April 18, 2014

Are the Cavaliers on the verge of making a huge mistake?

Charlie DeBoyace/The Diamondback

Charlie DeBoyace/The Diamondback

As the Cavaliers close in on draft night, now just two nights away, it seems options are narrowing. As they should. When you have the No. 1 pick, you have the luxury of not having to do near as much contingency planning. You control your own destiny, so as draft night approaches, you should more or less have a pretty good idea what you are going to do.

As with any draft, all media speculation should be taken with as much caution as possible. I’ve written about this plenty before, but when it comes to the NFL and NBA draft, front offices love to leak information that sometimes isn’t 100 percent accurate. This is why we seemingly have contradicting reports of Nerlens Noel vs Alex Len. A lot of it depends on where the info is coming from, and why these sources want to leak this information in the first place.

But is there really a chance the Cavaliers will take Alex Len with the #1 overall pick? And if so, would it be one of the biggest mistakes this franchise could make?

There are things to like about Len’s game for sure. His pure size is tantalizing when you envision what someone with that size could do if the basketball skills develop. You hear the comparisons to Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and there’s no doubt that over the last three seasons the Cavaliers have sorely missed Z’s tip-ins and rebounds. Z wasn’t an all-time great player, but he made a tangible impact to the team. Alex Len can be that kind of player.

Furthermore, in the NBA you can try to adapt to the way everyone else is playing, or you can build your team based on talent available and hope you find a niche to exploit the trends of the game. Big centers are a thing of the past. Playing small, fast, and athletic is the current trend. But look at what Indiana is able to do with Roy Hibbert. They are preying on the hole created by teams trying to play small and finesse basketball. So there’s probably a role for a player like Alex Len in Cleveland.

But we’re talking about the No. 1 pick here. Lets just look at the past 10 picks taken No. 1 overall:

  • Anthony Davis
  • Kyrie Irving
  • John Wall
  • Blake Griffin
  • Derrick Rose
  • Greg Oden
  • Andrea Bargnani
  • Andrew Bogut
  • Dwight Howard
  • LeBron James

The jury is out on Anthony Davis. Greg Oden’s career was derailed by injuries. Bargnani and Bogut have been serviceable players. But Irving, Wall, Griffin, Rose, Howard, James. These are impact players who have changed the complexion of the teams who drafted them. That’s what you want in a No. 1 pick. And that’s not what Len is. If the Cavaliers draft Len, the team is going for Bargnani or Bogut rather than Griffin or Howard.

This is why the team has to take Nerlens Noel. He’s the only player in this draft who has the potential to make the list of elite difference makers. There are no guarantees, but when you have the #1 pick, making the safe play just isn’t worth it.

But even then, is Len really that safe of a play?

Take a look at what Kevin Cowherd of the Baltimore Sun has to say about Len’s potential as a #1 pick in a piece titled “Talk of Alex Len going No. 1 in draft? NBA scouts must be crazy”:

We can debate forever whether or not Turgeon and his staff drew up the right plays to use Len effectively, and whether they went to him enough all game long. (I think they tried everything possible to get him involved.)

And we can wonder how much the stress fracture he apparently suffered late in the season limited his effectiveness.

(If Len had been lighting it up for weeks and his production dropped off dramatically, sure, maybe you blame the injury. Me, I’m not buying it.)

But to think a player coming off such a disappointing season could be taken No. 1 in the NBA draft is mind-boggling.

If the Cavaliers go ahead and pull the trigger and make Len the top pick Thursday, they’re crazy.

Sure, they’ll be doing it on raw potential, rather than production, which is a gamble a lot of teams seem willing to take. And since this is a mediocre draft class, Len will probably go higher than he should, which in this case is probably at No. 6 or No. 7 on the board.

But nothing about his game makes him worthy of going No. 1.

This is someone from Maryland who, presumably, has seen plenty of Len’s games. I’m sure the Cavaliers’ scouting department has watched plenty of game tape as well. Probably more than Cowherd. But typically the local media supports local prospects. The fact that a local guy is skeptical is a huge red flag to me.

Another thing we thought we knew about the Cavaliers front office was that they value1 metrics and projections. Well, if this is the case, then how are they even considering Len with the #1 pick?

Kevin Pelton released his projections for the prospects in this draft (ESPN Insider account required) yesterday. It’s no surprise to see Nerlens Noel ranked No. 1 with a projected Win % of .488 and WARP of 3.6. But where does Len rank? He ranks No. 23 with a projected Win % of .366 and WARP of 0.3. That WARP number is alarming.

Furthermore, the WARP gap from Noel (3.6) to the #2 prospect, Otto Porter (2.7), is 0.9. That is by far the biggest gap between any 2 players on this list. The 2nd largest gap is 0.4, and the gap between Len and the #22 prospect (Tim Hardaway Jr) is 0.3. So not only is Len nowhere near the top projected player in this draft, but he’s not even all that close to the No. 22 prospect. This is a problem for any justification of drafting Len.

And while projections are just projections, and nothing more, you can look at Pelton’s WARP projection history and decide for yourself how meaningful they are. When I look at past drafts, I see some merit in his projections and I tend to apply some value to his work.

When Chad Ford did his secret poll of sources from around the league, Noel finished a surprising 2nd in the list of the Secret NBA Draft Big Board. Len finished at No. 6. The No. 1 prospect was Indiana’s Victor Oladipo.

Heck, even when Chad Ford and Jay Bilas were both asked whether Alex Len was safer pick than Nerlens Noel, they both answered ‘No’.  So any notion of Len being the safe pick is pretty misguided, in my opinion.

I don’t presume to know more about basketball than Chris Grant and his staff. And for the most part, I’ve held back from opining too much on this year’s draft because I’ve come to realize that my opinion is insignificant. Chris Grant and his staff pick the player they like for their reasons. They don’t care about draft stock, consensus, big boards, etc.

But I also know that if there’s one thing I hate, it’s when a draft prospect’s stock climbs after he’s done playing games. Nobody was projecting Len to be the #1 pick during the season. Only afterwards has his stock risen so high. To me, this just feels like the Cavaliers are out-thinking themselves (assuming the rumors of their interest in Len at No. 1 are true).

If the Cavaliers pick Len, I’ll support him and pray that a year or two from now we look back at this article and laugh at my stupidity. But right now, today, I’m saying that picking Alex Len will be a mistake, and one that the team will regret for years to come. Nothing about Len’s game says “elite prospect” to me, and with the No. 1 pick, I’m going to be selfish and say I want more than that.

Perhaps all of this is for nothing and the truth is, Nerlens Noel is the player they intend to take. Perhaps they still might trade the pick. Just two days from the draft, absolutely nothing feels certain about this draft. But the one thing that at least feels certain to me is that Alex Len being picked No. 1 overall would be a mistake. Perhaps a huge one, even.

And nobody wants to be the Bluth Family of the NBA:

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Footnotes:

  1. some would argue over-value []

  • Harv 21

    reference was to your angry-reading first reply to M.A. 4 hours ago. It’s just sports. Nice to get passionate, but not personal.

    Didn’t see a lot of your comments until recently and you seem thoughtful. Some of us regular commenters try to self-police to lower the heat and make sure the site remains civil.

  • Ben Frambaugh

    I’m not so sure of that. He averaged almost as many blocks as he did fouls in a limited 17 minutes per game overseas (where he only had 14 games of experience.) He has physical skills for sure…but he didn’t play a lot of minutes or a lot of games on a big league team before coming over to the states.

  • Ben Frambaugh

    Yeah, that was a bit over the line. Sorry…I usually type out the over the line stuff…then delete. Then type out the mature response. LOL

  • Ben Frambaugh

    I think that Waiters needs to learn better off-ball man defense before we even consider that. He went from an all-zone defense in college to (basically) an all-man defense at the NBA…and got lost way too foten. (I distinctly recall Ray Allen hitting a wide open 3 as he ball-watched on a drive and kick.)

  • Vindictive_Pat

    A definite challenge for Mike Brown, but I don’t think it’s attitude or athleticism holding Waiters back… I think he gets to be a good on-ball defender.

  • @TheDeePagel

    McLemore or Oladipo.

  • Scott Lowe

    Here’s my take… The Cavaliers are asking themselves if Nerlens Noel will ever be better than Anderson Varejao, and the answer to that question will determine if they take him. Personally, what I see is that the guy has no offensive game, so he would have to be the absolute best defensive player in the league to even justify putting him out there on offense. In other words, he would have to be Ben Wallace in his prime. The Cavaliers have Varejao under contract for 2 more seasons, I believe. Yes, he’s been injured, but as of right now, he is 5 times the player that Noel would be, and he still has 4-5 productive seasons left. I think the Cavaliers should go with Otto Porter with the #1 pick, and they will have a formidable starting 5. They can then move Gee to the bench, along with Ellington, Speights or Thomas Robinson (if they acquire him and let Speights walk). They can take a flyer on a big man with the #19 pick. But, I am willing to give (hopefully) a bulked up Tyler Zeller a chance to prove he is a capable NBA center. Zeller can shoot. His problem is that he just wasn’t strong enough. If he comes back this season at 265 lbs., I think the Cavaliers, between him and Varejao, are OK at center. I do think that if the Cavaliers take Noel, that they will be showing that they feel pretty confident that they can lure LeBron James back next season. That would be the only reason for not taking Porter, in my opinion.

  • mgbode

    Noel is a better finisher at the rim than Ben Wallace ever was. That is an important distinction. I’m not super-high on Noel, but he does have his share of positive attributes.

    also, I don’t believe you look at anything else other than BPA with the #1 overall pick. whoever you believe will be the best player for the next 7+ years is the guy you take.

  • Javan

    Why?

  • baclap

    Typically sure, but there are plenty of exceptions. He looks like a quality scorer on the highlights I see, he’s even got a jumper. All of which can be developed a lot further. Defense can be taught more than offense. With all that being said I wouldn’t be sad if we take Noel, not by a long shot.

  • baclap

    I love Z as much as anyone but Len looks much more athletic.

  • MTD

    Noel is the guy. Close your eyes and repeat after me: “Trust in Grant, Trust in Grant, Trust in Grant…”

  • ChuckKoz

    good article. couple this with Chad Ford interview on the topic and i am 100% behind Noel.

    Ford’s main point was that if he was not injured, considering the way he was improving from his first game to February, he would have been a no-brainer #1 in the mold of Anthony Davis.

    Moreover, a torn ACL is much less scary long-term than they injuries Len has. (consider blake griffin torn acl out of college….and, yes, he has had some more injuries, but certainly nothing like the injuries i fear like Z or Oden had)

  • Ben Frambaugh

    What if Grant says that Noel isn’t the guy? LOL

  • brian

    finally! someone gets it. great article. too bad the PD doesn’t have anyone with your vision.

  • Ben Frambaugh

    More weight =/= more strength and vice versa. They can go hand in hand…I’d rather see Zeller stay around 250 but have his muscle toned out and shifted some (because he got pushed around a lot.)
    Also – Varejao has played something like 82 games over the last 3 seasons. It’s foolish to assume you can count on him next year with that kind of injury history…even if every injury seems to be completely unrelated. (This is also my argument for not trading Waiters…because he can run an offense if/when Kyrie gets hurt.)
    As mgbode spelled out – you take who you think is the BPA (and almost every sign is pointing towards Noel) over the course of the next 7 years.

  • Ben Frambaugh

    We have a SG

  • Ben Frambaugh

    We spent a lot of money on Z during his injury plagued years…then spent a lot of money on the guy long after any of his athleticism was gone. He was a good player and the Cavalier fan in my loves him! That being said, he didn’t impact the game the way that Ben Wallace did. Particularly defensively (where Z became a liability, especially in the PnR.)

  • Ben Frambaugh

    Oh absolutely…but he was horrid this last year. LOL Especially off-ball. I think he has the appropriate work ethic and athleticism to rectify that.

  • Evan

    The fact that people believe Noel has the potential to impact a game like Irving, Rose, Griffin, etc is insane. There is no place for a 220-230 lb center with slight shoulders and poor hands as a number one pick. I could see if he showed potential on offense like Anthony Davs, but he doesn’t… at all. No way am I drafting a player without the ability to be a two way player as the number one pick. Defense can always be taught. The physical skill set and a desire to play defense go a long way. You can not teach someone how to have a good feel for things offensively, you can’t change their body type either. Noel will be decent at best. Len (while not the next coming of Smits) could be somewhere between him and Z. His athleticism is better his body is already solid at 20 and his skill set is being expounded upon (good shot mechanics, can pass out of a double team, plays above the rim, solid lateral movement). If they take a big it needs to be Len. Otherwise take a gamble with the best natural talent in Mclemore, or safe pick in Porter. Noel would be an awful idea.

  • Harv 21

    Possibly the most “Cleveland” comment I’ve read on this blog, ever.

  • Harv 21

    Saw an NBA TV piece on Noel doing his rehab. That footage showed in vivid high def just how narrow that guy’s frame is – I believe the ’12 version of Tyler Zeller could back him down pretty easily. Do you use your (hopefully) last lottery pick in years for someone with one exceptional skill but glaring faults – strength, bad hands, completely undeveloped offense?

    McLemore has team suspension/league suspension/wasted potential written all over him. CG, if you can’t trade down to #6 or higher, just take Otto or Victor and, as Joe Banner would say, just go home to bed. Don’t try some Double-Flying Camel genius move that will reduce this regime to rubble in 2 years and make you another draft analyst.

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com Andrew Schnitkey

    I’d love to have Oladipo on the Cavs. Would absolutely love it. Not saying that’s who I think they should take, just that I would not be the slightest bit upset if that’s who they took.

  • Harv 21

    Imagine him practicing every day against Dion, and what that might do to both of their games.

  • MTD

    Haha quite possible. I don’t think anyone has any reason to question Grant’s final decision. He’s proven to be a great talent evaluator/drafter and whoever they pick I’m fully behind.

    However, I do feel like, based on the FO’s proven history (through the Waiters and Thompson picks) of relying substantially on advanced stats, that Noel will be the pick. Every advanced stats model that I’ve been able to find (Pelton’s WARP, Brocato’s Projected Impact, Weiland’s HoopsAnalyst, etc.) has Noel as the top player in the class by a large margin. That said- Grant obviously loves to “surprise” us, doesn’t he?

  • Ben Frambaugh

    I don’t know that it’s so much that he loves to “surprise us” as we need to adjust how we think to match his own.

    If he doesn’t take Noel, I think that would be the biggest surprise..but it really does depend on who he would take in Noel’s place.

    We’ll see tomorrow night. I’m a bit excited for it.