Finally, the Cleveland Cavaliers are interesting again. Two seasons ago proved brutal, last season presented a team still in flux…now, the franchise provides a product offering real topics to routinely banter about. The team won 11 of their last 25, and their per-game margin is only negative-2 during that time. Over the recent one-third of a season, they compete almost every night. I actually get a little nervous for the games again; will the young guys produce?…can the team avoid a blow-out?…can they beat the bastion of accomplished veterans coming to town tonight?
The season started miserably, with Cleveland winning only 5 of the first 28 tilts. Kyrie missed eleven games, while Waiters sat eight; three guys wore masks at the same time. Eighteen of the first thirty games were on the road, while Andy went down for the season in the midst of an 8 games in 12 days stretch. The season looked bleak, unless the team’s young nucleus started providing a lot more nightly punch.
And, they did; Tristan Thompson being the most impressive example. Early this season, TT exhibited many similar traits to his rookie year: too many shots getting blocked, sub-50 percent true shooting, miniscule assist rates. His defense was progressing nicely, and his offensive rebounding still thrived, but it was only seven weeks ago that I wrote this. The basic theme being that Tristan plays strong defense and does a lot of things that don’t show up in the box score. Generally speaking, the article was well received. Then…BOOM! Eight of his next eleven games were double-doubles! Over nearly two months, his averages reach 14 points, almost 10 boards on 53% shooting and 70+% from the line!! He nets more assists than turnovers!! Andy got injured, and Tristan became unleashed to flash the post and face-up games he has been working on in the Cavs’ secret underground laboratories. Keep up the strong work, youngster!
Kyrie continues playing as the offensive wunderkind that showed-up fresh-faced last year. He ranks sixth in the league in scoring, and fourteenth in PER. His all-star debut happens this weekend, and he does not turn 21 until next month. His ball-handling and shooting are so sublime as to almost be unreal. His 40 points against Boston, 35 against Oklahoma City, and 33 in Atlanta keyed recent victories against likely playoff teams. And who can forget the 41 in a narrow loss at Madison Square Garden, or the buzzer-beater to beat Toronto last month? But, with great power comes great responsibility. There is little reason to think that Kyrie’s ceiling is not around Chris Paul-level; basically, the third best player in the NBA. To get there though, Kyrie must shore-up his ball distributing and defense. Did you know that Chris Paul twice lead the league in assists, and is a five-time leader in steals? I don’t know if you are following the pre-draft stuff I have going at Hardwood Paroxysm, but Chris Paul’s 2008 – 2009 was a completely dominating effort on both sides of the ball. Kyrie possesses the skills and smarts for similar accomplishments; he needs to hone in on these other aspects of his game and get there. He has only two double-digit assist games this season, contributin to his ranking 26th in the league for dimes.
The other huge event trend-setting the Cavs towards respectability was the Chris Grant robbery of Memphis. Waiver-wire pickup Jon Leuer, sent packing to cost-slashing Memphis for Marreese Speights, Wayne Ellington, Josh Selby, and a future first-round pick? Did I read that right? In ten games with the Cavs, Speights looks rejuvanted, providing a nearly 20 PER, while averaging 13 & 6 to shore-up a previously horrendous bench. Ellington has exceeded his expectations, tallying 18 made-threes versus 5 turnovers, as his introduction to Cleveland features a soaring 17 PER. Add in the ball-movement of newly acquired Shaun Livingston, and long-time C:tB favorite Luke Walton, and the NBA’s worst bench suddenly looks like one of the more fortified crews. Keep up the strong work, Herculoids!
The 2012 draft class brought much promise, but also the growing pains expected from inexperienced players. Dion Waiters’s December was appalling, including eye-scratching 34 / 21 / 63 shooting. Since the New Year though, he has increased his true shooting to 52%, as he still gets to the rim five times per game, but is now converting at 62% there (58 of his last 94). He recently struggles from distance, shooting 1 of 11 from three in February, but an array of skills is becoming apparent from the young shooting guard.
His draft classmate, Tyler Zeller, still often leaves much to be desired; he looks like a rookie, frequently being abused on defense and the boards, and looking a touch tired in his shooting. His playing time saw a significant reduction from January to February from 35 to 25 minutes per night. So far, this appears to benefit his play. If T-Zell can average 7 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists and 1 turnover on 55% true shooting for the rest of the season, as Speights reduces the rookie’s workload, that would be awesome.
Aside from the trade and the youngsters, there have been a few other silver linings of the season. Alonzo Gee rim-rattles frequently with ferocious dunks. Pargo mania was fun for a few weeks; the 28 points he scored against Philly to break-up a prolonged, depressing losing streak will always be cherished (Philly recently signed him to a 10-day contract). C.J. Miles going unconscious in December, scoring 15 per game with 49% three-point shooting was enjoyable.
And of course, there is Andy. This weekend was supposed to be his; 14 points, 14 rebounds…22 PER. His energy and skill level were at all-time highs early this season. An absolute beast through the dark, early days of the season, his 9, 23 & 9 against Washington, the 15 & 22 against Memphis…10 straight games with 15+ rebounds was the longest streak in the NBA since 2003. The Kyrie-to-Andy pick-and-roll became a sight to behold, and his play was infectious. Hopefully you are in Houston, partying like a rock-star this weekend, Andy. Unfortunately for the third straight year, his season was cut down by injury, this time involving an ominous blood clot. Get better, Wild Thing. Next year could be a lot of fun, and you need to be a part of it.
I’m going to end there. Surely I missed several notable events from the first 53 games; this article was penned in about an hour before going to work this morning. Help fill in the blanks in the comments section; what are the most memorable highlights (and lowlights) from this season?