April 23, 2014

Cavs optimism vs Cavs pessimism

cavs_nuggets13

Two road wins, baby!

This has been a really bizarre Cavalier season. They’re in Year 3 of the Kyrie Irving era and by all accounts the Cavs want to be making the playoffs. They signed veterans Jarrett Jack and Andrew Bynum and they had the top pick in the daft to help that playoff push. But they ended their first month with a 5-12 record and they looked no where close to the playoffs.

I go back and forth on this team. When they lose, they look bad. Like, really really really really bad. Not even in the game against a mediocre team bad. The offense stalls, the defense breaks down and things look hopeless.

But the Cavs also win games at home. They even win more than half of their games at home. That’s some sunshine, right? One of the first steps to becoming an actual honest-to-god Good NBA Team is to take care of your business at home. The Cavs are 7-3 at The Q and they’ve beaten some teams, like Denver and the Clippers, who seem to be kinda sorta decent.

It’s early. We’re only in December and the Cavs have a team full of young dudes and a new coach. But also not early. At 9-13, the Cavs have played roughly a quarter of their 82 game season and they’ve already held a Players Only meeting. We’re getting into the dog days of the NBA season, the Dec-Jan-Feb slate, and this is when teams being to separate themselves and we begin to see who is who.

So who are the Cavs? I sure as hell don’t know! Do you? Could you tell me? This is a team that is 7-3 at home but 2-10 on the road. They’ll struggle to beat the Sixers but handle the Clippers fairly handily. They play defense, or at least more defense than they’ve played in recent years, but the offense has suffered. They’ve won five of their last six but they’re still only on pace for about 34 wins.

The Cavs, like so many things in life, are part good, part bad. There’s definitely some things to like, but also quite a few things to dislike. I don’t envy Chris Grant having to sort through this mess (assuming, of course, that Grant still has his GM powers after selecting Anthony Bennett with the first overall pick). When do you have enough info on a player? When do you need to make a change and when do let things sit and simmer?

When is optimism warranted and when is pessimism necessary?

I’m gonna break down some of the Cavs key members and see if either the optimistic or pessimistic take is warranted.

Kyrie Irving, Optimist take: He’s Allen Iverson with a jump shot. You know, Allen Iverson, Hall of Famer, MVP and best player on a Finals team? That’s pretty good. Irving is having  a down year by all accounts (he’s shooting just 41% for the year) but he’s still averaging 21-6-3. He’s good. He’s been forced to be a leader on this young squad and it’s been a work in progress. But what do you expect? He’s been the best player on this bad team for three years running and he hasn’t had a vet close to his level that he could look up to (he’s gonna follow Antawn Jamison or Jarrett Jack by example? They can’t hold his jock). He’s asked to carry the load for the offense nightly and more often than not, he delivers. You get some talent around him (like a big or a wing who can score on the move) and look out.

Kyrie Irving, pessimist take. He’s Steve Francis with a jump shot. His shooting is down, possibly due to Mike Brown making him actually try on defense but also possibly due to the league figuring him out. He’s been struggling since last season. Maybe he’s pouting and fighting with Mike Brown. He’s not a leader and appears somewhat indifferent at times. HE HAD ZERO POINTS AGAINST THE HAWKS. ZERO1. Also, some defensive effort would be nice.

Verdict: Irving still makes a bunch of dumb mistakes, but he’s young. While the no-show vs the Hawks was a concern, I’m not gonna judge the kid by the worst game of his career. He’s still your franchise player and, most likely, an All-Star.

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Tristan Thompson, optimist take: When Thompson plays well, the Cavs play well. He’s averaging 16 and 12 in their victories. He’s worked hard to improve his game, even switching shooting hands, and he’s improved from season to season. He’s averaging a double double in just his third NBA season (11 points, 10 boards) and he looks much more comfortable on offense. A year or two in a Coach Mike’s defense and TT could be an elite defender.

Tristan Thompson, pessimist take. The Cavs are 9-13, why do I care about a guy’s stats in victories on a team who has so few of them? Averaging a double-double is nice, but I wonder how much he can improve on that. TT is still pretty raw on the offensive end. I’m sure it’s happened, but I’m having trouble of a Thompson isolation play that ended positively. While he’s improved his offensive game enough that defenses have to guard him, it hasn’t improved enough to where he’s scoring against a defense that’s designed to stop him. He’ll get his garbage points but I wonder if that’s it. He seems undersized to me, he gets his shot blocked a lot and he often doesn’t have a plan when he grabs an offensive board under the rim.2.

Verdict: I think TT will be a very good rotation player in the league for a long long time, I just don’t know how far you’re going if he’s one of your three best players.

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Dion Waiters, optimist: He’s instant offense, a possible modern day Vinnie Johnson. The man gives a crap. He wears his heart on his sleeve and he’s clearly working to get better. He’s a decent spot up shooter and he can dominate a quarter offensively when he’s feeling it. Since moving to the bench, Dion is averaging 15 points and looks much more comfortable in the offense.

Dion Waiters, pessimist take: He’s Marcus Thorton. He let’s his temper get the better of him. Whether it’s against his own teammates (allegedly) or when he’ll showboat while his team trials by 20 points. He fades away on his jumper too much and he falls in love with it too often. He makes up his mind when he drives that’s gonna shoot it no-matter-what and he puts himself into bad situations. His turnovers can come in bunches and his mistakes on the defensive end can really put you in a hole. When he does play well, it’s usually when Kyrie is playing poorly or sitting on the bench. He needs the ball in his hands too much to be the main guard next to Irving.

Verdict: Who knows! I’m completely baffled by Dion. He has NBA skills on offense but his defense is… lackluster. He’s a decent enough spot shooter but he doesn’t look comfortable off the ball. He’s probably the most likely Cavalier to be traded, since he does a lot of the same things that Kyrie Irving does and he’s playing halfway decent at the moment. He most likely finds his NBA niche on another team.

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Andrew Bynum, optimist. He’s totally like Nate Thurmond! His veteran presence could push them over the top! If continues this pace, the Cavs could have two(!!) All-Stars with him and Kyrie. There’s only a few centers in the NBA who have the size to matchup with Bynum and he’s a mismatch the Cavs can exploit every night. Bynum doesn’t look great, but he’s been effective and he’s clearly scraping off the rust as the season progresses. If the Cavs can learn how to throw a freaking post pass, they could really have something.

Andrew Bynum, pessimist: He could wake up with swollen knees tomorrow and that could be it for his career. As good as he’s played, the Cavs can’t count on him. At best, he’s a bonus piece that can push the Cavs into the playoffs. At worst, he’s covering up glaring roster holes, stalling the offense and pushing the Cavs just far enough away from the top of the draft. Defensively, he’s made some nice plays at the rim but he’s a disaster in the pick and roll and speedy bigs can beat him down the floor with ease.

Verdict: If the Cavs season falls flat, do you think he has any trade value? Would teams that balked at signing him this summer want to give up an asset for the big man? I just hope the dude can stay healthy. It’s fun to see the Cavs have to work in a real center.

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Mike Brown, optimist: The offense won’t always look this bad (it’ll improve with players becoming for familiar with each other, right? RIGHT?!) and the defense taken a big step in the right direction. Since he has the backing of management, Brown has been free to apply some tough love to his young players. Coach Mike has benched Kyrie, Dion and Tristan at various times season, sometimes for long stretches of games (something he could never do during his first go-round in Cleveland). After a rough start, they’ve won five of six and the team seems to be buying into his defensive mindset.

Mike Brown, pessimist: Have you seen the offense? Has the guy learned anything? It’s painful to watch this team. They have such a hard time scoring and their best three guards seemingly just take turns going 1-on-5 for long stretches of time. Nothing comes easy on offense and they’re piss poor scoring can  affect their defense. There’s also been a few dust ups between him and Kyrie that have caused a little bit of a stir (Irving admitted to breaking off a late game Brown play call).

Verdict: I’d like to see what Browns offense would look like if he had someone over 6-3 who could create their own shot. TT and Varejao are garbage point players and the Cavs are still getting used to when and where you feed Bynum. But I also don’t know how high their ceiling is. Sure, Kyrie and Dion could learn defensive schemes better and the offense could start to click, but with the way their constructed, they’re always going to have stretches where they struggle to score.

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Chris Grant, optimist: The man wins trades! Look at that haul for Jon Leuer! He had a plan to tank for a couple years and get high draft picks and mission accomplished! High draft picks were selected. His Andrew Bynum contract is looking better and better as the season progresses.

Chris Grant, pessimist. So you draft 6-3 Kyrie Irving in 2011 and then draft 6-4 (LOL) Dion Waiters the following year. Both guys need the ball in their hands and neither is big enough to guard NBA twos. Then you give Jarrett Jack, another 6-3 ball dominate guard, a 4-year, $25 million dollar deal this summer. These are your three best shot creators and ball handlers and they’re all the same position. That’s somewhat of a problem. Then you draft Anthony Bennett, a guy with clear weight problems and apparently breathing problems, a 6-8 SF who is probably really a PF. But at PF you already have Tristan Thompson, a 6-9 PF who has trouble offensively. So with four top lotto picks, you picked two combo guards and two mid-sized forwards… how is this team going to defend? Size matters in the NBA. Both for the ease for getting your own shot and for defending the opposition. Oh, and the SF position is a dumpster fire. Earl Clark and Alonzo Gee are both backups. Should the Cavs make the playoffs, what would a good defense do to this roster?

Verdict: I’m leaning more pessimist at this time, but we’ll see if Grant has any trades up his sleeve. I’d hate to see them give up so early on someone like Dion, but having no shot creator taller than 6-4 is a major problem. The Cavs have a ton of trouble scoring the ball and a lot of that reason is due to roster construction. The only position that they have any size advantage is center, and lord know how long Bynum lasts. All I know is, if the Cavs end up drafting high in the lottery again, Grant cannot be the guy making the selection.

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Anthony Bennett, optimist: It’s early! He was totally hurt all summer and was forced to eat fast food for breakfast. He’d look way more comfortable if he was able to get 20-30 minutes on a tanking team with no expectations.

Anthony Bennett, pessimist: So is he a SF? A PF? He’s too slow for the three, not strong or big enough for the four. Not once have I seen Anthony Bennett look comfortable on a NBA court. That’s kinda sorta concern. He’s quick to hoist longer jumpers, he has trouble holding onto the ball and defensively…. lololololololololololololol. Not good.

Verdict: Hard not to feel like the Cavs blew the pick at the moment. Sure, you can say it’s early. And it is. And yes, two months does not a NBA career make. But damn. Bennett looks out of shape, out of his element and completely lost. Do you stick him in the D-League to get some confidence against some scrubs? Just for him to see some good things happen on the court? Or would being the first top overall selection to play in the D-League hurt his confidence even more? I really have no idea.

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So. I have my concerns. While I like many of the Cavs pieces individually, I’m not sure on their collective whole. They’ve been solid as of late, winning five of their last six, but they’ve also played the Knicks, the Magic, the Nuggets on their 4th-game-in-5-nights and a Derrick Rose-less Chicago Bulls team. And while it’s good that they’re beating crappy teams, I’m not sure what the takeaway is. It’s entirely possible they get blown out by both Miami and Portland and then come out flat at home to the Bucks next Friday. The combination of young players and the overall expectations have made this season unlike any Cavalier season that I can remember. There’s so many moving parts and personalities involved.

I’m feeling pretty good about this team now, but ask me again in week.

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Footnotes:

  1. you remember the Hawks game, right? That’s the game where Dion scored 30 but got scolded nationally for frowning after a dunk []
  2. I have an advanced stat rant and this is a good as place as any. While I’ve enjoyed some of the new basketball stats out there (usage rate is really interesting), I often struggle with how much their worth. We’re measuring all these things now, but I’m just not sure how important this stuff is. I remember a few years ago watching the Lakers and the Jazz meet in the playoffs. I thought the Jazz had a decent shot, as they had Deron Williams and two pretty good bigs in Paul Milasp and Carlos Boozer. Both averaged about 18 and 8 and I figured the Jazz had enough talent to hang with the Lakers. I was right and wrong. The Jazz put up a decent fight, but the Lakers were  just too much. I had a small epiphany watching Milsap and Boozer struggle against the Los Angelos bigs Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Boozer and Milsap can have nice per game averages (maybe even similar numbers to Pau and Bynum) but those only mean so much. Bynum and Pau were simply bigger than Booze and Milsap. And when everyone is trying their hardest, usually the bigger guys win the battles. That’s why size matters in the NBA. That’s why you see folks complaining about the Cavs passing on Harrison Barnes, even though he and Dion have similar PER and stats. This was my same issue with Antawn Jamison. Jamison can average close to 10 boards a game, but in a big game situation, he’s getting shoved out of position. Always. That his per game average is over 10 because he padded his stats against a bad Bobcats team means nothing. TT’s (and Irving’s, and Dion’s) individual stats could be great, but if the Cavs record stinks… /rant []

  • Kildawg

    I would have to lean more optimistic for the Cavs at this point. Bulls without Rose are still decent, Knicks were supposed to be good but look like a hot mess (James Dolan has no clue on how to build a roster but knows how to reel in the dough). This stretch of winning (even against mediocre/struggling teams) should help the Cavs hang on against tougher opponents. Maybe 34 wins would be enough to qualify in the East, but I think the Cavs get at least 40-45 wins this year.

  • Lyon25

    There were a few plays last night where Bennett looked like an NBA player. Progress!

    This team is so Jekyll & Hyde. Never know which will pop up. They can figure that out a but and they’ll be a playoff team for sure

  • nobody

    Don’t look now, but the Cavs are only 1/2 game out of the 8 seed in the East…they’re in good shape to make the playoffs (I think they’ll only improve as the season wears on, like the past two years).

  • Kj Coral

    You are COMPLETELY WRONG about Dion’s defense. In fact, he was DOMINANT on D in 2 out of his last 3 games. In fact, last night, while CARRYING us offensively in the 4th, he was also a lock-down defender. I have yet to see our All-Star have that kind of game. Too much of your “pessimistic” take on Dion is/was based on last year.

  • Kj Coral

    But they’ve not been that in the last 6 games. There is a clear upward arc. That’s why to say “who knows?” is incorrect because it sure looks like this team is figuring it out…

  • Lyon25

    If you can trust them, great. I have to see them keep playing well before I buy in that they’ve turned the corner to a consistent team.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    Stylistically I can get how you would say Kyrie Irving at his best = Allen Iverson, but I actually like Dion Waiters as a better comparison from a production standpoint. Iverson was never as efficient a shooter as Irving was in his first two seasons.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    And it took an egregious no-call and banked-in three-pointer from Mike Dunleavy Jr to keep the Cavs out of that 8th spot. The Bulls should all thank their genies for that win.

  • Steve

    The rant about advanced stats doesn’t make sense to me. Especially the Jazz-Lakers part. The advanced stats said that Gasol and Bynum were both better than either of Boozer and Millsap. Both Laker players were better in PER and WS/48. And with an adjustment for pace, we see that the Lakers were noticeably better defensively. I’m not sure what advanced stat caused you to think the Jazz would clean the Lakers clock inside.

    Advanced stats had Jamison, the Cavalier version, as a slightly above average player offensively, and a real hindrance on defense. Sounds like the scouting report to me.

    And as long as Thompson, Waiters, and Irving carry sub .500 TS% (though all just barely) it’s going to be tough for them to look good by advanced stats. The advanced stats frequently do a good job helping us see the issues with the examples you point out – guys who have high per game numbers thanks to volume opportunities.

  • Ben Frambaugh

    While it’s nice to see the recent uptick…and some of it against some fairly quality competition…the concern is (as always), is this just a small sample size aberation?