Cavaliers Seek First Road Win of the Season in Milwaukee

Jarrett Jack

Jarrett JackWriting about basketball teams on a micro game-by-game basis is sometimes a daunting challenge. Not that it’s hard to find things to write about. In the NBA season, there are almost always storylines galore. No, the hard part is deciphering what matters at the 5-game point of the season.

A lot of us get over eager to project early season results in the context of an 82 game season. It’s only natural. We don’t know what the future holds. We only know what little evidence we have.

So when the Cleveland Cavaliers have been so wildly inconsistent through 4 games, it makes it even harder to separate fact from fiction. This gets amplified even more when you consider this is an all new coaching staff, there are 4 new players getting meaningful playing time1, and a new focus on defense that these players aren’t used to.

My point here is this, the Cleveland Cavaliers we are judging today are almost certainly not what the Cleveland Cavaliers will be when we look back on this team after the 82nd game of the season. But when we formulate our final verdict on the 2013-14 Cavaliers, these 4 games will be included in there. It’s a small part of a larger story that is being told. We just don’t know how the story ends yet, and in that context, it seems pretty foolish to say anything definitive about this team.

We can’t call Anthony Bennett a bust. We can’t say Kyrie Irving took a step back. We can’t say the Cavaliers are a good defensive team. We can’t say Andrew Bynum is an impact player for this team. We can’t say this is a poor offensive team. We just don’t have enough evidence yet to know any of that.

So as the Cavaliers travel to Milwaukee to face the Bucks on Wednesday night, we may not be able to talk in absolutes about either team. But on the micro level we can observe a game like this for what it is….just another piece of the puzzle.

The Bucks are an interesting team in just how uninteresting they really are. The Bucks had one of the most active offseasons of any team. They traded JJ Redick for a couple 2nd round picks, they acquired Luke Ridnour in the Kevin Martin trade, they traded Luc Mbah a Moute for a couple more 2nd round picks, they signed OJ Mayo, Carlos Delfino, Zaza Pachulia, and Gary Neal in free agency, and then they traded Brandon Jennings to the Pistons for Brandon Knight, Viacheslav Kravtsov, and Khris Middleton.

The Bucks are a team that refuses to tank. Every year they do just enough to remain competitive enough to be fighting for one of the last playoff spots in the East. It doesn’t always work2, but they’ve won 34 or more games in 4 of the last 5 seasons. In some ways it’s commendable that they are trying to win every year and not partaking in the embarrassing tank-a-thon that the Cavaliers and so many other teams in the NBA have been embracing. But on the other hand, it’s fundamentally stupid. If you want to win in the NBA, you either need to be a free agent destination spot, or you need to be a team willing to get really bad and draft really well. The Bucks are neither of those things.

This game should be a good road challenge for the Cavaliers. It’s a winnable game, sure, but it won’t be easy and the Cavaliers will have to work on putting together a full 4-quarter effort in order to win. It’s exactly the kind of challenge these young Cavaliers need this early in the season, especially coming off Monday’s near collapse.

It’s hard to know what to make of this year’s Bucks team, especially this early when they too are a team with many new pieces that need to get acclimated with one another. The Bucks will come into this game well rested, having not played since Saturday. They also come into this game extremely banged up. Carlos Delfino is still out after having surgery on his foot, and Brandon Knight, Luke Ridnour, and Ekpe Udoh are all doubtful for this game.

One of the keys for the Cavaliers in this one will be to cut down on the costly turnovers. The Bucks are pretty good at converting turnovers into points, and the Cavaliers give up almost 20 points per game off turnovers. The turnovers are a big part of why the Cavaliers nearly gave up the win on Monday, and they really need to show better focus in making simple passes.

The most intriguing matchup in this game will be the 2nd units. Both of these teams, while not having a lot of top end talent, feature very deep benches with NBA-worthy talent. The Bucks come into this game 2nd in the NBA in bench scoring at 55 points per game. The Cavaliers are 10th at 35.3 points per game. The Cavaliers give up the 5th fewest bench points, the Bucks give up the 6th fewest. The Bucks have used 3 different starting lineups in their 3 games, so their bench is pretty interchangeable and fluid, but no matter who is coming off the bench for them, they are getting quality production.

Regardless of who is starting or coming off the bench, the Bucks have been getting great play from Zaza Pachulia and John Henson. OJ Mayo, Gary Neal, and Ersan Ilyasova have been solid, and rookie Nate Wolters has been impressive early on in this season.

For the Cavaliers, the matchup I’ll be watching is the backcourt battles. Wolters and Neal are expected to start for Milwaukee. Kyrie has traditionally had huge games against the Bucks. A lot of that was against Brandon Jennings, who is no longer there, but this still is a team Kyrie might be able to get his season really going. As impressive as Wolters has been, he’s a rookie playing his 4th NBA game. This is a matchup Kyrie should be able to dominate.

And for Dion Waiters, there will be opportunities for him to be aggressive getting into the lane. Gary Neal is not exactly known for his defense. And even if the talk of his poor defense is a little overstated, this is still a good matchup for Dion on paper. If the Cavs can test the Milwaukee interior defense and do so without turning the ball over, the backcourt can control their matchups and steady the offensive attack a bit.

But really, in an early season NBA game like this, anything can happen. What’s most important for the Cavaliers is that they continue to get better. That Andrew Bynum can continue to increase his minutes without having any setbacks. That they get closer to playing tough defense all 4 quarters. That Kyrie and Dion continue to search for some kind of on-court chemistry. And, hopefully, that Anthony Bennett can make his first career NBA basket.

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Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE

  1. 5 if you count Anderson Varejao []
  2. the Bucks have only made the postseason twice in the last 7 years []
  • mgbode

    gotta love the Bad Atlanta Hawks. just good enough to miss the playoffs every year (where-in the Hawks are just good enough to get bounced in the 1st round every year).

  • Yup

    As to the inconsistency of the Cavs; don’t you agree that the Cavs have the greatest potential for in-season growth than any other team in the East? I do and I’m not sure it’s even close. This is a team that I could see winning 8 in a row in late January.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com Andrew Schnitkey

    Hmm, that’s really hard to say this early in the season. I think the Pistons have a ton of potential to grow. Not sure I’d say more than Cleveland, but they’re right there with the Cavaliers in terms of potential. If Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings find a fit and Drummond keeps improving and Monroe adjusts to the PF role, Detroit can be a matchup nightmare for almost any team.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com Andrew Schnitkey

    It’s kind of a shame you don’t get rewarded for trying to win. Both the Hawks and the Bucks want to keep their teams competitive. My guess is because in those markets, they’re afraid if they bottom out and lose what’s left of fan support, they will never get it back. But still, I kind of like that they try even as much as I think it’s incredibly dumb. I’m really glad the Cavs had no shame in tanking.

  • Ben Frambaugh

    I think that if they chose their spots to tank (a la, this season with a supposedly deep pool of top-line talents) then the fans would be willing to embrace the suck. It’s almost a shame Cleveland’s tank tenure came when it did. The last two drafts weren’t supposed to be particularly great near the top. Even the year that Kyrie came out was expected to be a weak one.

  • Ben Frambaugh

    Detroits young bigs (Drummond/Monroe) are an especially scary duo if they continue to progress. I’m not as sold on Josh Smith as other people (though his defense is intriguing), but the long term prospects in Detroit are certainly pointing up from my perspective. I like their duo of bigs a lot like I see some strong talent on the wing in Washington. These last few years have made for some interesting changes for the two teams that I used to just despise as a fan of the Cavs.

    It’s almost like we might have a legit rivalry back with both teams over the next few years…and one worth actually watching on a national level.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com Andrew Schnitkey

    I would be stunned if Monroe stays, though. I think he walks after this season. I just think he would prefer playing center and not being overshadowed by the spotlight of Drummond. But yeah, if Detroit can have those guys playing together for the next 4 years, it will be scary.

  • mgbode

    I’d put Toronto up there too. Now, they are probably least likely to realize the growth, but they are so amazingly athletic across the board that if they figured out how to work together they could be ridiculous.

  • mgbode

    regardless of his thoughts on where to play, I think that someone will be more willing to pay Monroe $10-12mil/year than Detroit.

  • mgbode

    You are likely correct on intentions, but I don’t know if that is a prudent business decision. Milwaukee fans have embraced Larry Sanders. What would they have done with Anthony Davis?

    Bigger stars not only make it easier to win and possible to win big, but they also drive many, many more casual fans to buy tickets. I think one of the reasons the Cavs were so shameless is that Gilbert got to witness firsthand the valuation of such a star on a franchise.

  • porckchop

    Giving the top two picks in the draft to the two teams with the best records that missed the playoffs, and then beginning the traditional lottery with pick 3 would wipe tanking out. Just sayin

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com Andrew Schnitkey

    Well, yeah, that too, haha.

  • mgbode

    no, you would just introduce a new type of tanking. there would be mysterious injuries and potentially even game strategies at that point between teams that may finish between seed 6-10.

    for instance, Houston ended up the 8seed last year. In your scenario, the Rockets would have a huge incentive to not make the playoffs (even moreso if there was a true #1 overall guy to pick last year — Harden+Dwight+’cheap elite rookie’).

  • Harv 21

    With so much more practice time this time of year than in, let’s say, February, this is when the young players may take a quick developmental jump and when the team might suddenly form a defensive identity. By the end of November we might be talking about Kyrie as an mvp candidate and how comfortably Bennett suddenly looks.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com Andrew Schnitkey

    I think that scenario is a lot better than what we have now, where teams spend entire seasons trying not to win.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    I’d rather just have a straight up even lottery for the top 2 picks. Every team that misses the playoffs has the same chance.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com Andrew Schnitkey

    And with Dion, if nothing else, we could always try benching him again. That sure got his attention last year when Byron took away his starting spot.

  • Jordan Diamond

    I’m losing patience with Dion fast, and I think the fact that he’s not a true shooter, doesn’t help establish chemistry with Kyrie. Kyrie needs more shooters around him. Outside of Jack/Sergey/Miles, there’s no true three point threat, unless Bennett gets going. It’s nice that Dion can handle the ball at times, but Kyrie is better with it in his hands. The thing that makes Miami so good, is that the slashers in LBJ/Wade have had Allen/Chalmers/Battier/Miller. Love my team, but if we can’t pair Kyrie up with a starting SG/SF that is a true shooter, I think we’ll see ourselves in limbo like ATL and the Bucks for a bit…or just tank, again.

  • Steve

    You still have to give the legitimately worst teams the best chance to improve, or you definitely will lose those markets.

    Where would Cavs fans be if we replaced Irving with Fredette (we’d probably still end up with Thompson, Waiters, and Bennett though)? Not at the Q.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    Dion’s actually a decent spot-up three point shooter. He just has to be mindful to set his feet and not drift on the shot. I’m much more worried about his inability to finish around the rim or draw fouls. That’s supposed to be his bread-and-butter on offense.

  • mgbode

    I actually think that is better than what would happen with the suggestions by PC or VP.

    Tanking the season by just not acquiring the talent and keeping injured players shelved until 100% is a much, much different thing then mandating to coaches that you must lose games.

    And, I have a hard time believing that there will not be FO’s that do just that if they have a fringe playoff team with a good chance at a great pick if they happen to lose a few games at the end.

  • porckchop

    So you have maybe 3-4 games where 1-4 teams packs it in, as opposed to 3-4 teams packing it in all season?
    If you were paying for season tickets would you be happy having to shell out for games against Boston, Phx, Utah, etc, when they are clearly not going to be competitive all year?
    Also think about how much better basketball would be if the best young players ended up on teams that actually had a stable core. Young great players such as Kyrie wouldn’t languish for 2-3 years while teams accumulated enough talent to put around them, theyd go right into playoff contention.
    Honestly I don’t say this often but if the only reason not to like this scenario is a few near playoff teams losing a few games at the end of the year then you really have no argument.

  • porckchop

    Right now with 3 years of drafting from the middle to late lottery we might have guys like Klay or Drummond – remember there is talent in the mid to late lottery. And right now as the Cavs with a core group plucked from the mid lottery plus free agents would be knocking on the playoff door we would be in prime postion to get Wiggins. Sorry but if you evaluate talent you can pick up great role players nd then when you are ready to make a move you would have a chance to draft a great player.
    I have no idea how you can argue that it is better to put great players on bad teams rather than let bad teams build into competent teams and then add their great player.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com Andrew Schnitkey

    An even simpler solution would be to only let 4 teams in each conference in the playoffs, and give the top 3 lottery spots to the best 3 teams that miss the playoffs.

    Of course the NBA will never do this because there’s too much money being made in the first round of the playoffs, but no team is going to sacrifice being the 4 seed in a 4 team playoff for the sake of chasing the lottery.

  • mgbode

    no, it would be true tanking and it would be for more than 3-4 games. teams would become obsessed with finding ways to land on those spots rather than make the playoffs. at least the smart teams would.

    at least right now, if you tank, then you have to pay for it by building back up slowly. also, I don’t want the teams that are the worst any particular year to have no chance at those young, great players.

    it’s my opinion obviously, but I think the unintended consequences of such an action would stream pretty out of control and make the league worse.

  • Ben Frambaugh

    Man…I’d love to have him next to TT then. LOL Though it would really depend on how the free agent market wraps up. As much as I don’t like how he did us, you have to make the initial attempt at bringing Voldemort back into the mix. After that, solidifying the center of our team long term (I don’t trust Bynum’s knees) should be our priority.

  • frankelee

    Since it’s still pretty much just Kyrie, tanking this year and getting a Wiggins/Randle/Smart/Parker lottery ticket might relieve some of the “oops!” pain from taking Thompson, Waiters, and Bennett.

  • mgbode

    what?!?

  • frankelee

    I’m just saying. Maybe put aside the usual Cleveland optimism, make the tough call. Well, it’s not really a call, just keep not winning a lot of games and then hope.