Hard Truths and Subplots- Sizing Up The Cavs a Third of the Way Through

cavs logo 70s

After Saturday’s game against the Knicks, the Cavs have now played 25 of their 82 regular season games, which is about 30%. Technically the Cavs won’t reach the one-third point of the season until after Wednesday’s game in Boston, but I feel 30% is close enough for my purposes. Twenty five games is a pretty good benchmark to start taking stock in our 2012-13 Cleveland Cavaliers.

Generally, I’m pretty pleased with where the Cavs are at. I won’t pretend that a 5-20 record is anything but dreadful, but it’s not entirely unexpected either. The schedule, combined with the injuries to Kyrie Irving and Dion, have the Cavs looking a little worse than they actually are.

The schedule gods were not kind to these young Cavs. As of Sunday, the Cavs have played 25 games this year, tying them for second among all NBA teams (Detroit is first with 26 games played, while a number of teams, including Miami, have played just 20). Diving deeper, Cleveland’s longest road trip of the year occurred during the season’s first week (a six gamer that took them to both coasts) and they’ve already had two of their four 4-games-in-5-night stretches (they end this week their third and the final 4-in-5 is in February). Plus, a full 60% of their games (15/25) have been on the road, away from the friendly confines and the fire breathing scoreboard at The Q.

Meanwhile, Cleveland is slogging through this schedule with one of the youngest rosters in the NBA, with an average age of 24. In addition, Kyrie Irving has missed eleven games and Dion Waiters has been out for eight, which has robbed the Cavs of their only two players that can create their own shot. And in the four games where neither Kyrie or Dion suited up, the Cavs went 0-4 and lost by an average of 11 points per contest.  Things have not been pretty.

So….

Brutal schedule + injuries + young roster = third worst record in the NBA.

Weird, right?

Due to the schedule and injuries, the Cavs won’t be contending for a playoff spot this year. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some interesting questions surrounding the Wine & Gold.  I’ve participated in (more than) my fair share of Cavalier conversations, both online and off, and there seems to be five dominant subplots that keep coming up.

  1. Anderson Varejao. All-Star? Probably. Should they trade him? Maybe.
  2. Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters. Starters of twitter fights, do we trust numbers or our eyeballs?
  3. Kyrie Irving’s defense. We should expect improvement when, exactly?
  4. When are we allowed to get mad at Byron Scott?1
  5. The rebuild. How’s it going? Do we trust Chris Grant? Should we expect another high lottery pick next June?

(There’s also a sixth thread with regard to Kyrie’s injuries, but that is better discussed in hushed whispers, rather than out loud in the open).2

Let’s go through these, shall we?

1. Anderson Varejao.

I go back and forth on the “Trade Andy” question, seemingly by the hour. Varejao is far and away the Cavs’ most tradable and desirable asset (if not their only one) and it makes sense to shop him. Even with Andy, the Cavs are a bad team; Andy is busting his butt grabbing 15 boards a night and they’re still losing. Could these minutes be better used with Tristan Thompson and Tyler Zeller getting acclimated in the NBA? If you’re gonna lose, lose with young guys and get them experience, no? Plus, there’s the question of how effective Varejao will be when Kyrie, Dion and co. are ready to make noise in the playoffs.

I’m not opposed to the idea trading Andy. It all comes down to what they get in return (a haul from OKC? Sure! Derrick Williams and stuff from Minny? Maybe. A late first and Gallinari from Denver? Pass). My biggest fear is that the Cavs trade Varejao for picks and a project and followed by the Cavs take a giant step back. If they’re losing games with an All-Star starting at PF, how are they going to look without any experienced bigs in their rotation? What I don’t want is Kyrie to have his first two years filled with non-noncompetitive losses. Anderson’s hustle and defense can keep the Cavs competitive and he’s a good veteran to have around.

Verdict: Look to trade Andy, but no deal is better than a bad deal.

2. My lying eyes.

I’ll admit that I’ve soured on Tristan Thompson. I’m also very high on Dion Waiters. Then I read these posts and their numbers saying “hey, Tristan’s advanced stats aren’t gawd-awful!” or “Dion is a historically bad shooter” and I reflexively revert to “ok, but just watch the games.”

And I don’t like being That Guy. I’ve read FireJoeMorgan.com. I know. Numbers are useful things ((see, Thompson is part Cleveland’s three best five-man-units!)).

But man. I watch these games and I see Kyrie get frustrated when Thompson mishandles a pass. I see Thompson get his shot blocked at a crazy rate. I see TT take horrible jumpers and decide to drive from the top of the key and I just cringe. Maybe Thompson looks worse than he really is, but man….

With Dion, it’s the other way. His shooting numbers are horrible at the moment but I love watching him play. I love that he and Kyrie are clearly the most explosive players on the team. That Dion has a bit of moxie and likes taking Big Shots is a huge plus for me. I love that he’ll jaw at an opposing bench or that he’ll wave his arms to get crowd pumped; that’ll have a game where his shot isn’t falling and then have the confidence to make 3-4 plays down the stretch where that’ll win you the game.

Verdict: I hate going against numbers. But I’m all-in on Waiters and out on Tristan.

3. Kyrie’s defense.

While I, myself, am not concerned in the slightest, I can’t blame you if you are a more than bit worried about Kyrie’s extreme lack of D. I’m just not that worried. Even LeBron didn’t play any defense until Mike Brown got him to him three years into his career. It can take awhile before guys can become two way players.

If you want to make the argument that Kyrie’s porous defense helped the Cavs lose Friday’s game against the Bucks, I’ll listen to said argument and nod my head agreement. If you want me to be worried – as in “I’m not sure the Cavs will be able to contend down the road because Kyrie is sieve defensively” – no, thanks. I’ll pass.

Verdict: Irving’s defense sucks but I can’t imagine that it won’t get better going forward.

4. Byron Scott

It’s hard to judge Coach Scott; his Cleveland haven’t exactly been built for winning. This year is no different; the Cavs have a terrible bench (on purpose3), three legit NBA starters (Kyrie, Andy and Dion) and a bunch of young guys. We knew going in that this team wasn’t going to win a ton of games and that has turned out to be the case.

So what’s the criticism? Well, let’s start with his rotations. Take the Pacers game. The Cavs managed to score just 12 points in the third period and with a ten point deficit to start the fourth, Scott trots out a lineup of Donald Sloan, Daniel Gibson, Luke Walton, Samardo Samuels and Tristan Thompson. Not (anywhere close to) the group I’d like to see, but again, the Cavs aren’t exactly flush with options.

Irving, who sat the last three minutes of the third quarter, entered the game with six minutes to go, meaning the Cavs (who finished with 23 points in the entire second half) were without their only scoring option for half of the fourth quarter, nine straight minutes overall. Also, Anderson Varejao didn’t return until there was just over three minutes left in the game. Because of Byron’s rotations, the Cavs were without their only playmaker for nine minutes and their best big man didn’t even play four minutes in the final period. What’s up with that?

So Luke Walton played a season-high 17 minutes during that Pacer game. A season high. He had played just seven minutes of garbage time over the previous seven games but Scott had Luke on the floor for over half of the fourth quarter in Indiana. Meanwhile, Jeremy Pargo, he of the 20 point nights as a starter, only received three minutes against the Pacers and got a DNP-CD against the Bucks. What?

I don’t want to keep harping on the Pacer game (I know it was Kyrie’s first back-to-back and all whatnot), but it is just one example of my issues with Scott. In addition to the weird rotations, I also have complaints about their awful defense at the end of halves (they seem to give up a lot of buzzer beaters, no?) and how they start out flat for roughly 25% of their games.

Verdict: I’m complaining about rotations during a December loss to the Pacers. I am a crazy person.

5.The rebuild.

After the Cavs lost an ugly game to the Timberwolves (without Kyrie and Dion, mind you), 92.3’s Daryl Ruiter tweeted this:

I vote ‘not fair’, Daryl4.

I don’t mean to single out Ruiter, as he wasn’t the only media member who’s been voicing frustration with about this lengthy rebuild. But I don’t find it a coincidence that he used the term “lottery rebuild” (as if the Cavs have any other choice) or that Dan Gilbert went on a twitter rant about their rebuild the following day.

I hear these complaints about “The OKC Model” and how “it only works if you can get a Kevin Durant” and I shake my head5. David Zavac, one of my cohorts over at FearTheSword.com (did you know I wrote for FTS? No? Well I totally do, I swear!), went full-Amico; that because the lottery is really risky and that the odds that the Cavs find another great player in the draft are very low, Chris Grant and co. should focus more on trades and free agency.

While I do agree with David that the lottery is risky, I have yet to see a good alternative for a small-market team.

Here are my Hard Truths with regards to the Cavs rebuild:6.

1.The Cavs will never sign a marquee free agent. You can talk about how players would love playing with Kyrie or how Gilbert spends, but banking on the Cavs signing someone *great* in free agency is a lost cause. Teams like Cleveland don’t add big pieces in free agency (as in All-Stars), they find parts (as in scorer off the bench or a veteran big who can rebound, or a wing defender, etc). Yes, hoping the Cavs strike gold in the lottery is a risky bet, but hoping they strike gold in free agency is downright foolish.

2. If, like the Cavs, your plan is to build your small-market NBA franchise through the draft, it is better to finish 3rd worst than 9th worst. If the Cavs wanted to be a 35-45 win team this season, they could’ve made that happen and they can certainly do so next offseason if they want to overpay some of these free agent studs. But if you think finding a great player is hard at the top of the draft, it’s much harder in the middle. Also, high draft picks are valuable and having some to package with a player can set you up for a huge trade.

Last year the Cavs traded away Ramon Sessions, sat Varejao and Kyrie at the end of the year, lost a ton of of games and ended up picking fourth in the draft. They tanked. This last offseason, the Cavs spent almost no money on their bench and then were extremely cautious and shut down Kyrie due to his finger injury (that just happened to coincide with their longest road trip of the season and a 4-in-5 that included games against Memphis and Miami). There’s zero reason to risk injury during this early part of the season7.

In the NBA, giving any 20 year old kid millions of dollars to play a game is risky. To help mitigate this risk, you surround them with a professional, stable franchise to help smooth out their transition from college to the pros (this is something I feel that perpetual lottery teams like the Kings, Wizards and Raptors lack).

The Cavs have a head coach in like Byron Scott who can relate to players and who has played in the league. They have a stable GM in Chris Grant; someone with a long term plan, a clear mandate and someone who isn’t in fear of losing his job. It also helps to have a owner like Dan Gilbert; someone that isn’t in a rush to win MORE GAMES RIGHT NOW THIS SECOND and who won’t blow things up two years into a four year plan because the team had a bad week and local talk show hosts are cranky.

It also helps to have vet with with good winning habits like Varejao in the fold; someone who won’t take plays off and plays smart. Plus, it really helps to have a player like Kyrie Irving; a guy who is the no-doubt leader of the team. A superstar that everyone falls behind. There’s no jockeying for the spotlight or shots; it is Kyrie Irving’s team.

It’s about developing a winning culture and making sure that Kyrie, Dion and co. don’t develop bad losing habits. They’re in Year 2 of the rebuild (Year 3 post-LeBron) and I feel they’re right where they should be.

Verdict: I see no reason to change the course. The record is bad but misleading. They’ve suffered through injuries, a horrid schedule and Luke Walton. If you want to question Chris Grant’s drafting skills (picks like Christian Eyenga, Dion or Tristan), or Byron Scott’s coaching, be my guest. But questioning the “lottery rebuild” after two drafts seems short sighted.

___________________________________________________

Footnotes:

  1. or, at what point does Scott take blame for missed defensive assignments and losses? []
  2. It is what it is, IMO. Even if Kyrie misses 45% of the games over the next few years, the Cavs simply have to resign him regardless. They’re stuck. Cleveland can’t afford let a talent like Irving walk due to injury risk. They just can’t. []
  3. there’s no point to them signing guy to make them go from 3rd worst to 7th worst. None. []
  4. and even then, they’ve hit 3/4? AWFUL []
  5. I view as the “The Drafting Well and Don’t Clog Your Cap with Dumb Free Agents” model []
  6. and if you want to say that I’m rooting for failure and losses, you’re an idiot. I just spent a few hundred words complaining about Byron Scott’s bench rotations versus the Pacers. Trust me, I don’t turn on games hoping to see them lose []
  7. which is why Waiters had better not return until his ankle is 150%. The last thing we need is for him to re-injure it []
  • Harv 21

    one thing that you don’t mention which I’ve seen is long stretches where the team is sleepwalking. Not an issue of lack of talent on the floor, but lack of effort by players other than Andy and Kyrie. Tristan and Gee have been major culprits and I do not understand why. Lazy passes, outhustled for balls, reaching on defense, minutes of just floating. This at least partially must fall on Byron Scott. Say what you want about Mike Brown, but on-court laziness did not occur often.

    Saying the players respect Byron as a coach because of his rings seems a safe cliche that everyone repeats, but it would be better to write it when they show it. They haven’t shown it.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Chris Grant needs to feel some heat he needs to make some moves and bring in talented help to assist Kyrie Irving otherwise this will just be another LeBron redux. Tristan Thompson continues to be a huge letdown for me.

  • mgbode

    nice article (though I’d include Andy w/ Irving in the hushed whispers about injuries).

    one paragraph stood out above all the others though:

    “It also helps to have vet with with good winning habits like Varejao in
    the fold; someone who won’t take plays off and plays smart. Plus, it
    really helps to have a player like Kyrie Irving; a guy who is the
    no-doubt leader of the team. A superstar that everyone falls behind”

  • BenRM

    Tristan is driving me insane. I agree w/ all of your assessments, even though I did find the piece on fearthesword about building through the draft interesting.

  • Roosevelt

    Watching Cavs-Raptors and it’s depressing. Irving is clearly a superstar, and everyone else on the team is equally clearly spare parts. We’ve had two top picks after Irving and missed on both. This is looking a *lot* like Lebron II, except that for all Kyrie’s talent, he’s no Lebron.

  • Yup

    Nice to come here after 3 straight TT double-doubles. Is it churlish to put our his improvement in nearly ever advanced stat category, too? And Dion has been absolutely better than predicted. The fact is, Grant has been more right than any other GM in this town (a low bar, to be certain) but somehow does not get the dap he deserves for that. Oh, and also his role in creating the extreme financial flexibility the Cavs have as the NBA next year moves into luxury tax hell. A smart plan that is clearly bearing fruit. But I guess bitching is the Cleve fans way, so get back to it…