JJ Hickson always referred to his ability to get to the rim as his “bread and butter.” Despite all of the work he put in to improve his jump shot, all of the self-imposed goals designed to help him rebound the basketball, and his game-saving blocked shot against the Los Angeles Clippers, Hickson’s game was always predicated on running the floor, being fed the basketball and converting high percentage shots.
Now that Hickson will be applying butter to his bread on the west coast and Omri Casspi will likely grow roots in the corner of the Cavaliers’ offensive system – the Israeli shoots 47 percent on corner threes – the tides appear to be changing. Gone is the athletic power forward known for his above-the-rim play and bright yellow shoes. Filling the void is a 6-f0ot-9-inch small forward with range and a rookie power forward with little offensive game to speak of.
Cavalier fans have a right to be excited about the prospects of former Texas Longhorn Tristan Thompson. As much as they love the hustle and tenacity of Anderson Varejao, pairing the two big men together should be heady for the Wine and Gold while potentially agitating for their opponent. But with a frontcourt that will be focusing on defense, we are seeing a slight change in philosophy, one that had existed in Cleveland for a very short time.
A little over one year ago from today, the Cleveland Cavaliers introduced their head coach Byron Scott to the city’s media. Energetic and spirited and laced with history, the smiling Scott sat firm next to general manager Chris Grant – promoted just one month earlier – and spoke about the future.
Scott discussed his past, using the Showtime Lakers and his run at a title in New Jersey as support for his belonging amongst the winning culture of the Wine and Gold. He expressed his understanding of the then present, a time of great unknown with regard to the free agency of LeBron James and the implications it could have on his job. And he conveyed his vision for the future, one allegedly rooted in a transition-style offense; though James was not in attendance, he was undoubtedly the target audience of this messsage being a player who had longed for a a quicker pace of play under the plodding, methodical regime of one Mike Brown.
Those who attended Scott’s introductory press conference were not sold a bill of goods by any stretch. The Cavaliers finished the 2010-11 season with a pace of play that placed them among the top third in the league – a far cry from the sixth-slowest mark produced a season earlier under Brown. Unfortunately, the faster style of play did not reflect progress in the win column.
The issues at hand were two-fold. First, the Washington Wizards were the only other team near the Cavaliers who failed to record an offensive efficiency mark north of 100. Only the Wizards had a lower team true shooting percentage; no other team had a lower field goal percentage. Higher pace of play is a net positive only when the efficiency maintains the status quo.
Compounding the offensive woes was the fact that the Scott-led Cavaliers were second to last in defensive effiency, allowing 109 points per-100 possessions, a mark trumped only by the Toronto Raptors. Under Brown the season prior, the Cavaliers were seventh in the league, allowing almost eight fewer points over the same mark. It is no coicidence that the Chicago Bulls, Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic and Miami Heat were among the top-five in the league this past season in defensive efficiency and also represented the conference at the top of the standings heading into the playoffs.
It is this confluence of points that may have forced the Cavaliers to take a step back and reevaluate their direction. Pace of play sure is sexy; its this metric that forced the New York Knicks to cough up $30 million more than the Phoenix Suns to lure away Mike D’Antoni. But, as seen most recently in the 2011 NBA Finals, team defense tends to be the victor – there was only one game within Mavericks-Heat series where both teams eclipsed the 100-point mark.
In 2010-11, Hickson saw his playing time increase by nearly 35 percent. Playing a combination of power forward and center throughout the season, he was tasked with more responsibility than he had been forced to shoulder at any other point in his basketball career. In totality, Hickson responded with an eight-point drop in his true shooting percentage, a seven-point drop in conversion percentage at the rim and a 14-point drop in those between three and nine feet. To his credit, Hickson did improve his rebounding rate by more than three points, likely aided by his post-All-Star break goals.
But it was his relative inefficiency that drew the ire of the team’s coaching staff as he contributed 0.81 points per possession used. With a usage rate as high as Hickson’s, using more than a quarter of the team’s possessions when on the floor, the inefficiency became a burden regardless of what the final box score would show. For comparison’s sake, Antawn Jamison relied primarily on jump shots and he contributed 0.88 points per possession used; the offensively challenged Varejao contributed 0.92.
The addition of Casspi provides the Cavaliers with an offensive option at a position of need, but also one which does not require the ball in his hands to be effective. During the 2009-10 season with the Sacramento Kings, Casspi contributed 0.89 points per possession with a true shooting percentage of 52.9 and a usage rate under 20 percent. His effective field goal percentage – which takes into account the value of the three-point shot – would have placed him second on the Wine and Gold last season among players with at least 1000 minutes on the floor.
There’s no telling what Casspi’s numbers will look like when given the minutes he never was able to be afforded with the Kings. What is known is that the Cavaliers have been desiring his services since he entered the draft in 2009 and continue to say that the trade which was consummated just hours before the NBA went into lockout mode was more about Casspi than it was the now-departed power forward.
Couple all of the above with the fact that the team will move forward with their point guard of the future in Kyrie Irving – a keen-eyed facilitator more than a run-the-floor John Wall type who also happens to be a solid defender and efficient scorer – and it appears that the grandiose plans of Showtime Lakers reincarnated are a way of the past. Will it be missed? Not likely at the expense of a nearly league-worst defensive unit.
Rebuilding teams are afforded the opportunity to retool as they see fit early on in the process. From here, it will just be up to Byron Scott to ensure that the pieces he has opted to move forward with are appropriately placed in a position to succeed.