The 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.
Photo via Scott Sargent/WFNY