacked at Forward, considering their glaring needs elsewhere. Not to mention the team is also playing Lou “Lady Killer” Amundson for EVEN MORE defense at the forward position.
To me, this question boils down to what the Cavs’ exact aspirations are this season. Any way you slice it, this is the East. For Lebron, making the Playoffs is as easy as waking up after a Thanksgiving day turkey-snooze, dropping a couple tabs of acid, and murdering the Atlanta Hawks on their own court. Making the conference finals is substituting the acid with Molly and playing a few decent defensive possessions on the Joe Johnsons and Terrence Ross’s of the world. However, if all of us out here are going to believe that the Cavs true goals is to go to the Finals?? And win a championship (lolz)? Well that means this team needs to get through the Bulls, the Winner of the West, and will (historically) need to develop a top-10 defense.
Because I really see the Cavs getting together a World Slaying offense. There are top scorers at every position, Blatt is getting better at managing the minutes, and Kevin Love is finding his groove (he’s got 27 points right now as I write this, after MURDERING the Pacers on Saturday). However, pretty much every contender should be able to scratch the top 10 in both categories and the Cavs have ALOOOT of minus-defenders. Where we stand right now:
14th in points allowed per game (all stats from ESPN.com)
23rd in FGM per game
17th in 3P%
22nd in adjusted FG%
23rd in defensive rebounding
17th in defensive efficiency by Hollinger’s calculation
Yikes. The one thing the Cavs are actually EXCELLENT in is not sending their opponents’ to the line (a sweet 3rd in Free Throw attempts per game) While this could speak to a disciplined team refusing to foul, it could also speak to a team that gives up easy buckets without fouling, as this has been a team sadly lacking in interior defense.
Pretty much any way you shake it, the Cavs will be lucky to get off the hook with a league average defense. While there are still certainly a few adjustments that David Blatt can make (starting Shawn Marion over Dion Waiters was a great move) it’s hard to build a good defense out of poor defensive players. Lebron is still an All-Defensive Wing Lockdown but with Kyrie struggling on the perimeter and Varejao unable to provide shotblocking, its an uphill battle to contain teams with only two plus defenders. Personally I would suggest Blatt foregoing his early attempts at watering down Miami’s hectic trapping-D and instead focusing on how Steve Clifford was able to coax a top 6 defense last year on a roster with an undersized Kemba Walker and a flat-footed Al Jefferson. Its a much more conservative approach, and not nearly as fun to watch as Chris Bosh sprinting all the way to halfcourt for a double team (seriously, how cool is it that Bosh is quietly one of the best defenders in the league), but its a strategy that forces a ton of deep 2s and allowed a dismal Charlotte offense to grab the 7th seed in the playoffs.
Despite Waiters’ insistence that he is one of the best 2 guards in the league (Men Lie, Women Lie, Buckets Don’t), one of Blatt’s best moves so far this season has been making the early tweak, allowing Shawn Marion the start and putting Waiters into the 6th man role. This not only further shores up a weak defensive unit but also means we won’t have to see as much sad Dion as he can play more of an Alpha man role with bench units. Despite all of this, though, Waiters has looked horrible in the role, averaging 8.5 points on .375% shooting (yuck) and taking only 4 shots for his 23 minutes a game. While he definitely has incredible flashes of athleticism that show why he was a top 5 pick, he is still struggling to acclimate to a long-forgotten fourth option on offense.
If only the rest of the bench could be so lucky. I knew it was bad, but looking at Hoops Stats confirmed my deepest fears: This is arguably the worst bench in the league. The Stats:
Last in bench minutes per game
Last in bench scoring per game
29th in rebounds per game (yaaayyy Tristan Thompson)
29th in Bench offensive efficiency
And DEAD LAST (by a Wiiiiiide margin) in defensive efficiency.
Its very possible that this data is skewed somewhat by the Cavs’ earlier games where both Lebron James and Kyrie Irving were in the top 10 for most minutes played per game with Kevin Love rounding out the 14th spot. If you look at their ESPN player profiles, all of their minutes have gone down from those numbers over the past ten games, albeit not by much. I’ve also started to notice David Blatt employ a curious tactic of running Lebron HARD over the first half of the game (including playing the entire 1st quarter) to build up a big enough lead that James can finish the game sitting on the bench. Managing minutes and rotations is a huge part of what makes a successful head coach and these adjustments show that Blatt is learning quickly on the job. However, while continuing to make these tweaks will help boost his bench stats to somewhere in the not-terrible-chasing-league-average status, there are not going to be any significant improvements until Waiters remembers he’s a pretty good basketball player or the Cavaliers decide to pursue a trade.
Personally, I don’t think the Cavaliers make a trade this season. Currently their roster comes out to a cool $75.3 million, sliding in between the salary cap and the luxury tax (12th most expensive roster in the league), meaning any trade they make will have to be for a player of equal value.
I don’t think its even worth mentioning that Lebron is untouchable, Kyrie almost certainly as well, and Love will only be considered if the Cavs situation worsens BADLY and it looks as if he may bolt in free agency (both he and Lebron will become free agents next year). Outside of that, Varejao is making a very reasonable $10 million/year, but he’s a long-time Cav and not the kind of player a possible contender will want to go after (think about the big teams out there, they all have better centers). That leaves us with the obvious trade bait: Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, and Mike Miller, all of whom make between $4 and $5 mill a year and could provide the over-the-top shooting or rebounding that a contender could use.
Of the three, I see Tristan as the most promising prospect and the guy I would hate the Cavs to lose. I know he falls into their deeeep forward rotation, but he has shown he can play center, is a killer rebounder (offensive boards for dayyys), and is an enthusiastic defender. Miller would be the obvious guy to jettison, though it might make Lebron very sad (gosh, when was that from?) While he doesn’t have the upside of either of these guys, he brings the kind of outside shooting and veteran leadership that is HUGE for a team trying to make the Finals. He was brought into that very role in Memphis last year, and I wouldn’t put it past the Grizz to make another run at him as they are currently owning the West.
And lastly, Dion. While this is fairly counterintuitive, due to how weak the Cavs are at guard, I’d still argue it makes the most sense. Waiters has been terrible in his new role, has clashed with the team and Kyrie in the past, and has just looked generally unhappy, which can be a locker room killer. If the Cavs could exchange him for an Iman Shumpert (NOOO, Don’t do it!!!) or Arron Afflalo type defensive 2 guard, they could go a long way towards scratching that top 10 defense. Of course, the paradox here would be that the worse Dion continues to play, the more the Cavs would want to trade him, as the market for him continues to disappear. Ultimately, I just don’t see them doing it. He’s been a Cav his whole career, has big-time supporters in Cleveland, and has all the intrigue of a top 5 pick. Not only that, but he’s still on his rookie deal and will continue to make a very manageable $5 million salary until the summer of 2017.
So what then?
I think the Cavs stay the course. They’re in the middle of a four game winning streak that could provide the impetus for this team really clicking and hitting the next gear. Its true that none of them have been particularly signature wins and they have still yet to beat a Western Conference playoff team, but winning can do a lot for a locker room that’s in need of a little reassurance. Not only that, but winning takes something all in itself, and coming out of a close game ahead (even if it was against the Bucks) gives you confidence that you can close out tough ones and play like the better team.
Not only that, but the Cavs are in a perfect spot to reload for next season. If they make some significant progress and Kevin Love sticks around, they can trot out a lineup that has had a whole year to improve together PLUS flip Brendan Haywood’s expiring contract into about $5 mill of salary to make a run at a mid-level shot-blocker or 3-and-D guy. And, of course, no one should underestimate the pull that Lebron will have in attracting veterans to come and play in America’s favorite city for a paltry $1 million minimum. Simply put, these guys are miles away from a rebuilding team, but right now improvement might just be the name of the game.
So do I see them making the playoffs? Absolutely. Do I see them making the Conference Finals? You bet. From there, I’d be hard pressed to bet on them (I think Chicago takes that series, even without Derrick Rose). But you know what? Its a long season and these guys might be just starting to figure it out.
From one Q to another. All for one!