A rare sighting of Stephen F. Austin's Taylor Smith.
Victor Oladipo and Nerlens Noel may be unicorns. I’ve been playing around with the season finder on sports-reference.com, after a long comments section discussion over their merits. They both had seasons last year that have never been equaled, at least not since the start of modern stat-keeping 1997.
First, Victor is the only player of significant minutes to average 59% from the field (actually .599), 44% from three, and 2 steals and 2 assists per game. This doesn’t even take into account the .6 blocks and the 6+ rebounds per game. At 28 minutes a game, that’s pretty impressive, and unbelievably unique. He’s a two way player like no other, at least in post-1997 college basketball history. Lest you think I’m completely in the tank for Oladipo (I am), let’s look at Nerlens Noel.
Noel is the only player since 1997 to average over 50% from the field (actually .590), 4 blocks per game, 2 steals per game, and 9 rebounds. Actually the steals and blocks by themselves are singularities. The only people to come close to this were all seniors from middling programs. UMass’s Tony Gaffney (2009), came close with 3.8 blocks. Anthony Davis is the only player with over 4 blocks per game who gets close to the steals number, and that is at 1.3 per game, well below Noel’s 2.1.
Otto Porter had some pretty unique numbers, right? Well, there are a handful of people who have duplicated them. There have been nine players since 1997 to shoot over 48% from the field, over 42% from 3, and get seven boards and 1.8 steals. The most significant? Ryan Bowen of Iowa in 1998, and Danny Granger in New Mexico in 2005. Granger tops the everyone in the group with his off the charts ’05 season. Per game: 18.8 points, 8.9 boards, 2.4 assists, 2.1 steals, 2.0 blocks, and shooting splits of .424/.433/.755. Though I fear Granger’s knee condition may irrevocably hobble him, I hope that he comes back as strong as ever. Supposedly, Wade had the same condition in 2007, and led the league in scoring after successful surgery.
Kelly Olynyk is one of 17 players with a TS% above .674, seven boards, one block, and one assist per game. Near the top of the curve, but not an outlier…
Mike Muscala is only one of four players to get 11+ rebounds, two assists, two blocks, and shoot 50% from the field in the last 15 years. In fact, he’s the only player to do it while while shooting over 75% at the line (.789). Out of this group, Jason Thompson is still in the league, and Marqus Blakely played briefly for Houston in 2011. All these players came from low-level conferences, which should tell you something about what those numbers mean.
There are a few more outliers in the draft. Stephen F. Austin’s Taylor Smith is the only player in 15 years to shoot a field goal percentage above 69% (.694), with nine-plus rebounds, and two-plus blocks per game. This doesn’t even mention his steal and 1.8 assists per game, or the fact that he shot 71% last year. Of course with a career .426 free throw percentage, there may be a reason he hasn’t gotten a lot of pre-draft buzz.
You want to talk outliers though, how about Memphis’s D.J. Stephens? Who as far as raw athletics, might be one of the biggest outliers in NBA history. Stephens has the highest vertical in the DraftExpress pre-draft database (which goes back to about 2000) at an astounding 46 inches. He’s also got the highest no step vertical at 40 inches. He has the fifth fastest 3/4 court sprint time at 2.98 seconds. The only guy who comes close to all three of these numbers is Nate Robinson who posted 43.5″/35.5″/2.96 seconds, but Robinson couldn’t come close to Stephens’ best feat: topping Shaq’s 12’5″ max vertical reach by a half an inch. Stephens really is a mythical beast: a 6’5″ power forward with shooting splits of .629/.361/.662. He only scores 7.6 points per game with 6.6 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in 23.6 minutes. He also has a 7′ wingspan. Fortunately, he has a fairly pedestrian hand width of 8.25″. What a weirdo.
What do these numbers mean? Probably nothing, but who knows. I’m sure in at least one of these cases, we’ll be looking back and wondering how we didn’t see these things coming. Some of these guys are one of a kind: mutants, gods, or aliens who’ve crept into mortal coils to become rare basketball creatures.
With the extreme good fortune of a lottery victory, the Cavaliers find themselves in a luxurious position. The League’s youngest All-Star, another #1 pick, two other recent top-fives, cap space, the league’s most draft picks over the next five years.
There are interesting factors at play regarding the Nerlens Noel winning-ticket though. First, the entirety of Cavalier-dom – management, coaches, players, writing hacks, avid blog readers, and casual fans – all expect a step forward next year. Brian Windhorst reports that the Cavs are more than open to shopping the pick, and Nick Gilbert is adamant that he doesn’t want to be back on a podium in 2014. And who is the man for helping in that task? A nineteen year old that will miss the first two months of the season — unless the Cavs decide to throw everyone a curveball and draft Otto Porter #1. We’ll pretend that possibility doesn’t exist for now.
Trending in the opposite direction, rebuilding teams that are not ready for a playoff push next year, and aging teams looking to rebuild, could see drafting Noel as a perfect opportunity. Get an uber-athletic seven-foot tall player that won’t help much next year? Position themselves for the Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes of 2014? For a handful of teams, tankapalooza 2014 could be every bit as pitiful as the woeful displays of 2012. And trading for Noel would be a perfect place to start.
Obviously with an asset as coveted as the draft’s first pick, fans can dare to dream big. What fantastical ideas are the C:tB writers thinking about?
Colin:The Draft Lottery itself is a spectacle to behold. Or not behold, exactly, but mock? I feel like it should be mockable—unintentionally doofy, at least—but it’s mostly just drab television, what with its suspense being driven by its inherent drama and absolutely nothing else. It’s mostly a bummer, and really, if your team isn’t involved, you’re the saddest sort of NBA obsessive.
Heather Cox awkwardly explains that the Draft Lottery, you see, is a game of probability, thus explaining to the American public what a lottery is while pretending that literally every American over the age of 12 doesn’t know exactly what a lottery is and how it works. This is not Heather Cox’s fault at all, just the nature of the beast. She has to smile and talk needlessly through a half-hour of television, of which anyone watching only cares about, give or take, 45 seconds.
But anyway, a room full of uncomfortable, uncharismatic old men sit alongside wholly unenthused young players do a soft-shoe if Cox tries to engage them. “Boy howdy, Holly, I hope we win!” is maybe the only acceptable answer one can give in this scenario, and so all we get are variations thereof, save for the part where Damian Lillard talks about being really good at basketball in a strange, humble way, like the kind-of-terrible Blazers were doing him a favor playing him 39 minutes a game, as if he was stealing minutes from a 25-year-old Isaiah Thomas. Maybe these interviews would be less weird if the interviewer and subject weren’t separated by a podium? They would probably still be weird.
Also, the Gilbert family bowtie thing is stupid, despite its apparent mystical powers. But none of the above stuff is actually important. Nate, Nerlens Noel or NERLENS NOEL!!! or Nerlens Noel? Or perhaps you’re a Ben McLemore fan? (I know you’re not.) Give us some sense of your enthusiasm level.
Nate:It was definitely a strange dynamic, as it always is. The Lottery is a collection of old executives, players whose teams want to appease or showcase them, coaches who’d rather be somewhere else, and Adam Silver who looks like he just stepped out of a flying saucer. What a strange-looking man. And then there’s Nick Gilbert: the human horseshoe. There’s something very refreshing about him. Yeah, he’s a rich guy’s kid, but by all accounts he’s had a pretty rough go of it. Yet he always seems to exude positivity and smiles. I’m probably grafting an emotional response onto a positive memory, but I just can’t help but like Nick Gilbert.
Watching the reactions is always bizarre too, as everyone tries to stay poker faced and not give away too much disappointment—well, except for the Jazz’s Randy Rigby who mouthed a minor obscenity as his envelope was revealed at 14. I guess he overestimated that 1.5% chance of getting in the top three. And Charlotte’s Fred Whitfield looked like he was going to burn down the studio with his look of disdain. But it was all eclipsed by the Gilberts (who had a large contingent). Dan’s wine colored Cavaliers monogrammed sport jacket was special, in its own way. The pink shirt and bowtie really completed the ensemble. He looked like a really bad magician. [Ed: so, any magician, really.]
But yeah, Nerlens Noel! I am much more excited than I thought I’d be. Most of you guys don’t live in the Cleveland area. I’m pleased we Clevelanders are going to be talking about it around the water cooler for the next few weeks. The Cavs have some juice, the Indians are winning, the weather is lovely. All seems right with the world. And Nerlens Noel is an intriguing prospect. Calipari seems to coach big men to block shots to teammates rather than into the third row like Dwight or Serge. I’m eager to see Noel in a Cavs uniform in 9 months. What about you, Colin? Did you think this was possible? No one I know seems to have been able to fathom the Cavs had a chance at landing this pick. I think it’s because there’s only like 10,000 people in the world that understand probability.
Colin: I think a lot of us harbored less-than-discrete hopes that Anthony Davis would become a Cavalier. Like, if you asked us straight up if we thought the Cavs would win the lottery two years in a row, we would’ve denied it, but a Kyrie-Brow core was too tantalizing to not hope for. Plus, in the Davis draft, the Cavs ended up with the fourth pick, which was a decidedly “Well, [crap]!” sort of moment, especially since so many of us were attached, in the wake of a lottery non-miracle, to the idea of the Cavs drafting Brad Beal or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. (Ay, Dion: keep turning our disappointment into fireworks, buddy.)
In this lottery, I don’t think we dared to dream. In part because the dream itself wasn’t an Anthony Davis-level prospect: it was Anthony Davis Lite with a knee injury that’ll keep him out until at least late December. Because of Noel’s bust potential or otherwise, we—and jeez, I’m generalizing here in a way that makes me uncomfortable, but I thinkI’m echoing the Cavs fan consensus here—resigned ourselves to Otto Porter-dom. Were we all thrilled about Otto Porter? I don’t think so, but it was at least a near-certainty the Cavs could and would get him. Now we’re all woozy and disoriented, I think. We didn’t much ponder the Nerlens Noel Era, either because of the Cavs’ not-great odds or Porter love (which I can’t quite understand) or… fatalism? We’re looking at the Cavs having—draft strength be damned—four top four picks in three years, two of which were first overall. It’s hard to complain, y’know? You can talk about luck and how the Cavs have had high picks in purportedly weak drafts, but the lottery balls have been kind to them, on the whole. I beg of you not to fret, Cavs fans: if every other force in the world is raining down crap on the jewel of the rust belt, math certainly isn’t.
Nate: It amazes me the way teams and communities of fans talk themselves into players because they fit a need. Porter was more likely to be available than Noel, but he wasn’t necessarily even the fifth best player in the draft. At least now you don’t have to have an internal Alex Len debate. [Ed: This debate would not have been pleasant.] With that in mind, is Noel the guy? Is there any part of you that wants …McLemore? …Oladipo? …Porter? I was super wary before the draft. Truth be told, I thought Oladipo was the most can’t-miss player, and he didn’t fit on the team, at least in any sort of conventional way. Does Noel’s weight bother you at all? If there’s a player he reminds me of, it’s Alonzo Mourning: similar bodies, similar explosiveness, similar defensive instincts. Mourning was always lighter than the players he played against but made up for it with mettle and tenacity. If Noel can perform similarly, it should make for good times.
One thing that bodes well for him is that successful ACL surgery is more likely the younger a player is, and by all accounts Noel is progressing well. Additionally, players often come back as better shooters after ACL surgery because as they rehab, there is little other basketball-related activity they can do. So, let’s hope ol’ Nerlens pumps up that free throw percentage and gets a shot out to 15 feet. Just don’t let Tristan teach him push shot jumpers, because I don’t think that kind of kismet can be replicated.
In parting, I’m excited for the summer: pictures of Kyrie play-acting with TT and Noel, Summer League, free agency, etc. I’m pretty sure this is the start of a new subsection in the Wikipedia history of the Cavs. As Nick Gilbert said, the goal is to not be back in the lottery next year. I think that’s an admirable goal, even if it’s going to be harder to achieve than many people think it will be. The post-LeBron dark ages are over. I can feel it.
Colin: To answer your most urgent questions: yeah, Noel’s the guy because the Cavs need a rim protector—plus, you can’t pass on a guy who might be a transformative defensive player—and yes, Noel’s going to have to add some weight because, wow, he’s a twig. He’s at 204 right now, though when he was walking around on two sturdy limbs, he weighed something like 215 pounds. I think he’ll be able to pack on some muscle over the next few years. He’ll need to if he wants to play center. And hell, I’m flying high: in my mind, he’s a more athletic Tyson Chandler. Don’t you dare tell me otherwise, and also, if you could send me some photoshopped images of Noel with the sort of Castro-ish beard Chandler favors, that’d be great.
To answer your other questions: I like Oladipo, but he’s a guard. I like McLemore even more, but he’s a guard. (It’s a post-Saint Weirdo world, if you’re contemplating draft scenarios in which either one of them ends up a Cavalier.) I like Porter just fine, but if the Cavs draft him with the first overall pick, I’ll have a meltdown. I mostly—and I know we can and will ponder flipping the number one pick for established talent—just want to settle into and accept a reality in which the Cavs have a Noel-Irving-Thompson-Waiters core. I like the idea of that. I think it’s the makings of a team that will, yeah, perhaps stumble a bit but eventually become interesting and fun to watch and—we can only hope—able to win a fair share of basketball games. This is a good night, no matter your angle.
Every year at roughly this time, representatives from 14 NBA teams gather in one of the most uncomfortable collections of current and former players, old, rich white men and Nick Gilbert the world has ever seento battle and win favor with the gods, David Stern and Adam Silver, using the most devastating and soul-crushing weapon the world has ever known: probability. The winner will have the chance to draft a 6-11 center with a bum knee, a 6-4 athletic marvel with a picture-pretty shot who has been criticized by, among others, his college coach for not being “assertive” enough, or taking a pass and, for the first year, utilizing the option of forgoing this year’s selection for the same slotted spot next year.
Yeah, just kidding about that last option. Sorry.
Outside of actual in-game action, the single best on-screen moment in the NBA season is (shockingly) the draft lottery. More specifically, it is the lead up to the lottery results, when each team’s representative is introduced and captured on camera, if briefly, in amazing comic squirm. It’s the NBA’s version of Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Consider the following:
1.) This is, essentially, the NBA’s roll call of its losers for this (and, in most cases, several) season(s). For all the build up of dangling this year’s best college players in front of these win-starved teams, the only way they can broadcast this beautiful train wreck is to attach it to a playoff game. So, all of these team reps, knowing their shortcomings are being paraded out by the league in advance of a Conference playoff game, seem to call out to the audience from behind watery eyes, “Please, this is the part of the season where we get to disappear! Let us go away! Why are you making us do this?!”
The sandwich had bacon and cheddar upon it and the sandwich, when teamed with inevitable add-ons Large Fries and Cool, Refreshing Coke, begat a package of basketball player cards. And it was those cards, one of which featured a certain young man whose name having been given to the sandwich, that along with said sandwich made a certain young man feel, in his words, “seven feet tall.”
What do you mean you need context? Oh, okay..
And with that, Brad Daugherty was seven feet tall and he was teamed with inevitable add-ons like Craig Ehlo and “Leaping” Larry Nance, and they begat a team of basketball players named the Cleveland Cavaliers. And, in the 1991-92 NBA season, it was those Cleveland Cavaliers, who featured not just Daugherty, Ehlo and Nance, but also Mark Price and … um … that other guy … Mike something, and this team reached the Eastern Conference finals after going 57-25 to tie the eventual Finalist Portland Trailblazers for the second best record in the NBA (though, both of them a full 10 games behind the eventual champion Chicago Bulls) only to lose to those Bulls in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals that made this certain young (at the time) man feel, in his words, “well, you know, kinda bummed?”
The playoffs can be tough. No, I’m not talking about the nail-biting games or the physical pounding endured by players facing suddenly ratcheted-up intensity. I’m talking about having to watch other teams’ players enduring this and not those players on the Cavs. I’m talking about foaming at the mouth and chewing on my draft tether for another six weeks and hearing rumors about the summer of 2014 and about keeping Kyrie happy and about defense, defense, defense.
So, allow me, if you will, to escape to a simpler time — to the “time we were really good” before the most recent “time we were really good,” to the year and the playoff run where I cut my teeth on the Cavs, the NBA and Cleveland’s just-come-up-shortness. Ladies and Gentlemen, if you please, let us remember and consider…
I’ve been of two minds lately. My inner pessimist keeps spouting off: Kyrie Irving’s not good enough. He’ll never play defense. He likes making commercials more than making improvements. The half empty glass whispers, The Cavaliers would be better off trading Kyrie Irving. It’s a dialogue between doubt and faith.
Faith knows that Irving is as good a young offensive talent as has ever played in the league. His rookie numbers were up there with the all-time greats. But his sophomore season? He regressed in a couple of areas. His shooting splits dropped from .469/.399/.872 to .452/.391/.855 with his usage going up from 28.7 to 30.2, these are still fantastic numbers, and fairly minor fluctuations. His assist rate dropped from 36.5 percent to 32.7 percent, but his turnover percentage also went down from 16.1 percent to 13.8 percent. Irving passed a little bit less and shot a little bit more. Most of these changes were fairly unremarkable. And Kyrie once again led the NBA in crunch time scoring per 48 minutes.
But his efficiency dipped considerably. Irving was ridiculously good in 2011 and clearly expected the same success this season. But he was much better at shooting, rebounding, and not turning the ball over in crunch-time during his rookie season.
He was a turnover machine at the ends of games his year. 10 turnovers per 48 is awful, and a .67 assist to turnover ratio is Drew Gooden territory. Much of this was due to the fact teams figured out how to defend Irving: trap him high, and force him to give up the ball or try to make a hero play. If Byron Scott deserved to be fired, one of the key reasons was that he let Kyrie develop some very poor late-game habits. Kyrie is not good at passing out of high double teams. He doesn’t get any zip on the ball: he loops it or jumps to pass, and the ball gets picked off a lot. He also overdribbles, and more than once dribbled off his foot in a key moment, or stumbled and threw up a weak shot as time expired. He hasn’t yet adjusted to the defenses teams throw at him when the Cavs absolutely need a bucket.
These are the sorts of scenarios Irving will encounter with increasing frequency if the Cavs grow over the next few seasons into a perennial playoff team. Which brings me to another troubling fact: the NBA playoffs historically belong to big men. The ability to get a shot up over the defense is key to winning and winning consistently, and being inordinately tall just helps. Of the last 23 NBA champs, only one team has featured a point guard as its best player: the 1989-90 Detroit Pistons, who featured Isaiah Thomas. The 2004 version of Chauncey Billups might have some claim to that mantle as well, and Tony Parker nabbed a Finals MVP in ’07, but neither player was head and shoulders above everyone else on their team the way Thomas was, or the way Kyrie is. (Plus, Chauncey had Sheed, Parker had Duncan, and Isaiah… well, prime Isaiah was a transcendent player.) If Chris Paul’s brief Clippers tenure proves anything, it’s that it’s hard to dominate in the NBA playoffs if your best offensive player is a point guard.
And we all know and bemoan Irving’s defense, as late as April 5th, Kyrie was guilty of inexplicably lazy defense. Those games didn’t matter in any tangible sense—the Cavs were firmly in the hunt for lottery balls by the time April rolled around—but in a game the Cavs eventually won, Kyrie docilely stared at a Jason Terry fourth quarter three from the left block. I said in November that, “Kyrie’s sins aren’t sins of execution or understanding, they are failures of effort, focus, attention, and accountability. If he doesn’t fix the way he plays defense, he will not win. It’s as simple as that.”
But, Kyrie did get better since I penned these two pieces (part 1, part 2). Take Kyrie’s Synergy stats in comparison to a player whose defense I respect a lot, Eric Bledsoe. (Irving’s numbers are on top, in the white rows.)
Here, Kyrie is comparable to Bledsoe. He has much better numbers against isolation, but I’m betting a lot of this is because Irving consistently gets put on the worst isolation offensive player and is often helped with double teams (which would explain Kyrie’s 19 percent defensive turnover rate against isolations), whereas Bledsoe is consistently put on above-average isolation players. If we compare some other numbers, we see that Bledsoe holds opposing point guards to 14.9 PER, while holding opposing shooting guards to 22.7 PER. He also helps his team defend 4.9 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the floor. Irving, by comparison, holds opposing point guards to an 18.1 PER, and his team defense is 2.1 points per 100 possessions worse when he’s on the floor. But the difference isn’t as stark as you might think, and .87 points per possession by Kyrie is a lot better than I thought he’d be before I looked at the numbers. It has been clear in limited stretches that Kyrie can play defense when he wants to, with focus and effort.
It’s also clear that, at times, he sticks to screens like they’re made of fly paper, makes horrible defensive pick and roll decisions, and gives up on plays. What frustrates people is that Kyrie doesn’t seem nearly as focused on improving as a player as some of his peers. Damian Lillard is rumored to be locking himself in the gym with Gary Payton this summer to learn defense. Steph Curry is currently leading the Warriors on an extended playoff run. Meanwhile? Kyrie Irving is doing clinics, making a paid appearance at Interop for Cisco, and has plans to teach Kangaroos how to dunk down under. My worry is Kyrie is satisfied with where he is as a player and doesn’t seem to be willing to put in the work to be anything more than a friendlier and better shooting version of Allen Iverson—that Kyrie thinks it’s all about gettin’ buckets, not preventing them…
OK, That’s an unfair criticism. Kyrie’s not stupid — far from it. Kyrie has to know that the key to being a great player, is learning to play defense, and learning to be an elite point guard — not just an elite scorer. Knowing what one needs to do in order to improve, and having the will, desire, and the ability to accurately self-evaluate in order to make those changes, are very different things, and those things take time. Kyrie has a reverence for Malcolm Gladwell and his theory that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. According to Kyrie, he put 10,000 hours into basketball by the age of 19. If he has that kind of dedication to being a great basketball player, he’ll put in the next 10,000 hours to be a winner.
But I fret, because that’s what fans do: what if Kyrie has peaked? What if he has put in his 10,000 hours, and he’s done growing as a player? What if he’s happy where he’s at: all star, ankle breaker, commercial maker…? Of course my expectations are immense, and completely unfair. Look, Kyrie’s going to be a very good player. it’s just that he needs to be really freaking great if the Cavs are going to win a title with him. and even then, he’ll need help.
If the Cavs are smart, they will realize that Irving’s preternatural abilities come with preternatural weaknesses. He’ll never get to be a good defender. He’ll never be able to get his shot off consistently in crunch-time. He’ll never learn how to pass hard out of the double team.”
You’re a 37-year-old blogger from Alaska who hacks everything that moves in pickup games. What do you know about being a 21-year-old millionaire basketball prodigy? Damian Lillard is a year older. Steph Curry is 25. Give Kyrie time. He’ll learn. Just because he’s not giving interviews to Spin Magazine about summer training with Gerald, ‘The Jordan Buster’ Wilkins, doesn’t mean that he’s not working on defense. KI logged 10,000 hours in the gym before he went pro. That’s dedication, Holmes.
What if the Cavs’ best option is to trade him now, and build the team around a lesser point guard and an all-star big man? Could they flip Kyrie and the #19 pick into Al Horford and Eric Bledsoe, then try to trade for Gasol or Pierce? Will they some day be settling for the four quarters for a dollar trade that Oklahoma City got for Harden, the hodge podge of young assets Orlando got for Dwight Howard, or the near-nothing Cleveland got for LeBron James…? What they really ought to do is trade Kyrie for a shot or two at Wiggins or Jabari Parker…
You’ve been spoiled. Even if everything works out perfectly, it’s going to be a long climb. The Cavaliers aren’t taking the Heat to game six of the conference finals in two years. Do you know what kind of effort that is going to take? Look at what the greats had to do to to get to the finals: LeBron in 2007: 25 points, 8 boards, and 8 assists. He was 23. Dwyane Wade in ’06? 28.4/5.9/5.7 and 2.2 steals. He was 24, and he had Shaq at the end of his prime. How about Tim Duncan? In his first finals, ’99? 23.2/11.5/2.8 with 2.6 blocks, and the Admiral playing on his team. In 2003? 27.6/14.4/5.0 plus 4.3 blocks. Duncan was 23 and 27. Holy pantheon. It’s obvious that this kind of greatness doesn’t even start till 23. The lone exception to this? Magic Johnson, who was 21 in his first finals team, but that Lakers team was loaded, and Magic is 6’9″. Kyrie’s development has been matched only by the all time greats. He’ll do his part. The rest of his game will get there, and everything else is up to his teammates and the organization. If there’s anything Mike Brown can teach young players, it’s how to guard the pick and roll. Don’t let Mike’s fart-whiff face get you down. No one ever succeeded without failing first.
ARGH we’re all guilty of irrational optimism. We’re going to be spending the next few years waiting for some other shoe to drop. But despite my well reasoned malaise, there’s no way the Cavs are trading Kyrie any time soon. Still, I can play with the trade machine to get multiple all-stars for Irving. Meanwhile, the wallabies better be helping Kyrie channel his inner Mookie Blaylock.
Mike Brown’s first hiring came with a clock. Cavs owner, Dan Gilbert, fearing his newly christened coach lacked a certain ability to grasp conceptual metaphor, was kind enough to bring an actual, physical clock to Brown’s introductory press conference. The clock, Gilbert explained, symbolized that Brown, even before he coached his first game, was “on the clock” and was expected to win immediately.
By Brown’s second hiring, Gilbert believed that we all had grown cognitively enough to interpret signs and symbols without his help. Either that or he just forgot the clock at home. There absolutely was a clock at Brown’s second press conference, though. Only this clock when it tolls, assuming that the clock had some sort of alarm function on it (and there’s no reason to believe it wouldn’t because … well, Dan Gilbert can afford really nice clocks), it tolls not for Mike Brown, but for CG.
Chris Grant firmly hitched up his GMsmanship to Brown and the next two years will basically decide whether or not Grant sticks around to further rivet the girders of his Cavaliers Rebuild blueprint. If Brown instills some manner of offensive and defensive identity (preferably a good ones) into the team of young players Grant has acquired since Brown left in 2010— and if those identities lead toward better professional basketballing in Cleveland, multiple playoff appearances, contender-dom, etc.— it will be hard to not give Grant a good deal of the credit. His run is identified by controversial (but generally agreed-upon in hindsight) draft picks, largely static off-seasons, long-term salary obligations wiped away from Cavs’ spreadsheets and a cupboard now bursting with future first rounders. It’s also featured a three-year run of some pretty terrible basketball but, at least on paper, Grant seems to be a man who can GM with above-average efficiency. He’s done arguably better than expected. No Jim Paxson, he.
Okay, over the last three seasons, we’ve learned a thing or two. For instance, we’ve learned that a team with a starting five of Ramon Sessions, Anthony Parker, Alonzo Gee, Antawn Jamison and whoever is getting Anderson Varejao’s post-injury minutes is, especially with cap-stretching salaries and a dearth of draft picks, a bummer to watch. On the flip, we’ve also learned that a team with a starting five of (the NBA’s youngest All-Star) Kyrie Irving, (he of a very promising February) Dion Waiters, (sigh) Alonzo Gee, (an absolute god-send of player development) Tristan Thompson and whoever is getting Anderson Varejao’s post-injury minutes is, even given relatively favorable salaries and an excess of future draft picks, still often a bummer to watch.
The lumps that we, the people following the Cleveland Cavaliers, took were lumps we knew we would take, and gladly take, favoring player development and a general bottoming out over a Milwaukee Bucks-ish eternal eight or nine seed. But, now, Mike Brown stands before us and says things about defense and about competing and we viewers, along with the Cavs organization, have to hope that the biggest lumps have ended. In order for that to be true, though, in order for the type of play that marred most of this season to be, by and large, in the rearview, we’ll need to be very selective (and lucky) in choosing the complementary pieces to this young and developing roster.
By all accounts, the Cavs want to keep Wayne Ellington, a restricted free agent. Marreese Speights is likely gone (and probably isn’t as good of a fit with this team as we thought during our brief Marreese Speight love-in when he first arrived). Livingston could stay or go and Miles could stay or be dropped. So, who else is out there? It won’t be Josh Smith or Dwight Howard, but I fully expect the Cavs to be aggressive in getting value players that will help them win (more) next season. So who?
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.
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.
Kevin Hetrick is an associate editor at Cavs: the Blog. He is a civil engineer who grew up in Northeast Ohio as a fan of the Cavs, Indians, and Browns. He now lives in Indianapolis. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org, and he's on Twitter at @hetrick46.
Nate Smith is an associate editor at C:TB who grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, and moved to NE Ohio in 2000. He adopted the Cavs in 2003 and graduated from Kent State in 2009 with a BA in English. He can be contacted at email@example.com or @oldseaminer on Twitter.
Tom Pestak is a staff writer at Cavs: the Blog. He's from the west side of Cleveland and lives and (mostly) dies by the success and (mostly) failures of his beloved teams. You can watch his fanaticism during Cavs games @tompestak.
Robert Attenweiler is a staff writer at Cavs: The Blog. Originally from OH, he's long made his home in NYC where he writes plays and screenplays (www.disgracedproductions.com) some of which end up being about Ohio, basketball or both. He has also written for The Classical and the blog Raising the Cadavalier. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @cadavalier.
Patrick Redford is a staff writer who lives in Berkeley, CA where he studies space, rides his bike and eats lots of tacos. He contributes to The Classical, Passion of the Weiss and other outlets. Find him on twitter @patrickredford or gmail at email@example.com.
Mallory Factor is the voice of Cavs: The Podcast. By day Mallory works in fundraising and by night he runs a music business company. To see his music endeavors check out www.fivetracks.com. Hit him up at Malloryfactorii@gmail.com or @Malfii.
John Krolik is the editor emeritus of Cavs: The Blog. At present, he is pursuing a law degree at Tulane University. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @johnkrolik.
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