Archive for the ‘Off-Season Moves’ Category

The Problem with Old Friends

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013

First, stop yelling at and snarking on each other. It baffles me how supercilious some of us are acting about a decision of which we don’t yet know the impact. Clog your miserable hate-spittle hole for a second and let other people have their opinions. They’re every bit as valid as yours, given that Mike Brown hasn’t even been properly introduced to his players yet. Shouting down everyone who disagrees with you doesn’t make you right, just unpleasant to be around.

With that out of the way, here’s a short history of Mike Brown’s head coaching career, though you probably don’t need one: during Brown’s first stint in Cleveland, he was a great defensive coach whose teams were markedly uncreative on the offensive side of the ball, especially in late-game scenarios. (Here’s where Tom goes “Except for the ’08-’09 season,” and I’m all “Be quiet, Tom; you’re disrupting the narrative.”)  It’s overstating the problem to say Brown didn’t run plays, but he and his assistants failed to create a recognizable and recognizably effective system—say, like the Spurs have used for the past few years—and it seemed that during fourth quarter timeouts, Brown just drew pictures of LeBron James equipping a jetpack and rocketing over the defense for a dunk while Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison were left wondering if they could possibly do anything to help. Brown helped the Cavs become a perennial title contender as LeBron entered his prime in the late 00s, then he got canned by the Cavs after the team’s bizarre implosion in the 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals. After that, Brown—actually, why don’t we just slap a big ol’ C-minus on his brief Lakers tenure? Now he’s back in Cleveland to coach a team that barely resembles the one he left behind a few years ago.

The fact that, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably didn’t need the above primer on Brown is sort of the problem. He’s not an alluring coaching prospect precisely because we’re already acquainted with his stagnant offenses and habit of squinting into middle distance. (Puzzlement is never a good look for a supposed leader of men.) Whenever Mike Brown makes a Mike Brown face, we’ll remember the Cavs’ various LeBron Era playoff flameouts and feel a bit sick. We’ll do the same thing if Kyrie Irving is running Bron-esque isolations at the end of tight games. Nevermind if some relatively unknown assistant the Cavs could have hired—let’s call him Matt Green—were to make these same sorts of mistakes and heartburn-afflicted facial expressions. If and when Mike Brown screws up, our reaction is going to be the kind of angry you get at a friend who, no matter how many times you talk to him about it, can’t help but arrive to any meetup an hour late. We’re biased against familiar incompetence; Matt Green’s deficiencies would be more excusable because they would at least be a surprise. It would be harder to blame management for not anticipating Matt Green’s ineptitude in performing any number of tasks head coaches are responsible for, than if Mike Brown’s second Cavs’ tenure falls flat in a typically Mike Brown way.

This set of biases leads some of us to make our very own Mike Brown faces at the Mike Brown hire, but I also don’t think we’re being overemotional and that these biases don’t matter. More to the point: the organization is willfully hiring someone they know is a sub-par offensive coach and hoping that he’s either become more inventive—Brown’s Lakers tenure would seem to undermine that assumption—or can pair himself with a great assistant who will figure out how to use the Cavs’ uniquely talented backcourt and jumpshot-averse frontcourt. The Cavs’ front office must also know that Brown was routinely outflanked during his first run with the Cavs by smart opposing coaches who seemed much better than he was at making in-game adjustments, and that Brown didn’t exactly command the respect of the last two superstars he coached. These are whatever you want to call them: red flags, areas of concern, out-and-out weaknesses.

(I don’t want to get into Mike Brown’s hiring and its impact on LeBron’s possible return. I don’t think it’s an irrelevant question to ask—we’re talking about the best player since Jordan—but those of us outside of LeBron’s inner circle and the Cavs’ front office can’t speak with even a modicum of certainty on the matter. This won’t stop certain media types whose entire business is speculation-as-content, but it will at least stop me.)

Mike Brown’s a fine coach, and anyone bemoaning this hire as a disaster is ignoring the work Brown did in hammering the late-00s Cavs into one of the league’s best defensive teams. What irks me most about this whole ordeal isn’t the end result, but the process and its rapidity. Whether my perception mirrors reality or otherwise, it appears Dan Gilbert threw a tantrum, sacked Byron Scott, and felt like he needed to lock down Mike Brown immediately, without considering anyone else save Phil Jackson, who was always going to be a long shot. What Gilbert and the rest of the organization have lost in deciding not to interview anyone else for the job is the opportunity to inject new ideas and perspectives into the organization. The interviewing process isn’t just for finding the right coaching candidate, but for picking various basketball minds. Did the Cavs need to be dead certain they got Mike Brown at the expense of sitting down with someone like David Fizdale or Mo Cheeks? It strikes me as small-minded to not even consider other candidates. Brown isn’t such an impressive coach that the team needed to buck protocol and make a quick hire.

We’re all having strong reactions to this decision because we know this hire has to work out if the team doesn’t want to take out a timeshare in the lottery or be forced to bottom out all over again in a few years. The next couple of seasons will be determinative in terms of the direction this rebuild is going to take, and the head coach is going to have a significant effect on the team’s improvement or arrested development. Mike Brown’s the man who’ll get the blame or the plaudits, and we can argue about whether that’s a good thing, but I wonder most of all if this needed to happen as swiftly as it did.

Scott’s Fired

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

This happened more swiftly than I thought it would. The morning after the Cavs finished their season with a loss to the also-lowly Bobcats, Byron Scott is jobless. You know the story: three straight years deep in the lottery, rumors of locker room dissent, lots of looks similar to the one pictured above, where Scott just sort of peered out over the court as if it were an ocean, with a look of peevishness or bemusement.

There’s a sad impotency to ineffectual coaching that’s unique to the profession. The guy in a suit on the sidelines seems as if he might as well be a hundred miles away from the court. Players screw up. Not that they mean to screw up and not that the coach wants them to screw up, but they make mistakes. Over and over again. Maybe they stop listening to the guy in a suit on the sidelines because they’re frustrated or feel he’s not helping. A fissure widens. The coach’s control is revealed to be highly contingent.

There has been a lot of talk over the past few weeks that the Cavs need a firebrand who can whip the team into shape—barge through the locker room door imperiously and tell Kyrie Irving that, son, on this team we play with maximum effort. This is a gross, paternalistic strain of fandom—informed by the notion that these players in some way belong to us; they should be ideal actors because, dammit, we pay for their salaries. I think we should all do our best to avoid being that type of fan, especially in terms of this now-active coaching search. Irving will improve or stagnate according to his will; all a coach can do is advise him. You can tell all-stars what to do, but it’s up to them to listen. The Cavs should find someone who can speak to Irving, help him grow into the leadership role he needs to occupy, and not someone who will try to break him, because he probably won’t break.

I don’t know why Scott was fired, specifically, though I have a hard time believing all the losing was the primary reason. This team started the season with no bench and sub-par starters at three positions. Then Andy Varejao went down. Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters improved markedly. Chris Grant poached a respectable bench unit from salary-dumping Memphis and Washington’s scrap heap. Then more injuries. I find it hard to believe Scott was expected to do significantly better than he did, record-wise, though the record is abysmal. Coincidentally, it could land the Cavs at the very top of this upcoming draft. From what I know of Grant, he’s a pragmatist who looks long-term while keeping himself firmly rooted in the present, so even if the Cavs lost, say, ten or fifteen more games than he thought they would this season, he’ll take the high draft pick and move forward.

What I’m more inclined to believe is Scott was fired for reasons less apparent in the standings and more apparent on the court: the puzzling substitutions patterns, the lack of ingenuity on offense (especially down the stretch), the damn high-pressure defensive system that was at least partially to blame for the Cavs’ historically bad opponent shooting percentages over the past three seasons. Perhaps this group of players was too young, too disparate to achieve respectability, but Scott could never assemble them in a way where it became easy to see where the future might lead. If the rumors are true, the players might have been divided as to whether he knew what he was doing. As of this morning, I’m certain the Cavs have talent, but I’m uncertain how that talent fits together and how each players’ individual skills can best serve the team’s success. A great coach is a great sense-maker, and this team is still gibberish in motion.

I’m sure the Cavs have a list, but I wonder who will want this job and the sort of work it’s going to entail. Surely, there are more than a few out-of-work head coaches and ambitious assistants who see a young team with promise, but it’s going to take a lot of effort—and some very specific expertise—to turn this team into a winner over the next few years. C:TB’s Nate Smith has been compiling a list over the past few weeks, and he’ll be hitting you with the a batch of possible candidates tomorrow morning.

At any rate, farewell Byron Scott. Whether you did the job well and got unlucky or did the job poorly and rightfully got the boot, enduring three seasons of rough basketball isn’t good for the psyche—I know this because I endured it, too, but I’m, at the very least, a wholly inculpable fan. I’m sure you’ll catch on somewhere else. Here’s to better days for both of us.

Three Trades to Consider

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

So with the trade deadline fast approaching (3 PM Eastern), we threw down the gauntlet and asked for some (realistic) trades we’d like to see the Cavs make.  Here’s what our writers came up with.

Kevin: Let’s try this:

The Cavs should send Daniel Gibson to a contender, and Chicago looks like an ideal team to trade him to.  The Bulls rank 29th in the NBA in made three-pointers per game, they are in the luxury tax, and also employ a big point guard to pair him with in Kirk Hinrich.  When Derrick Rose returns, Boobie helps spread the defense during a Rose drive.

Cavs trade: Daniel Gibson
Bulls trade: Richard Hamilton, Vlad Radmanovic, Marquis Teague

For the Cavs, the trade is mainly about Marquis Teague, a late first-round pick in 2012.  At 19 years old, he could play in the D-League for a season with Livingston backing up Kyrie, then emerge as a youthful, athletic & skilled sub in 2014 – 2015.  If he reaches his full potential, he serves as another trade asset down the road.  Radmanovic, and possibly Hamilton would be immediately waived.  For the Bulls, they give up only one rotation player – and that is a 35 year old shooting guard with an 11 PER.  In return, they receive a 26 year old with career 41% three point shooting, that may finally be able to resume his natural role of floor-spacer.  The Bulls save $4 million, as the move pushes them lower towards the luxury tax line.

Tom: OK, here’s my blockbuster trade idea.

Admittedly, I don’t have a ton of interest in the CBA and all the rules and how often deals are made purely for salary cap relief/luxury tax savings.  The Memphis deal seems more mind boggling every day.  So here is a trade mostly about fit.

Cleveland gives up Tyler Zeller and guys that probably won’t be in a Cavs uniform in 2 years anyway: Boobie, Casspi, and Walton.  Cleveland gets their SF of the future Ersan Illyasova who becomes a top 5 SF in the East.  They also agree to absorb Caron Butler’s 2-year deal and trade him away the following season to a contender.  It’s a Zeller for Illyasova swap as far as I’m concerned.

Indiana needs playmakers.  As much as stat geeks and Jason Whitlock love Paul George, I’m not convinced he can set the other guys up.  Remember, in playoff games, half-court execution is necessary and having ball-handlers that create easy baskets is huge.  Unless you employ the triangle offense.  Indy goes all-in this season acquiring Brandon Jennings and sharp-shooter Boobie Gibson.  They are currently 26th in assists and steals, so adding Jennings helps here.  They got smaller, but they’re front line is beastly on the boards.  They give up?  Ewing-theory candidate Danny Granger to….

LAC!  Danny Granger is great at sitting in the corner and hitting wide open 3s.  Occasionally he’ll put the ball on the floor and score.  But really, he’s a rich-man’s Caron Bulter (perfect!)  With CP3 running the show, Granger certainly won’t be counted on to be the “closer” or the “go-to” guy that he could never succeed at in Indy.  Granger is a big upgrade and on the Clips he’d be content getting a sneaky 16 points every night.  That is a devastating roster and the Clips give up Eric Bledsoe and (now expendable) Caron Butler.

This isn’t Milwaukee’s year and they have about 9 forwards.  So they punt on the potentially well-overpaid Illysova and the mercurial Jennings for the supremely athletic (and huge upgrade on D) Eric Bledsoe.  They also get rookie Tyler Zeller who is on a very favorable rookie contract as well as a bunch of expirings to help them get to an insanely cheap team + Monta Ellis, and go from there in 2014.

Nate: As I’ve stated, the goal of any Mo Speights trade should be to get a future first round pick and/or first round talent.  It should also be to trade Speights to a team with no cap room, so that the Cavs can attempt to sign him in the offseason.  Accomplishing this is as simple as sitting down with Speights and saying, “Look.  We really like the way you’re playing.  But we’re not competing for a playoff spot, and we’re looking to trade you to someone who is.  So go compete in the playoffs.  If you decide to opt out, we would love to negotiate with you this off-season.”  With that in mind, I designed this trade a week ago, which sent Speights to San Antonio in exchange for a first rounder.  The main response was, San Antonio won’t do it.  So I give you the pu pu platter de jour.

In this trade, Golden State gets Speights, and the Cavs get prospects Jeremy Tyler and Festus Ezeli, the injured Brandon Rush, and a future 1st round pick.  The Warriors can’t send Cleveland their pick this year because it’s committed to Brooklyn, or in 2014 because of the Stepien Rule, so it would be in 2015 or later.  Rush would have to agree to this deal because of his Bird rights, but given that he will probably pick up his player option for next year, I doubt this will be an issue.  Golden State does it because it gets them under the tax  this year and  gets them a quality 4th big.  Cleveland does it because it gets them prospects (Tyler is still an intriguing player with a 7’5″ wing span), a future first rounder, and a guy who could be a rotation player next year in Rush.

The only drawback of this trade is that Cleveland would have to cut two players.  To remedy this problem I propose this trade .  Here, Cleveland trades with Minnesota to get Brandon Roy and Derrick Williams.  They give up Walton, C.J. Miles, and Josh Selby.  Some other picks might be shuffled around, and maybe the Cavs throw a 2nd rounder or two the TWolves’ way, or maybe the right to swap some picks in future years.  Cleveland does this trade to get Derrick Williams, and immediately waives or buys out Brandon Roy.  Minnesota does this to clear Roy’s salary off the books and clear $8 million in cap space for next year (they’ll need it to sign Pekovic), and to get a shooting guard who is actually healthy.

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Admittedly, these proposals are all a little underwhelming and not of the Luke Walton, C.J. Miles, and a future 2nd round pick for Kevin Durant variety, but they are the kinds of trades that net assets.  Assets allow teams like Houston to fleece teams like Sacramento for number five overall picks like Thomas Robinson.  Let’s hope Chris Grant channels his inner Daryl Morey today.

Your Quick and Dirty Trade Analysis

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

First, here’s the rundown: the Cavs flipped Jon Leuer to the Grizzlies for Marreese Speights, Wayne Ellington, Josh Selby, and a future first-rounder. According to Brian Windhorst, the pick has protections on it that stipulate the Cavaliers will get the next Grizzlies draft pick that falls between sixth and fourteenth in either the 2013, 2014, 2015, or 2016 draft. So, while the Cavs likely won’t see the Grizz pick this year, they have a decent shot at getting a lottery selection out of the deal in the long run. The deal is essentially a salary dump for Memphis, who wanted to get out from under the luxury tax threshold, and the draft pick a reward for taking on Speights’s contract, which pays him $4.2 mil this year, and $4.5 mil next year if he picks up his player option.

While Speights was a cap burden in Memphis, the Cavs can use him right away. He’s 6-foot-10, 245 pounds, and can play at either front court spot. In Cleveland, he will probably split minutes with Tyler Zeller (who will start and who will come off the bench is anybody’s guess), which is good news for Tristan Thompson, who can go back to being a full-time power forward. Speights isn’t the next coming of Tim Duncan, but he can shoot a little bit, and he’s an excellent offensive rebounder. He has had a sub-par year-and-a-half in Memphis, where his true shooting percentage declined from about 53 percent in his three years in Philadelphia to 49.1 percent last year and 47.4 percent this year. But then, he’s not a scorer, so it’s not like he’s shooting those percentages while taking 10 shots per game. With the Grizz, he was an eighth or ninth man, which is probably his ideal role, but he’ll fit in quite nicely on a Cleveland team that has almost zero frontcourt depth.

It’s up in the air whether or not Speights will pick up his player option next year. From a financial standpoint, it makes sense, but will he want to play in Cleveland after spending the past 18 months with a fringe title contender? The Cavs can deal with whatever decision Speights makes. It’s not as if they are planning on signing Dwight Howard in the offseason; they can afford to pay Speights if he wants to stick around without injuring their cap flexibility in any meaningful way. (And if Chris Grant and company think Speights is leaving, perhaps they will flip him for another asset. The Grizz didn’t hate Speights; they were just looking to get under the luxury tax threshold. He has some value, and would be a nice addition to a contender’s bench.)

If you need a point of reference for Wayne Ellington, he’s not dissimilar to Boobie Gibson, except that he’s 6-foot-5 (per Draft Express’s pre-draft measurements), which is a more respectable size for a spot-up shooter who’s not an exceptional ball handler. Though he had a rough season in Minnesota a year ago, shooting 32.4 percent from beyond the arc, Ellington appears to have relocated his shooting stroke. He has made 42.3 percent of his three-pointers in 40 games for Memphis. On a team that doesn’t have a lot of shooters, Ellington is a welcome addition. Like Speights, he’s not going to extraordinarily alter the Cavs, but he will be a steady bench player on a team that doesn’t have many viable bench options. Ellington is also a restricted free agent at the end of the season, so he and the Cavs will have an opportunity to feel each other out over the second half of this year. If the Cavs don’t want to pay him next season, he can walk, and if they’re intrigued, they can give him a $3.1 mil qualifying offer and see what sort of offer sheets roll in.

Josh Selby is a player I inexplicably like who will probably be out of the league in a few years. He’s only 21, and hasn’t played much for the Grizz since they drafted him in the second round of the 2011 draft, but he’s been pretty dreadful in very limited minutes. He’s a career 33 percent shooter, turns the ball over way too much, and has a career PER of 2.7. I was curious why no one took a flyer on Selby in the late first round or early second round of his draft, but then my college basketball knowledge is roughly equivalent to that of a dead man, so perhaps I was wrong about a player I had seen play maybe twice. At any rate, Selby’s a young guy with some talent who probably won’t work out. The Cavs can run him through some practices, throw him some garbage time minutes, and roll the dice on the two percent chance he becomes a rotation player. He probably has a better chance of making something of himself on a bad team like the Cavs than a good team like the Grizz who aren’t going to risk losing games just to give him minutes.

* * * * *

In sum, this is a great trade, though it’s important to keep scale in mind. The Cavs got something not-insignificant for Jon Leuer, who hardly saw the floor. Because they had cap space, they were able to absorb a couple of contracts another team needed to unload and picked up a draft pick in the process. And two of the three players they acquired, who were a cap burden to the Grizzlies, also upgrade the Cavalier bench. It’s about as perfect a deal as any Cavs fan could have hoped for, even if, in the long run, it might not have a remarkable impact.

But I want to talk about a plausible scenario in which it does. With this deal and the Omri Casspi-J.J. Hickson swap from a couple of years ago, the Cavs own two future probable lottery picks that they’re going to gain access to in an indeterminate number of years. These two trades aren’t as exciting as the one that brought Baron Davis and a top-10 lottery pick (that eventually turned into the first overall selection) to Cleveland, but they might end up being crucial to the development of the team.

Let’s say, over the next few years, Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, Tyler Zeller, and their 2013 lottery pick all improve incrementally. Chris Grant hangs onto the guys he acquired in this trade and/or fleshes out the roster in free agency. He doesn’t splurge, but he assembles a decent bench. The Cavs, in the 2014-15 season, grab a seven seed and push the Bulls to seven games. They’re a team on the rise. Not great yet, but they’re young and talented and look like they could have an outside shot at title contention if they continue to improve and add a couple more pieces. This is when those draft picks become valuable assets. The protection on the Sacreattle KingSonics’ pick finally dwindles to the point that the Cavs can use it, and they’re now a playoff team with a pick in the top-10 in the upcoming draft. The next year, Memphis falls off and the Cavs land the 13th pick in the draft. Once they’re in possession of these picks, they can try to fill out their roster with young, cheap talent—say, bring a rookie off the bench for twelve minutes per game, and tell him all he has to do is play defense and make open threes—or they can flip the picks for more established players.

That’s a plausible future, right? The deal the Cavs made this morning can help make the above scenario a reality. If and when their current core realizes its potential, they will be able to continue to reinforce their roster, not just through free agency, but through the draft and the trade market. Chris Grant, since the day he took over for Danny Ferry, has stressed that he was going to value flexibility. Today he capitalized on the cap flexibility he has maintained over the past three seasons while also making sure the Cavs will remain flexible in terms of their ability to acquire players and assets three-to-four years down the road when they’re (hopefully) a markedly better team than they are now. Grant doesn’t want future Cavaliers teams to be like the current-day Knicks, Celtics, and Lakers, who clearly need to get better but don’t have any valuable assets with which to do so. This salary dump deal isn’t the blockbuster Andy Varejao trade that some wanted, but it’s a smart move that might pay significant dividends in the future.

Cavaliers Talkin’

Monday, August 27th, 2012

I’m starting to like C.J. Miles more and more. What he says about joining the Cavs: “With Cleveland it was just about making the right basketball decision for myself. I felt it wasn’t about money; it wasn’t about anything but basketball.” A  very positive interview overall, from Hoopsworld. Here’s the link .

Dion Waiters was also interviewed recently, though it didn’t turn out half as interesting. He’s pretty good at substituting sports cliches in lieu of actual meaning. It’s nice he bought his mom a car after being drafted, at least. Here’s the link.

Cavs sign Michael Eric?

Friday, August 10th, 2012

The Cavs have signed Michael Eric. Following Summer League, Cavs:the Blog briefly mentioned him here.

Last year at Temple, he was a really good rebounder and shot blocker.  He is also 24 and was not remotely on anyone’s draft radar.  I do not have a lot to say about this; hopefully he is the next Marcus Camby?

Maybe I have misunderstood some of the Cavs off-season moves, but I thought Kevin Jones received one year guaranteed, in addition to Jon Leuer being snagged off waivers.  Luke Harangody signed a $1.1 million qualifying offer.  Luke Walton spent most of his time at power forward last year, as the athletic ability to play on the wing eluded him some years ago.

So…the team has eight big men…only one of which is an accomplished NBA big…I guess, goodbye, slimmed-down Samardo Samuels?  I am relatively confused.

Cavs trade for Jeremy Pargo

Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

Pretty sick dunk here...Look up "Jeremy Pargo Kevin Seraphin" on youtube.

Cleveland and Memphis completed a trade where the Cavs receive 26 year-old point guard Jeremy Pargo and a 2014 second round pick for D.J. Kennedy.

Pargo finished his NCAA career at Gonzaga in 2009, before playing in Isreal for a while, then making his NBA debut last year.  He was not very good in Memphis, finishing with a PER of 4.  Long story short; an aggressive and athletic driver, he struggles with turnovers and shooting.

The Cavs apparent philosophy here is, “We have cap space.  We don’t have a back-up point guard.  What the heck, let’s buy a 2nd round draft pick.”  Memphis appears to be thinking “with Pargo, we own 11 contracts for $66.5 million next year.  The luxury tax is $70.3M.  Josh Selby was awesome this summer, and we just drafted Tony Wroten.  He’s kind of a point guard too, right?  Can we get someone to take Pargo’s guaranteed $1 million off our hands?  Cleveland’s offering DJ Kennedy?  Is his contract guaranteed?  No?  Tell them we have a deal.”

This trade is inconsequential enough that I do not have much of an opinion on it.  Apparently a decent back-up point guard may still be at least one year away .  Does this mean, so long, Donald Sloan?  With Leuer, Kevin Jones, and Pargo on board, a lot of roster spots are taken.  One thing is certain; I will need to give up on Jordan Taylor.

Andrew Bynum Trade Machine Fun

Wednesday, July 18th, 2012

So, I’ve been toying around with the NBA Trade Machine over on ESPN for the past couple of hours trying to figure out what a Lakers/Magic/Cavs deal would look like, which has been edifying in a couple of ways that I’ll get to in a minute. First, let me present to you a handful of trades that work:

Trade A

Lakers get: Dwight Howard and Jason Richardson
Magic get:  Andy Varejao, Luke Walton, Josh McRoberts, Omri Casspi, Christian Eyenga, and Cavs’ 2013 first-rounder
Cavs get: Andrew Bynum, Quentin Richardson, Glen Davis, and Chris Duhon

The Cavs get their man (Bynum), the Lakers get theirs (Howard), and the Magic get a clean slate by offloading nearly all their bad contracts for expiring ones. They’ll be terrible next year and have a decent shot at the number one pick, and they will have tens of millions of dollars of cap space once the 2012-13 season ends. The one thing that doesn’t make much sense to me is why the Magic would want a thirty year-old defensive big man, but according to Ric Bucher, the framework of the deal involves Varejao-to-Orlando, so I’ll just assume they covet him for whatever reason.

Jason Richardson is overpaid, but it’s not like the Lakers can sign any more free agents, so that point is moot. He played poorly last season (shot 40.8% from the field; he’s a career 44.1% shooter), but he’s only 31 and could be a good bench scorer, especially if he gets a steady diet of open threes when defenses collapse on Howard and/or Gasol. He would also be sharing some court time with Steve Nash, which never hurts one’s offensive game.

Glen Davis shouldn’t make upwards of six million dollars a year, but he would be similarly useful for the Cavs, who don’t have a PF who can knock down an open 13-footer. Chris Duhon and Quentin Richardson are dead weight, but that’s the cost of doing business.

You could also sell me on a variant of this trade where the Cavs also give up the Heat/Lakers pick they have in the 2013 draft. If they’re going to roll the dice on a super-talented injury risk with attitude issues, it’s not like the 24th pick in the 2013 draft should be the stumbling point.

(To anyone saying, “Why wouldn’t LA make a play for Andy V?”: it’s a cap thing. The Lakers are paying Kobe/Gasol/Nash a combined $56 million next season and are well over the soft cap, so they can’t take on Howard and Varejao without moving Gasol.)

Trade B

Lakers get: Howard and Richardson
Magic get: Varejao, Walton, Boobie Gibson, McRoberts, Casspi, and Eyenga
Cavs get: Bynum, Hedo Turkoglu, Duhon, and Davis

By offloading that egregious Hedo deal that pays him $11.4 mil and $12.2 mil in 2012-13 and 2013-14, respectively, the Magic get rid of their worst contract. They also dump Davis, J-Rich, and Duhon. The only bad contract they keep is Quentin Richardson’s, which pays him a little under $6 mil over the next two seasons. Every player they acquire has either a team option for next year or is off the books entirely. I didn’t include a draft pick in this scenario because the Magic shed a ton of salary, but if the Cavs were to throw in a first-rounder, I wouldn’t lose sleep over it.

Trade C

Lakers get: Howard and Turkoglu
Magic get: Varejao, Walton, Gibson, McRoberts, Casspi, Eyenga, and Andrew Goudelock
Cavs get: Bynum, Davis, J. Richardson, Steve Blake, Q. Richardson, and Duhon

Again, a hunk of expirings for Orlando (give or take a draft pick), but this time Turkoglu goes to the Lakers and the Cavs absorb a cornucopia of bad contracts. The difference between the abominable contract amalgam of Q Richardson, Duhon, and Blake and the singular abominable contract of Turkoglu is negligible, since both Quentin Duhon-Blake and Turkoglu make about the same amount of money and their contracts expire in two years. (Technically, Turk’s got a player option for the 2013-14 season, but who wouldn’t cash in a season of mediocre basketball for $12.2 mil?) But the J-Rich and Davis deals run for the next three years, paying those guys a combined $38 million over that time period. This isn’t the worst thing in the world, because those guys are legitimate NBA players, and it’s not like the Cavs have a phenomenal bench, but if the Magic ask for a pick in this scenario, they had better ask the Lakers, because the Cavs are going to be tied down with salaries and will need their draft picks to help fill out their roster over the next couple of years.

Trade D

Lakers get: Howard, Turkoglu, Richardson, and Duhon
Magic get: Varejao, Tristan Thompson, McRoberts, Eyenga, and Andrew Goudelock
Cavs get: Bynum, Metta World Peace, and Steve Blake

so much depends
upon

long tristan
thompson

dazed in wine
golden

beside the black
bench

(But seriously, your opinion of this trade revolves entirely around whether or not you like Tristan Thompson. Also, I apologize to William Carlos Williams. Remember when you used the phrase “penniless rumsoak,” and I swooned? I’m so sorry.)

What Does It All Mean?

Nothing right now. We have no idea how close this thing is to fruition or who the principals are outside of—again, I’m leaning on Bucher here—Howard, Bynum, and Varejao. What’s clear is: a.) the Magic want to get rid of some bad contracts, b.) the Lakers are aggressively pursuing Howard, and c.) the Cavs have lots of cap space and expiring contracts. The trade, if it happens, will look something like the ones mentioned above. These deals and very similar variants are the only ones that work cap-wise unless you start getting crazy and throwing Gasol into the mix.

A bit of experimenting leads me to this conclusion: the Cavs’ cap/expiring contract situation makes them an ideal facilitator for this sort of trade, and they can pretty much dictate their terms. While the Magic are desperate to get a fresh start out of the impending departure of their best player and the Lakers are fervently pursuing Howard, the Cavs can be dispassionate about this deal. If they don’t want to take an additional bad contract or give up another first-rounder, they can always pass. They’re not desperate to acquire Bynum, and, if the swap falls apart, they can return to their original plan of building through the draft.

What throws a wrench in this whole thing is the presence of the Houston Rockets, who have a bunch of young players and picks. I’m mildly perplexed about why they think Bynum would put them over the top. Bynum-Irving is a lot more appetizing prospect than Bynum-Lin, but then, they’re in Houston, which is a more desirable free agent destination than Cleveland. Regardless, they’re very capable of facilitating a Howard’s departure for LA, and they would be more able than the Cavs to provide the Magic with decent draft picks (they shipped out Kyle Lowry for a Toronto first-rounder) and recent draftees (Terrence Jones, Jeremy Lamb, and Royce White).

No matter what happens or doesn’t happen on the Bynum-to-Cleveland trade front, this is the first great example of what valuing cap flexibility and acquiring tradable assets can do for a rebuilding team. By carefully managing the cap and his assets over the past couple of years, Chris Grant has put the Cavs in a situation where they might be able to acquire an excellent player because they’re one of the only teams in the league that can help the Lakers land Howard and the Magic push the reset button on their franchise.

Man on Fire

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

On Thursday, after a Heat practice before Friday’s game against the Cavaliers, LeBron James responded to a reporter’s question about a possible return to Cleveland by stating it would be “fun to play in front of [Cavs] fans again. I had a lot of fun times here… I’m here as a Miami player and I’m happy where I am now but I don’t rule that out in any sense. If I decide to come back, hopefully the fans will accept me.”

Bron’s statement is the latest Twitter-exploding product of the weird psychodrama in which he has participated since sometime in 2008 when Sportscenter producers, attempting to kill time during slow news days, filled empty content blocks with speculation as to where he would land in the summer of 2010. After two years of playing coy with the media, a summer of placating his id, and a season and a half playing for the most hated team in the league, LeBron now reminds me increasingly of Jeffrey Beaumont. He struck out for the idea of Miami—balmy weather, sex, neon—but the rabbit hole went deeper than he could initially fathom. He’s being beaten to the tune of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams.” He just wants to go home.

Metaphorically speaking. I don’t think LeBron James wants to play basketball in Cleveland again. Rather, he wants everything to be like it was when he played in Cleveland, when he was the closest thing the league had to a nationwide fan favorite. He wants fans in other NBA cities to admire, even covet, him. He wants to win a championship and say he did it for his hometown, even though I think it’s pretty irrelevant to LeBron where and for whom he wins a title. He wants 2008 again, but without Mo Williams clanking wide-open threes. He feels bad, too. Remorse hit him like a sneak-attack hangover. He wants Cavs fans to not hate him anymore, perhaps not so they won’t feel anguished, but so that he won’t have to bear the burden of being the cause of their anguish. His motivations for tone-deaf half-promises of a return to Cleveland are selfish, but also well-intentioned in their own ineffectual way.

The Akron Beacon’s Jason Lloyd, in an article about the feasibility of an LBJ Cleveland homecoming, described Bron as “fairly calculated and savvy with the media,” which was true two years ago. For most of his time in Cleveland, LeBron was an opaque amalgam of talent, team-first platitudes, and exuberance. On a macro scale, he talked about championships; on a micro scale, he wanted “get better” every day; on the court, he conducted himself like a superhero who realized, each day anew, that he could fly. NBA fans knew almost nothing about him. This formula—being great, never saying anything controversial, and playing joyfully—endeared LeBron to even non-Cavs fans. Since deviating from that formula, LeBron has grown increasingly translucent; it’s now apparent that Cavaliers Era LeBron’s immense popularity was an essential component of his identity.

We know this because James spent last season in Miami trying to figure out who he was after realizing he had taken a blowtorch to LeBron James, Universally-Beloved Superstar. He made a token attempt to embrace the villain tag many fans and commentators placed upon him, but when LeBron buried a pair of clutch threes in an overtime game against the Blazers and taunted the Portland crowd, it didn’t feel right. The black hat doesn’t suit him because he’s not a spiteful player. A Kobe-like inferiority complex is the incorrect fuel for his engine. If his on-court actions in seven seasons with the Cavaliers are any indication, a crucial element of LeBron’s game is how much fun he has playing basketball. And fun is sort of an inclusive process: it’s difficult to have fun when the crowd wants to murder you in a well. The experience of knocking that crowd on their ass is fun for some athletes—I recall Derek Jeter once saying that he liked nothing more than to silence Fenway Park—but I’m not sure a stone-faced assassination of 20,000 ornery Bulls fans is LeBron’s ideal night. He would rather those Bulls fans harbor an awful respect for him. Which is why his post-Cavs career, as it unfolds, seems as much a nomadic quest to be liked again as it does the pursuit of a ring. If Kobe’s MJ emulation act is about equaling or surpassing Jordan’s greatness, LeBron most admires Michael’s near-unblemished approval rating. Becoming a global icon, after all, is only incidentally about winning.

Of course, LeBron has probably put the global icon thing on the back burner. He has championships to win, and when he arrived at the Quicken Loans Arena for a Thursday practice, he had fences to mend. This newfound concern over the damage he has inflicted is why Bron gives us puzzling quotes like the ones he made Thursday. He has finally realized that the antipathy generated by The Decision was mostly his fault, and he’s trying to salve the wound without much understanding of how he can repair his relationship with Cavaliers fans. He did all he could do when he admitted that he made a mistake, but the strange prognostication that followed came from a place of unabsolvable guilt. Maybe if I tell Cleveland fans that there’s a slight possibility I will play for the Cavs again, they’ll understand that I didn’t mean to hurt their feelings. It’s logic lifted straight from Kanye’s 2010 apology tour: if you can’t apologize sufficiently, do so in as bizarre a manner as possible.

The timing of this augmented expression of regret is awkward because the mourning process over LeBron’s departure concluded some eight months ago. Or it should have. The popular analogy among embittered fans and commentators is that of being abandoned by a significant other, but that’s lazy and inexact. Free agency isn’t a concept that has a parallel in the romantic sphere, and LeBron didn’t leave Cleveland in its sleep. He held an ill-advised press conference, and ruined exactly one Cavaliers season. Did he crawl into your heart and slash its wiring? Has your self-esteem disintegrated? Do you have trust issues now? I’m sorry, then.

What do you do when you can’t go home again? Or, more pointedly, what does LeBron do? Apparently he tries to convince others that he might go home again. One of the greatest athletes of his generation is experiencing an identity crisis while having the best season of his career. It’s like watching fire try to figure out its motivation. And maybe that’s the best way to think about LeBron James: he’s an exhilarant and nothing else about him makes sense. I hope he can come home one day, maybe after he retires, and start making sense. In the meantime, he’s a ball of flame with nowhere to go. There are worse things in this world.

Building a Winner, Part 2

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

Part 2a: How did the best teams of the last 10 years get there?

The first step I took when researching this was to check if high-lottery teams were more likely to be better in five years than mid-lottery teams or borderline playoff teams.  The answer was no; on average, every draft range regresses to the mean.  From the 2001 – 2002 season through 2005 – 2006:

  • The teams with the five worst records in each season (23 wins per season) averaged 39.8 wins in the 5th season after their ineptitude.
  • The teams finishing with the 6th – 10th worst records (33 wins per season), improved to 41.2 wins 5 years later.
  • The teams with the 11th – 15th worst records (40 wins per season), decreased to 38.4 wins per season.

All this really told me was that there’s nothing simple and draft related about building a winner.  From there I started digging deeper, into what lead to the greatest success stories of the last 10 years.  San Antonio, Dallas and the Lakers were the three teams that averaged 50 or more wins per season from 2001 – 2002 through 2010 – 2011.  How did they get there?

San Antonio

The Spurs averaged 58 wins per season.  That’s really amazing, but what’s even more astounding is the personnel they started the period with.  In October 2001, Spurs fans probably thought re-building was imminent.  Their under-30 core was basically one player.  Fortunately, Tim Duncan was one of the best big men of all time, but there appeared to be very little around him.  Antonio Daniels, Malik Rose and Charles Smith were already in their “primes” as average to below average NBA players.  The newcomers were the 28th pick in the draft (19 year old Frenchman Tony Parker), Bruce Bowen (30 year old all-defense wing with 37% career field goal shooting and only 33% on threes), and Stephen Jackson (signed to 2 year, $1.2 million contract).  David Robinson was 36 and Sean Elliot, Avery Johnson, and Vinny Del Negro were retired.  With no lottery picks on the horizon, everyone must have been scouring the lists of upcoming free agents.

Except we know how this story ends; two seasons later the Spurs are again the NBA’s best.   Parker averages 16 a game with Jackson tallying 12.  Bruce Bowen continues a streak towards 8 straight all-defensive teams, while becoming a 3-pt marksman (41% during his Spurs career).  The player they drafted 57th in the 1999 draft comes to the US and embarks on a hall-of-fame career.  A series of well-considered free agents (Robert Horry, Brent Barry, Michael Finley, Fabricio Oberto), trades (Nazr Mohammed), and late draft picks (George Hill, Dejuan Blair) leads to two more championships and the nearly 60 wins-per-season decade.

Dallas

The Mavericks won 57 games per season over the last ten years.  Their early decade success required the use of one top 8 draft pick.  And that was an indirect use, as they traded Jason Kidd (2nd pick in the 1994 draft) for Michael Finley.  Another player responsible for a lot of wins, before leaving as a free agent is Steve Nash, who was acquired by trading a Mavs 9th pick (Shawn Marion).   Also contributing to a lot of wins from 2003 to 2009 was Josh Howard, who was drafted 29th.

The construction of their champions is convoluted, but it never required higher than a 9th pick (Dirk Nowitzki).  I’ll again note that when referring to not requiring better than a 9th pick, I mean Dallas’ picks; several players were drafted by other teams at better spots in the draft, but the Mavs acquired them through other means.  Basically, Dallas’ success was built on always being willing to take on longer term salary, while upgrading to the right mix of players.  It started when they traded Tim Hardaway and Juwan Howard for Raef Lafrentz and Nick Van Exel.  LaFrentz eventually became Antoine Walker, who became Jason Terry.  Van Exel became Antawn Jamison, whose value returned Devin Harris and Jerry Stackhouse.  Harris and two late 1st rounders brought back Jason Kidd, while Stackhouse’s expiring contract (plus cash) was eventually used towards acquiring Shawn Marion.  Finally Tyson Chandler was acquired for Erick Dampier’s expiring contract (who was acquired via trade, essentially for two late 1st round draft picks and cash) and JJ Barea was an undrafted free agent.

In summary, Dallas’ 10 years of success was built by indirectly using one high-lottery draft pick from seven years prior, two other top-ten draft slots, a video-game like series of trades, and cash.

Los Angeles Lakers

The Shaq and Pau acquisitions could basically only happen to the Lakers, so they’ll be addressed briefly.  Still though, they were built while never using a pick higher than 10th.

Aside from Shaq landing in Hollywood as a free agent, Kobe was scored with the 13th pick in the draft, when NBA teams still weren’t sure about drafting high-school kids.   The rest of the core of their three-peat team consisted of Derek Fisher who was picked 24th in the draft, Rick Fox a free agent, and Robert Horry gained through trading Cedric Ceballos.  The 2009 & 2010 champs relied on Andrew Bynum being snagged 10th.  Pau Gasol came aboard through what appeared to be a heavily lopsided trade; Kwame Brown, Pau’s brother Marc (48th pick in previous year’s draft, had not come to NBA yet) and two future, surely end-of-first-round draft picks.   Shaq was then eventually traded for Lamar Odom, which rounded out this squad.

What this means for the Cavs

None of these teams are easily duplicated (Shaq’s not walking through the door), but that’s not the point.

The top 3 teams of the last ten years relied on two total draft selections inside the top 8 to build their cores: Tim Duncan and Michael Finley (We can debate about including David Robinson.  He was the #1 pick fourteen years earlier and played only the first two seasons of these ten, while averaging 10 & 8).  Compared to the less capable teams that drafted early in the lottery  repeatedly, either immediately proceeding or early in these ten years (Memphis, Clippers, Toronto), that’s a pretty sharp contrast.  The teams were built by signing free agents at a good value, making great talent evaluations later in the draft, and always getting the better end of a trade.

Besides LA, I can’t say market size was a huge influence either.  San Antonio was the original small market model team in the NBA.  Dallas was an atrocity before Nowitzki and Mark Cuban came around, averaging 20 wins per season through the 1990’s.  Their “big three” top 5 draft picks of Jason Kidd, Jamal Mashburn and Jim Jackson brought them to a summit of 36 wins before needing to be dismantled.  Cuban’s willingness to spend was immensely important in building their championship team, but they never had to lure a free agent through “big city, bright lights!”  Assembling the original Nowitzki, Nash, Finley, Howard core occurred very organically.  Through trades; Tim Hardaway and Juwan Howard eventually became Jason Terry, Shawn Marion, and Jason Kidd.  Basically they made a lot more good decisions than bad decisions for a long time, with wheels greased by Cuban’s money.

The Cavs have one blue-chip talent, tons of draft picks, and plenty of cap space; they should be able to reasonably duplicate the Spurs.   Probably not to the tune of three championships, but at least a 55 win contender.

Perhaps based on the Dallas model of “never let a good expiring contract go to waste”, the Cavs can flip Jamison’s expiring contract to a floundering team for a longer, non-horrible contract that could also eventually be traded as an expiring contract for another upgrade.   Maybe this was even a reason to keep Baron Davis around.   It is interesting that neither the Spurs nor Mavericks assembled their cores with a big free agent signing; Dallas in particular always chose to trade expirings instead of waiting & gaining the cap space.

I don’t want these posts to be misconstrued that the high lottery is inherently worthless.  If the Cavs fail this year and end up with a top 3 pick, my reaction will not be “what a disaster!”  At the same time, the likelihood has to be acknowledged that the losing may not result in the asset everyone hopes for.  This recent-NBA history lesson leads to the conclusion that there’s no reason to hope for losses.  The assets and cap flexibility the Cavs have accumulated are sufficient, without needing further failure.  Tomorrow we’ll look at the next best teams of the last ten years: Detroit, Phoenix, and Boston, and continue to build on the themes of “good management / decision making = winner, high lottery = crap shoot”.