July 28, 2014

Through the Looking-Glass, and What the Cavaliers Found There

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Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

There’s a degree of order in life. Certain things fit together in ways that make sense. There are laws of math, and physics, and biology. Unbreakable truths. Anyone who has been watching the recent reincarnation of the show Cosmos on FOX has been able to look on with awe at the sheer depth of scale to the universe and life on earth. From observable galaxies that are billions of light years away to the beautiful complexity of life at the sub-molecular level, there are rules and order. The same laws of physics that govern our world apply to those billions of light years away.

None of those unbreakable rules of consistency apply to the 2013-14 Cleveland Cavaliers. In a world of order, the Cavaliers are outlaws. They are agents of rebellion flying in the face of matters of consistency and basketball truths. Or, should I say, they “were” outlaws. The 2013-14 Cavaliers are no longer a fluid existence in the present, but instead are now frozen in time as a part of history. And when basketball scholars look back and study this team, what will they find? They won’t find answers, but more questions. That’s something everyone who lived through this season knows from personal experience. No matter where things go from here, this will always be remembered as one of the most confusing seasons in Cavalier history.

But in a world of order, one of the most powerful geometric symbols is the circle. It exists as symbol of so many observable truths in life. It represents the cyclical nature of things. It represents a never ending string of beginnings and ends. It has an infinite number of points, all of which are equidistant from the center. It is the circle that gave us pi, an irrational number used to explain a good number of rational things from quantum mechanics to structural engineering. So when people talk about things coming “full circle”, it can inherently mean a sequence of irrational events came together to take us on a journey with a beginning, middle, and finally, an ending which returns to the beginning.

So with the Cavaliers ending their season, at home, against the Brooklyn Nets, things felt like they had come full circle for them as well. It was where the season began and where it ended. A bunch of irrational events came together to provide one very rational truth: the Cavaliers were not a good enough basketball team and going forward, much work is needed for them to escape this vicious cycle of losing and to reach their ultimate goal.

The Cavaliers followed their opening night win against the Nets with a series of bitter disappointments that set the tone for the whole season. How will they follow their last win against the Nets? Will this offseason be a series of disappointments, or will this be the offseason where things begin to turn around and change for this franchise? Only time will tell, of course, but there are three key areas to watch this offseason.

***

The Star

Everything about this offseason begins with Kyrie Irving. We know this is the offseason the Cavaliers will offer to extend Kyrie Irving. The question is whether he will accept it or not. It’s not hard to see why some would doubt that Kyrie will accept a full max extension. It’s not about the money, but about whether he will feel comfortable blindly giving up the next 5 years of his life in the hands of this franchise. The same franchise that hasn’t come close to putting any real talent around him in his first three seasons. Why will the next five be any different?

Some people will scoff at supporting talent. They’ll remark about how guys like LeBron don’t need to be surrounded by talent. This issue has a sliding scale of truth to it. There’s no question LeBron James and Kevin Durant are able to elevate their teammates and win games regardless of who is on the floor. The San Antonio Spurs won 62 games this year despite nobody playing more than 30 minutes a night. The Chicago Bulls lost Derrick Rose to injury and traded Luol Deng for nothing in return, and won 48 games and finished with the three seed in the East.

Are these the exceptions or the example to be followed? LeBron and Durant win on sheer greatness alone. The Spurs and Bulls win because their coach instills a unified sense of purpose to their teams, and they put together a group of players that fit together in a logical way and make everyone better. But Kyrie Irving is not LeBron or Durant, and the Cavaliers are not the Spurs or the Bulls.

Cavs fans need to return to reality a little bit with Kyrie. Those kinds of players who win on their own are so few and far between. But for every guy like LeBron and Durant, there are guys like Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant…truly great players who couldn’t do it on their own.

It’s funny how quickly people forget the 2004-05 Los Angeles Lakers. It was the year after Shaq left. Twenty-six-year-old, three-time NBA Champion Kobe Bryant finally got his wish to be the sole leader of his team. He had 25-year-old Lamar Odom and 24-year-old Caron Butler by his side along with veteran like Chucky Atkins and Brian Grant. And that team went 34-48, just one game better than the 2013-14 Cavaliers. Kobe played in 66 games, and the team went 28-38 (.424 win percentage) in them. Kyrie Irving played in 71 games and the team went 28-43 (.394 win percentage) in them.

Nobody would compare 22-year-old, third-year player Kyrie Irving with the Kobe Bryant of that season. So it makes sense Kobe’s team was slightly better with him than Kyrie’s team was with Kyrie. But Kobe quickly realized how hard it is to do it alone. He forced the team to make drastic changes to bring in help, which came in the form of Pau Gasol. And from there the Lakers would win another pair of Championships.

So yes, Kyrie Irving needs help. No, he’s not the kind of player that can single-handedly deliver a 50-plus win season. But guess what? That’s how most stars in the NBA are. Watch the NBA playoffs over the next couple months. You will see the difference in talent between what the Cavs have and what these other teams have. You will see just how far the Cavaliers have to go.

None of this is to say there aren’t questions about Kyrie. His FG%, 2P%, 3P%, TS%, and eFG% have all decreased year after year in his career. He is a significantly worse shooter today than he was in his rookie season. What if that trend continues? His defense has improved, but still needs work. His leadership capabilities continue to leave something to be desired.

There are questions, yes. But watching Kyrie Irving play basketball is a joy. You can see the incredible talent he possesses. Getting an upgrade in talent around him with skills and positions that make sense would make a world of difference for Kyrie. Floor spacing shooters and someone capable of taking over a game offensively in the frontcourt will transform not only Kyrie’s game, but the team as a whole. The Cavaliers have done such a poor job of assembling this team, that we often forget what really great basketball teams actually look like.

So will Kyrie take the extension? Who knows. But his words after the game last night were promising when he said, “I’ve been a part of this and I want to continue to be a part of this. We’re making strides in the right direction, especially in this organization. I want to be part of something special, and I want to be part of something special in Cleveland…I don’t have a definitive answer to that right now, but it’ll be something special. I can guarantee that.”

***

The Sidekick

If keeping Kyrie Irving is Priority 1, then getting Dion Waiters and Kyrie Irving to work together, with their teammates, should be priority 1A. Because Dion has spent so much of his career coming off the bench, he and Kyrie have actually played a pretty small number of minutes together. Through two seasons, they have played a combined 8,372 minutes, but only 2,060 (24.6%) of those have been on the court together. They played 1,004 minutes together last season, and that number only increased to 1,056 this season. Comparatively, Kyrie and Tristan Thompson played 2,045 minutes together.

For Dion’s sake, and the continued growth of this team, the two best players need to play more minutes together. It’s not just about chemistry, but it’s also about making the opponents’ defense have to worry about more than just Kyrie Irving or Dion Waiters. They need to worry about Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters.

And here’s another thing, too. Making those roster changes to help Kyrie will also help Dion as well. Whereas Kyrie’s shot is declining, Dion’s is improving. But still, having more floor spacing shooters and a frontcourt scoring option will make life easier for Dion as well, which in turn will only help the on-court chemistry between Kyrie and Dion.

When people say “there’s no reason Kyrie and Dion can not and should not be able to coexist and thrive”, they’re completely right. But they both need help. They need better supporting talent, and not just talent, but the right kind of fit to help both of their games improve.

All season long there has been an annoying Kyrie vs. Dion sentiment among Cavs fans. Like you had to pick sides or something. The sooner fans can get over that nonsense and learn to embrace both players for what they are and accept both players for they are not, the sooner things can be less depressing and more fun. Having the right kind of team surrounding Kyrie and Dion will make that step a lot easier for fans.

***

The Rookies

It was not a good season for the rookies. For the most part. Anthony Bennett was a miserable failure and missed a bunch of time with injury. Sergey Karasev only played in 22 games and played just 7.1 minutes per game. He was mostly insignificant as a player. Carrick Felix only played in 7 games due to injury.

The only rookie to make his mark on the team in any kind of positive way was the undrafted one, Matthew Dellavedova. It’s frustrating and disappointing that still four years after LeBron James left Cleveland, the Cavaliers are still relying on undrafted free agent rookies.

Delly unquestionable earned a place in the hearts of Cavs fans with his tenacity, hustle, and attitude. On a team that often gave so little effort early in the season, it was Delly who provided the spark.

Again, it’s kind of funny in hindsight that there were such high expectations for the Cavaliers this season when they had four rookies on their roster. That’s not typically the recipe for success. But the development of these rookies this offseason will make a huge impact on the direction of the team next season.

As much as Cavs fans love Delly, it would be nice if the Cavs didn’t need him next season. It would be nice to see his hustle and effort replicated by players with more talent. Beyond that, though, the Cavaliers need more from Bennett, Karasev, and Felix.

We already mentioned the Cavs need floor spacers and frontcourt scoring. Karasev could and should be a floor spacing shooter. Bennett could and should be a frontcourt scoring option. Felix could and should be a help on the defensive side of the ball. All three players have a role on this team just waiting for them to reach out and grab it. This offseason, all three need to take the right steps to achieving that potential.

***

This was a season that made no sense for so many reasons. There are so many questions that it can make the head spin trying to figure out where to even start looking for answers.

Which was the real Cavs, the team that went 9-21 in November and December, or the team that went 17-16 after firing Chris Grant? Was it the team that started showing consistent effort from start to finish in March, or was it the team that limped to the finish line in April? How do we weigh the good against the bad? I wish I knew.

There are so many mysteries when it comes to this team. It would be so easy to look at the final record, to watch those last few games in April, to reflect upon all the craziness of this season and to call it all a waste. But hidden in all the madness was real improvement.

The Cavaliers finished the season 15th in opponents scoring, 12th in opponents FG%, 17th in defensive eFG%, and 19th in defensive efficiency. Those numbers are all significant improvements over last season. Players gave better effort after those first couple months. Kyrie and Dion finally got to play more minutes together later in the season and they were getting better.

The Cavaliers still have a long way to go. Their talent is nowhere near as good as a lot of people want to make them out to be. There are no guarantees that Kyrie will be back, that Dion will keep improving, that the rookies will show any growth in year two. But if the Cavaliers are going to ever make the next step, those three things are going to be key to the turnaround.

In closing, this season was anything but fun. It was mostly miserable. Between on court disappointment and insane off court drama, from Andrew Bynum flameout to deciphering Kyrie Irving tweets, this was mostly a nightmare season. I’m glad it’s over. But I also can’t wait for next season to see where this all leads.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    I like Greg Monroe.

  • Watcher-0000

    Poor Delly, battles his way in after he didn’t get drafted and then gets continually bagged because undrafted “scum” (as people seem to think they are) shouldn’t be able to play. I’m sure he has exceeded his expectations considering he missed out on the draft and good for him. Drafting doesn’t mean anything once it is done. So let’s get over it and let him play.

    At least he tried………,..

  • Pat Leonard

    I completely agree that it’s a perception issue based on the undrafted status. If the Cavs select him instead of Karasev, yes I think most Cavs fans would have been irate at the time, but by the end of the season they’d be talking about what a smart pick that was. But since he went undrafted, I think a lot of Cavs fans are interpreting that as “well, how good was he to begin with if he didn’t get drafted?” Silly.

  • brian

    oh man andrew, you had a chance to end the article with: “But I also can’t ‘Wait For Next Year’ to see where this all leads.”

  • Mike

    Its literally scary how afraid you guys are of losing a star. Its so noticeable its crazy. You don’t know how to accept something thats good for you and you’re ready to throw it away because of fear of the unknow