Archive for February, 2012

Links to the Present: February 22, 2012

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

“A three-ball from the top of the key. A cross-over move from the left elbow that found fellow rookie guard Brandon Knight wondering what the heck just happened as the ball fell through the nylon. And an Alonzo Gee steal turned into a 360-degree, over-the-shoulder, no-look pass back to the athletic wing for the unabated dunk. The entire sequence took roughly one game minute, but it was just the momentum the Cleveland Cavaliers needed to extend a lead against the Detroit Pistons, a lead they would never relinquish thanks to consistent defensive efforts across the board coupled with timely conversions on the offensive end. A lead that would ultimately end in a one-point win at home — their second consecutive win by the narrowest of margins.” [Scott Sargent]

“[In the fourth quarter] Kyrie went supernova. He took over. Alonzo Gee helped, but Ky completely dominated for a five minute stretch. He made some unreal moves in the paint, drained big three pointers, and had an absolutely ridiculous behind the back pass to Gee for the crush. When it came time for the Pistons to foul to extend the game, they put Irving on the line and he swished them both. Let me remind you that he is 19 years old. He’s nineteen.” [Conrad Kaczmarek]

“The versatile Gee returned to his natural spot on the floor and in the rotation on Tuesday. He had started the previous two games at shooting guard in absence of Daniel Gibson and Anthony Parker. This is a player who entered the season with neither a guaranteed contract or roster spot and has become one of Scott’s most indispensable contributors off the bench.” [Tom Reed]

Kyrie Irving’s going to compete in the Skill Challenge during All-Star weekend. We will all bear witness to how accurate his bounce passes can be.

And I’m over on the Daily Dime over at ESPN very concisely discussing last night’s Cavaliers win.

Recap: Pistons 100, Cavs 101

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

The Cavs won another close game, outscoring the Pistons 35-23 in the fourth quarter.

–I would say that I’m conflicted about the Cavaliers winning so many close games, but that would be inaccurate. As much as losing is a drag, I stand firm on the fact that I think this team needs to secure one of the worst records in the league in order to complete this rebuild through the upcoming draft. To use an analogy, I think building a title contender from scratch is a bit like planning a shuttle launch. You need to have all your components and personel in place before firing up the thrusters, and even then the ship might explode on the platform. The Cavs have reached the point of their season where it’s time to power down.

–How do the Cavaliers power down, exactly? I don’t know. The fact is the Cavs have one of the best young point guards in the league and a gaggle of role players who range from competent to awful. Maybe that’s good enough for the 9 or 10 spot in the East during this strange season… which is exactly where the Cavs don’t want to be because, again: they’re a team with one of the best young point guards in the league and a gaggle of role players. And it’s not like Byron Scott can bench Kyrie Irving in an effort to tank. I’m starting to sweat, and it’s leaking through the pits of my favorite shirt. I think I’ll address this issue in a longer article sometime in the next week.

–In the meantime, let’s talk about this game. It was a lot of fun! (For about six minutes.) The Cavs looked flat for much of the contest, with the exception of Antawn Jamison who deserves a lot of credit for the victory. He carried the Cavaliers’ offense for much of the game. His 29 points through three quarters were the only reason the Pistons weren’t up by 22 heading into the final period.

–In crunch time, Irving, who had a pretty dreadful game (6 TOs, lots of short-armed jumpers), was ebullient. He put up 17 points in the final quarter, including a triumvirate of threes and some clutch free throws to put the Cavs up 4 with 11 seconds left. I hesitate to call a player with half a shortened season under his belt “clutch,” but all signs are positive that Irving will make a living taking over games in the fourth quarter. He demanded the ball, and made something good happen nearly every time he touched it. He picked his team and himself up when it mattered. It was special.

–Lots of mistakes tonight. The Cavs turned the ball over 17 times to the Pistons’ 11, and the offense was slow getting into its sets. It was a strange night for the team offensively. It seemed like the only players racking up shots were Irving, Jamison, and Gee; Jamison was the only one converting on a consistent basis.

–There’s not a lot else to say. This was essentially a routine loss with the exception of the final quarter. The Pistons outplayed the Cavs and deserved to win, but they went into autopilot just as the Cavaliers were heating up. Oh, and Ryan Hollins is still awful at basketball.

The Cavs are at home against the Hornets tomorrow night. Given how lethargic their performance was tonight, I wonder if they’ll have anything left for New Orleans, who would be the worst team in the league if the Bobcats didn’t exist. Until tomorrow, friends.

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.

Rookie Roundup – Reflections On The Season Thus Far

Monday, February 20th, 2012

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

As far as our rookies go, it’s been a very, very, very slow two weeks.  Other than last night, we’ve seen our rooks miss some games, play some bad games, play some good games, and do very little by way of spectacular.  Both Tristan and Kyrie missed some time (Kyrie more than Tristan) and, on the whole, there was very little noteworthy action from the two.  There have been some nice wins and some bad losses, and a whole lot of questions, at least about the future.  I can’t remember a time where I’ve felt so apathetic about how my team has been doing.

Which got me to thinking – not only where do we go from here, but what are we now?  In a season that is marked by the purgatory of rebuilding, how does the average fan react?  We’ve spent so much time talking about the future, but how do we happily look at what we have, put it into the context of this season, and feel some contentment?

Obviously contextualizing this season comes with the reflection of last season.  We can say one thing for sure – we have some real youth on our team, and things are certainly brighter than they have been, but even with that in mind things seem limited.

You can subtract Kyrie from the frustration because, at least in my mind, he’s a stud.  I’m almost certain he’ll be an all-star at some point, and maybe even a star, and we know that the process of his growth makes this season somewhat worthwhile.  But beyond that, what development has been made?  Does anyone really feel like we have even a semblance of a team of pros?

After seven years marked by nothing but overpowering momentum and one year stained by rejection, where do we go with what we know we have?

The last two games have been a microcosm of the larger questions of this season.  On Friday we were crushed by one of the best teams in the NBA, and on Sunday we beat one of the worst.  As diehard NBA fans, most of us know that this is to be expected – we need to take our licks on the way to the top.  But for those fans who don’t know the map as well as we do, the future must look a lot more uncertain and the present totally uninspired and like another year of disappointment.

I’m still very happy with the way this draft has turned out so far.  Kyrie looks like he’s got a lot more talent than we ever could have expected, and Tristan Thompson, if willing to put in the necessary work, has the tools to be a solid contributor.  This season is obviously dedicated to them, Alonzo Gee, Omri Casspi, and any other player who shows the signs of progressing to the image of a piece of the team that Gilbert,  Grant, and Scott have.  But beyond that, isn’t it ok to wish for a little more?  As fans, aren’t we entitled to more than just purgatory?

Sorry for the existentialism.  I promise for our next roundup, I’ll give you guys a mid-year report on our kids.  Until then, my friends.

Links to the Present: February 20, 2012

Monday, February 20th, 2012

“[Tristan Thompson] just did a good job. He was aggressive. He was going after the ball offensively and defensively. He was being very active. That’s the one thing about him; if we can continue to get him to do those things, he’ll be effective like he was tonight. I’m not saying he’ll have double-doubles every night but he’ll be effective.” [Byron Scott via Tom Reed]

“TNT analyst Shaquille O’Neal cautioned fans not to put too much pressure on guard Kyrie Irving. O’Neal said it’s not fair to compare Irving with former Cavs star LeBron James. ‘What LeBron did was fabulous, legendary,’ O’Neal said. ‘He’s good. There will never be another LeBron, how he did it. He was a born leader. Kyrie is also a leader. (I’m) not trying to take anything away from him. I just urge people not to put too much pressure on him. This guy is on the right path. He’s a coachable guy. He’s a great team player. If Cleveland can make one or two moves this year and next year, they could become a respectable team again.'” [CBS Sports]

“Casspi was solid during his first two seasons in Sacramento, but has struggled mightily in Cleveland. He has appeared unsure of himself and been shaky on the court. Not long ago, he admitted he’s thinking too much instead of just playing — and it shows. Too often, Casspi wears the confused look of a man who has been standing in the rain for hours, only to learn he’s at the wrong bus stop.” [Sam Amico]

“On Sunday night, in a the one-point win over the Sacramento Kings (one which Byron Scott deemed ‘lucky’), the ball finally fell in Thompson’s favor as he recorded 15 points (on 6-of-10 shooting) to go with his 12 rebounds (seven offensive), one steal and three blocked shots. The first double-double of his young career, Thompson was able to display his potential in a ‘remember me?’ moment, one typically lost in the shadow of his running mate who continues to set Cleveland ablaze with his ever-improving point guard prowess.” [Scott Sargent]

And the Cavs have elected not to extend Ben Uzoh’s 10-day contract. Fare thee well, Ben. You are in heaven now, setting screens in practice with the angels.

Recap: Kings 92, Cavs 93

Sunday, February 19th, 2012

The Cavs edged the Kings in a game that was decided in the final seconds.

–I suppose we should talk about that last minute of play, huh? With 35 seconds left in the game, Kyrie Irving drove to the basket from the wing and missed a lay-up which was promptly tipped in by Tristan Thompson (Kings 90-Cavs 90). Then DeMarcus Cousins demanded the ball in the post, threw a cross-court pass to John Salmons as he felt the defense collapsing, and hauled in an offensive rebound after Salmons clanked the three. A couple wild misses by the Kings frontcourt followed, and the pile-up in front of the rim ended when Cousins fouled Alonzo Gee, who made one of his two free throws (Cavs 91-Kings 90). On the next play, DMC demanded the ball again, hooked around Antawn Jamison (should have been an offensive foul), and converted a tough reverse lay-in (Kings 92-Cavs 91). After a Cavs timeout, Irving drove the lane with almost no time left on the clock, and Tyreke Evans—who I think assumed the Kings had a foul to give—wrapped up Irving, who sank both free throws. And the game ended after the Kings got two shots at sinking a game-winner with 0.4 seconds left on the clock? For some reason? And Keith Smart was really angry about this? I dunno. It was a weird conclusion to a weird game.

–This game was sloppy mostly because the Cavs decided to play at the Kings’ pace. The action was end-to-end for extended stretches, and there were a lot of turnovers, offensive fouls, and contested shots early in the shot clock. I’m pretty sure the Kings shot exclusively from behind the three-point line or within the painted area. I suppose this is as good a strategy as any for a team full of ball-dominant penetrators, back-to-the-basket big men, and shooters, but they still managed to shoot just 37% on the game. If there’s one team in the NBA that desperately needs a pass-first point guard, it’s the Kings.

–Isaiah Thomas isn’t that pass-first point guard, but he did outplay Irving, whose jumpshot faltered in the second half. This might be the last time I write this about Irving because it’s becoming the norm, but when the Kings were mounting a comeback in the fourth quarter, he demanded the ball and attempted to stem the tide. He failed, mostly (ultra-clutch free throws notwithstanding), but the fact that he wants the ball and that his teammates defer to him in crunch time is encouraging. Now, if only he can work on staying in front of shifty point guards…

–Tristan Thompson had a huge game. 15 points on 6-10 shooting, and 12 rebounds in 30 minutes. He was Varejao-esque on the offensive glass, tipping boards to both himself and his teammates. TT looked healthy for the first time in about a month (I had forgotten how bouncy dude is), and worked relentlessly on both ends of the floor. Maybe this Varejao injury has a silver lining insofar as Thompson, as long as he plays hard, will get some extended burn, and Cavs fans will get a chance to see what he can do when he has a better chance to get into the flow of the game (some players can’t figure out how to be effective in only 12-15 minutes of action).

–Omri Casspi was 3-12 and 0-5 from behind the arc. This is getting depressing.

–Ramon Sessions should never be allowed to enter a game in which the other team likes to run. When Kyrie Irving elects to push the ball, he usually does so in a controlled manner, but Sessions just sprints down the court like a child that’s ingested a drug store’s worth of Skittles. At least three or four times, Sessions pushed the ball into traffic and flung a wild shot at the backboard. I really hope the Lakers can see through his glaring flaws, and put in an offer for him.

–Antawn Jamison was 7-21. You might be sensing a trend here: this was not a well-played game by either team. Way too much shooting, not enough passing, and intermittently sleepy defense. I’m sure both coaches will chew their young squads out for this performance.

The Cavaliers are at home against Detroit on Tuesday night. Until tomorrow, friends.

Recap: Heat 10000000, Cavs -4

Friday, February 17th, 2012

There’s really not much to say about this game – it was clear we were missing a lot (Andy, Booby, Parker) and that we were completely over matched.  This is easily the worst I have felt about this team all season.  I’m going to forgo my usual good, bad, and rest, and keep it simple tonight.  This one really, really, REALLY hurt.  The Heat started insanely fast, and after the first quarter it was over.

Our D was terrible.  Bosh started ridiculously hot (we really missed Andy here) and once he cooled, Lebron took over.  Wade even hit his first three of the season.  It was just ugly.  I guess you could say that Tristan Thompson had an OK game on D, and Hollins was able to draw a nice challenge, but for the most part the defense was uninspired and dreadfully disappointing.

On offense it wasn’t much better.  The Cavs shot 39.5 from the field, and that was aided by the fact that the Heat coasted the last two quarters.  Irving was probably the brightest spot – he had a couple of nice drives to the rim (including a beautiful fake-out layup) but it was, on the whole, pretty awful.

Gee clearly forgot his O and D at home tonight.  If he wants to take it to the next level, he can’t have games like this.

I could go on, but it would be mostly redundant.  All we can do is turn off the TV, and pray for a better showing on Sunday.  Sacramento should be just the cure we’re looking for (I hope).

Look on the bright side – there’s no way we’re losing 26 in a row this year.  Just try to smile and get through the night. It’ll hurt less tomorrow. Until next time….

Building a Winner, Part 5

Friday, February 17th, 2012

Part 5 – The other champions of the last 20 years

It’s Friday and this series is on a downward trajectory, so today the post will quickly look at the other four champions of the last twenty years, starting with the greatest team of all time.

Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls

Chicago’s 1990’s dynasty was the last NBA champion built primarily on the strength of multiple elite lottery selections.  Their construction was more similar to today’s Bulls though, (arduous, 10 year lottery dip) than today’s Thunder (easy-in, easy-out lottery based contender).  Prior to drafting Jordan, the Bulls picked in the top ten in seven of eight drafts, including four top-fives.  This ended with them back in the lottery in 1984, where they hit the jackpot and drafted the greatest of all time at #3.  The next year, they made a lottery pick swap and nabbed Charles Oakley.  Two years after that, using a pick acquired from New York for 29 year old journeyman center Jawann Oldham, the Bulls traded it and a future first rounder to draft Scottie Pippen at #5.  Horace Grant was picked 10th, Charles Oakley and a future selection were traded for Bill Cartwright & Will Perdue, and the Bulls were set up for their first three-peat.

For their second three-peat, the core of Jordan and Pippen was supplemented with Toni Kukoc (29th pick in 1990), Dennis Rodman (maniac, acquired for Will Perdue) and a couple of free agents (Steve Kerr and Ron Harper).

Honestly, I don’t know why everyone doesn’t do this; clearly, drafting the G.O.A.T = multiple championships.  Duh.

1994  & 1995 Houston Rockets

In 1983 and 1984, the Rockets chose 1st, 3rd, and 1st, ending up with Ralph Sampson, Rodney McCray and Hakeem Olajuwon.  That group won 47 games per season over 4 years and played in one NBA finals, before Sampson and McCray were traded.  Over the next five seasons, the Rockets averaged 47 wins while making it beyond the 1st round of the playoffs only once.  In his tenth season, Olajuwon embarked on one of the greatest two-year playoff runs in history, but McCray and Sampson…not so much.  McCray contributed to the championships by being traded for Otis Thorpe, the second most used player on the 1994 team.  Thorpe was then traded for Clyde Drexler, the second most valuable player on the 1995 team.  The other main cogs on the champs were mid to late draft picks: Vernon Maxwell (47th in ’88, purchased from Spurs), Robert Horry (11th in ’92), Sam Cassell (24th in ’93), and Carl Herrera (12th in ’90).  Mario Elie was acquired by trading a 2nd round draft pick and Kenny Smith was acquired in a trade for John Lucas and a future 1st rounder.

1999 San Antonio Spurs

After drafting 10th, 1st (David Robinson), 10th, and 3rd (Sean Elliot) from 1986 through 1989, the Spurs went on a seven year run where they averaged 55 wins.  Unfortunately, this run was marked by several playoff failures, as the team only reached one conference championship.  In 1996 – 1997, David Robinson and Sean Elliot got hurt and the Spurs struggled, finishing with 20 wins.  These struggles amounted to the greatest thing that ever happened to the franchise though; the Spurs won the lottery and drafted the best power forward of all time.  Tim Duncan turned the team into dynasty.  The 1999 team was built around Duncan, Robinson, Elliot and a slew of role players acquired as cheap free agents.

2006 Miami Heat

The final champ of the last twenty years is the Dwayne Wade – Shaq Miami Heat.  This team was built around one top eight pick and NBA players’ insatiable desire to play in Miami.  Wade was drafted 5th in one of the better drafts of all time.  Shaq and Eddie Jones were acquired via trade, while the rest of the team was free agents.

Epilogue

The best teams of the 1990’s were definitely more high lottery-driven than the cream of the 2000’s, but other than the Bulls, not overwhelmingly.  The Malone / Stockton Jazz and Barkley Suns didn’t rely on a several year run of high lottery picks.  After a decade in the lottery, the Bulls struck gold drafting the most talented, driven player ever.  Using a pick acquired by trading a 4 point, 4 rebound career average player, they snagged Scottie Pippen.  This is the ultimate lottery success story (if only Kyrie can be the next MJ…).

The Rockets and Spurs built “good” teams through the lottery.  The Rockets had three top-three picks in two years, and for nine years after that, they averaged 47 wins.  Ten years later, the prize of that draft haul spearheaded two championships with epic playoff performances.

The Spurs late 80’s drafts built a really solid team that routinely underperformed in the playoffs.  As that core was nearing the end of their primes, an irreproducible sequence of events landed the player that created into a dynasty.

As has been discussed here previously, the assembly of the best teams of the 2000’s was accomplished with very little assistance from the high lottery.  Ten years from now, maybe I’ll look back and realize how dumb this series was, after the reign of the Durant – Westbrook – Harden Thunder, the Griffin – Paul Clippers (Paul acquired for Eric Gordon),  the Love-Rubio Wolves, and the five-time-defending-champion Irving & Davis Cavaliers.

Maybe not though.  By 2015, Love could be with the Lakers and Rubio in Spain.  The Clippers may fall apart, because they’re the Clippers.  The five-time champ Cavs…that’s a lock.  Regardless of how the 2010’s unfold, the basic tenets established in these posts are correct; good management and decision making will always be more important that draft position.  Cleveland has a good thing started with Irving, Thompson, Gee, Varejao, future draft picks and cap flexibility; regardless of 2012 draft position, a winner is constructible.  If it is not, it’s probable they have themselves to blame.

Thanks to anyone who read all five days.  Hopefully they were fun and informative for all.

Links to the Present: February 17, 2012

Friday, February 17th, 2012

“There’s a chance the Cavs will sign G Ben Uzoh to a second 10-day contract. “We’re going to keep him around a little longer,” Coach Byron Scott said. “We talked about keeping three point guards. We’ll have to see.” He made his debut with the Cavs on Saturday in their loss to Philadelphia. He dished out two assists, had three rebounds and two points in 5 minutes, 24 seconds.” [CBS Sports]

Kyrie Irving will lead Charles Barkley’s squad in the Rising Stars exhibition (formerly the Rookie-Sophomore game)during All-Star Weekend.

Harrison Barnes claims he will enter the draft if the Tar Heels win the national championship. This is a bald-faced lie even if he doesn’t know it yet.

And I’ll have thoughts on this whole “LeBron makes empty statements about possibly returning to Cleveland” thing Monday morning because, as much as I try to avoid writing about Bron, this situation requires comment.

Building a Winner, Part 4

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

Part 4, the Demise of “One-Star” teams

Something I meant to do at the start of this series was give credit to basketball-reference.com, an amazing source of NBA content.  It really is astounding how much information they’ve accumulated there (also I’ll note to check out the links below, too.   Lebron commented on playing for Cleveland again).

Over the last two days, we’ve seen how the best recent teams were built, forming a case for organizational excellence far exceeding the need for multiple lottery picks.  You may be saying, “What an idiot this guys is.  I saw what happened with the Cavs, Hornets, and Jazz as one-star teams.  Is that what this guy wants to happen again?”

You’ve asked a great question.  There could be very valuable lessons to be learned from the rise and fall of those teams.  Let’s take a deeper look at what went wrong.

Lebron James’ Cavs (first 5 years)

The Cavs inability to quickly build a contender after the 2003 draft really started in 1997, when they traded their 2005 first round pick for Wesley Person.

Aside from that, most of Cleveland’s problems can be summarized through a little game.  You’ll need a few things:  seven hats, paper and a pen.  We’ll  see if you can randomly build a better team from 2000 to 2007 than the Cavs did.  To start, in 2 separate hats, place the following names:

  • Luke Jackson, Andris Biedrins, Robert Swift, Sebastian Telfair, Kris Humphries and Al Jefferson.
  • Jared Dudley, Wilson Chandler, Rudy Fernandez, Morris Almond, Aaron Brooks, Arron Afflalo, Tiago Splitter, Alando Tucker.

Draw one name from the first hat and two names from the second.  The first hat represents the player the Cavs picked 10th in 2004 and the five players selected after.  The second hat is the players picked within five of the 2007 first round picks that the Cavs traded in 2005 to acquire Sasha Pavlovic and Jiri Welsch.  Did you end up with a better assortment of basketball players than Jackson, Pavlovic, and Welsch?  If you did, your random selections worked out better than what Cleveland actually got!

In the next four hats, put in the following names:

  • Jamal Crawford, Chris Mihm, Joel Pryzbilla, Keyon Dooling, Jerome Moiso and Etan Thomas
  • Brendan Haywood, Joe Forte, Jerryl Sasser, Brandon Armstrong, Raul Lopez, Gerald Wallace
  • Desagana Diop, Rodney White, Joe Johnson, Kedrick Brown, Vlad Radmanovic, Richard Jefferson
  • Dejuan Wagner, Nene, Amar’e Stoudemire, Chris Wilcox, Caron Butler, Jared Jeffries

Draw from each hat.  The first name in each list is a player the Cavs selected in the 2000 to 2002 drafts.  Unfortunately, the Cavs traded Crawford for Mihm and Haywood for Michael Doleac.  Doh!  Did your random selections fare better than Mihm, Doleac, Diop and Wagner?   Your random selections could have been the young team the Cavs entered 2003 with.

You’re probably thinking, “This is painful; Why is he making me do this?”  You raise a good point; I’m mean.  The point is there were real opportunities to build a nice team spread throughout these drafts.  Combined with the Carlos Boozer debacle of 2004 and the Larry Hughes, Donyell Marshall & Damon Jones free agency bonanza of 2005; the Cavs made only two obviously good personnel moves over the span of 8 years: the 2003 draft and trading for Varejao.  By the time the 61 & 66 game winners were built; the 2008 Olympics had already occurred, and the seeds of defection sowed.

Over the last couple paragraphs, you’ve probably been thinking, “If the Cavs had Crawford, Haywood, and Amar’e, they may not have picked #1.”  I’ll concede that.  Using the win shares per 48 minutes at basketball-reference, if I give Mihm’s minutes to 23-year-old Haywood, Smush Parker’s  minutes to 22-year-old Crawford, and Diop’s minutes to 20-year-old Stoudemire; that adds 5 wins.  Instead of having the league’s worst record, Cleveland has the second worst record, with a worst-case scenario of picking 5th in the draft.  So for the seventh hat:

  • Lebron James, Darko Milicic, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade.

Maybe the 8 names you drew, plus Varejao, Ilgauskas & a free agent, form the core of the championship that Lebron didn’t obtain.

Chris Paul’s Hornets

Chris Paul’s time in New Orleans was cursed.  The circumstances are twisted and tragic; I’m probably not qualified to cover it.  Two months after he was drafted, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the team packed up for Oklahoma City.  Five years after that, the NBA acquired the nearly bankrupt team.  Chris Paul’s time in NO never stood a chance.

From a personnel perspective, he entered to the scattered remains of tropical storm Baron Davis, inheriting a team consisting of young David West (18th pick in 2003), 19-year-old J.R. Smith (18th pick in 2004), Chris Anderson (less than a year from a drug suspension), and Brandon Bass (33rd in 2005).  Behind Paul’s brilliance, West, a trade of PJ Brown & Smith for Tyson Chandler, and the acquisition of Peja Stojakovic via Indiana salary dump; the Hornets rapidly improved to 56 wins in Paul’s third season.

Then they tailed off towards becoming a gnat to be swatted on the way to someone else’s championship.  Some of this was precipitated by whiffs in the 2006 & 2007 drafts (picking 12th, 15th & 13th missing on gaining Sefolosha, Stuckey and Nick Young) . Stojakovic had been acquired at age 29 and was unable to produce up to the value of his 5 years & $63 million contract.  At age 30, Morris Peterson was signed for 4 years & $24 million and at 32, James Posey for 4 years and $25 million.  The effects of bad salary cap management and going broke started kicking in; they sold their 2008 draft pick and let Jannero Pargo head to Russia.  To get rid of Peterson’s contract, they unloaded the 11th pick in 2010.   A trade of Tyson Chandler for Emeka Okafor took place; at the time this was debatable, with hindsight, clearly it was misconceived.  At the same age and similarly skilled, Chandler only had 2 years & $24 million left on his contract compared to Okafor’s 5 & 65.   With the NBA taking the team over in December 2010, the countdown to Paul’s exit was on.

Deron Williams’ Jazz

In the second season after the Malone & Stockton era, the Jazz won 26 games and picked Williams 3rd in the draft.  When he entered, the team was a lot more set than the Cavs or Hornets.  Probably too set.  The year before Williams came aboard, Mehmet Okur received a 5 year, $40 million contract and Carlos Boozer, 6 & 70.  In the off-season when they drafted Williams, Andrei Kirilenko was given a 6 year, $86 million extension.  Matt Harpring was under contract for $6 million per.

With the addition of Deron and two solid rookies the next year (Ronnie Brewer and Paul Millsap), the core was etched in stone.  Eventual extensions to Williams and Millsap, combined with the aforementioned long-term deals, pushed the Jazz into luxury tax territory .  To combat this, in 2009 they traded Eric Maynor  (20th pick) in order to get rid of Harpring’s contract.  They found Wes Mathews as an undrafted free agent, but after one season let him walk as a restricted free agent.  Ronnie Brewer was traded for a future draft pick.  Finally in 2010, Williams was done with the un-rebuilding and demanded a trade.

In addition to discarding Maynor, Matthews, and Ronnie Brewer to avoid the luxury tax; the Jazz missed on a couple of late draft picks.  Morris Almond busted at #25 in 2007 with Aaron Brooks, Arron Afflalo and Tiago Splitter going 26 – 28.  In 2008, it was Kosta Koufos with Serge Ibaka, Nic Batum and George Hill the next three to go.

So to wrap this up, better cap management and drafting could have reasonably given the Utah Jazz a 2010 core of Williams, Maynor, Matthews, Brewer, Gordon Hayward, CJ Miles, Ibaka, Millsap and cap space.  Does Williams demand to leave that team?  We’ll never know.

What the Cavs can learn

The failures of these teams boil down to poor cap management and decision making, and to some extent, impatience.

The 2003 – 2008 Cavs’ problems were a combination of poor personnel decisions and impatience.  Trading three first rounders before surfacing as a true contender was a mistake.   Coming away with nothing from the six draft picks they did make surrounding 2003 was very damaging when viewed alongside the availalble talent selected nearby.

The Hornets and Jazz both exhibited horrible salary cap management and jettisoned young talent because of it.  For NO, full mid-level exceptions to 30-something players helped mold their demise.  As a whole, the mid-level exception has been great for middle-of-the-road NBA players; it’s been horrible for the teams that sign them.  Bidding against themselves shot Utah in the foot; their 2004 & 2005 free agency extravaganza was more damaging than Cleveland’s.  I suppose teams need to set a player’s worth going into negotiations, and if the player demands more than that…hold firm and call their bluff .  They may walk, but in a salary cap / luxury tax world, there aren’t alot of players worth 6 years and $86 million.

The plight of these three teams is avoidable (although New Orleans was dealt a very tough hand), even without today’s Cavs going back for another top five pick.   To build around Irving and Thompson, Cleveland has to hit their draft picks, regardless of where.  Some teams regularly accomplish this in the middle parts of the draft, including most of the team’s covered on Tuesday and Wednesday. As the Cavs add free agents, a keen eye will need kept on future cap ramifications, considering the likely extensions to Irving and other youngsters they’ll acquire.  Prudence in free agency is a must; of the six teams discussed in parts 2 and 3, the big free agents were: Shaq, Steve Nash and Chauncey Billups.  That’s about it.  The three teams above were much more active in the market.  Free agency can be very dangerous, treading carefully is important.

See you tomorrow, with a final installment taking a quick look at the other four championship squads of the last twenty years.