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On Tanking

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013

Does a team always have an obligation to play its best players on any given night?  At what point does a team decide that playing it’s younger players in order to build experience for the future trumps its need to win the game that evening? What if a team is made up of barely qualified NBA players who probably have no long term future with the team for which they’re playing?  The Cavaliers were built that way at the end of the season last year.  Is not fielding a team that has any chance of being competitive a violation of sporting ethics?

The NBA has become a place where losing is rewarded.  As a team loses its odds of getting a lower draft pick become higher.  To prevent teams from losing on purpose to better their draft position, the NBA instituted a lottery.  Starting in 1985, the first three picks of the draft were determined randomly, first by drawing envelopes out of a hopper, and then starting in 1990, according to a number of ping pong balls.  After 1993, when Orlando had a 41-41 record and still won the lottery, the rules were changed to favor bad teams even more.

The problem with the draft lottery is that it provides incentives to fail.  It can be argued that these incentives are are antithetical to the concept of competition, fair play, and trying one’s hardest.  The term “tanking” has been coined to describe the process where “competitor deliberately loses without gambling being involved.”  Why is tanking so different from point shaving, which is one step better than fixing a game?  I imagine that the giant of American baseball, commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis would have had something to say about tanking, or even the appearance of tanking.

Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player that throws a ball game; no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ball game; no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing ball games are planned and discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball. Of course, I don’t know that any of these men will apply for reinstatement, but if they do, the above are at least a few of the rules that will be enforced. Just keep in mind that, regardless of the verdict of juries, baseball is competent to protect itself against crooks, both inside and outside the game.

I suppose that since there is no grift involved against a perspective gambler, tanking is a step above match fixing and point shaving.  Furthermore, it can be impossible to tell if a team is merely losing because of circumstance, because of effort, because of substitutions, or because of holding players out of games when they could be playing.  David Stern was reportedly livid earlier this year when Gregg Popovich sat Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili against Miami, because “the Spurs did a disservice to the league and our fans.”  But little was made of a game in March, when the Phoenix Suns played the Utah Jazz, and sat out Goran Dragic for “rest.”  Of course Phoenix lost that game 103-88. Why was that game important?  Because Utah, of course, is batting the Lakers for the final playoff spot, and Phoenix receives the Lakers’ first round pick this year, if the Lakers do not make the playoffs.  So Phoenix did its part to help Utah keep the Lakers out of the playoffs by sitting arguably its best player, Goran Dragic.  Of course, this can’t be proved.  It’s a wink wink / nudge nudge situation.  And that’s the whole problem with tanking.  I doubt that Landis would think too highly of Phoenix’s actions.

A further problem with tanking is that it erodes competitive balance.  In theory, every team in the East and West conferences has an equal schedule.  But teams that have more “bad” teams at the end of their schedule have an advantage against teams that have those same teams at the beginning of the season, if those teams are trying to lose.  Is it even possible to tell if teams are tanking?  I have become more sensitive to it in the last few years.  We basketball fans have all become more aware of the issue because of current articles like yesterday’s Plain Dealer which illustrated the draft implications of the Cavs recent two day win streak or yesterday’s SB Nation Draft lottery watch subtitled: Magic threatening to outsuck Bobcats.  Grantland’s Brett Koremenos explored this idea in Grantland last month with his article titled Solving the Real Problem with the NBA’s Tanking Epidemic. Bill Simmons and Malcom Gladwell discussed the topic in a 2009 series of letters, with Gladwell summing up the tanking problem as well as anyone.

You simply cannot have a system that rewards anyone, ever, for losing. Economists worry about this all the time, when they talk about “moral hazard.” Moral hazard is the idea that if you insure someone against risk, you will make risky behavior more likely. So if you always bail out the banks when they take absurd risks and do stupid things, they are going to keep on taking absurd risks and doing stupid things … If you give me a lottery pick for being an atrocious GM, where’s my incentive not to be an atrocious?

Furthermore, when front offices become incentivized to fail, they have a few different ways of doing it.  They could tell the coach to play young players, or to put them in bad positions.  The coach could make baffling decision that were in direct violation of common sense if one wanted to win the game.  I wrote semi-sarcastically of Scott and Tyler Zeller in loss to Boston a couple weeks ago, “[Zeller] finished 5-6 for 11 points and 9 boards in 24 minutes.  In a masterful move Scott left him on the bench for much of the fourth quarter, knowing that his play might turn the game in the Cavs’ favor late.”  The problem compounds itself when the players realize what is going on and stop giving maximum effort.  If Cavs observers are reading the tea leaves, this moment might have come in an awful loss to Brooklyn a few nights later.

But is this fair?  There is an unwritten code in sports: try your hardest.  If Byron Scott and the Cavs organization is not trying their hardest, why should the players?  Is it even a fair observation?  Are we as a society so jaded that we see conspiracies even in our trivial pastimes?  Are we simply confusing fatigue, injury, and normal human behavior (i.e. incompetence) for a conspiracy to lose?  In examining those factors, I decided to do a quick experiment.  My hypothesis was, if tanking has gotten as bad as it seems, then we should be able to see the results of it.  I charted a couple things over the course of the last 26 seasons.  First, team winning percentage.  My hypothesis was that if we’re seeing record tying winning streaks by teams like the Heat, is this partially because of tanking?  If so, then the winning percentage of all the non-playoff teams ought to be going down over the last few seasons.  The results surprised me.

Remember that the Charlotte Bobcats were added to the league in 2005.  Winning percentage of non playoff teams went up that year and the two years after, and then dropped the next three years.  The Raptors and the Grizzlies were added in 1995, causing the number to drop in the 1996 and 1997 seasons.  This is actually counter-intuitive because as the pool of non playoff teams grows, one would expect an “averaging effect” to push the winning percentage of the losing teams up.  The Hornets and the Heat were added in 1988 and the Timberwolves and Magic in 1989.  The winning percentage increase after these years indicates this effect.  But what is clear, is that the last three seasons have seen slightly more competitive non playoff teams than the previous three seasons.  This season is certainly no outlier when it comes to non-playoff team winning percentage.

But winning percentage is certainly not the best barometer of how good a team is.  There’s a lot of noise in it.  Many NBA statisticians have long preferred point differential as a barometer of team quality.  Basketball-reference has a normalized stat called Simple Rating System SRS which takes into account point differential and strength of schedule to come up with a number that is slightly better than point differential as a barometer.  This normalizes the number a bit giving us the ability to compare teams in the two different conferences.

As can be seen, SRS took a big jump in 1998 and 1999 , and then dropped quickly.  The 2008 season was particularly bad for SRS, two years after the the Bobcats joined the league.  But once again, the current season is a slight uptick, and the last few seasons don’t seem like statistical outliers at all.  But if there is tanking going on in the NBA, it was at its worst in 1988, 1994, and 2008, and  then has been around the same level since, on average.  Or there were just a lot of really bad teams those years.

There are certainly a lot of limits to this analysis.  This averages the best and worst teams that didn’t make the playoffs into one group.  An analysis that breaks the non playoff teams into tiers and analyzes those tiers over time would be a more precise way to measure if tanking is going on.  Also, looking at winning percentages post all-star break would be an interesting method as well.  We could even start looking at post all star break injuries and correlating them to average games missed, and seeing if “tanking” teams are holding their players out too long.  I hope to be able to break this down a little more in the future.  And I know there are mathematical implications that come from having a finite number of available wins and losses in a season that I am not nearly bright enough to have contemplated yet.  But what we have shown is that this season is no worse than the last few, and if tanking is going on, it can’t be detected this easily, or it is much more ingrained in NBA culture than we’d like to suspect.

I would like to see the league take steps to eliminate tanking.  I’d like them to redistribute the lottery percentages a little more evenly.  The league overreacted to the Magic in 1994.  I also proposed a system in the past that would disallow a team getting the first pick to get it the next year.  A team that picked in the top three two years in a row would not be able to get there a third.  Similarly, if a team picked in the top give for three years in a row, I’d like to see the best pick they could get the following year to be a number six.  A team that has been in the lottery four years in a row ought not be able to get a pick higher than ten, and a team that has been in the lottery five years in a row ought to have to sit at the end of the lottery for a year.  Of course this is just a framework, and these numbers can be tweaked, but you get the idea.  Don’t over-reward teams for losing.

This season and the Cavs don’t seem any worse than the last few when it comes to tanking.  I don’t like to think that people pick and choose when it is most advantageous to play hard, or when losing might be OK.  And as much as any Cavs fan, the last few seasons have worn on me.  It is a difficult situation to be in when the choices for explaining ten game losing streaks are incompetence, laziness, injuries that may or may not be real, or losing on purpose.  As painful as the Cavs might seem in moments like the Brooklyn loss, those moments are uplifted by jubilant victories over teams like the Clippers, Oklahoma City, Chicago, and Boston.  I hope very soon that I won’t even have to ponder the question of tanking at all.   Such is the hope of fandom, especially in Cleveland.  There’s always next year  — well, unless the Cavs are in a playoff race against a team with a lot of tankers on its schedule.

Kevin’s Pre-season Predictions, a Redux

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

This week, Cleveland reaches the 90% point of the season, and the team quit already, so now serves as good a time as any to review my bold, and likely folly, pre-season predictions. Let’s dive in:

The prediction that I made about Tristan developing several right-handed moves...probably my most accurate. Oh, I didn't say that? Well, his 11 & 9 proved closest for me.

  1. 33 wins – Ouch.  If Andy and Kyrie played 75 games, this would have happened.  The good health was wishful thinking.  Please stay on-the-court next year.
  2. Beat an elite team on the road by double digits – Not quite.  Cleveland’s victory in Los Angeles against the Clippers failed to qualify; the Cavs won by seven.
  3. Lose at home to a horrible team by twenty – Also, slightly off, but a loss by 13 to Phoenix nearly hits the mark.  General idea being that the season would be up-and-down.  I wish it was ending as “up” though.
  4. CJ Miles finishes second on the team in scoring at nearly 14 points – Tom consistently noted his friend projecting CJ as a solid contributor on the Wine & Gold, but I was riding that train, too.  Miles currently resides sixth on the team in scoring with 11.3 points per game.
  5. His PER is also 13-ish – Miles is pairing true shooting that exceeds his previous four seasons with career best defensive rebounding; his PER hits 15.  At the beginning of the season, I envisioned Miles receiving more minutes, while scoring frequently, yet inefficiently.
  6. Each of Cleveland’s wings post PER between 13 and 14 – Only Dion Waiters came through here.  Miles exceeded, while Casspi and Gee under-performed.
  7. Boobie’s PER would be 11.2, but with 40% from deep – Gibson is hitting career lows from the field, from deep, and at the free throw line.  Sigh…
  8. He gets traded – Wrong here.  Jon Leuer got sent packing instead.  Best of luck in free agency, Daniel.
  9. Kyrie receives four points in MVP voting – If Irving played 70 games, no doubt this would have happened.
  10. Due to 20 points, 7 assists and 57% true shooting – Kyrie’s TS% is 57%, but his scoring is higher, with lesser distribution.  All things considered, I would have preferred my prediction.
  11. Harangody hits 17 threes – I picked the wrong Luke as my surprise bench player of the year.  Ummmm…Harangody made 23 from deep in the D-League, where he is a career 41% three-point hoister.
  12. Tristan averages 11 & 9 – It’s actually 11.3 and 9.2…I will turn in my prognosticator-card on the way out the door.
  13. With 47% shooting from the field and 57% free throws – Thompson exceeded my guess, posting 48.6 and 61 to date; this small difference is an exciting development for the young big man.
  14. Pargo + Sloan > 800 minutes = disappointment – That duo combined for 704 minutes, prior to being usurped by Shaun Livingston, who was fun to watch.  Disappointment averted.
  15. Dion plays 23 minutes per game, with 9.5 points and 2.6 assists – Per minute, I was in the ballpark; I expected Miles to start and Waiters to serve as the sixth man.
  16. He plays less than 10 minutes several times, due to “doghouse” duty – Pulled several times for poor defense or shot selection, Waiters never went through a spell where he was glued to the bench.  I expected the frustrating play evidenced by the rookie in December, but his leash never got too short, and he appeared to learn some valuable lessons regardless.
  17. Coach Scott never loses sight of Dion’s potential – Undoubtedly true; an odd prediction in hindsight.
  18. Omri Casspi starts 25 games – He met this threshold each of his first three years in the league, obviously he was glued to the bench this year.  I expected a rebound towards his rookie levels, but that did not develop.
  19. He shoots 36+% from three – again an anticipated return to his Sac-town days, but no dice.
  20. Jon Leuer mixes nights of high quality ball, with frustrating displays of wimpi-ness – Actually, I meant to say Tyler Zeller (stupid auto-correct).  Leuer never managed anything productive in Cleveland.  His PER in Memphis is 14.1 though.  That makes his career track record over the last four years: Memphis 14.1; Cleveland 3.3; DLeague 20.1; Milwaukee 15.3; Eurocup 19.4; NCAA 28.7; NCAA 30.2.  A reasonable pattern emerges with one exception…
  21. He will be back in Cleveland in 2013 – 2014 – Not so much.   I intended to say Wayne Ellington will be with the Cavs next season…stupid auto-correct!
  22. This year is Samardo’s final in Cleveland – Yes!  One for Twenty-two.  At roulette, I would be a winner!
  23. Anderson Varejao suits-up 73 times for the Wine & Gold – Yeah, so, I meant, uhhh “wears a suit 73 times for Wine & Gold.”  Next season, play him 20 – 25 minutes per night, and never 4 times in 5 nights.  If he doesn’t stay on the court, then I give up.
  24. He pays $15000 in flopping related fines – I can’t recall any fines for Andy.  In 73 games though; who knows?
  25. Cavs fans quit talking about trading him, as we gear up for the 2014 playoff push – Not sure this happened, but given his current status as “injury prone”, he is almost certainly worth more to Cleveland than other teams.  Limit his minutes next year.
  26. Zeller averages 10 & 6 with 54% True Shooting – Eight and Six with Fifty Percent?  Oops.  In his last 28 games (one-third of a season), the TS increases to 56+%.  I’m holding out hope for a leap next year, TZ!
  27. He makes second team All-Rookie – This could still happen, right?  Tyler ranks 4th of rookies in minutes played, 2nd for total rebounds, 6th for blocks, 1st for personal fouls, 11th for points scored, and 11th for win shares.  Only one of those things is definitely bad, right?
  28. Alonzo Gee makes the ESPN daily top-ten seven times – This was exactly right; I keep a log of these things.
  29. Kyrie is featured twenty-seven times – Also right on the mark…send me a check and I will predict your future.
  30. Cleveland is repeatedly mentioned in rumors as the third team in a big trade, but nothing happens – This was more or less right.
  31. They draft 9, 26, 35 and 39 – There is a lot of wrong here.  Everyone thought the Lakers would be good though, didn’t they?
  32. A draft day trade will occur – This is correct, or at least you can’t disprove it.
  33. Cleveland makes a big free agent signing or trade prior to 2013 – 2014 – Not sure about this one, but betting on what Chris Grant will do is a good way to go broke.  Next year is definitely the time for the master plan to start flourishing.

Pre-season predictions are a fool’s errand, leaving them right up my alley.  As this season spirals into unwatch-ableness, we can start dreaming of the draft and predictions for next year.

Bench Week!

Monday, March 25th, 2013

Really, this is a little late.  With Kyrie and Dion out, the Livingston – Ellington – Miles – Walton – Speights second-unit ceases to exist.  But the success of this group served as one of the more unique stories of the Cavalier season.  And while the story received frequent recap coverage, we at Cavs: the Blog felt a more thorough memorialization was due.  For six weeks, this crew, affectionately dubbed the Herculoids, unexpectedly provided one of the NBA’s better benches.  Consider:

  • None of these guys ever played together prior to January 2nd.
  • Since joining the Cavs, Shaun Livingston’s PER is 15, better than any of his previous ten stints with an NBA team.
  • During his three seasons in Minnesota and early part of this year with Memphis, Wayne Ellington never posted double-digit PER.   In 600 minutes in Cleveland, he soars to a 15.4
  • Same story for Mo Speights, an 18.3 PER exceeds anything done in Philly or Memphis.
  • And of course, C.J. Miles joins in also.  His 15.2 PER in 2012 – 2013 serves as a career-best.
  • Unfortunately, Luke Walton’s PER is only his best since 2008 – 2009.  His assist rate and assists-per-36-minutes easily reach peak levels though.

In his tenth NBA season, did Luke Walton find his calling as a second-string point forward?

Not impressed yet?  How about this then, from January 25th, when Ellington and Speights arrive, through March 10th (Kyrie’s last game)?  The Cavs go 10 – 10 during this time, as:

  • Walton ups his assists per 36 minutes to 8.8.  His previous career-high rate was 5.6…from his rookie season.  His assist to turnover ratio was 50% better than his career average (3.32 compared to 2.15)
  • Livingston’s 6.5 assists per 36 minutes are only bested by his rookie season.  His 3.67 assist to turnover ratio, which would rank 5th in the NBA, dwarfs the remainder of his career (2.22).  Also, as a player with career 51% true shooting, Livingston scorched the nets with 61% during these six weeks.
  • Per 36 minutes, CJ Miles scored 22 points on 63% True Shooting.  Ellington posted 15 and 61% TS, and Speights dished-out 21 and 10 rebounds.  They were killing it.

Each of these guys are 25-or-older.  What facilitated them playing at peak levels at the exact same time?  I mean, these guys were not highly-regarded NBA players.  Is it luck associated with small sample size, or was something bigger going on?  This week, Nate, Tom and I will explore that question.

Today: I will briefly talk about the things a player can’t control that may decide his success or failure.

Tuesday: Nate will talk about Shaun Livingston’s role on the Cavaliers.  Just how have he and the coaching staff adjusted the offense and defense to enable to Shaun to have the best months of his career?

Wednesday: Tom will talk about the different approaches to the game between the core and the Herculoids and what the core needs to assimilate from their brethren.

Today, I focus primarily on Luke Walton and Wayne Ellington.  Early this season, Walton was horrible, continuing a several year trend. Of Cavs fans, 99% assumed his usefulness ceased to exist.  Of non-Cavs NBA-fans, 100% probably thought he retired.  The slim super-minority supporting him (including Tom) weren’t saying “he is better than you guys think”; it was more like “he teaches the youngsters to play the right way” (which oftentimes meant without athleticism and with extremely errant jumpers). Basically, court-vision & passing serves as his only remaining, apparent skill.

Prior to joining Cleveland, Walton spent his entire career playing alongside Kobe; the offense did not run through Luke very often.  Early this season, playing alongside ball-dominant guards like Jeremy Pargo or Dion Waiters; same story.  And this makes sense – why would you build an offense around Luke Walton?

The Herculoids were perfectly suited for Walton’s skill-set though.  The guards were low usage: one a skilled passer and the other a proficient floor-spacer.  The Center offered a bruising low-post presence that picked up the rebounding-slack and spaced the floor.  Suddenly, Cleveland started running the second-string offense through him, surrounded by solid shooters and smart cutters, and he looked like an offensive maestro.

For four seasons with two teams, did Wayne Ellington simply never get the right opportunity to showcase his skills?

For Ellington, his career began on a horribly dysfunctional 15 -win Timberwolves team, with the minutes and usage leaders being Al Jefferson and Jonny Flynn.  The next season featured Michael Beasley and Anthony Randolph, and the assists leaders averaged 5.4 and 3.4 per game; during both seasons, Minnesota ranked bottom-four in the NBA for percentage of assisted field goals.  By his third season, as the Wolves started getting fun, he was an afterthought, seemingly playing out his rookie-contract towards a short career.  According to basketball-reference, the players most similar to him after three years were: Pace Mannion, Chris Corchiani, Gerald Glass, Mike Holton, Harold Ellis, and Franklin Edwards.  Huh?

Then, traded twice in six months, the second as a salary dump, he suits-up for a new team and promptly posts career highs in PER, offensive rating, usage, defensive rebound rate and steal percentage.  In 25 games with Cleveland, he matched his previous career total for Offensive Win Shares, accumulated over 229 games.  Double huh?  Given additional offensive freedom and matched with a pair of excellent passers, he showed enticing ability scoring off-the-dribble, cutting to the hoop, and with his trademark shooting (career 39% from three).

What does it all mean?

Basically, for every Kyrie Irving or Kevin Durant, players destined for stardom regardless of circumstance, there are one-hundred players whose NBA career hinges on forces not under their control.   These aspects could include: coaching, system, organizational commitment, or a positional logjam.  Within those, exist subsets; coaching could include the boss’s relationship with or confidence in a player, or the instruction received.  Lack of fit with a system perhaps hinges on the actual play-calls or perhaps a mis-assignment of role within the given plays.  Perhaps items as diverse as the quality of an organizations trainers, strength coaches, nutritionists, or doctors, even give a player advantages over a similar guy.  And sometimes, all that is needed is an opportunity.

Obviously this isn’t an amazing, new idea.  Matter of fact; here is a podcast from last season between Henry Abbott and David Thorpe, talking about Royal Jelly. For this quintet, their recent opportunity in Cleveland possibly changed the remainder of their careers.  In Luke Walton’s case, it may just be another year in the league.  For Ellington, the resultant perhaps comes through contractual security this off-season.

These considerations are also vital as Cleveland hopefully melds myriad youngsters into a contender.  The brief discussion of Russell Westbrook in the “Royal Jelly” podcast made me think of Dion Waiters. In the right situation, the young Cavalier shooting-guard develops into a star; in less suitable circumstances, perhaps he devolves into an inefficient chucker.  The value of opportunity, solid positional coaching, and organizational-confidence in a player already surfaces in young Tristan Thompson.

Anyways, I’ve lost sight of my theme.  Come back the next two days, for an in-depth look into the inner-tickings of the unlikeliest, excellent bench squad the NBA witnessed this season.  Tom and Nate promise to bring their “A” games, backing up this Monday post (and probably finishing +11, compared to my -8).

Young Player Profile: Tyler Zeller

Friday, March 22nd, 2013
So far, rookie Tyler Zeller underwhelms.  This somewhat surprises me, as leading up to the 2012 draft, I ranked him eighth in a strong class.  He scored everywhere, with deft touch near the basket, running in transition, and showing a solid stroke from catch & shoot situations and the free throw line.  Draftexpress looked at 26 big men, and even while high-usage, he scored fourth-most efficiently per possession. He rebounded adequately in the ACC, ranking fourth on offense and seventh for defensive rebounding rate. He finished as a two-time Academic All American and the Conference Player of the Year.  Defensively, he possessed a cerebral understanding of rotational responsibilities.  Even performing well at pre-draft athleticism tests, of the drafted seven-footers in draftexpress.com’s extensive database, only four players jumped higher, only five ran faster, and a single-person needled through the agility drill quicker.  Weighing in at a healthy 247 pounds, he benched sixteen reps at 185.

Get nasty, Tyler! Play with some fire!!

Now, three-quarters through his age-23 season, many of those skills have not yet translated.  According to draftexpress, Zeller scored an elite 1.67 points per possession in transition last year; this year that is a less stellar 1.02 points per play, as per Synergy Sports.  From the same source, Tyler received only thirty-four post-up opportunities this year…but he hasn’t earned more that, making five of twenty-four field goals, and losing eight turnovers.  Ouch. While still a 77% free throw shooter, opponents need not respect his jumper, which lands only 33% of the time from outside of ten-feet.  Of 55 qualified centers, he ranks 49th for rebound rate.  Consistently drawing charges stands as his most redeeming quality, where he ranks among the league leaders.  In 63 games and 27 minutes per game, he averages 8 points and 6 rebounds on 48.5% true shooting, good for PER of 11.4 and RAPM calling him the league’s 347th best player.

So how can he improve, and what does the future hold for young Mr. Zeller?  What can he do to turn his fortunes around, and salvage my opinion of him as a top-ten pick?  Let’s peruse some game recaps:

March 1st vs LA Clippers – Facing the tandem of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan for the first time since they broke his face, Tyler struggled in this one.  Starting 0 for 5, missing hook-shots, jumpers, tip-ins, and put-backs, Zeller was also abused early on defense.  Jordan scored twice early, once hammering a dunk over Tyler’s head.  Later, when assessing the harrowing choice between an uncontested Chris Paul lay-up or a Blake Griffin alley-oop, Zeller selected the former, letting CP3 stroll to the basket uncontested.

The second quarter featured more timid play; twice, after receiving a pass, he looked hesitant, one time losing the ball, while fortunately receiving a goal-tending call the other.  On air, Austin Carr reprimanded him, imploring that Tyler “needs to throw everyone in the basket”.  And of course, AC is right; Zeller must start trying to create some posters where he’s the focal point.  On defense, the rookie also played tentatively, careening from unsure-responsibility to unsure-responsibility.  Surely against the Clippers, they thrive at making opposing bigs look stupid, but Tyler can be more definitely aggressive at attacking whatever his assignment is.

I don’t know if TZ was intimidated by the Clipper bigs, or certainly a fifth game in seven nights proved tiring, but his non-physicality looked appalling.  Whether ping-ponged around by picks and screens, routinely being out-muscled on the defensive boards, or rarely impacting Clipper shots at the basket, the second half looked like the first.  When a shot goes up on defense, he needs to actively engage the opponent and move them away from the basket; oftentimes, he waits for the ball.  When setting picks, he slips away too soon, without firmly impacting the movement of the player he is screening.

In a 16-point loss, Tyler did his share to help that; 9 points and 1 defensive rebound in 30 minutes with 41% True shooting.  Generally, he looked tired and possibly overawed by the Clipper front-court duo.  Two of his buckets came in garbage time, down twenty in the closing minutes.  This sort of game needs to become much less frequent next year.  As a side note, ideally the young-big-man also focuses on pick & roll play; he often pops, but developing solid timing and strength as a force when rolling, would greatly disturb opposing defenses.

March 16th at San Antonio – I didn’t give any easy nights; the Spurs suit-up twin seven-footers in Tiago Splitter and Tim Duncan, the likely NBA Defensive POY.  Zeller’s night started bumpy, initially guarding their big Brazilian.  Splitter posted, then faced-up, then left TZ in the dust, leaving the rookie grasping at a Spurs and-one.  Around the same time, point guard Cory Joseph isolated on the Cavs big, easily beating him and leading the Spurs announcers to call Tyler “a big, tall stiff”, a comment that they humorously back-tracked-on for the remainder of the quarter.  Off a pump-fake, Zeller drove the left wing, finishing with a ferocious slam, then later impacting two Spur-drives with nimble-baseline agility, before running the court and netting a transition dunk.  While also draining a twenty-footer off a pick & pop, additional lowlights existed: lacking defensive awareness allowed a Duncan layup, and Timmy sealed-off the rookie in the post, finishing another easy opportunity.  Overall, I’ll take this quarter from the rookie, as he scored some points and even showed some toughness, once holding his ground and forcing a Duncan air-ball and on another occasion, picking up his second foul by rocking a San Antonio guard with a screen; the guy crumbled to the ground, but really, it didn’t look like a foul to me, just a small player unexpectedly running head-long into an entrenched seven-footer.  When Tyler sat after eleven minutes, Cleveland trailed 26 to 32.

Two fouls in less than a minute during the second quarter guided Tyler to the bench with four for the half.  A strong box-out of Duncan allowed Boobie to clean up the glass.  Potentially due to the foul trouble, Zeller looked particularly inept defending the basket in the third quarter; on several occasions, he allowed an easy Spur-waltz to the hoop.   Tiago Splitter backed-him down for an easy hook, and with twenty minutes remaining in the game, TZ headed to the pine with five fouls.  He did not return.

With a tough matchup, he finished with 6 points and 1 rebound in 16 minutes.  There were highlights, but certainly difficulties manning-up with one of the NBA’s bigger frontcourts.

Summary: Tyler needs to bulk-up, and get meaner.  When he plays, Cleveland’s defensive rebound rate is 70%, which cellar-dwells amongst all NBA teams.  The Cavs grab more offensive boards when he plays though, and over the last twenty-two games, his true shooting rises to a very acceptable 55.7%, thanks to consistently improved finishing.  Finally, some of that collegiate offensive skill is shining through.  Along those lines moving forward, an absolute must includes knocking down 40+% of his jumpers.  I definitely want to see the 2013 – 2014 season start with TZ getting solid rotation minutes and a chance to prove himself.  He hit a wall this season, and hopefully returns next season stronger and refreshed. If January 17th approaches though, with Tyler still getting tossed-around on his 24th birthday, that sentiment will end quickly.  So, hit the weight-room this summer, drink some protein shakes, climb Mount Everest with a Sherpa on your back…just come back a ripped, potentially scowling, mean s.o.b. next year.  That would be cool.

Mailing it in

Thursday, March 14th, 2013

No major content this morning, and so far it’s a slow news day for the Cavs.  So we’re mailing it in.  Open lines today, Cavalier fans.  We could talk about unheralded gems in the draft, Shaun Livingston and his thoughts that there will be a bidding war for his services, your favorite Boobie Gibson memory, or the symbiosis between narrative and narrative structure in literature and blog posts.  Carpe diem, my friends.

Lessons from the Sloan Sports Conference

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

Stan van Gundy was the hero of the MIT Sloan Sports Conference.

The Sloan Sports Conference was a sports-nerd frenzy. It is perhaps the only place and time during the year where you can tap just about anyone on the shoulder and kickstart a conversation about PER vs. WAR. Just about every single person there was extremely knowledgeable about one sport or another. The conference is commonly believed to be all about the NBA, maybe due to Daryl Morey’s complete control over the proceedings- and the fact that his wide, beaming smile is stamped front and center on all of the promotional material. But there was quite a lot of MLB, NFL and NHL talk to be heard, and hockey and baseball research papers took home awards at the closing ceremonies. Still, though, basketball was the main event, and the preeminent speakers were all from the NBA. R.C. Buford, Kevin Pritchard and Adam Silver all impressed. But the real star of the sports conference was a certain mustachioed man, the former coach of the Orlando Magic, the one and only Stan Van Gundy.

ESPN should absolutely give a show to Stan Van Gundy. And I’m not talking about a radio show between the hours of 2 and 4 PM. Stan deserves primetime TV attention on the primary ESPN channel. He simply showers the world with wisdom. Van Gundy spoke tenderly on the subject of our perception of young players, saying about a young Lamar Odom: “When he came into the league, people said he was a bad guy because he smoked marijuana and skipped class. If not going to class and smoking pot made you a bad person, half of you (the audience) wouldn’t be here.” Later he very effectively explained why coaches are often suspicious of analytics, focusing on the fact that most players respond poorly (or not at all) to data charts and offensive efficiency ratings. That moment, in fact, was probably the most salient of the conference: a former coach describing the limitations of current advanced statistics as applicable solutions to a team’s problems. Because the most innovative presentation of the weekend focused not just on the numbers, but on how the numbers could be broken down into a palatable format for players and coaches. That was Kirk Goldsberry’s The Dwight Effect: A New Ensemble of Interior Defense Analytics for the NBA.

In Goldsberry’s research paper, he examined individual interior defenders in the NBA, discovering who was the best, who was the worst, and who fell in between. His findings were not particularly shocking (Dwight’s the best, David Lee is the worst), with a caveat for Cavs fans: Anderson Varejao is one of the worst interior defenders in the NBA, allowing over 50% shooting on plays around the rim which he defends. What was truly amazing, though, was the way in which he presented the information to the audience. Check this out. Goldsberry’s shooting charts, which you may be familiar with if you frequent Grantland, are exactly the type of visuals that could really help a coach impart to his players what they are doing wrong. (I would love to see Byron Scott sit down with Kyrie Irving and slap a printout in his face that shows anyone with a brain that he is an awful defender.) If I ran an NBA team, I would hire Van Gundy and Goldsberry, and then lock them in a room with a laptop, food, water and a hamster wheel for three months. Dan Gilbert could afford that, right? I hope so. (Also watch this for more info. And this for more laughs.)

P.S.

Zach Lowe was very nice about telling a never-ending line of Columbia and Harvard students that they (a) would not be offered a job by Grantland anytime soon, and (b) should not pursue journalism because it is a soul-crushing profession. He also chatted with me about the Cavs for a few minutes, and says that Cleveland fans should be very pleased with and excited by Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters’ recent play. Lowe also mentioned that he thinks Kyrie Irving’s defense is a serious concern going forward- not an unfixable problem, but one that clouds his bright future considerably.

Not a Recap: Cavs 104, Jazz 101

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

That's a winning team, right there.

Due to a scheduling snafu, you may not be receiving much of a recap here tonight.

The Cavs continued their winning ways though, picking up victory #21.  Trailing by thirteen late in the third, Cleveland’s offense blistered Utah for 36 fourth quarter points.  Miles tossed in all 12 of his during the final stanza, while Kyrie tallied 11 points and an assist in the last four minutes.  What did you expect though?

Other highlights included Kyrie piling up 10 assists, his third double-digit effort of the season.  Tristan pitched in 16 points on 55% true shooting, with 12 rebounds and 3 blocks, in one of his stronger offensive efforts in several weeks.  He looked particularly polished in the first quarter, with 7 points scored through various means, and also a quick-thinking dime to Gee.  Livingston and Walton added a few sweet-passing highlights, Speights pitched in 14 & 7, and Tyler, well, he didn’t do much; three points and four rebounds in 23 minutes.

Anyways, Go Cavs!  And fill in the blanks, commenters!  None of us was working on anything substantive.

Cavs: The Podcast 0026 – The Problem Is Melo

Monday, March 4th, 2013

Ouch.

That one really, really hurt.  Like bad breakup hurt.  Like getting ripped to shreds by your boss hurt.  Like finding out you have bed bugs hurt (don’t worry, I’m clean.)

After leading by 22(!) off of a crazy shooting night from Mo Speights, the Cavs got COLD (and I mean C-O-L-D COLD) from the field, while doing their usual lets-not-play-d thing.  And, surprise surprise, they lost.

On today’s podcast Tom, Nate, and I discuss the Cavs’ 102-97 loss to the New York Knicks. We also discuss the current make-up of the team, Kyrie’s D, TT and Tyler’s ceilings, and how to best improve.

As always we’re on SoundCloud at – https://soundcloud.com/cavstheblog/0026-the-problem-is-melo

And on iTunes at - https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/cavs-the-podcast/id528149843?mt=2

Enjoy!

Revisiting Free Agency

Monday, March 4th, 2013

In December, I penned a two part series on the summer of 2013 free agency class.  Click here for part 1, and here for part 2.  It’s time to check in on these guys and note what is still relevant and what isn’t.  The Cavs cap situation has changed a little bit.  The Cavs have restricted free agents in Omri Casspi, and Wayne Ellington.  No one expects the Cavs to extend a qualifying offer to Casspi, and Ellington’s offer is $3.1 million, but my bet is that his contract number will come in higher than that at around $4 million (I’d rather over-estimate than under-estimate).  In addition, C.J. Miles has a team option for $2.2 million, which is fairly reasonable for a bench scorer.  In addition, Kevin Jones’ team option is $788,000.  Marreese has an ETO option for $4.5 million which most people expect he will exercise to get more long term money.  The Cavs will have cap holds for their 2013 draft picks that I’m estimating at between $5-7 million (with four picks and many different slotting options, there’s a lot of flux).  Which gives them salary commitments of between $39.5 – $41.5 million, assuming Speights opts out.  With an estimated $60 million dollar salary cap, that gives the Cavs Approximate $20 million to play with.  But…

We all know that the plan is to save cap space for 2014 when you know who is expected to opt out of free agency.  I’m betting that it will take at least $19 million per year to sign him, unless he takes less money to build a better team. Furthermore, I’m assuming the Cavs will elect to keep Anderson Varejao in 2014, to both help lure a potential free agent, and because $4 million of his salary is guaranteed that year.  Alonzo Gee’s $3 million is non-guaranteed that year, and I would put the odds of him seeing that money from the Cavaliers at around the same odds that Andy straightens his hair and frosts his tips in 2014.  So the goal is to have about $42 million in cap commitments going into 2014.  Without Gee, with Ellington’s $4 million, and with $9 million in cap holds from the 2013 and 2014 drafts (that’s being conservative), the Cavs will have $40.7 million in cap commitments in 2014.  Whoa.  $1.3 million is not a lot of spending room.  Fortunately, the Cavs will be able to complete sign and trades in 2014, being so far below the cap, so they can ship out some salary to get some back. But one can see that planning for a future that may never happen can severely limit what a team can do in the present.

What does this mean for 2013 free agency?  It means that the Cavs are going to have to get very creative with contracts.  I don’t know how much the NBA salary cap allows them to front-load their contracts, but if they are able to offer players a $10 million dollar 2013 salary and a $1 million dollar 2014 salary, they ought to do it.  In addition, offering players expensive one year deals with the promise to consider signing them to salary cap exceptions in 2014 is also a good plan.

Some other factors have come in to play too.  With the development of Tristan Thompson, a power forward who will play more than 10 minutes a night is no longer really a necessity in free agency.  As such, it makes much more sense to go after players who can play center, small forward, and guard.  This rules out players like Maul Millsap, David West, Karl Landry, J.J. Hickson, and Jason Maxiell.

The Cavs Own Free Agents: The first thing the Cavaliers will have to consider is what to do with their own free agents.   And yes, I realize I didn’t even cover any of them in the earlier iterations of this series.  Of course, Ellington wasn’t playing well then, and Speights was so buried on the Grizz that I didn’t think he’d turn down $4 million next year.  But it shows you what I know… We’ve already gone over what it will take to keep Wayne Ellington.  The bet is three years, $12 million.  With the way he’s played, he may get closer to $5 million per year from another team.  That would be a hard offer to match.  As for Marreese Speights, who can play both big man spots, what if Cleveland could offer him $15 million in year one, and $1 million in years two and three?  Is this even possible?  That would be the ideal contract: around $5.66 millon per year for three years averaged, but with low cap hits in years two and three.  Someone with some salary cap brains answer this question for me, please.  Otherwise, he is probably not worth paying him the long term contract he seeks.  Signing Shaun Livingston to a similarly front loaded deal with maybe $4-5 million this year and league minimums in subsequent years (for a three year deal, total) would be a good answer to signing him long term as well.  An average contract of just over $2 million per year seems about right.  The final question here is, do the Cavs try to bring back Luke Walton?  He certainly has outplayed all expectations this year, but to do it again at 33 is asking a lot.  Still, he is a guy who can play both forward spots, and make the offense flow.  Would he be worth a league minimum for another year or two before transitioning into coaching?  Probably.  (And yes, I can’t believe I just said that.)

Who’s worth spending long term money on in 2013? This is a very short list, populated with people who are supreme talents, and/or people who would be easy to move if the Cavs wanted to clear cap room in 2014.  Dwight Howard would probably be at the top of it, but he’s not coming to Cleveland, and he is apparently a clown.  Chris Paul is on that list, but he plays the same position that Kyrie Irving does.  However, they could very easily play together, and CP3 could show Kyrie how to be GREAT.  It’s an intriguing option, as Cp3 and an unnamed 2014 perspective free agent are reportedly good friends.  But Cp3 will be looking for an $80 million over four years contract, and unless things absolutely blow up in Clipperland, he’s not leaving Los Angeles.  If you’re the Clippers, do you swallow that contract and pray his knees hold out?

This leaves Josh Smith who can play the 3, but will also want $80 million over four years and plays the same position as 2014 Player X.  If you’re the Cavs do you go after Smith, hoping you can move him in 2014, or because you’re afraid 2014 won’t pan out?  Smith is a great two way player who can be electric at times, but can also be a headache who takes bad shots at times, and is not a go-to scorer.

Al Jefferson?  He’s probably going to get too much money since he’s a legit center.  Andre Iguodala?  In the words of Bill Simmons, he’s a third banana making second banana money who wants first banana money.  Andrew Bynum?  Thank God for dodged bullets.

What about the restricted free agents? There are a few restricted free agents still worth looking at, most notably: Nikola Pekovic, Tiago Splitter, Tyreke Evans, and Gerald Henderson.  Splitter and Pekovic because they play center, and are still relatively young, are going to make northwards of $10 million a year.  Someone will pay them that.  Their teams are going to have a very hard time matching this number.  My bet is that Minnesota matches and that San Antonio doesn’t.  If you’re Danny Ferry, would you pay Josh Smith almost $18 million a year, or would you try to get Splitter for $10 million and move Horford to power forward?  If I’m Chris Grant, I’d be extremely tempted with both.  I’d bid these guys up just to tie up other teams’ time and salary.  I still think Splitter would be awesome with Varejao, but we’d have to take a Xanax every time that Brazil played international ball.  I like Pekovic: his toughness, his ability to check opposing centers (at least in terms of body), but I just get this feeling that he’s likely to sign and retire: sign a big fat check and balloon up to 350.  Though, he does look like a character from Grand Theft Auto IV, so maybe not.

As for Evans and Henderson, they both can play either wing spot, though they’re undersized for the 3.  They both are players with very intriguing skill sets who are trapped on horrible teams.  Someone will make a run at these guys, and both players should pray they can get off their current teams.  But unless someone massively overpays, they won’t be going anywhere (though with the Sactown ownership situation, who knows).  Still, it might be worth the Cavs time to throw offers their way to tie up their teams’ cap.

The Other Guys:
So this leaves a chunk of players who the Cavs should go after via my plan: cheap players, and/or 1 year deals with the promise of future salary cap exceptions, or front-loaded contracts; who can play multiple positions, mainly at the wing and big man spots.  Tony Allen, Anthony Morrow, Martell Webster, Al Harrington, Chase Budinger, Dorell Wright, DeMarre Carroll, Elton Brand, Josh McRoberts, Austin Daye, Earl Clark (yes please), Samuel Dalembert, Jermaine O’Neal, Cole Aldrich, Mike Dunleavy (my fave for this category), and Brandan Wright; and (if Livingston leaves) Randy Foye, Jarrett Jack, Devin Harris, Beno Udrih…

Final Thoughts: I’ve been giving a lot of consideration to Mallory’s ideas from Friday.  While I don’t think that signing Iguodala is the right answer, the Cavs cap situation in 2014 allows one max player, and not multiple.  This may not be ideal…  The answer might be to trade in the 2013 draft.  My trade?  Both draft picks in 2013, plus a 2015, and Alonzo Gee and Tyler Zeller for?  Jared Dudley and Marcin Gortat.  Gortat’s contract doesn’t go past 2014, and Jared Dudley’s is uber reasonable for one of the best wing defenders in the league who can also hit open 3s and guard 4 positions.  Would the Cavs get a player better than him in the 2013 draft?  Doubtful.

Update: Thanks to frequent CtB commenter and collective bargaining consultant JAG, it appears I was wrong in the Cavs’ ability to frontload contracts.  Here’s his note.

AFAIK Nate, decreases  from year to year in a contract are subject to the same rules as increases. The standard raise/decrease limit is 4.5%  but depend upon if any exceptions are used to sign the contract. The max increase/decrease available I’ve seen listed using certain exceptions is 7.5%. I don’t think Speights qualifies for any exceptions that could allow a 7.5% yr/yr change sice he had to waive his Bird Rights. Also note that because his time of service is between 0-6 years, his MAX contract is something like $13.668M for the first year. The poison pill type of contract that allowed Houston to steal Asik and sign Lin was a result of a part of the Gilbert Arenas Clause, which allowed Houston to average their salaries over the length of the contract for CAP purposes but not their original teams.

So it appears that outside of the Gilbert Arenas rule, there is no way for teams to jigsaw contracts to make them fit in the cap from year to year, as I was proposing.  Thanks for clearing that up, JAG.  The Cavs can overpay players in 2013 to play on one year contracts, but they have no leverage in keeping those players at lower salaries in years beyond that.

Cavs: The Podcast 0025 – Feeling Bullish

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

FINALLY!

When last we recorded, Tom and I had the unfortunate responsibility of covering a horrible loss to the T-Wolves.  Not anymore!  After many, many, many, attempts, the Cavaliers finally took down their rival Chicago Bulls in an exciting victory.

On today’s Podcast Tom, Nate and I discuss the Cavs 101-98 win over the Chicago Bulls. Topics include Dion Waiters’ improvement, the Cavs’ offense, Luke Walton, Tristan Thompson, and the bench. We also touch on whether or not Kyrie and Dion Waiters can co-exist, and who is a better long-term piece – Wayne Ellington or CJ Miles.

As always we’re on SoundCloud at – https://soundcloud.com/cavstheblog/0025-feeling-bullish

And on iTunes at – https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/cavs-the-podcast/id528149843?mt=2

Enjoy!