On the Cavaliers and the Prospects of a Failed Rebuilding Process

Chris Grant Dan Gilbert

Sometimes you think you know something. And then someone really smart says something that challenges what you think you know, and it makes you look at the subject from an entirely different point of view. And when the context changes, you can sometimes be surprised at what you learn.

I love the WFNY Podcasts that Craig is doing, and by far my two favorite episodes have been the two Brian Spaeth conversations. I don’t know Brian, save for a few Twitter interactions and one email interaction in which he sent me a promotional copy of his movie “Who Shot Mamba?” (which is genuinely funny and really stupid at the same time…it’s great). But I follow him on Twitter and read his website. He has a lot of interesting things to say and generally looks at things from a perspective different from my own.

But what I really remember the most about Brian is his old sports blog, Yay Sports!. Yes, a long time ago (in internet time) Brian wrote this really great basketball blog and I vividly remember reading it, laughing a lot, thinking about basketball from a different perspective, and just being happy that this guy was a fellow Cavs fan.

Anyway, what I’m getting at here is that while I know Brian and sports are going through a trial separation these days, I still really respect his opinion on sports and when he says something that offers an opinion that differs from my own, it’s going to make me at least consider it.

In this last WFNY Podcast, the subject of the Cavaliers came up, and Brian said something to the effect of “Look at the Cavs. Yeah, the Cavs are going about it the right way, regarding how the NBA works and how you have to operate to go from the bottom to the top. But the fact is, because Tristan Thompson is not a star and Dion Waiters is not a star, this rebuild is already blown. It’s over. It’s done. It’s blown.” After some back and forth with Craig on this subject, Brian mentioned that while he wants the rebuild to work, “I don’t have the energy to waste on hoping for things that aren’t realistic.”

Ouch. This is not exactly a fun prospect to even be considering. But this did make me think about it. If context is everything, my relative truth about the Cavaliers may not be the absolute truth at all. Maybe my hope for success for this franchise is impairing my ability to perceive the harsh truth that the Cavaliers have one good basketball player on this team right now.

Perhaps. Or maybe it’s just bad timing. I was listening to the podcast on my way into work this morning and it was coming on the heels of that embarrassment of a basketball game that occurred last night. This is a frustrating time for all of us Cavalier fans. But just as we should be careful of letting our desire for success cloud our vision, so too must we take caution to not let the frustration and growing pains of a developing team ruin our outlook for the future.

Here’s what I know. It’s really, really, really hard to get a superstar in the NBA. It’s even harder to keep them longer than 7 years. The Cavaliers have a superstar in Kyrie Irving. They have his rights until 2014/15. They hold his qualifying offer for the next year, meaning he will be a restricted free agent. Which means worst case scenario they have him for that year. So essentially, after this year we can only feel reasonably certain that Kyrie will be a Cavalier for 3 years after this one.

So is that enough time to convince Irving to stay? Should we feel reasonably assured that the team is on the right path? That’s a tough question, primarily in a season in which the team looks this pathetic. I won’t rehash the numbers again. We all know it’s been remarkably bad. Poor offense, some of the worst defense we’ve ever seen in Cleveland, questionable coaching rotations, etc.

So yeah, it’s bad. Things look bleak. But does this mean the rebuild is done? Does this mean Kyrie’s era in Cleveland is already counting down in Cleveland? Or is this just the team hitting rock bottom before it begins its ascent? Is this simply the hard part of any rebuild?

I have a couple thoughts about this. Regarding Tristan Thompson, there is no doubt that Brian is correct that he’s not a star. I don’t see him ever being a star. But then again, neither is anyone drafted after him. Jonas Valanciunas, Jan Vesely, Bismack Biyombo, Brandon Knight, Kemba Walker, Jimmer Fredette, Klay Thompson, Alec Burks, Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris, Kawhi Leonard. Some of these are solid players, but none of them are stars. Had the Cavaliers drafted any of them, I don’t think the team’s fate would be any different today.

The one thing I do know is that since Anderson Varejao went down we’ve seen the best basketball out of Tristan in his career. He looks like he’s growing into the double-double machine the Cavaliers always believed he could be. He’s probably never going to be a star, never appear in an All-Star game, never make All-NBA teams. But if he can get a little more solid on defense and recognize when to help a little quicker, along with continue to post 12 points and 10 rebounds a night, I think the Cavaliers would be fine with that.

As for Waiters, I’m going to reserve judgment. Those who have been reading my posts here know how I feel about highly drafted SGs. They struggle to adapt more than any other position. These things take time, and I’m simply not ready to write off Dion Waiters. I honestly think he could still be a star if he learns to control his shot selection. The move to the bench has done wonders for Waiters in reeling in expectations a bit and letting Dion get back to what he is at his core, a slasher.

And yet, the Cavaliers keep losing. Over and over and over again. Sometimes it’s close, which can be encouraging that hey, at least the team is competing. Yet other nights it’s ugly and hard to watch and tests all of our patience.

I know I’m not giving a lot of concrete answers here to Brian’s original point. Is the rebuild broken? Is it over already? It might be. We as fans spend a lot of time preaching patience and waiting for development. We look for the slightest hints of greatness to verify our beliefs or hopes. It’s called confirmation bias. If you want/believe Tristan Thompson will be great, you’ll focus on the number of double-doubles and the small signs of improvement. If you believe Tristan is a wasted pick, you’ll focus on his many, many shortcomings.

If you want a straight answer out of me, I do think Rebuild Version 1.0 is broken. And I don’t think it’s the front office’s fault, I think it’s just that the Cavaliers had three Top 5 picks in two of the weakest drafts. There are no franchise players that could have been picked with the Cavaliers’ two #4 picks. I do not believe the core of Irving/Waiters/Thompson is remotely good enough to compete for a title, and I don’t think they ever will be.

However, I think Rebuild Version 1.1 is alive and well. I think the weak draft classes are just slowing the process down, but the philosophy is the same. The Cavaliers probably have a couple more lottery years left in them. The idea remains the same. Shed cap space, draft in the lottery, develop players. It just might not be the core we originally thought it would be, but there’s still time to develop a core that can win a title around Kyrie Irving.

Sometimes it’s good to ask the hard questions and try to look at a question from another perspective. It’s uncomfortable to think about the Cavs failing at rebuilding, and we’ve been preaching patience around here for so long. But that’s the plan, and the Cavaliers have no choice but to continue to follow it. Somewhere out there is a future great NBA player. It’s up to the Cavaliers to find him and draft him to complete Rebuild Version 1.1.


Image Source: Amy Sancetta / Associated Press

  • cleveland__rocks

    This article is a joke.

  • Jack


  • mgbode

    Mr. Spaeth is taking the easy road. And, it can shift depending on what we truly want out of everything. Do we want a title contender or a title? If a title, then the OKC rebuild is a pending failure. Chicago’s rebuild w/ Rose has been a failure as well.

    If a title contender is the issue, then I agree with the premise that TT and Waiters are not currently stars. I also agree that a team needs at least 2 stars and an entire rotation of solid players to become a contender (needs a coach to make everyone work in the same direction, especially on defense).

    So, let’s just say Waiters never flips the switch and gets stuck on solid player. Same for TT. Andy is playing like a star, but is hurt too often (and may be traded) or the league may adjust to limit his recent offense. Even if you grant all of those concessions, the Cavs are likely picking in the top5 in this draft. If we find a star, then fill out the roster with more solid players we can still become a legit title contender (of course, this depends on the players actually playing defense).

    It’s easy to say we will never be one. All teams are trying to become title contenders and only a few do. An even more select few of those hog title contender status for years at a time (Spurs, Lakers, etc.). And even more elite sub-grouping actually wins a title.

  • http://twitter.com/clevezirm Jordan Zirm

    Don’t think it’s anywhere near fair to judge the Cavs rebuild this year. I just don’t think you can. Next year is that year. If we are sitting here next year and the Cavs are struggling to play .500 ball, then yeah, the rebuild has failed.

    Kyrie, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and Tyler Zeller are all insanely young. Being insanely young means needing time to grow and develop. Kyrie is already there. He’s special. But you’re seeing, halfway through year two, Tristan starting to reach his potential. You’ve seen flashes of it from Dion and Tyler. You hope that in year 2, they hit that potential that we’ve seen. If they don’t, then yeah, the Cavs are in trouble.

    And can we talk about the team around these four young guys? Alonzo Gee starts for this team. Aside from CJ Miles, the guys that have been put in place to surround the Cavs young core are a joke. I swear they have more D-Leaguers on the roster than any team in the history of the NBA. That needs to change (and hopefully will change) in the offseason. Along with another high draft pick.

    Yeah, it’s highly alarming how awful the Cavs are at playing defense. It’s not getting better. And this team should have more wins that it does. Losing to the Raptos and Kings of the league should not be happening, the Cavs are better than that. Maybe Byron doesn’t end up being the right coach for this team moving forward. But you can’t judge the rebuild or this team fairly right now. Next year you can. And you can be harsh about it if it doesn’t work. Just not yet.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com Andrew Schnitkey

    I agree. The wages of failing in the first rebuilding process are simply more lottery picks. But I just did find it interesting to think about the fact that the rebuild could be a failure. It seems awfully early to me to proclaim it a failure, but as I thought about it, I found it hard to formulate a rebuttal that doesn’t rely on emotion. The statistics sure aren’t on the Cavaliers’ side.

  • mgbode

    One example of how to turn the current Cavs to a title contender (depends on how much Sacramento wants to rid themselves of Cousins):

    1. trade Andy, Casspi (or Gee or Miles if that’s what it takes) and Sacramento’s pick back to the Kings for Cousins and Salmons
    2. draft Shabazz (and he turns out to be a star)
    3. hire SVG

    Now, we have a team coached by SVG with the following:

    PG: Irving, ??
    SG: Miles, Waiters
    SF: Shabazz, Gee
    PF: TT, ??
    C: Cousins, T.Zeller

    Go after Jarrett Jack or Jose Calderon for backup PG duties this offseason.
    Go after Millsap or David West to start at PF. Or maybe Landry to be part of the frontcourt rotation.

    Would you take the chances of that lineup being a title contender in 2014 or 2015? I would.

  • http://twitter.com/tompestak Thomas Pestak

    Great article – loved it. You captured the thought experiments (gymnastics?) that we are all engaged in.

  • FearTheRoo

    I get the rebuilding mentality. But tanking an entire season to get stuck with another Dion Waiters? We are 1/4 in drafts during this “rebuild.” If they want to win, they have to be better.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com Andrew Schnitkey

    That’s not a bad start. That certainly could be a contender. The annoying problem is getting through LeBron and the Heat.

  • JHop

    I’ll give the team one more draft and free agency before any judgement is made. If we add a great SF like Shabazz Muhammad or even Ben McLemore and a few solid free agents to solidify the bench, then we have a decent chance of turning the corner.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com Andrew Schnitkey

    Interesting that this comment has 4 likes so far and yet nobody cares to expand on what makes it a joke. Do you take offense to even questioning whether the rebuild is working? Or do you have a problem with me saying that I think the process they are on is fine?

  • cmm13

    “I think it’s just that the Cavaliers had three Top 5 picks in two of the weakest drafts.”
    ….THAT’S A BINGO!!
    Couple this with their efforts to retain cap space for the bigger free agent classes upcoming in 2014/2015 and I’d venture to say that’s when they make their splash.
    please oh please oh please be right about this.

  • mgbode

    the Cavs main dilemma is that they hit on their star first. if we had switched the drafts (Waiters/Zeller then Irving/TT), then we’d have an extra year in the process. getting Irving first accelerates both the good and potentially bad things.

    the other question: would Irving be willing to be the first NBA player to buck the system and just take the qualifying offer and walk away from a max extension? no player who has earned a max extension and ultimately had issues with their management has been willing to do that (not LeBron, Dwight, CP3, Deron, Melo, Love, etc.). it is such a PR nightmare and basically tanks that season for your team that it is tough to do. some player eventually will, but I don’t think Irving will be that player (perhaps I think that naively).

  • Jack

    Except SAC never makes that trade…

  • mgbode

    that’s one reason I made a distinction between contender and actually winning a title.

  • JacobWFNY

    I half-agree with your comment here. Yes, it’s not really fair to judge the entire rebuild just yet. That’s undoubtedly true. And it’s also true that it’s not fair to judge Tristan’s career just yet — it’s just way too early, and we’re only 1.5 years in to both things.

    But at the same time, you can’t just flat-out ignore the evidence on the court. There has to be something to be said for the team still being this atrocious defensively. And another season of being a bottom 3 team in the league? Ugh it’s difficult to watch.

    So I’m conflicted, obviously. The Cavs fan in me wants to preach patience and the fact this year doesn’t really matter. But the eternal pessimist wants to say that it still means something, even if it’s relatively inconsequential.

  • mgbode

    probably not and prefaced above. I think Andy’s better than Sullinger, Green, and Lee though.

  • Lyon25

    A rebuild isn’t a failure until you’re stuck in mediocrity like Atl was. If your rebuild never gets started, you at least have lottery picks.

  • http://brian23.com Brian

    Andrew I absolutely agree with you that if its a failure it’s not even necessarily the Cavs’ fault. Like you said, there were no superstars to be had. TT and Waiters are even decent picks – they can at least contribute and play, which many lottery picks can’t even manage. Good read and thanks for the kind words also.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com Andrew Schnitkey

    It’s an interesting way of looking at it, isn’t it? That’s why I tried to separate what I see as rebuild 1.0 from what is currently happening. I think the philosophy is the same, but the draft classes are different. As long as 1 of them succeeds, none of the others will ever be viewed as failures. At least I don’t think so.

  • architrance

    We are all just guessing, because this long, slow, painful rebuilding process isn’t over yet. We don’t know who will be on this roster next year. We might have the next star, we might not. I do think they’re going about it the right way, however. I’d rather this team be at the bottom of the standings with the potential to win the lottery, than just barely make/miss the playoffs and have no tangible avenues for improvement. This is what we signed up for when we bought into the idea of tanking. It’s not easy but I’m glad they are sticking precisely to this plan. With a potential 4th top 5 pick in 3 years, there’s still the possibility we can add that next star. I think the Cavs need to remain aggressive in acquiring assets and draft picks; because as this team is showing night in and night out, the rebuild is far from over.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Please no SVG! Cousins all day and night but if not I do like the Milsap or West at PF with Thompson coming off the bench as your 6th man. Varejao needs to be traded.

  • disqus_29LqpwbGxP

    He’s playing really well in limited minutes. But even with Greg Monroe, Detroit ain’t winning games either.

  • Harv 21

    just walk away, Andrew. You’re entering the No Point Zone.

  • http://twitter.com/tompestak Thomas Pestak

    who knows. All I can say is there are some wildly polarized Cavs fans right now. Everyone is at a different place.

  • mgbode

    i think that depends on how many fail and how long things take. chicago fans certainly view the chandler/curry draft rebuild a failure.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    You cannot win by simply drafting there are entirely to many pitfalls for things to not go well and I maintain drafting is one of the hardest ways to go simply because of the risk of players not panning out. In the NBA the risk is even greater given the age of the players involved.

    This next draft will be make or break for the Cavaliers period but in the meantime I’m hoping Grant makes a move and can bring in either a bonafide All-Star or at the least 1-2 on the brink bright future potential All-Stars. The latter would be more difficult. Grant has done a great job at creating salary cap flexibility and the Cavaliers have a ton of $$$ to work with along with an owner who has demonstrated he’ll be more then happy to pay for anyone. It’s time for Grant to show everyone something and that is by making a trade. He can ice the proverbial cake in the next draft by drafting a player who doesn’t have to come in and be Kyrie Irving but instead a well rounded versatile solid guy to go along with Irving, Waiters, Thompson, Zeller, Miles and hopefully that other All-Star obtained via trade. If this happens I think we’ll have something to talk about, I think or hope.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com Andrew Schnitkey

    I don’t think it’s unfair to ask for constructive criticism. I’m willing to listen. I just don’t like blanket statements like calling it a “joke”.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Those weak drafts did not help for sure and we’ll see as far as the free agents go. Ideally I’d like to see a trade made to bring in an All-Star and a big time free agent signing finished off with the draft next.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com Andrew Schnitkey

    Also a good point. You’re on fire today.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com Andrew Schnitkey

    I’d be surprised if Kyrie did that. However, as long as it is a possibility, I feel a responsibility to be honest about it in my writing. But I’m with you, I’m pretty sure he’ll stay for at least another 3 years.

  • http://twitter.com/tompestak Thomas Pestak

    Don’t look now but Andre Drummond is dangerously close to setting the 21st century Rookie PER record (and he’d be younger than any rookie had been in the quest) This past draft was a very good draft. The Kyrie Draft was weaker than most.

  • http://twitter.com/tompestak Thomas Pestak

    As horrifying as it is to watch myself type this (it’s almost like an out of body experience) the Cavs best chance at a title is LeBron wanting a “redemption story” attached to his resume.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com Andrew Schnitkey

    I agree. He’s just so good. If you can’t beat them, try to get them to play for your team.

  • Harv 21

    As distasteful as it is just 2 years later, we’re in another sports MacGuyver episode. The first object after producing no stars at overall #4, #4 and #17 must be to attempt defuse the ticking bomb that is Kyrie’s Cleveland tenure.

    Gilbert has to try to talk to him next year after the summer draft, and you know Danny will have his antennas quivering. If it’s only wait and see, and the immediate building blocks are Tristan, Zeller and Waiters, hit the button and blow it up then, it will be right on time. Gilbert has said that he will never again sit passively and let a player’s decision determine the team’s future, and I believe him.

    One more word on Tristan: I really wanted to see him gain some sort of traction, some NBA basic skills upon which to add more and I think it’s finally starting. If he takes it all seriously (and I have some doubts after seeing him float/not hustle earlier this season) he could continue to improve for many years. He might not ever be the player you really wanted at #4, but could be the player you need: the smart and physical beast you need in big games and in the playoffs.

  • Harv 21

    doubt someone who types that is about constructive.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com Andrew Schnitkey

    You’re probably right.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com Andrew Schnitkey

    Thanks Brian. I really did think it was a fascinating point, too. Whether I agree with it or not, it certainly made me think about it.

  • http://twitter.com/clevezirm Jordan Zirm

    I just don’t think we take into account how awful the bench is and how much it contributes to the awfulness of this season. Luke Walton, Donald Sloan (who is no longer around, thankfully), Kevin Jones, John Leuer, Omri Casspi, Jeremy Pargo, Boobie Gibson (who is never healthy anymore). I mean that’s a joke, right?

    Yeah, Kyrie is still atrocious at playing defense. Most of the Cavs are. And I agree with you, there is something to be said about how bad they are on defense collectively. But the Cavs right now are basically Kyrie and Andy (I guess, he’s never healthy either) and three other guys (Tristan, Zeller and Dion) who are still learning and growing. The rest of this team (aside from CJ, who is finally playing well, and Gee, who would be great off the bench) is a who’s who of mediocrity.

    Like I said before, if this isn’t addressed in the off-season, then it’s a huge problem. I just don’t think it’s fair to judge the Cavs yet when they product they put on the court is so inferior right now

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com Andrew Schnitkey

    That’s all I want of Tristan. I just want him to be a solid, serviceable big man.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    I think the Cavaliers are right where they should be in their rebuild, honestly. Maybe I’m understanding Brian wrong, but it’s WAY too early to say that Waiters won’t be a star. Jeez we’re not even at the All-Star break of his rookie season yet… take a look at the pre-Allstar game stats for eventual All-Star SG’s in their first season. You won’t see many guys who came right into the league and dominated through the first half of the season. Manu Ginobli was a joke. James Harden was bad. Rip Hamilton was miserable. And so on.

    I think our expectations of how fast these players are going to mature is way too high. We’re talking about how Tristan Thompson is just now starting to play like a double-double machine. Isn’t this the point we expected that to happen? Or heck, isn’t it happening even faster than we expected? Look at his defense, his free throw shooting, his effectiveness in the paint, his reduced turnovers… everything is getting better right before our eyes. Why in the world would we assume that he’s plateaued?

    The Cavs are bad because they are extremely young and because they don’t play defense, as a lot of young players don’t play defense. I honestly don’t think we can evaluate the rebuild this year or even next year. Year 4 of the Kyrie era is the year to have real expectations. If that’s not fast enough, well that’s the breaks in the NBA… no such thing as a quick rebuild in the NBA.

  • steve-o

    Building a championship caliber team is done by collecting superstars. If we can put a player of similar caliber next to Kyrie this off season we’re on our way. In our case that probably involves winning the draft lottery.

    If we don’t win a lottery pick, we should seek a trade by any means necessary (preferably with an incompetent GM) to land another superstar. If it were up to me, I’d trade our entire roster (minus Kyrie) for one single superstar. Everyone outside of Kyrie can be replaced (and probably upgraded). With two supertars, other quasi-all-star type players might then be tempted to follow along. We all know Mr Gilbert has the means to pay for it as well.

    I say this as someone who has learned from history. If we had this mindset nine years ago, and managed to put another superstar next to LeBron, we would probably have already won a championship or two and be gunning for more. Instead, we just tried to collect as many acceptably average players as possible.

    Unless we get another superstar soon, we’re just doing the same thing.

  • mgbode

    it’s amazing how interesting a topic of whether an 8-28 team is a failure or not can be

  • Kildawg

    I honestly think that the Cavs are a very solid SF away from being a contender. Gee is a nice bench option that is starting. If James does come back to fill the void he left at SF, I would not be opposed to it, especially if we could win it all.

  • toooskies

    Here is the fundamentals of a rebuttal…

    2 years after drafting Durant 2nd and Jeff Green 5th, and the year after drafting Westbrook 4th and Ibaka 24th, the Oklahoma City Thunder went 23-59. Playoffs the year after, and now one of the best teams in the NBA.

    Similarly, Durant was an instant star, Westbrook averaged about 15 ppg but shot poorly, Green had some talents but also some weaknesses, and Ibaka wasn’t ready to contribute a lot as a rookie.

    The 2nd best player on that OKC team was actually Nick Collison, who was near his scoring and rebounding peaks as a player (actually on his way down) but was also on a relatively cheap big-man contract, and had been with the team since starting to play in Seattle in 2004-05. A relatively affordable, decently skilled veteran big man.

    Does Varejao’s advantage over Collison negate the difference between Kyrie/Durant, Thompson/Green, Waiters/Westbrook, Zeller/Ibaka? Comparatively, Kyrie and Durant (then) are about even, Thompson and Green are about even, Waiters is slightly behind Westbrook, Zeller is far behind Ibaka. Varejao is way ahead of Collison. We have yet to draft our James Harden comparison.

    So…. Why have we failed again?

  • http://www.facebook.com/brian.wellert Brian Wellert

    Waiters and Zeller do not have a high enough ceiling to make this a legitimate team. That is why this is broken. Let’s add Thompson to the mix and say all 3 hit their relative ceiling, along with Irving continuing to improve, can those 4 take you deep in the playoffs?

    If the answer is no, then you already can tell that this will not pan out. I think this team has the potential to become the Pacers. Nothing more. That is not necessarily bad, but it is not what anyone was hoping for.

  • mgbode

    and Kyrie’s never healthy either (even when he plays he’s got a mask or another injury)

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com Andrew Schnitkey

    Well, I didn’t say we failed. But I don’t see the core of Kyrie/Thompson/Waiters becoming Durant/Green/Westbrook. A lot of it will depend on how Waiters develops and what kind of player he becomes.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    I wonder what floyd would think if he was still around the comments section of WFNY. I’m sure he’d still find a way to be a hater and tout the talents of JuJuan Johnson over TT.

  • mgbode

    disagree on Waiters ceiling. but, also:

    those 4 are not the only components. we are adding a likely top5 pick. I want Shabazz. also, we have other assets we may trade along the way. it’s unfair to pin things on developing talents (at least yet).