Team-building exercises: The ultimate puzzle

cavs_nuggets13
cavs_nuggets13

Amen, CJ.

Assets are a great thing to have. Look no further than Ryan’s piece  to show that the Cavaliers have plenty of them. The pantry isn’t barren. There are a number of quality ingredients in this organization, but good ingredients alone don’t bake a delicious cake or fix a good cocktail. Asset accumulation and talent acquisition were a big part of Chris Grant’s job description. It was  the portion that he performed to a satisfactory or even above-average degree. However, it’s the team-building aspect of how all those assets— how all those ingredients are measured, at what stage they’re added, and how long they’re allowed to mix together before going into the fiery oven of expectations, or the ice-filled glass of criticism—where Chris Grant failed.

More on Chris Grant from WFNY

Reliving Grant’s last 48 minutes with the Cavs:
“The Cavs were down 17 points in less than 11 minutes
of play; a chorus boos rained down from the stands.
Grant sucked both of his lips into his mouth as if he
were attempting to disappear from Earth face first.
Cannon-launched FirstMerit-branded t-shirts whizzed
by his head like bottle rockets.” – Scott

Dan Gilbert needs to abandon playoff dreams:
“Right now, everything is a problem. The Cavaliers
have a multi-level problem that has no easy answers.
One thing that I’ve already said – and I’ll say it again
as I borrow a phrase from Joe Banner – is that this
isn’t something that just needs more time.” – Craig

Potential replacements arise for Cavs’ GM:
“Of all of the names that may or may not raise a
few eyebrows, the most intriguing may be Michael
Winger, the No. 3 executive in the Oklahoma City
front office. Per Berger, Winger is a “rising star”
who has been groomed by Thunder GM Sam Presti,
whose long-term approach to sustainable success
in a small market should be the blueprint for a team
like Cleveland.”

A lot of people seem confused or worse at Dan Gilbert’s remarks from Thursday following the news of Grant’s firingbeing made public. Gilbert  stated that he believed the Cavs have the talent and the coaching required to be a successful team. People took that statement as saying the team which Chris Grant assembled is simply under-performing. Most would point the finger at Mike Brown for such an occurrence. While Mike Brown’s not exempt from criticism, and his day may very well come before Opening Night 2014, it’s not as simple as that. What I think Dan Gilbert was saying is that Brown has talent, but it clearly doesn’t fit together. In that regard, there’s only so much that a coach can do in terms of motivation, playing time, and lineup shuffling. Gilbert has made his statement, assigning Grant the most blame for the predicament in which his team currently is. Still, that doesn’t mean that if Brown can’t get his team, in whatever permutation it is in following the trade deadline to consistently play well—if he can’t prevent the embarrassing losses from occurring on a weekly basis—that he won’t be gone too.

The two most damning quotes for Grant were interlaced among a lot of things that Gilbert wanted to make sure he got across about culture, championship aspirations, and improvement during the rest of the season. At one point, Gilbert said, “Clearly, we have had some issues putting it all together.” He followed that up a few minutes later by saying “I think we’ll be aggressive at the trade deadline.” If the team is planning on being aggressive, it’s understandable why you make this move now, even given Grant’s track record of winning most of the trades that he makes.

“We have what we need,” Gilbert added. “That’s why there’s such a gap and the disappointment is so large. Versus what we have and the expectation which I think is rational, based on what we have, clearly the win-loss record is nowhere where anyone thought it would be.”

There is absolutely no good reason for this team to be playing at the same clip as last season having added three rotational free agents, two first-round picks, and an All-Star to support a young core of first-round picks. This is all while staying remarkably healthy.

“You had better be right” is something I heard my father utter more than once on NBA Draft nights over the past three years. It happened with the Tristan Thompson pick that came on the heels of him rocketing up the draft board from the middle teens; then it was the Dion Waiters pick that reportedly had heavy Byron Scott involvement, and came without an interview; and finally, the pièce de résistance in the overweight, injured, and apnea-stricken Anthony Bennett. Each time, it was Chris Grant doubling down on his approach to the draft, going for that home run pick. If Dion Waiters becomes a backcourt sensation alongside Irving, if Tristan Thompson rounds out offensively, or if Anthony Bennett becomes Larry Johnson, Grant rises to the level of superhuman genius and people no longer question his methods.

QUOTEIt’s safe to say that’s not how it has played out.

I can’t really blame Grant for any of his picks in a vacuum. I preferred both Jonas Valanciunas and Harrison Barnes over Thompson and Waiters, respectively, at the time. Part of that was the Cavaliers had J.J. Hickson at the time of drafting Thompson, and already had a smaller guard that dominated the ball in Irving. But I trusted the Cavs front office that they knew these guys better than I did, and had good reason for making those selections. When it came to Bennett, you had injury situations aplenty, and even more positional clashes to navigate at the top of the board. But the simple fact that Grant got next-to-nothing out of a fairly healthy Bennett for the first half of the season was the final straw.

Grant built this team like he was flipping a house. Outside of Kyrie, it seemed like he wanted to acquire young, high-upside players who could be traded for a huge piece to pair with Irving. But, the thing one can forget about when reducing players to assets is the risk of those pieces not fitting on the current roster, inherently driving down the value of guys who may flourish in another situation. Wouldn’t Dion Waiters be much better off with a point guard who didn’t constantly need the ball in his hands or with a strong perimeter defender to play alongside? Wouldn’t Tristan Thompson benefit from playing in conjunction with a more traditional center, one who blocks shots, finishes strong, and bodies up players? Tell me that if Grant had, instead invested in a legitimate small forward earlier in this season or any year prior, that this team wouldn’t have a different feel right now. Instead, the Cavs will end up trading one of their young players at the market price of what they’ve shown on this toxic team rather than being based on what their potential is. I fully believe that Waiters and Thompson will be good NBA players for a long time, but I don’t know if they’ll ever maximize their potential as Cavaliers. That’s on Grant.

Winning trades is just one part of being a general manager. You also have to draft well. You have to assemble those assets—those winning pieces—in the right order, and at the right time. You see it all the time when players change jerseys only to suddenly be a better “fit” with another team. The exact opposite often happens too (Hello, Jarrett Jack!). As Sam Vecenie so eloquently pointed out over at Fear The Sword, you can’t damn Grant alone for choosing Tristan over Valanciunas, or Waiters over Drummond, but when both have panned out and proved to be better long-term center prospects than anything that you have, it hurts.

Grant’s failures have left this team with no shortage of questions. Can Mike Brown and Kyrie Irving coexist? Can Dion Waiters and Kyrie Irving coexist? Can the Cavaliers and Kyrie Irving coexist? The last thing Dan Gilbert wants to do is look like an idiot and fire Mike Brown after one year. Mike Brown has his shortcomings (like inbound plays and offensive X’s and O’s, for instance), but to me it’s even more irresponsible that Grant both hired Mike Brown and then failed to give him any elite defenders. Drafting Victor Oladipo would have done that. Signing players that could defend in free agency would have done that.1 Grant knew exactly the type of players who Mike Brown needed to have an effective defense, yet he drafted (and then kept in place once Brown was hired on) core players with either defensive shortcomings or size issues at their position—and in some cases, both.

Ultimately, it comes down to what Chris Grant failed to give this team (three point shooting, great defenders to cover for Kyrie) and what he overvalued (ball-dominant guards and athletic-but-undersized big men) that sealed his fate. It will be up to David Griffin in the short term, and probably someone else in the long term, to take the asset inventory and turn it into something resembling a more fitting picture, rather than jamming pieces together until they lay flat on the puzzle board.

(Image via David Liam Kyle/NBAE Getty)

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Footnotes:

  1. Jack could be the team’s worst defender, Bynum at a step or two slow was getting killed in pick and rolls, and Clark is only average when forced to toggle between covering small and power forwards. []
  • BenRM

    This and Sam’s articles are great analyses of the situation. When viewed individually, a lot of what Grant did made sense and was smart.

    But when viewed as a whole, nothing makes a lick of f–king sense.
    – You draft Kyrie
    – Then You draft undersized project big
    – Then you draft not-as-good Kyrie
    – Then you draft rotational big with no upside
    – Then you sign CJ Miles (win!)
    – Then you draft undersized project big 2.0
    – Then you sign not-as-good Kyrie 2.0
    – Earl Clark?
    – Then you sign project, injury rehab big

    In his tenure, Grant acquired 3 versions of Kyrie, 3 project bigs (2 undersized, 1 off massive injury), Zeller, CJ Miles, and Earl Clark? When you look at it this way, of course the team sucks.

  • mgbode

    you and Kirk saved me alot of typing today. well said by Kirk and good summary here.

  • porckchop

    I’m just really sad that Grant didn’t have time to see his ultimate dream realized. I really believe he had deals in place at the deadline to offload Andy, Zeller, and Deng, for Kemba Walker and Jan Vessly. Like A Beautiful Mind or Darren Aronofsky’s Psi, Grant was consumed by numbers until he went made and came to the conclusion that some combination of undersized ball dominant guards and undersized project powerforwards were the only players that could achieve “Maximum Efficiency”.
    Somewhere on the eastern boundary of the Great Plain, Cleanthony Early just felt the cold winter wind of reality blow in and his shot as the number 1 overall pick just left town.

  • mgbode

    Rodney Stuckey is pounding his fists. He has dedicated his life to the necessary traits in the hopes to be apart of such a team.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Never ever a serious low post big man (not that those are easy to find mind you) really has hurt this team for a long long time. Hence the Bynum deal which I don’t blame Grant for one bit.

    The kid from Kansas is a monster and would look great in a Cavaliers uniform, if he decides to leave early.

  • BenRM

    Embiid? Agreed. It’s nice that the team is so unintentionally bad that the Cavs have a real shot at him.

  • mgbode

    Embiid is in the discussion for #1 overall IMO.

  • Harv 21

    Grant was such a schizophrenic executive. He amassed and hoarded his precious “assets” like the weird nal neighborhood kid who starts basement collections with lopsided deals. And then on draft day …

    You say Byron had influence in selecting Dion. But I remember a Grant interview where he explained that as he scouted others “I couldn’t stop thinking about Dion.” Like at draft time he went straight with his gut, a basketball Butch Davis. I commented after that draft that Grant strapped his future here to Dion and that seemed awful risky for a button-down type given the kid’s reputation. What if Dion had matured and busted it to change his game and learn defense and pout less? Maybe he can’t, maybe he’s a terminal pouter and locker room cancer and not the type to return Grant’s loyalty with any sort of effort. But that was Grant’s call. You want him? Now you choke on him.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Yes him.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    With that size I would hope so the nice thing is even if the Cavaliers don’t get the #1 overall at least like these last few drafts you should have some nice plan Bs, Cs and Ds.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Grant reached on Thompson he reached on Waiters and he sure as heck reached on Bennett. Unfortunately for him Thompson has regressed, Waiters is playing the best of the three although I find it hard to be a fan of his for some reason and Bennett has just been horrible from day one.

  • Pat Leonard

    Great Cleanthony Early reference!

  • Harv 21

    also, can you imagine a profession where your very public reputation is tied to a young, immature guy like Dion Waiters or Anthony Bennett?

    And yes, I hear the Hyman Roth response. (“When Dion turned out to be a knucklehead and I got canned I let it go. I didn’t ask who were the source of the positive reports at Syracuse. And I said to myself: This is the business we have chosen”)

  • porckchop

    Really good piece Kirk, I love the house flipping comparision. You guys have done a real good job framing discussions through two catastrophic seasons. Here’s hoping for a spring and summer full of articles complaining about how bad your knees hurt from having to constantly stand up and cheer for the barrage of Bourn, Swisher, and Kipnis homeruns.

  • porckchop

    Between Stuckey, Jennings, and Bynum, and Monroe, Drummond, and J Smoove, the Dumars was neck and neck with Grant for littlest thought put into team construction award. (known as the Kahn-y)

  • mgbode

    and you didn’t even mention Billups yet. Or that he drafted Hamilton-clone Caldwell-Pope (doesn’t need the ball, great midrange shooter, good defense), but don’t use him in that role (trying to force-fit him into a 3&D player).

  • wildrover4

    A couple of observations: (1) You can’t just pick the best available player from a draft in hindsight and make a comparison. You have to look at the next thee or four choices and make the comparison. (2) If you are going to judge your player’s current production, it must be against other players’ current productions. Unless you are convinced that your player has hit his ceiling, you are comparing apples and oranges. (3) Too many Cavs fans underrate Waiters and overrate Oladipo, and Barnes. People need to look at a stat sheet or two.

  • Nicholee

    Agreed completely. Waiters has proven so far to be a better player than Barnes I think. I also think Thompson has proved to be the best player available at #4 in that draft, probably even better than Derrick Williams and Enes Kanter who went before him.