Cool, calm and collected, Luke Walton leads Cavaliers’ crafty reserves

Luke Walton CavaliersThe court-side seat was vacant, waiting to be used. During the waning seconds of a hard-fought game on the road against the Chicago Bulls, Luke Walton deflected an in-bound pass into the corner where he and Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich would each fight to obtain the loose ball. Walton dove out of bounds, coralled the ball where he would swing it around his body and deflect it off of Hinrich’s leg, and promptly rotating his body clockwise where he would fall perfectly in to a chair placed between two Bulls fans. Walton quickly sprung up with his right arm stretched toward the Cavaliers’ basket, signaling posession. The baseline referree agreed. The Cavaliers bench errupted.

Kyrie Irving, who executed a similar play in a recent win over Boston, had an ear-to-ear smile. Anderson Varejao, who has made a living off of these hustle-based plays, drew a scowl and pumped his fist in Walton’s direction, excitedly approving of the sequence. Walton, after all, had just sealed a victory — one wherein his presence was integral well beyond the box score. It was not just the key assists to Dion Waiters or Wayne Ellington (both leading to no-doubt three-pointers) or the jumper that would put the Cavs up by five, it was the timing and flawless execution of such activities, the cerebral contributions that are often overlooked. Back-of-the-hand high-fives for all.

On Wednesday night, during the final game of a four-in-five-night slate, it was Walton who provided a team-high seven assists (with zero turnovers) in just 21 minutes off of the bench. His desire to distrbute from the high post has morphed from a luxury into a weapon; Luke Walton, a 10-year NBA veteran submersed on a rebuilding mid-market, prides himself on assists. To Walton, creating the highlights is just as enticing as being the one on the executing end.

“I love getting assists, ” said the gravel-voiced Walton. “I joked with the other guys, when Cal1 dunked on Amir [Johnson], I was pounding on my chest as if I just dunked on him. I love getting someone else the easy buckets. When you move the ball quickly and get easy buckets, you can see that it defeats [the opponents] a bit.”

A lot has been made of the Cavaliers’ veteran bench unit. There was on on-screen graphic that compared the average age and experience (as measured by games played) of the team’s youthful starters against those of the relatively geriatric reserves who have not only provided relief in terms of playing time, but cohesion and excitement. The game they play is different than that of the starters; there is increasingly more ball movement, complete with back-door cuts and give-and-gos supplementing their more athletic playbook counterparts otherwise known as high-intensity transition plays and pick-and-rolls. While the starters play Dance Dance Revolution, the reserves play chess. And, while it will rarely lead to highlights, it’s been meticulous and often beautiful to watch it all unfold.

Marrese Speights has provided considerable relief for a younger and easier-to-push-around Tyler Zeller. Wayne Ellington and CJ Miles have rendered Omri Casspi and Daniel Gibson as player-coaches. Shaun Livingston has stepped up admirably as a reserve point guard, showing that while his knee may have been replaced, his court vision is just as good — if not better — than it was when he was billed as the next Magic Johnson. But it is Walton, a player who — for whatever reason — had replaced Antawn Jamison as this season’s message board and social media whipping boy, who has played a huge role in the team’s first winning month since March of 2010. Forced to play alongside since-been released players like Jeremy Pargo and Donald Sloan early on, Walton is now flourishing alongisde veterans who understand basketball for the team game that it is.

“That’s just Luke,” says Cavaliers head coach Byron Scott of his veteran forward. “He’s a terrific passer. We try to put the ball in his hands a lot. Shaun [Livingston] is the same way. We run a lot of plays when that second unit is in there with those guys handling the ball because they make such great decisions. The only thing our guys have to do is get open and they’ll get the ball. Luke has been fantastic and I think he’s one of the key reasons why our second unit has been so good.”

A winner in his own right, Walton stands outside of his locker following his team’s latest victory proud that this young group of guys is showing progress as measured by the ability to close out games. Earlier this season, it was the same team who would find themselves on top late in contests, only to lose grip and fall just short as the buzzers would sound. Not having the understanding of how difficult it is to win a game in the NBA. He speaks of the “process” at hand, the term Cleveland fans have been fed for years, but now that operative term is joined by “fun” and “growth.”

In the midst of a back-to-back, missing their two best players and falling behind early, Walton admits that he was concerned, unsure of how the Cavaliers would react. Through his time in the league, mostly with with Los Angeles Lakers, Walton has been a part of some integral second units. Though he has swapped purple and gold for wine and gold, the chemistry he has brought to the table since being little more than a salary throw-in in a deal which landed Cleveland a 2012 first-round draft pick2 has not wavered.

“I’ve been a part of some really good second units,” says Walton. “This second unit has the same type of chemistry and energy and understanding of how to get things done in short minutes. That’s a credit to the coaching staff and guys — it’s not easy to come off of the bench for five or six minutes here or there and we’ve done a great job of doing it as a unit as we get more comfortable with each other.”

The catch-22 of this entire joy ride is that Walton, along with Shaun Livingston, Wayne Ellington and Marrese Speights, will enter the 2013 summer as free agents. Walton, prior to this stretch of play, was looked at primarily as $6 million that will be coming off of the books, subsequently adding to the team’s salary cap flexibility. Speights will assuredly turn down his player option and test the free agent market, a place where very few give the Cavaliers a high probability of success when it comes to re-signing the impact forward. In an arena where luxury tax proves costly, allocating considerable resources to reserve players — when your core is still coming off of their rookie contracts — may not prove fruitful in a long-term, sustainable capacity. Removing such vital role players, however, could easily remove some of the glue that binds the entire roster.

The Cavaliers’ coaching staff loves what Luke Walton brings to this team. On opening night, Walton was the first player off of the bench, confusing fans, but showing just how much he is valued by those handing out playing time.  Walton’s teammates continually praise the experience and effort that he provides to a game where he will never be the biggest, fastest or strongest man on the floor. When he hit a jumpshot on Wednesday night, Tristan Thompson and others sprung out of their seat to yell “Lukie baby,” complete with NBA-ready celebratory hand gestures. Just as the vacant seat in Chicago seemed like late-game fate to reward Walton for his hustle and heroics, there is one in Cleveland with his name on it. He has nary an issue watching the younger, conceivably more-talented future of this Cavaliers team perform. But when Walton’s name is called, for however many minutes he is afforded at any stage of the game, he will answer. How much longer he is provided that opportunity in Cleveland, however, remains to be seen.

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Photo via Scott Sargent/WFNY

  1. Short for “Calvin,” CJ Miles’ given name []
  2. As well as the right to swap this season in the event Los Angeles makes the playoffs. []
  • Roosevelt

    Gotta hand it to Luke Walton. He’s gone from eliciting groans and derision to being a great glue guy and the kind of underdog you can root for.

  • mgbode

    since Luke brought Calvin as Miles name to our attention, perhaps his new nickname should be Hobbes (I hate referring to him as Cool Hand – unimaginative)

  • cmm13

    Luke Walton along with Dion, Speights, Livingston and Ellington are making Grant look Billy Bean-like right now.

    Finding value all over the place while gaining draft picks

  • mgbode

    i’m trying to think of the last Cleveland athlete that went from despised to loved within the same season as Walton has now done.

  • Pacific NW Cavs Fan

    Conflicted on this…It is clear when you watch the second unit, and the way they move the ball, Walton is quite the director, orchestrator. Feels like we don’t have anyone else at this position. Maybe better to just let Gibson and Speights go off into the sunset

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com/ Scott @ WFNY

    Tristan Thompson, eight weeks earlier.

    Hating on an athlete before giving them a chance to flourish in their new surroundings is the MO of many in this here region.

  • BenRM

    unless your name is Colt McCoy. Give him a(nother) chance(s)!!!

  • Vindictive_Pat

    Gibson definitely… maybe Speights as well. I know Andy V is always injured, but when he plays there is nothing but a few minutes per game for Speights. Mo is better than Tyler Zeller at this point, but I can’t imagine Chris Grant would want Mo to eat up Zeller’s playing time if he still thinks Zeller will eventually be the better player with more experience and time. If the Cavs did want to bring Walton back for another year, he’d be really cheap.

  • mgbode

    not quite the same thing I was getting at as Tristan is a young developing player.

    with a guy like Luke, he is either going to wind up in Casey Blake territory (beloved for his strengths and weaknesses ignored due to “intangibles”) or Russell Branyan territory (weaknesses profound enough to be the only thing people think about).

    I am trying to remember a veteran moving from Branyan to Blake territory in the same season and am coming up short (so, veteran guy and only glue guys count – no stars allowed).

    there are plenty of examples that have gone from Blake to Branyan (including Mr. Blake himself by many)

  • mgbode

    and not hurting future flexibility either

  • porckchop

    I’m not doubting Speights is going to opt out, but I am doubting what sort of money there is going to be out there for him. If Omer Asik, got 3 years at about 7-8 what is Speights really going to get? He’s not a starter, the way the Cavs use him now is probably his ideal situation, 20 minutes a night playing against second string guys, gets 8-10 points and 8-10 boards. His option is for something like 4.5 mil. I could see maybe another million, but I can’t imagine anyone is going much higher than that, and probably same type of 2 year plus an option deal. Never say never, but I feel like the days of over paying players and hoping they live up to the deal are gone. I dunno, it seems kind of a big assumption that there are going to be teams lining up to sign these guys. I’m pretty sure that if the Cavs choose to keep them they’ll be able to do so at pretty reasonable rates.

  • mgbode

    i largely agree. speights will opt out because he is playing well and will likely receive a small pay bump up (maybe $6.5mil if someone gets antsy) along with an extra year or two of security.

  • woofersus

    I wouldn’t expect to see them all back. The team would probably like to have them all back and just add to the top of the depth chart and lose dead weight from the bottom of it, but that would probably be more money than they will spend on their bench at this stage of the rebuild.

    Walton obviously won’t get $6 million again, but I’m not sure who else will be available at his position to set the market. If he’s willing to resign to a short-ish contract (maybe two years with a team option 3rd) at a low enough price I wouldn’t be shocked or sad to see him back. Hopefully they improve from the top enough that he doesn’t play as many minutes, but I mean that in the best possible way.

    As much as the Cavs would love to have Speights back, I expect him to get a bigger offer than they will match. I do think they’d spend more on him than anybody else in that bunch, though. With Andy back he could play more PF and less center, and he’d be a nice fit alongside Zeller in the second unit.

    Livingston is the no-brainer of the group. Any replacement for him would have to be a FA anyhow, and he’s not likely to command huge dollars. He’s a good fit on a team with a lot of score-first frontcourt players, and has good intangibles too. This is the contract he’s been working so hard for, but unless he really believes he can go start somewhere, we should be able to lock him up for the next three years at a reasonable price.

    Ellington is the one I’m really unsure about. Miles is under contract for a couple more years and there’s excess depth at shooting guard. Gibson and Casspi will be gone, but depending on what happens with Walton and Speights and what position we take in the draft, Ellington may end up being essentially the 3rd string SG behind Waiters and Miles. I’m not sure they’ll spend a much for that.

  • Harv 21

    I’m also not sure about Ellington, maybe a little suspicious because my eyes tell me he’s pretty skilled playing with this group and he has a good college pedigree, yet his stats don’t show much with the T-wolves, and Memphis happily dumped him for cap room. Many guys play harder in contract years – is he one of them? In pure basketball ability looks like he offers a lot, his bottom of first round contract is not unmanageable – so just wonder what the prob has been with two previous teams.

  • NamedMyKidPrice

    Admit it. You love him now! I knew you would come around. I’m sure the cavs wanted him to come to teach and that’s why they kept him after the trade but even they have to be surprised at what he has given them. He has made everyone believers!!! lol

  • Vindictive_Pat

    I remember the opposite for one guy… remember Orlando Cabrera looking great for a couple months (maybe with smoke and mirrors, but remember a lot of positive talk about him) and then absolutely bottoming out.

  • mgbode

    i’m not so easy. i still see many of his flaws (PER of 11 on the year). but, I am certainly appreciative of what he has provided the Cavs the past 2 months. i still think we let him walk in the offseason, but it’s becoming more about what contract he would want than whether we would even offer it to him.

    i’m amazed at this progression at 32yo as the past 2 months are better statistically than anything in his career (except for his shooting %’s).

    since Dec 22nd: 3.5rb/3.5ast/1stl in only 19min per game
    42%FG 42%FT – but, I’ll take it from our 10th man

  • Vindictive_Pat

    What’s funny is Walton’s stats for February are still crummy (with the exception of a spike in his assists/game, but for those of us watching the games it seems like he has been clutch and has been a big part of the success of that second unit. Maybe he’s a guy who will never show his worth in stats, or going the other way, maybe he’s been lucky in clutch situations lately.

  • mgbode

    7rb/7ast/2stl per 36min

    yes, his shooting has still been bad leading him to a below average PER. but, when you look at those 3 spikes and add in that he’s playing actual defense (his opponent PER has to be down the past few weeks), I think it can be statistically measured.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    Fair enough, although 7 rebounds per 36 minutes isn’t great for a power forward. I will still uptick.

  • mgbode

    no, not for a PF, but for Luke it’s near a career high.

  • mgbode

    Derek Lowe also comes to mind.

  • cmm13

    clutch in everything except his shooting…..
    It’s kinda peculiar the crazy praise he is getting right now while he is airballing and bricking just as bad as he was in October.
    I can understand though why, his “everything else” is improved.

  • mgbode

    well, his 42%FG since Dec.22nd isn’t good, it’s still better than his 20% before then. his FT’s are still atrocious.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lnicholas2 Lee Nicholas

    At bare minimum his professionalism is very appreciated. This is a man who has his rings and is playing for a rebuilding team whose future will most likely not include him (though for a veterans min…. I’d certainly welcome him back). With those things him mind he could easily not give his full effort. Instead, he’s out there helping the young guys out, being a great locker room presence, a leader on the court, and giving his full effort. Much respect, Mr. Walton.

  • Harv 21

    for sure in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king. With Andy out Walton is the active player who really knows how to, ya know, play.

    The second unit could be a selfish disaster with Speights and Ellington worried about next year’s money and getting enough shots. But Walton knows how to space, he’s setting everyone up by initiating the passing and everyone’s getting their touches. He’s plenty good enough still to trigger things against the opposition’s second teamers. Everyone on that second team is in a decent position to succeed right now.

  • John

    You can all thank grant for ruining out draft slot for bench guys who will be leaving next year… Typical cleveland team – cant lose right. Enjoy the meaningless wins guys because thats all you have to look forward to thanks to chris grant.

  • John

    You can all thank grant for ruining our draft slot for bench guys who will be leaving in the summer… Typical cleveland team – cant even lose right. Enjoy the meaningless wins guys because thats all you have to look forward to thanks to chris grant.

  • cmm13

    I sincerely hope you have forgotten your sarcasm font in this comment… Because I don’t have the energy to debate such a foolish notion.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    Ultimately this draft won’t make or break the cavs. From this point forward it’s all about the development of Irving and waiters.

  • John

    You just dont understand how to build an nba team, and thats ok, maybe you started watching the cavs when kyrie was drafted. Look, i like waiters he is definitely a part of our future, and i like TT he is a solid bench player… But do you honestly think they will, by themselves win the cavs a ship in the future? I dont. They need ONE more piece to add to that core. Youre most likely not gonna find that piece if youre picking ninth or tenth in an already weak draft.

  • John

    Kyrie and dion along with TT, in their prime, is in my opinion a treadmill playoff team. They NEED another piece to add to the core to go far. Picking 9th or 10th in a weak draft migh get you…. Wayne ellington… Mareese speights… Get my drift? We need someone with star potential and i dont see anyone outside of the top 6 picks being that. That said, i hope everything works out for us, no matter what…

  • John

    And just to clarify with regards to “thats all you have to look forward to” i was talking about the draft. Kyrie is great, dion could be an allstar and tristan is good but raw offensively. I wasnt bashing them, i love seeing them grow together. But we need another piece.

  • cmm13

    First off, I started watching the Cavs after LeBrons 4th year in the league..duh.

    Second since you werent being sarcastic and wish to engage in one of the oldest sports debates in the book of “tank” vs “winning experience”; here we go..

    You’ve said yourself the draft class for next year is “weak”, so I’ll agree to prove my point.

    What affect do you think it has on your young core of talent putting them through another exhaustive tank job which will inevitably land you an unproven commodity in an overall weak pool of college talent?

    At some point you need to create the correct culture in your organization which breeds winning attitudes.

    When was the last time you watched any of the top franchises in sports tank multiple seasons in order to re-build a team?

    So while I can agree there are times in which draft position is critical this is not one of them, and we are far past the point of continual tanking.

    Grants plan is coming together and the plan next year is to get this team into the playoffs to become attractive for the bevy of free agents available in 2014.

    At that time he’ll add the final building blocks to a championship caliber team.

  • pelliott

    Haha you think Tristan is a bench player

  • Vindictive_Pat

    I get your drift. I disagree with your drift, but I get your drift :) I never put much stock in what the supposed “experts” say about a draft. Two years ago was supposed to be a weak draft and we got Kyrie, a player who could easily become the best in the NBA by the time he’s in his late 20’s, with the 8th lottery slot. Other than Kyrie and TT, the best players from that draft were Klay Thompson (picked at 11), Kawhi Leonard (picked at 15), Nikola Vucevic (picked at 16), and Kenneth Faried (picked at 22). It’s a crapshoot every year, but especially in years where there are a lot of differing opinions on the top players.

    With that said, let’s think about what the Cavs need. They have two legit scoring threats in Irving and Waiters who are only going to increase their scoring as they gain experience. You have a double-double defensive post presence in Tristan Thompson. You have one of the best centers in the game when he’s healthy, Andy Varejao, and a rookie center in Zeller who I think still projects well as being a future starter 2-3 years from now. Do you need to add another big time scorer who needs to have the ball in his hands to score? That’s counter-productive. Irving and Waiters already have a hard time figuring out what to do when they don’t have the ball in their hands. What the Cavs need at SF is a guy like Kawhi Leonard. Double-digit scorer, high efficiency, legit 3 point threat, and plays excellent defense. That guy could have been Alonzo Gee if he could shoot more efficiently and limit turnovers. I think that’s what the Cavs need, so that’s why I think it’s not ridiculously important for them to try to climb up a couple of spots to increase their lottery chances.

  • mgbode

    “weak draft”

    I have heard this all year and if the guys expected to come out do, then I don’t see how this is possible.

    Shabazz, McLemore, Smart, Otto, Len, Zeller, Noels, Bennett, Oladipo, Carter-Williams

    There’s 10 guys right there and they all seem like fantastic prospects. That’s the best top10 list IMO of the past several seasons.

    They each have their issues, but the only guy on that list I would be afraid of is Bennett and that is only because he’s alot like Derrick Williams in that he doesn’t have a true position in the NBA (and being too small for PF while to slow for SF is a tough spot to be).

  • mgbode

    you just made the best argument for Otto Porter that I have seen.

    it still goes against how I think teams should draft in the top10. always go with the BPA and only think need or team building when there is a tie between two guys.

    going to heavy on team needs or character is how teams end up drafting Shelden Williams in the top5.

  • mgbode

    yes, no doubt we need another legit piece. I think this draft is better than has been made out to be though.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    Well, the counter-argument to that is that is how you end up with Jonny Flynn and Derrick Williams. Both guys were taken where they were expected to go by a team that already had those positions filled for several years. You have to trust your GM to get the guy who is the right fit for the team you are building and not just the best player out there. If the player is the right fit, he will end up looking like one of the stud picks in the draft.

  • mgbode

    not quite as NBA position is part of that :) DW didn’t have a position. I was steadfast in my desire for DW only if he tested out to be quick enough to be a SF. He did not.

    but, I see where you are going and I am more willing to consider it for our #15 overall selection (Go Lakers, Go).

    #15 Glenn Robinson III – he’s an awesome glue guy who doesn’t need the ball, plays defense, can hit outside shots, and is a very good passer.

    Shabazz top5 and GRIII #15. SF position is settled. Then let Scott play with things and possibly put GRIII as the starter so Shabazz can make sure our bench unit keeps scoring points (Harden style). Plenty of minutes for both.

    the other options at #15 are getting our 4th big man (to replace Speights), but there are sketchy options:

    Isaiah Austin – my favorite option at #15. poor man’s Noel
    Saric – international is always a ?
    Olynyk – he scares me as a NBA prospect
    Plumlee – I think he’s soft
    Cauley-Stein – if he comes out, then he’s “potential” w/o produciton

  • Vindictive_Pat

    Austin is crazy talented and athletic, but worries me… he likes to play on the perimeter and doesn’t seem to want to mix it up inside. I don’t love the post prospects in this draft. Alex Len could turn himself into a Marc Gasol type of player, or he could be a total bust. I like Glenn Robinson III a lot… if we grabbed him with that Lakers pick, I’d be quite happy.

  • mgbode

    yes, I agree about Austin and yet he’s still my favorite option at #15 for post guys. I would much rather grab GRIII there.

    for a post guy, I actually like Patric Young in the 2nd round. A bit undersized, but he’s a bruiser and seems like he should be a solid role player for years.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    Ha, I was going to write the same thing but forgot to put it down. When I looked at that list of guys, I thought Patric Young could be the best pro after Noel/Len. I generally don’t care if post players are undersized by a couple of inches if they have the bulk (or potential for bulk) and they have the standing reach and/or vertical jump. Ben Wallace guarded centers and protected the rim as well as anyone in his day. Dwight Howard is maybe an inch or two taller than Patric Young. Big deal… can he hold his ground and can he do what he needs to do against bigger guys? I think Young has a lot of potential there.

  • mgbode

    well, I beat you to it, so Patric Young is “my guy” now :)

    Patric Young is likely the DeJuan Blair of this draft. Under-rated due to his height despite his actual skills (though Blair also hid his medical reports from everyone but SA and there were scares about his knee — but still)

  • cmm13

    Shhh… I only agreed with him on a “weak draft” to further my point against his argument.
    He doesn’t realize that even in a strong draft his point is still invalid.
    But yes, I agree with you Bode… the draft is deeper than most people are realizing.

  • mgbode

    his point is even less valid in a strong draft.

    and yeah, it’s crazy. there’s no LeBron or Dwight obvious #1 overall, so it immediately gets labelled a bad draft.

  • http://www.facebook.com/james.pietrzycki James Pietrzycki

    lol yeah Tristan is definitely a starter! He is only in his second year! He would only be a junior in college this year. I wrote an article about him http://www.sportsngamez.com/we-have-a-solid-pf-eh/

  • http://www.facebook.com/james.pietrzycki James Pietrzycki

    Yeah not a lot of fans were happy with Tristan early in the year. I wrote an article about him http://www.sportsngamez.com/we-have-a-solid-pf-eh/

  • Vindictive_Pat

    Nuts!