July 23, 2014

When There’s a Wing, There’s a Way

With six seconds on the clock and his team down two points, Cleveland head coach Bryon Scott called on Lester Hudson. Summoning him to the dry erase board with four of his Cavaliers teammates, Scott drew up the play which would ultimately result in a floating jumper by Hudson that would splash through the net with just over a second remaining, sending the game into overtime.

Hudson was forced to improvise a bit as he bobbled the in-bound transition, but the play was there. In Kyrivian fashion, the recent D-League signee was to take what the defense provided; if the lay-in wasn’t there, Anthony Parker was waiting in the far corner, Antawn Jamison remained at the top of the key. Needing two points yet having enough time on the clock, the secondary options were two relatively low-percentage shot attempts rather than locating any free post players who may have lost their opponent in help-side defense.

In Byron Scott’s playbook, the center is actually anything but. Decimated by injuries for the majority of the last two seasons,  the “five” has been a revolving door of seven-foot-tall bodies, some better than others. Seemingly ineffective when on the floor, the entire position has seen a depth chart turned inside out; Scott had, to this point, thrown any player of size against a wall merely to see who would stick.

With Semih Erden failing to live up to expectations, Ryan Hollins refusing to rebound and Samardo Samuels having an ongoing battle with inconsistency, the position has been turned over to the 6-foot-9-inch Tristan Thompson.  The fourth-overall pick has welcomed all challenges, the latest of which involves playing against opposing centers, and has seen his game grow in stride. His otherwise dreadful free throw percentage has improved month-over-month*, and he has even started to record the occasional assist — this speaks volumes for a player with a season assist rate of 3.1 percent.

But while Thompson has gone on record to state that he was able to easily grasp the nuances involved with his new position (he, after all, was a small forward in high school), Scott is quick to point out that the center is in fact the easiest oft the five positions to become accustomed to as it simply not a top option within the Cavaliers’ [Princeton-based] playbook. “It’s tailored for the forwards and guards,” Scott elaborates. While Thompson’s numbers have improved with his new starting role, the fourth-overall pick continues to trade in hustle, executing without having a single play run in his direction, flourishing primarily in happenstance.

Scott’s offense, as has been discussed before, is predicated upon ball movement coupled with slashing guards and forwards. Thompson, in fact, represents the antithesis of what the Princeton offense asks of its big men due to his penchant to go up with the ball on the vast majority of his touches — he’s what Scott refers to as a “hole” rather than a “hub.” This is not to discount the rookie’s game as the team has been very pleased with what he has provided and are downright giddy regarding what they feel they can do with him given a full off-season which will include private workouts with Zydrunas Ilgauskas. But in the end, Thompson is not a slashing wing who can hit open jump shots when needed.

As the Cavaliers front office counts down the days of the 2011-12 regular season, it is tough to envision any scenario where this not-so-subtle advance by Scott does not play a role in what Chris Grant endeavors to accomplish with his summer. The Cavaliers head coach was noble in his efforts to never mention Kyrie Irving by name as it was beyond obvious that the veteran wanted his Chris Paul. While others considered (and argued) fora  power forward in Arizona’s Derrick Williams, the key piece to Scott’s puzzle came in the form of the 6-foot-3-inch ball-handler.  Thompson, in this instance, was the heir apparent to an entitled JJ Hickson, three years away from any discussion of an increase in compensation.

The obvious next step would be to fill in the gaping holes which continue to exist at the small forward and shooting guard positions. Anthony Parker has certainly stepped up in the absence of a few of his key teammates; Lester Hudson has made for quite the feel-good story.  Alonzo Gee has surprised everyone this season despite his box score lines limping down the home stretch; Omri Casspi has severely disappointed. Would any of the aforementioned by starting for a playoff-bound franchise?

Despite being considerably under the salary cap heading into next season, the 2012 NBA Draft becomes the obvious answer. While the Cavaliers would blare the show tunes and skip to the podium to announce their selection of Anthony Davis with the first-overall selection, the focus will undoubtedly turn to the wing positions with their pick that will most likely reside in the 4-to-7 range: Florida’s Bradley Beal, North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes and UConn’s Jeremy Lamb.

Kentucky’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a former teammate of Kyrie Irving when the two players attended the same high school, would most certainly be a fine consolation prize, but some circles believe that the Cavaliers would prefer Beal even if both players were available. Barnes, the player who many felt the Cavaliers coveted with the fourth-overall pick last season prior to the player’s decision to return to school, recently signed with agent Jeff Wechsler, the same representative as Irving. The Cavaliers point guard also happens to be very close with the Tar Heels forward despite their alma maters being bitter in-state rivals. A recent ESPN mock draft has the Cavaliers getting their wish granted, just one season later.

Potentially ignored could be players like UConn’s Andre Drummond (a center) and Kansas’ Thomas Robinson (a power forward). Baylor’s Perry Jones could get a very strong look, but could he slide down to the small forward slot? He can certainly put the ball on the floor and has a solid mid-range game; at 6-foot-11, he could be a considerable mismatch for Scott to utilize.

There is no denying the team’s need for depth at the center position. Anderson Varejao will be 30-years of age before the 2012-13 season tips off, and his true position is power forward. And as much as one can doggy paddle with a 6-foot-9-inch springboard in the post, it is equally difficult to envision any scenario where Scott and his general manager feel that they can consistently compete without any true centers on the roster, let alone ones who can compete against the bigger bodies of the NBA.

There have been rumors of the team’s consistent interest in Chicago’s Omer Asik — Chris Grant allegedly asked for Asik in return for any trade which would involve sending a shooting guard to the Bulls before last season’s trade deadline. In turn, the front office acquired Erden to test whether or not his lack of production was merely a function of playing time. The Cavaliers have also been linked to various big men in the upcoming draft, with some recent mocks having Grant selecting Vanderbilt’s Festus Ezeli — an NBA-ready big man who can hold his own defensively — with their recently acquired first-round pick from the Los Angeles Lakers.

No decisions have been made on European big men Sasha Kaun and Milan Macvan, the latter of which has averaged 15.3 points and 8.2 rebounds per game for Partizan, ranking him ninth in total points amongst the Euroleague. Still, the Cavaliers feel very confident in their scouts, citing their recent success not only in the draft, but in uncovering potential gems in the NBDL.

“They uncover every stone,” says Scott. “Not just in the states, but internationally as well.”

In the end, it is becoming more and more evident that this Cavaliers team will be built not only through the draft, but from the bottom up — the keystone is firmly in place and has the name “Irving” etched into its side in a very large font. The next step will be providing Irving with the scoring options that will allow him to regain his role as floor general, taking few hits and (hopefully) allowing him to avoid injury down the road.

For now, buzzer-beaters will be the responsibility of players like Lester Hudson, Anthony Parker and Antawn Jamison. Thankfully for Scott, that dry erase board is just that. For next season, he should have a few new names to draw in.

 * 37.2 percent in January; 53.3 percent in February; 61.5 percent in March; 65 percent in April

(AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

  • pete

    I’m going to assume the spelling of Connecticut was intentional. And genius.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    It would be nice to see some scoing punch added.  A big man, a true center is needed as well but not as much as the slashing scorers mentioned in Scott’s article.

    Lets not forget free agency though, please.  I don’t wanna see the Browns mentality spread to the Cavaliers.  Grant has alot of options due to the financial flexibility he has/will create.  It would be refreshing to see at least one Cleveland team use it.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    I’m not sure if we can say that Varejao’s true position is power forward.  That position has changed a lot over the last 10 years as has the center position.  With the exception of the Dwight Howards and Roy Hibberts of the NBA, most of the league’s centers are around 6’10″ because height alone is no longer valued over athleticism.  Andy makes up for athleticism with drive and determination.  Personally, I think he’s a new-model NBA center more than a power forward… when I think of a power forward in today’s NBA, it’s a guy who can step back and hit a 18 foot jumper with consistency.  Guys like Luis Scola, Kevin Garnett, Pau Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, Serge Ibaka, Channing Frye, Amare Stoudemire, and even Antawn Jamison.  Defensively, Andy can guard these guys, but he certainly doesn’t seem to have the offensive skill set of today’s NBA power forward.

  • Ritz

    Completely agree… I think Andy is a very good NBA center and fits well at the 5 in Scott’s offense.

  • http://twitter.com/Pelderskelter Patrick Elder

    Actually, Dwight Howard is only 6′ 10″ I believe. Maybe 6′ 11″.

  • Steve

    Except that its become very clear over the last couple years that Varejao has serious problems guarding 5′s, but he has done a great job against the guys you listed. Varejao is much more useful defensively when he can move around the perimeter rather than bang up against big guys inside.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    He’s listed as 6’11″, but I think we can certainly agree that he is much more massive than other 6’11″ centers in the league.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    He has trouble guarding Howard and Bynum, but so do most centers in the league.  He actually does very well guarding most centers in the league.

  • mgbode

    he’s at his best defending the pick-n-roll.  i don’t think there’s a better big man PNR defender in the NBA.

    so, whoever the other team runs the PNR through the most, AV should be covering.

    whether we have him at the 4 or 5 is really inconsequential.

  • mgbode

    you know what is funnier than the tanking?

    the Hawks, Celtics and Magic* playing “hot potato” with the 3-6 seeds.  ATL/ORL have now played themselves out of the 3seed and I think all realize the “easier” path to the ECF by avoiding Miami in the 2nd round.

    *Magic have had to deal with a ton of injuries.  Their play could be very indicative of just those issues.

    ——————

    Personally, I want Boston to get either the 3 or 6 seed.  I want to see Miami face NY in the 1st, Boston in the 2nd, and not get to the ECF (but, if they do, then Chicago in the ECF).   I don’t care about the big market matchups, but those are the teams that seem to give them the most trouble.

  • Steve

    It’s more than those two, and he does an especially poor job on those two compared to most centers known for their defense.

    mgbode is correct below that Varejao should be guarding the opposing big man most likely to be more active. But, again, that means the Cavs need to find someone who can bang down low against the legitimate 5′s in the league.

  • Steve

    It’s more than those two, and he does an especially poor job on those two compared to most centers known for their defense.

    mgbode is correct below that Varejao should be guarding the opposing big man most likely to be more active. But, again, that means the Cavs need to find someone who can bang down low against the legitimate 5′s in the league.

  • Foghorn Leghorn

    Im with you on this.  NYC has to jump into the 7 spot though, and Boston into the 3.  That would be a perfect “screw Miami” playoff run.  Thunder in the Finals.

  • mgbode

    Knicks are only a 1/2 game back.
    Boston could either jump up to #3 or back to #6 (only 1/2 game ahead of both the Magic and Hawks at #4 right now – 2.5 GB of Pacers)

    I also think the Spurs give Miami as much trouble as the Thunder.  Tony Parker is one of the few guys in the league LeBron has trouble covering, their transition defense is great, they don’t turn the ball over a ton and have a lot of 3pt shooters.

  • Jack

    2 stupid wins … we’d be in line for 3rd most ping pong balls