With half of the NBA season completed, now seems like a perfectly appropriate time to look at the progress we’ve seen from the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first half.
There’s no question the first half has been nothing short of a very pleasant surprise for Cleveland fans. It’s fair to say Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson have both been better than most people expected, Alonzo Gee has shown remarkable improvement, Daniel Gibson is playing the best defense of his career, Anderson Varejao was having a career year prior to injury, and all in all the team has shown identity, heart, effort, and a tenacity that has allowed them to win plenty of games they should have lost.
There have been growing pains, too. There have been nights off and moments of confusion, poor decisions, and poor execution. But that’s to be expected. Those are things you can live with and learn from when you are a developing basketball team. But the positives have mostly outweighed the negatives, despite the losing record, so let’s examine where the Cavaliers are now, and where we would like to see them grow from here.
In my preseason preview of the team, I talked about areas the Cavaliers needed to improve in, writing:
What areas do the Cavaliers need to improve in? To begin with, everywhere. The Cavaliers were 25th in the NBA in points scored, 23rd in points against. They were 2nd to last in offensive efficiency and 2nd to last in defensive efficiency. They were 28th in eFG%, 25th in ORB rate, 29th in opponents eFG%, and 18th in DRB rate.
Things have been better this year so far. This season, the Cavaliers are 19th in the NBA in scoring, 23rd in points against. They are 22nd in offensive efficiency and 20th in defensive efficiency. On offense they are 21st in eFG%, 20th in TOV%, 2nd in ORB%, and 8th in FT rate. Defensively they are 19th in eFG%, 20th in TOV%, 18th in DRB%, and 14th in FT rate.
I wrote that regardless of record, I wanted to see improvement in the margins. The team has shown improvement in most areas, and the record has been improving with it. After the record losing streak last year, the Cavaliers ended the year 11-18. Their current 13-18 record is pretty similar, but the way the Cavaliers are playing in the losses is a vast improvement over last season.
Here’s a comparison of player efficiency ratings from last season to this year:
|2010-11 Season||2011-12 Season|
|38. Ramon Sessions (19.01 PER)
71. Baron Davis (17.05)
73. Antawn Jamison (16.91)
112. JJ Hickson (15.67)
129. Anderson Varejao (15.21)
186. Daniel Gibson (13.27)
241. Samardo Samuels (11.76)
270. Alonzo Gee (10.81)
275. Ryan Hollins (10.69)
278. Anthony Parker (10.56)
280. Manny Harris (10.49)
283. Semih Erden (10.30)
289. Luke Harangody (10.16)
311. Christian Eyenga (9.08)
327. Joey Graham (7.78)
|32. Kyrie Irving (20.74 PER)
54. Anderson Varejao (19.13)
70. Antawn Jamison (17.94)
110. Ramon Sessions (16.07)
185. Tristan Thompson (13.49)
188 Alonzo Gee (13.42)
251. Omri Casspi (10.89)
281. Daniel Gibson (9.32)
283. Semih Erden (9.30)
291. Anthony Parker (9.01)
305. Samardo Samuels (8.04)
325. Ryan Hollins (6.41)
Player Efficiency Rating is normalized so 15.00 represents league average. Last year the Cavaliers had 5 players with a PER over 15 and this year they only have 4 players. However, both Irving and Varejao have higher PERs than any player last season.
While Varejao, Antawn Jamison, and Gee have seen their PERs improve this season, Ramon Sessions, Daniel Gibson, Samardo Samuels, Ryan Hollins, Anthony Parker, and Semih Erden have all seen theirs decrease. Omri Casspi, although not on the Cavaliers last season, has also seen his PER go down.
It is slightly counter intuitive to see so many players seemingly regressing and yet see the team improving. There are a lot of factors at play, though, including the fact that last year’s numbers are over 82 games and this year’s are over 31 games. Furthermore, this compacted NBA schedule with more games per week means players are more tired and can lead to lower performance levels. Age and changing roles can all play a part, too.
It’s not just the Cavaliers who are experiencing this phenomenon. With a shortened training camp and preseason and with a crazy schedule, performances are down for many players and teams across the league. It’s why the Cavaliers have seen their ranking in offensive efficiency improve despite the fact their actual efficiency rating is lower.
The best standard of comparison is not in the raw numbers from year to year, but how the team ranks compared to the other teams in each season. The same universal factors affect all teams, and the improvements the Cavaliers have seen in their rankings in most categories shows that the Cavaliers are, indeed, an improving team.
The 2nd half of the season, though, will tell the complete story. There is still a lot of room for improvement and the Cavaliers have a relatively easier schedule in March in terms of quality of opponents. They will be playing a lot of teams in the middle of the NBA pack. This will be an opportunity for individual players to show improvement. Can Daniel Gibson get his FG% back up to his career numbers? Can Omri Casspi gain in confidence and comfort wit the team? Will Tristan Thompson’s offensive game continue to develop? Will Kyrie Irving keep up his excellent level of play? Will he get better? Will he regress and/or wear down?
There’s still plenty of questions to be answered for this team in the 2nd half of this season. We will see if there are any trades that impact this roster one way or another. We’ll see if Varejao can return on time and if he will be as effective as he was early this season. We’ll see if this ragtag lineup of veterans waiting to be traded or have their contracts expire and young players looking to learn and make a role for themselves on this team can make a legitimate push for playoff contention or if they will slide into the top 5 of the NBA Draft.
Or maybe the team will stay right where they are. Perhaps we’ll see them continue to scrap out big wins one night and then give half effort on the next night. I guess that’s the luxury of exceeding expectations. The Cavaliers can continue to stay right where they’re at and at the end of the season they’ll be viewed as a success. Which isn’t to say the 2nd half of the season is meaningless. Rather, all it means is that they’ve put themselves in a position to feel good about themselves and to have some hope and positivity for the rest of the season. What they choose to do it with it will be fun to watch.
And now for some mid-season awards:
Omri Casspi. I wanted to pick Samardo Samuels because I really thought he might shown some major improvement this season. Instead, he’s regressed and has lost his right to playing time under Byron Scott. But even still, there’s no bigger disappointment on this team than Omri Casspi. After shooting 37.2% from three-point range last year, that number has fallen to 29.2% with Cleveland. Despite that fact, his FG% and his pts per 36 minutes have stayed about the same. This shows the opportunity Casspi has to make an impact on this team. He finally has a role on a team to showcase what he does. The problem is, he’s not doing that. He’s given some good efforts on defense and rebounding, but the Cavaliers need him to shoot about 35% from three. If he gets his stroke back, he can turn this award around and relinquish it to someone else at year end. But for that first half, Omri was easily the biggest disappointment.
Alonzo Gee. The Cavaliers really struck gold last season when they picked up the undrafted free agent after a stint with San Antonio. You saw the rawness and glimpses of potential in his game last season, but after playing overseas in the offseason, Gee’s game has elevated to the next level. A fearless defender with surprising athleticism and a renewed confidence in his offensive game, Gee is a legit 6th man coming off the bench. Gee also frequently is on the floor to close out games, showing the growing confidence Coach Scott has in him.
Impact Bench Player
Tristan Thompson. Gee could probably win this award as well, but I went with Tristan for one simple reason: energy. A good bench in the NBA is one that has players who come in and provide a spark and can change the flow and momentum of a game when the starters need it. Tristan has done this on countless occasions this year. The Cavaliers are very poor 1st quarter team, and many times it has been Thompson’s energy and defense that changed the momentum of the game. Tristan is 2nd on the Cavaliers behind only Varejao in defensive rating (pts allowed per 100 possessions) and is 2nd behind Varejao in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate. His offensive game, while still raw and underdeveloped, has been a lot better than expected. No player changes the energy of the team when he comes off the bench more than Tristan Thompson.
Most Valuable Player
Kyrie Irving. It’s hard not to pick Varejao, who leads the team in both offensive and defensive rating, along with rebounding and win shares. But Varejao’s injury was a chance for this team to fall apart. And although Antawn Jamison has stepped up his game in Varejao’s absence, it’s Kyrie Irving who has taken the reigns of this team, stepped up his leadership, and put this team on his back in multiple huge 4th quarter comebacks. He has won over the Cavalier fans and media. Anderson Varejao may be the rock and heart of this team, but it’s Irving who has made them dynamic and capable of beating almost anyone on any given night again.
One of the preseason issues to watch that I wrote about was the development of Irving. What would he be, a decent starting PG? A borderline all-star? A franchise player? A superstar? Some in the Cleveland media have already begun proclaiming him a future superstar. Some of Irving’s peers in the NBA have showered the young rookie with praise. Opposing coaches have been impressed.
I don’t know if I’m ready to stamp him with the superstar label just yet. But I am 100% confident that at minimum the Cavaliers have a franchise player in Irving, a player they can build a Championship contending team around. And that’s what’s most important. Irving’s dedication to the game and willingness to put in the work to improve every year will determine whether he reaches true superstar status. But the journey there is looking like it will be a fun one to watch.
Image Source: David Liam Kyle/NBAE/Getty Images