Archive for January, 2012

Links to the Present: January 25, 2012

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012

“‘That’s more like it.’ That’s likely how Cavs fans felt after watching their discomforting defeats over the weekend — then witnessing how Cleveland fought to the finish against LeBron James and the Heat. Perhaps what Cavs forward Antawn Jamison said at practice Monday is true: ‘Last year is last year.'” [Sam Amico]

“I swear the Knicks are a professional comedy group. With all of the fanfare surrounding the Carmelo Anthony acquisition, and Amare Stoudemire proclaiming that ‘New York is back’ on like four separate occasions, and then drastically overpaying for Tyson Chandler in the offseason, you’d think that the Knicks were just steamrolling through the Eastern Conference. I mean, that’s at least what Knicks fans thought would happen. Instead, the Knicks are just 7-10 and haven’t really beaten many good teams. Melo is hosting his own personal brickfest every night and Amare may or may not have retired during the lockout and just didn’t tell anybody. Knicks fans want to fire Mike D’Antoni and they have Josh Harrelson and Mike Bibby playing meaningful minutes. While Community is off the air, I think New York Knicks basketball may be the best comedy on TV.” [Conrad Kaczmarek]

“Irving is showing everyone why the Cleveland Cavaliers chose him with the first overall pick in last year’s draft. He has improved his pick-and-roll play and demonstrated an ability to break down defenders and create offense for himself and his teammates. In isolation situations, Irving produces 1.189 points per possession (this includes points he scores and those generated by assists). That puts Irving in the top 4 percent of NBA players. Irving scores most effectively from isolations at the top of the key. He knows it, too, and finds a way to begin 48 percent of his isolation possessions from that spot, according to Synergy Sports. On those plays, Irving drives to his left 58.3 percent of the time.” [Sebastian Pruiti]

And here’s a Youtube video of that ridiculous Alonzo Gee dunk from last night.

Recap: Heat 92, Cavs 85 (Or, too much Bosh)

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

Overview: The Cavs kept the Miami Heat from imposing their will on them for most of the game, but Chris Bosh’s 17 fourth-quarter points led the Miami Heat to a somewhat lackluster 92-85 win over the Cavaliers. Kyrie Irving led the Cavaliers with 17 points in 26 minutes.

Cavs-Related Bullets:

You’ve gotta give the Cavs a lot of credit for taking the Heat out of their game on Tuesday night. The Heat’s offense is built around Pace, Space, and LeBron James being a beast, and none of those things worked for Miami on Tuesday. The Heat managed only four fast-break points, shot 5-18 from deep, and LeBron was held to 18 points on 8-21 shooting.

Unfortunately for the Cavs, Chris Bosh reminded everybody why it’s a “Big Three” in Miami — with the Heat’s best player having an off-night, their second-best player out with an injury, and their shooters drawing iron time and time again, Chris Bosh was able to simply take over the game with a mix of tough drives to the rim and smooth mid-range jumpers. At some point, that’s just unfair, but that’s life in today’s NBA. It would have been nice if Tristan Thompson was available, because he may have been able to bottle up Bosh somewhat, but there’s little comfort in wondering what could have been.

Offensively, the Cavs had a few good performances, but no huge ones. Kyrie had 17 points on 11 shots, but Byron Scott is still steadfastly refusing to give Irving superstar minutes, presumably because of his defense. (To Scott’s point, Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers did have 19 points on 12 shots on Tuesday, which pretty much negated Irving’s offensive effort.) Alonzo Gee continues to look like a new man — he kept the defense honest by hitting a three, which opened up the lane for a HUGE and-1 dunk. I continue to be amazed by his development into an actual NBA player this season.

Samardo had a great game, but I refuse to get sucked into believing in him — we’ll see if he can keep this up before calling him a legitimate piece for this team.

This game was pretty much a classic good news/bad news story — the Cavs did everything right and kept the Heat from playing their game while holding their best player (and the best player in the NBA) in check, but came up short because the Heat’s 3rd-best player is far better than anyone on Cleveland’s roster. It’s an uncomfortable truth, but it’s the truth nonetheless. Hopefully the Cavs can bring this kind of effort against teams with less star power, because the results will come if they do.

Rookie Roundup – Ouch…

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

Every two weeks I’ll give a little recap of what our youngsters are up to, how they looked, and what to expect.

*Sigh*…

Much has changed since I last wrote about our young heroes.  Since Monday the 9th the Cavs have gone 2-5, including two abysmally bad loses, and the team as a whole has looked very, very off.  We’ve seen some half decent efforts (Thompson’s last game, against Atlanta)  and some terrible ones (TT’s game the day before, against the Bulls)

The point is, it’s been a rough two weeks.  Much of that is related to the shooting woes of Sessions and Gibson, and the on and off play of Jamison, but I think our two rookies had quite a bit to do with it – lets take a deeper look:

Thompson:

My honeymoon period with Thompson is over; I can tell you that with certainty.  I still like his game and think he can be good in the future, but I’m no longer the naive, starry-eyed boy I once was with him.  Thompson’s power and athletiscism is great – it’s fun and exciting to watch and yields one or two WOW! plays a game.  But beyond the entertainment factor, there’s not a whole lot to love.  He constantly looks confused on defense, and relies purely on his athleticism to stop his man, which pretty much killed him against the Bulls, who have big guys who know how to move in the post.  While his D rebounding has gone up to around 3 a game (which is about a half a rebound better) I really don’t think they’re pure skill rebounds – he’s not great at boxing out and it almost looks like he has to struggle to get himself into D rebounding position at times.  His defensive rebound rate is 19.6 which isn’t wretched,  but isn’t high enough for a guy who doesn’t do much more than that (and block shots) on D – it puts him at about 80th in the league.  Obviously, as our mantra goes, he’s young and he’ll learn, but 15 games in, we’ve seen little growth on the defensive side.  On a bright note, though, he’s still a blocking machine, and it couldn’t be more fun to watch him leap up and swat a ball.

What really concerns me, though, is his offense.  While he’s still great at doing what he’s always done (facing the basket and throwing it down with authority) he hasn’t really shown much improvement in the post, which is critically important, particularly for a guy his size who won’t be able to use pure power against the Dwight Howards and Andrew Bynums of the NBA.  At the rim, TT is shooting a good 57% (especially for a guy who spends most of his time in the paint),  but at just 3-9 feet away, his numbers drop to 38.2%, meaning our guy has a lot of learning to do even just a few feet away from the hoop.

I do think Thompson has a ton of upside (I’m still excited!!!) but the few game grace period is over – it’s time to start nitpicking and looking for improvement.

Irving:

Now here’s where I’m really concerned.  Kyrie’s D has looked pretty stinking bad recently.  He got torched regularly by Watson in the Bulls game, and was equally inept against the likes of Nate Robinson and D.J. Augustin.  It’s not that he’s playing the worst D in the league or anything, but considering the high expectations we had for him, and even giving him a little leeway because he’s a rookie, to say his defense has been a disappointment up to this point is an understatement.  Consider this: according to Basketball Reference, Kyrie’s offensive rating, the amount of points his team would score with him on the floor given 100 possessions, vs his defensive rating, the number of points the other team would score with him on the floor given 100 possessions, is 106 to 107, meaning his team is being outscore while he plays.  And considering the amount of offense Kyrie has been producing, that’s pretty startling.  There are times where he flashes some great speed chasing someone down the court, or making a nice cut off move to the basket, but he’s regularly struggled off the pick and roll, and his lateral movement doesn’t seem to be where it should considering his scouting report.  Hopefully this is rookie malaise, but it’s definitely something to keep a close eye on as the season progresses.

On offense, Kyrie is still his stellar shooting self.  I won’t harp on the numbers too much, but he’s averaging a nice 17.4% shooting at 50% in under 30 minutes.  That’s amazing efficient scoring (his true shooting % is about 6 points above league average too, which is nice.)  That being said, it’s not all fantastic on offense.  Quite frankly, Kyrie has had some serious issues passing the ball.  His turnover numbers are terrible – almost four a game at under 30 minutes – and his turnover % is 19.4 which puts him farther down the list than I was hoping, considering how highly regarded his passing skills and decision making were.  I’m not sure if it’s the pace of the game that’s causing him to make mistakes (the Cavs play the 6th fastest in the NBA, with 93.5 possessions per game) or if he’s just trying to do too much.  Whatever the case, lets hope he can cutdown the turnovers and raise his assists average.

I’ve been harsh, I know, but it’s really not all bad.  We have two young players, one who has definite star potential and another whose natural born athletic abilities could make even the most pessimistic smile, and our future looks bright.  As long as they improve, I see very good things coming!

Hopefully in two weeks I’ll get to talk about Mychal Thompson.

Until then, enjoy the Cavs!

Links to the Present: January 23, 2012

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

“It’s only a matter of time before the Cavaliers retire former center Zydrunas Ilgauskas’ No. 11 jersey. It’s not a matter of if. It’s a matter of when. It will happen, probably this season. No ceremony has been scheduled for the special assistant to general manager Chris Grant.” [CBS Sports]

“In the past few years, James has connected with many NBA prospects through his invitation-only camp in Akron. Had Irving and fellow rookie Tristan Thompson — represented by James’ longtime friend Rich Paul — gone to any of 29 other teams, their friendships with the Heat small forward would be viewed through a different prism. But because it’s Cleveland and because of the history, Irving understands the increased level of sensitivity.” [Tom Reed]

With Anthony Parker’s back ailing and Boobie Gibson on the mend, the Cavs have called up Christian Eyenga.

Here’s a look at the Cavaliers season by the numbers from Fear the Sword.

Recap: Cavs 94, Hawks 121

Saturday, January 21st, 2012

The Cavs were crushed by the Hawks on Saturday night. It was a joyless drubbing. I’m gonna rely on the Twitterverse to describe this one.

1st Quarter

“Ball’s in the air. The building is half empty.” [PD Cavs Insider]

“Jamison had a nice defensive stance there. He looked really good as Teague blew by him.” [realcavsfans]

“Does the city of Atlanta know its team is 11-5, or has the malaise of mediocrity taken hold?” [Eric Knappenberger]

2nd Quarter

“Yeah, stop leaving VladRad open.” [Conrad Kaczmarek]

“Hawks timeout skit included a “Cavs” fan in a LeBron jersey. Real #Cavs didn’t look amused.” [Jason Lloyd]

3rd Quarter

“My, that escalated quickly. #Cavs” [Scott Sargent]

“In the past 8:22 — spanning second and third quarters — the Cavs have been outscored 32-10.” [PD Cavs Insider]

“#Cavs have exactly 2 offensive rebounds. Yikes.” [Jason Lloyd]

4th Quarter

“Boredom warrants a Christian Eyenga update… shooting 40% from the field, 10% from three and 64% from the line in 8 games with Canton.” [Eric Knappenberger]

“Willie Green just caught an alley oop. I think we’re done here.” [Conrad Kaczmarek]

“What a boring loss!” [Colin McGowan]

Okay, we’re done here. Miami on Tuesday. Enjoy the rest of your weekend.

Recap: Cavs 75, Bulls 114 (Or, Scalabrine was plus 5)

Friday, January 20th, 2012

When you’re a team with a 19 year old PG and your wings are a combination of undersized, unathletic & undrafted and your starting power forward is a floor bound 35 year old…well, occasionally you run into a team that’s better than you.  And sometimes you epically crap the bed.  Tonight was the latter.

The game started with the Cavs leading 16 – 15 behind three Irving darts from long range.  And everything was massively downhill from there.

I planned on handling this recap similarly to my previous entry, offering a summary of interesting early season trends, and how it related to the game that was played.  Really I don’t want to talk about the game that was played, but there’s probably some worthwhile stuff below.  The general format works for me for a few reasons:

  1. Many of my posts are about the draft or future considerations; the occasional recap is my clearinghouse of present day Cavs related thoughts.
  2. I’m a stats guy and this is a good format for communicating some of those.
  3. I have a 6 week old, am kind of on her schedule, and watched the game with her.  It helps to have the bulk of the writing done ahead of time.

With that, here are some early season trends in italics, followed by how things played out tonight.  The coverage of tonight is pretty limited, but I probably hit most of the low points.

Kyrie Irving’s pretty good – Most of what can be said has been: 18 points and 5 assists in 28 minutes a games, 48/38/84 shooting, too many turnovers, not enough defense…you know the drill.

What’s there to say?  Kyrie was the 2nd best player on the team tonight?  Not exactly a compliment this time, but it’s the best I’ve got.  13 points on 11 shots and 3 assists against 2 turnovers.  The Cavs were only minus 9 in his 22 minutes.

Varejao, too – Varejao’s rebounding is the season’s other recurring theme.  His rebounding rate is 4th best in the league, which is a leap from prior seasons.  Part of this can be attributed to his switch to center, but he’s been playing at a high level.

Andy’s 14 points brought him back to averaging a double-double for the season.  Sometimes, we as fans, need to focus on the moral victories.

The whole team is rebounding – Cleveland is the NBA’s 4th best rebounding team so far this season.  Tristan Thompson has stepped up his defensive rebounding and is currently 14th of 78 power forwards for rebounding rate (keep up the great board work, Mr. T!).  Sessions and Irving are the 3rd and 13th best rebounding PG’s, respectively.

How do I make a big “thumbs down” on the computer?  Unfortunately, Chicago rebounds better than everyone else.  The Cavs were outrebounded 54 to 38.  Thompson had 1 defensive rebound in 17 minutes.  Maybe I jinxed them by typing this before the game.

Jamison the key to victory? – In games where Jamison has true shooting over 50%, the Cavs are 5 – 1.  When his true shooting is below 50, 1 – 6.  This may be indicative of how soft the opposing D is, but if Jamison can operate as an effective second scorer, the Cavs are pretty good.

Well…he, ummm…Jamison lead the team in minutes (18% true shooting).

Changing of the guard (er, small forward?) – After a start to the season that left Cavs fans cursing, Omri Casspi had put in three decent games in a row.  In similar minutes; Casspi is averaging 13 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists and 1 turnover against LA, Charlotte and Golden State, while Gee has lagged at 6 points, 3 rebounds and 3 turnovers.  The Cavs are +1 during Casspi’s minutes and -13 for Gee.

Casspi was minus 8, compared to Gee’s minus 26.  I’m not going to infer that this means anything; everyone sucked tonight.  The Cavs did go three minutes without Gee or Casspi on the floor tonight, but alas the Irving / Sessions / Gibson lineup also sucked (outscored 7 to 2 in 3 minutes)

Concerned about Thompson? – I only mean concerned depending on what you think his ceiling is.  TT is scoring on 48% of his field goal attempts and 37% on free throws.  That’s not good, but even worse, is that in January those numbers are 46 and 31 (31!).  This summer, I posted a goofy series called Diamond in the Rough.  In the Luke Harangody piece, I noted that only 30 PF’s in the last 9 years had played 500 minutes and posted a true shooting percentage under 46.  Of those, only four ever had a modicum of success after that season: Tyler Hansbrough, Darrell Arthur, Kris Humphries and Jared Jeffries.  Tristan’s walking that line (47.3% true shooting to date), where no one has recently climbed out of the abyss to be more than a borderline starter.  It’s only been 13 games, but we need to start seeing a little more offensive effectiveness from TT.

Thompson was generally overwhelmed by the Bulls’ super-defensive subs: Taj Gibson and Omer Asik.  His 2 of 10 shooting and 0 of 2 from the line probably drops him below my totally arbitrary 46% true shooting line.  He can be a bit of a ball-stopper on offense, and needs to let the offense come to him.

They pull the trigger on the right looks – Per possession, the Cavs were taking the 3rd least amount of shots from 3 to 23 feet in the NBA.  This is important, because those are the worst shots in the game.  Across the NBA, teams convert 63% at the rim, 51 (efg%) on 3’s, but right around 37% for all ranges from 3 – 23 feet.  The Cav making the smartest shot selection is Casspi, with 67 combined shots at the rim plus three point attempts, versus only 21 shots from “mid-range”.   Others playing this way include Irving with 100 / 79, Gibson at 61 / 26, Gee at 46 / 21 and Parker with 46/33.

Except for Sessions and Jamison – Through the Golden State game, Jamison had taken 117 shots between 3 and 23 ft.  As shown above, all four wings have taken 101 combined.  Sessions’ ratio is 40 / 62.

I thought this was kind of interesting, but it didn’t matter tonight.  Everyone was chucking hot cans of garbage at the basket (Sessions 3 of 12, Gibson 2 of 10).

Semih Erden fouls too much – That’s my obvious statement of the night.  But to show how frequently he’s fouling; out of 337 players with 10+ minutes per game, his 21 fouls in 79 minutes outpaces anyone else in the league by 2 fouls per 40 minutes.

There was a Samardo Samuels and a Luke Harangody sighting tonight!  That’s all I have to say about that.

Summary: This game was a miserable experience and I look forward to going to sleep now.  Hopefully a much better performance is on the horizon tomorrow in Atlanta.

The Impossible Pursuit

Thursday, January 19th, 2012

Someone once said—the author’s name is lost in my memory somewhere between the cost of a steak burrito from the Mexican place in my old neighborhood and the lyrics to Curren$y’s “Address”—the only person interested in twenty year-old girls besides twenty year-old girls is Woody Allen. This is exceedingly correct, and goes double for twenty year-old guys, who have no great filmmaker to cast them as objects of desire in romantic comedies. Real talk, college sophomores and McDonald’s night managers: you could all spontaneously contract tuberculosis and the answer would be two million tumbleweeds rolling through the dust.

I’m twenty-one, by the way: barely a person, fresh off a half-decade of self-destruction, attempting to carve a notch into existence’s fat thigh. There’s a lot of night-sweat involved. Kyrie Irving (19) and Tristan Thompson (20) are trying to be successful in the world’s best basketball league, ideally not at the expense of their burgeoning humanity. I can’t comprehend the pressure and confusion that accompanies millions of dollars in the bank and a city’s sports fans on one’s back. All I know is that my internal monologue—the one belonging to a indolent grad student, for whom tumbleweeds scurry—is just a string of nervous, angry expletives most of the time.

TT and Irving aren’t so neurotic, I’m sure. At least that’s what I glean from their Twitter feeds, which are a series of platitudes and half-platitudes, instances of bro-ing down with Texas and Duke alum, and questions for followers as to where one can find a good steakhouse in Minneapolis or Detroit. It’s a waterfall of boring into which I stick my sifting pan every few days, just in case Irving twists an ankle walking up the steps of a hotel lobby or Thompson admits that he, a 6’9″ black dude from Toronto, is actually Banksy. Neither of these things has happened; I know next to nothing about either of them as people.

I don’t know that I aspire to. I want to know as much as I can about Irving and Thompson insofar as that information might help me project the type of basketball player either one is going to be in a few years. I’m not curious, I’m impatient. And my impatience is never satiated because there’s simply not much to know about most 20 year-olds, even ones who ply their trade in front of television cameras and answer questions from reporters every other night. Watching Kyrie Irving play basketball is like being equipped with shoddy echolocation: you can tell there’s a bulky mass of something in the distance, but you can’t trace its features.

Because pupation has to conclude before the process makes much sense; staring at the cocoon, speculating about what’s to emerge is more a source of entertainment than a science. Which is why I’ve spent so many hours conducting quasi-research. In times of uncertainty, it’s prudent to arm oneself with knowledge, and when knowledge is scarce, it’s comforting to arm oneself with trivia masquerading as knowledge. Did you know that Tristan Thompson is the cousin of Defensive Tackle Jemal Thompson of the Toronto Argonauts? More importantly, do you know what that means for his ability to develop a 15-foot jumper by his third year in the league?

This fervent quest for information that doesn’t exist serves to illuminate how far we sometimes go in our commodification of athletes. In the face of a volatile commodity—a player with heaps of unrealized potential—we rush to project what the commodity will be when it has become relatively stable. What is 24 year-old Tristan Thompson? We do this because, when examining a roster, we treat players like chess pieces. Think how many times you’ve read on any sports blog or website Team X could compete for a championship if only they had Player Type Y. One of the first questions we ask ourselves as sports fans when our team is struggling is What does our team need?, and to figure out what our team needs we need to know, logically, what the young players will become. So we attempt to read tea leaves—Wikipedia pages, interviews, boring Twitter feeds—in an impossible pursuit of the unknowable.

I admit that all of this makes me feel sort of gross. Being a good fan is sometimes a conversation between one’s enthusiasm and self-awareness, I think—about intermittently recalibrating how much one should care. Otherwise, you’re the overzealous jerk at the sports bar, the perpetually angry fan, the obsessive, the sports radio junkie, or the person who allows their team’s failure to gnaw at their innards. None of those things are healthy. The fun of sports is that they matter—there’s a lot of nightsweat involved—but that they also, objectively, don’t. Getting red in the face over a loss due to a poor coaching decision is natural, but after directing a few curses at the television screen, it’s best to recalibrate. You choose, after all, whether to let a game ruin the rest of your weekend.

At present, I realize I need to recalibrate my fandom in a more subtle way: I want to enjoy this rusted-out tugboat of a team I’m watching. I grew way too accustomed to watching a championship contender over the past half-decade, and I watch this 2011-12 Cavs squad like a half-heartedly recovering methadone addict. I mean, sure: “cultivating young talent” or whatever, but when do I start feeling my arteries vibrate like viola strings again? It’s why I’m already thinking about the 2012 NBA draft, tracking the development of young Cavs on a game-to-game basis, imagining trades months before the deadline. It’s natural: who doesn’t want their team to be good? But my impatience has been pulling my glee underwater. Kyrie Irving is already one of the more exciting players in the NBA, and he’s 19, so sometimes he makes hilariously bad decisions. Tristan Thompson’s athleticism-to-skill ratio is, like, a thousand. Ryan Hollins plays significant minutes in professional basketball games sometimes. Antawn Jamison does not care about “a hand in his face” or “eleven seconds on the shot clock”—that 18-footer’s headed rimward. Byron Scott has grown a scruffy salt and pepper goatee, and breaks out an incredulous “Goddamn rookies!” face at least once per game. Hallelujah: this new young, old, irrelevant rusted-out tugboat of a team is fun to watch. They don’t proceed so much as careen—toward where is anyone’s guess.

Links to the Present: January 19, 2012

Thursday, January 19th, 2012

“The Cleveland Cavaliers today announced that Zydrunas Ilgauskas is joining the team’s front office as Special Assistant to the General Manager. The announcement was made today by Cavs General Manager Chris Grant. In his role as Special Assistant to the General Manager, Ilgauskas will be involved with front office responsibilities, including evaluation of amateur and professional prospects.” [NBA.com]

“Emotionally, bringing Z back is really important to me as a fan. Austin Carr will always be “Mr. Cavalier”, but to my generation, Zydrunas Ilgauskas represents those same traits. It’s a mix of longevity and loyalty in the face of crippling injuries, a warm personality, and an embracing of Cleveland as a second home. I know the knee-jerk reaction is to say “this is just a publicity stunt by our owner who’s always got an agenda”. I’m not that cynical. Sometimes, an agreement between two parties just makes too much sense to not occur. How else does a former player get a start in the front office anyway? Wayne Embry and Danny Ferry needed someone to give them their first gig. Ferry and Ilgauskas remain close friends, and no doubt Ferry has communicated to Z what it takes to evaluate players from a front office perspective.” [Kirk at WFNY]

“Last fall, USA TODAY published an article about the Duke men’s basketball team, in which head coach Mike Krzyzewski compared then-Duke star Kyrie Irving to NBA All-Star Chris Paul.  When told of those comments last month in an interview with USA TODAY, Irving paused, then said, ‘There’s only one Kyrie Irving.’ While a comparison to Paul may be bold, Irving’s performance through his first 13 games can draw comparisons not only to Paul, but is also surpassing what LeBron James did as a rookie for the Cleveland Cavaliers.” [Justin Havens]

Hell’s Catapult

Wednesday, January 18th, 2012

Like when the trees sprout small green buds and the first spores of pollen inflame ever so slightly the inside of an allergic’s nose, causing him to sneeze, I feel dread. I know the sentiment is expressed only in cautious murmurs at the moment, but let me address the thimble-sized elephant in the room: if the Cavs slip into the playoffs this season, the slate that Chris Grant scrubbed clean following LeBron’s departure last summer will begin to yellow.

This sounds counterintuitive, but in the NBA, Purgatory is not unlike Hell. The difference is Hell comes with a catapult. A .500 record and an eight seed afford a team the ability to draft Rodney Stuckeys and Robin Lopezes: players who can contribute to a good team, but should not, under any circumstances, be tasked with shouldering a team’s scoring load or playing 37 minutes a game. The problem is most .500 teams aren’t a Rodney Stuckey away from competing for a championship. The Cavaliers certainly aren’t. Which is why they need another year with access to Hell’s catapult. They need a selection in the top five of the upcoming NBA Draft.

I argue this because I subscribe to the theory that it’s incredibly difficult to compete for a championship without a superstar. This is based on what I’ve seen transpire over the last decade in the NBA. Here’s a list of the best (and, yes, in a couple cases one can quibble over my choices, but bear with me for a moment) player on each of the last 20 teams to make the NBA Finals, with the winning team on the left and the losers on the right:

2001-02: Shaquille O’Neal (Lakers) v. Jason Kidd (Nets)
2002-03: Tim Duncan (Spurs) v. Jason Kidd (Nets)
2003-04: Chauncey Billups (Pistons) v. Shaquille O’Neal (Lakers)
2004-05: Tim Duncan (Spurs) v. Chauncey Billups (Pistons)
2005-06: Dwyane Wade (Heat) v. Dirk Nowitzki (Mavs)
2006-07: Tim Duncan (Spurs) v. LeBron James (Cavs)
2007-08: Kevin Garnett (Celtics) v. Kobe Bryant (Lakers)
2008-09: Kobe Bryant (Lakers) v. Dwight Howard (Magic)
2009-10: Kobe Bryant (Lakers) v. Rajon Rondo (Celtics)
2010-11: Dirk Nowitzki (Mavs) v. LeBron James (Heat)

Most of these squads were well-constructed teams with good coaches, talented role players, and even multiple All-Stars, but they also, with the exception of the Pistons teams that made back-to-back Finals in 2004 and 2005 and the 2009-10 Boston Celtics, had at least one of the five best players in the league. I don’t think the data lies here: a team needs an elite talent to have more than a slim chance of making the NBA Finals.

The question, then, if we accept that point, is whether or not we think Kyrie Irving will become an elite talent. Predicting with any certainty what level Irving will be playing at in three or four years is like predicting the finds of a spelunking expedition without much knowledge beyond “it’s a big cave.” It’s imprudent to assume any rookie will grow into the next Chris Paul or Dwyane Wade, and a team can’t really know if they have a franchise player on their roster until he becomes one. For every Derrick Rose, there are even more Chris Boshes and Pau Gasols—players who, at a young age, exhibit the potential to become superstars, but instead become excellent second and third options. There’s no shame in being Russell Westbrook-ish, but there’s also no reason for the Cavs to assume a 19 year-old who’s looked promising in 13 professional games is a savior.

And if the ceiling for Irving ranges from “pretty darn good” to “transcendent,” then Tristan Thompson hopscotches through the rubric. Right now, he’s a baby-faced stalk of thunder without name. He has immense athleticism and toughness, but little skill. He might emerge from the gym a few summers from now with a face-up game and a 17-footer, start posting 15-9, and anchor a Cavalier defense that ranks sixth in the league. He might finish right behind Dwight Howard in the Defensive Player of the Year voting. He might never figure it out. He might be an eighth man. He might make me start disliking Canada. (It would be all his fault.) He will probably be something else entirely. A combination between Serge Ibaka and a marmoset that breaks my vocabulary.

My point is you can’t bank on players who imbibe illegally. Reality can take flame to projections. If the success of a small-market team depends principally on luck in the draft, and if a player who imprints himself upon the NBA landscape like a meteor comes along only once every couple of years, then teams like Cleveland, Sacramento, and Milwaukee should want two shots at picking in the top five.

Here’s a (subjective) list of players drafted over the last decade who are capable of being the best player on a championship contender* and their draft position:

LeBron James (2003, 1st overall)
Carmelo Anthony (2003, 3rd overall)
Dwyane Wade (2003, 5th overall)
Dwight Howard (2004, 1st overall)
Deron Williams (2005, 3rd overall)
Chris Paul (2005, 4th overall)
Kevin Durant (2007, 2nd overall)
Derrick Rose (2008, 1st overall)

And that’s it. That’s the list. Anyone else needs either an outstanding supporting cast (like Rondo had in 2009-10) or to play alongside a superstar (like Blake Griffin is with CP3) to have legitimate title hopes. LaMarcus Aldrige is one of my favorite non-Cavaliers in the NBA, and the Blazers are a talented team, but his chances of playing in the NBA Finals dipped significantly the moment Brandon Roy’s (6th overall, by the way) knees started expressing contempt for everyone who enjoyed watching Roy play basketball.

It’s important to note that none of the guys listed above were drafted outside the top 5. Plenty of good players get drafted later, obviously: Amare Stoudemire (9th), Joe Johnson (10th), Rudy Gay (8th), Rajon Rondo (21st), et al. But the ones who act as the keystones on championship squads are almost always drafted in that first handful of selections. Having more ping pong balls means a better chance at landing Carmelo, not Amare; Durant, not Gay—players between which the distinctions are crucial.

So, I propose a strange rally cry: continue bottoming out, Cavaliers! Flip Andy Varejao for assets. Flip Antawn Jamison into Lake Erie. Flip off. Let’s party. Let the young guys run around. Free Skyenga! (Then probably cut Skyenga.) Accumulate “moral victories.” Build camaraderie through misery. Lose entertainingly. Lose spectacularly. Dominate a game and then forfeit with eight seconds left. Go stupidly into that good night. Binge drink on badness.

Then, after the smell of burnt hair dissipates, sober up. Assemble a table of People Who Know What They’re Doing. Pore over scouting reports. Hold workouts. Scrutinize. (It’s very important that you scrutinize.) Watch game tape. Interview dudes. Sweat over ping pong balls. Watch more game tape. Scrutinize again. Consult college coaches. Consult scouts. Take other smart people out to dinner and consult them. Assemble your war room. Field trade offers. Don’t waver. Then make the pick. Make sure you believe in it.

It sounds exhausting. I’m sorry it sounds so exhausting. But you’re building a skyscraper. Those things take time and steel. The Cavaliers have plenty of one.

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*The way that I did this, in my head, was by looking at the Kobe-led Lakers of 2008-09, and asking the question: “If you replaced Kobe with [Player X], would that Laker team still make it to the Finals?” So, for example, I think if you replaced 2008-09 Kobe with present-day Derrick Rose, that Laker team still makes the Finals. If you replace 2008-09 Kobe with present-day Russell Westbrook? I think LA falls a little bit short. For someone like Dwight Howard, who isn’t a guard, I plugged Howard into the center slot, took Andrew Bynum off the team, and replaced Kobe’s shooting guard spot with a 2008-09 Bynum-level shooting guard (so, like, Kevin Martin or whomever). It’s a little convoluted and obviously subjective, but I think it works pretty well.

Links to the Present: January 18, 2012

Wednesday, January 18th, 2012

“Now, Cleveland is somehow sitting pretty at 6-7 – tied with the New York Knicks for the seventh-best record in the Eastern Conference. Being on the playoff fringe isn’t a great accomplishment in the grand scheme of the league, but the Cavs’ competency is sudden and, on first glance, a bit baffling. Cleveland was able to add two top picks (Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson) in the off-season thanks to some lottery luck, but this is, more or less, the same team that lost 63 games a year ago. Are we really to believe that those rookie additions alone – coupled with Varejao’s return from injury – were enough to right the most depressing team in basketball?” [Rob Mahoney]

“The Cavs had 25 turnovers on the night, part of a sloppy all around performance. Kyrie Irving had 6 of those turnovers, but they included a meaningless turnover after the game was decided, an odd double-dribble turnover, a carrying violation, and 3-second violation.  The turnovers seemed more like Irving was uncomfortable on the court rather than careless.  That can’t be said of every Cavalier in this ball-handling debacle, but it was slightly reassuring that the rookie point guard isn’t getting especially lazy with the ball quite yet.” [Michael Curry]

“In the survey which was conducted prior to a single game being played, 63 percent of the league’s GM’s said Irving, the first-overall selection in the 2011 NBA Draft, would bring home the Rookie of the Year award with Minnesota’s Ricky Rubio slotting in second with 18.5 percent of the vote. For good measure, when asked which rookie would be the best player in five years, Irving once again led his pack of peers with 51.9 percent of the vote. Rubio, Toronto’s Jonas Valanciunas and Minnesota’s Derrick Williams tied for second, each with 11.1 percent of the vote.” [Scott Sargent]