Cavs: the Duel, Number Five

March 8th, 2013 by Kevin Hetrick

Since the New Year, Tristan is averaging a double-double, with Dion Waiters pitching in 15 points per game on above-average true shooting; the Cavaliers are very watchable again. Let's continue seeing where it goes.

Today, Tom and I square off in a duel loosely titled as, “The Cavs need to stay the course and be patient this summer”, vs “I could envision the benefit of making a big move this summer”.

Kevin: Tom, I’ve noticed an alarming trend recently. Now, on the brink of the “tank and draft” storm having been weathered, people are proposing big moves this off-season: signing Iguodala for 3 years, $40 million; packaging four first-round picks for 30-year old role players; trading the #1 pick in the ENTIRE draft for Danilo Gallinari.  I think this is silly.

Don’t get me wrong, last season, I devoted ten-thousand words essentially to the effect of: “there is ZERO reason to consider miserable basketball and lottery picks as the holy grail of building a team”.  Basically, OKC is the only elite team of the last twenty-five years built through a successful binge on their top-five draft picks. And all it took for them was to draft a top-two NBA player, two top-ten NBA players, and a guy that combined a 113 offensive rating with league-leading shot-blocking at age 22.  Easy to replicate, right?  Much more success has been found through nailing one high lottery pick & supplementing that well, making several prudent selections outside the top-eight, or making a really smart free agent acquisition (Billups, Nash, or to an extreme, Shaq).  Basically, saying “Damn it, we won”, didn’t need to be the modus operandi for Cleveland Cavalier fandom.

With that said though, the franchise has weathered the storm of miserable tanking. Kyrie Irving is a 20-year old All-Star, arguably on a path towards top-three player status.  Dion Waiters, at 21, is in the midst of a 27-game stretch of 15+ points per game with true shooting of 56% (league-average = 53%).  Tristan Thompson is working on an age-21 season of 16+ PER, combined with solid defense, including six weeks when he averaged something crazy like 15 & 12.  The team is competitive almost every night, winning nearly half of their games since Christmas.  Games are routinely enjoyable again.  They are almost SOMEPLACE; we finally get to see what is on the other-side of all the losing and repugnant basketball.  All of this has developed while maintaining pristine cap flexibility and accumulating troves of draft picks.

Now, with only six weeks of the season remaining before the FINAL lottery pick, and the chance to see if this grand experiment actually worked, why would there be a desire to deviate?  That time has passed.  Take the lottery pick and another first rounder, bring back a few of this season’s solid veteran presences, and call it a day for the 2013 off-season.  Andy returns in November (in a reduced, but vital role), and we watch this crew battle towards the playoffs.

Tom: Kevin, that’s a very reasonable plan of action.  Sit tight, keep on doing what they’ve been doing, and just allow the young guys to continue to develop.  I’ll even add to your argument – this FA class is pretty slim pickins under the assumption that CP3 and D12 are staying put, and most of the other big-name guys are probably on the wrong side of their prime years.   And there are a lot of teams with cap space.  In the Eastern Conference alone, Detroit and Atlanta have even more cap space than the Cavs going forward, and Charlotte, Orlando, and Milwaukee have room to make some big-time offers.  That’s 4 rebuilding teams and one team in limbo in the same conference that will be looking at free agents.  So maybe the best course of action is to do nothing in free agency, and just continue to be patient.  If that happened I wouldn’t blame Chris Grant – patience seems to be paying off thus far, and I certainly am no advocate for the Cavs making a huge offer to someone that impedes any future flexibility/team building exercises.  Danny Ferry worked wonders transforming Larry Hughes, Damon Jones, and Donyell Marshall into Ben Wallace, Delonte West, Mo Williams, Joe Smith, and Wally Szczerbiak.  But he still had to settle for less than optimal results because the Cavs previously were hell bent on getting better in the immediate present in order to keep LeBron happy – and so that (completely over-hyped) “second banana”/”Pippen-type” could not be had.  More importantly, the Cavs couldn’t operate from a position of power in any transactions.  (And now that the salary cap exceptions are gone this is an even more difficult exercise) So if you’ll concede that I agree to a “maintain flexibility” mandate, I’d like to offer some of the dangers of sitting too patiently, and some possible commentary on why trying to fill up some holes through FA makes sense right now.

On December 21, on the heels of a 6th straight loss and 3rd straight double-digit loss, you and I recorded a podcast titled “Patience is a Virtue”.  Among other things, we discussed, at length, the leash afforded Byron Scott.  You demanded some improvement from the team.  You said “As a team: team offense, team defense, they don’t look well-coached.  They gotta start playing better -they gotta start winning games….They’ve got all the right pieces to build a team; it’s just a matter of putting it together at this point.”  My question is, have they “put it together” at this point?  On December 21 the Cavs were 6-23.  Today they are 21-40.  Since that podcast, their record is 15-17.  They have answered the Hetrick call, Byron Scott’s job seems safe, and they’ve even looked competent against some elite teams.  So on the surface, they are “putting it together”, right? If I had to rank the “what’s different” factors contributing to the 15-17 record, I would say “putting it together” would be far down on the list behind:

  1. (with a BULLET) Acquisition of Livingston, Speights, and Ellington in that order.
  2. Individual improvements from Thompson/Waiters
  3. Luke Walton
  4. Less grueling schedule

The Cavaliers’ offense, once near the bottom of the league, is now ranked 13th in the NBA in Off Rating.  The defense – unchanged – still horrible.  The concern, in my opinion, is that the Cavs basically trot out 3 distinctly different teams right now.  The first team is the starting lineup – it does not execute offense well, and is outscored by opponents in 1st and 3rd quarters.  The second team is the Herculoids which is destroying opponents.  In fact, if you rank the Cavaliers roster by per 48min +/- on the season, the top 5 are: Ellington, Jones, Livingston, Speights, and Luke Walton.  The bottom 5 that are still on the roster, are: Zeller, Gee, Varejao, Miles, and Waiters.  Since the Cavs added Livingston on January 1, here is the team’s by-quarter per48min +/- breakdown: 1st: minus 1.4, 2nd: plus 1.1, 3rd: minus 6.5, 4th: plus 2.5.  Here is before the Livingston acquisition: -3.3, -2.4, -6.3, -10.0 (all minuses, and check out that 4th quarter!).  So the Cavs, despite that easing schedule and improving Thompson/Waiters tandem have actually been worse in 3rd quarters.  So the 1st team in some ways hasn’t shown much improvement, the 2nd team is dominating, and the 3rd team is what I call: Uncle Drew and the nephews.  Maybe you’ve seen it.  It played the final 3 minutes of last night’s game.

Can you see where I’m going with this? – I’m not convinced the Cavs are “putting it together”.  I’m worried some of the winning is a mirage.  Have you noticed the Luke Walton/Shaun Livingston-led teams run a triangle offense – who taught them that?  Walton and Livingston are not on the roster next season.  So I would definitely agree with you that they should at least sign some of these guys going forward.  But will they even accept offers?  Maybe Walton wants to coach, maybe Livingston wants to sign a long-term deal somewhere.  Ellington is the only guy that I’m almost positive will be on the roster next season, and then he’s in the same boat the year after.  If you can accept that a lot of the winning, the “put up or shut up” that you demanded from Byron Scott, is due to the play of this 2nd team…what does that mean going forward?  That team does not exist in 2014-2015, the same year that Kyrie Irving could make the leap to a max-contract.  Is a roster featuring Irving+Waiters+Thompson+Zeller+this year’s lottery pick enough to compete?  Does that team “put it together” with enormous holes at SF and Center?  Who from this draft class has you excited enough that you think with a mere year under his belt, will be the missing piece to take the 2nd worst defense in the NBA and make it competitive?  Nerlens Noel?  The guy who just suffered a horrible leg injury?  Is that going to be enough?  I think the Cavs have had enough time to assess their weaknesses.  Clearly, SF is a huge weakness, perimeter and interior D is a huge weakness, and the depth chart at center is: Tyler Zeller – PER: 11.  If you love building through the draft, then keep the picks, and yeah, offer my main man Andre Iguodala 10 million a year starting in 2014-2015 when the Cavs could conceivably only have 4 players under contract.  I think he’d be an ideal fit on a team with 2 ball-dominating scorers.  Or maybe it’s time to recognize that this draft is weak at the top – and package a few picks and Tyler Zeller for a rim protector.  Your initial argument may have been against specific moves – but let’s not go there, as it’s incredibly unlikely anything we throw at a wall would ever come to fruition anyway.  If we stick to “what should the plan be” – I think it’s time to start building a winner – and I think that happens by plugging the holes through trades/FA and using the picks to always draft the best player available in hopes that in 3 years those guys will pan out.  Let me say that if I felt like the Irving/Waiters/Thompson/Zeller core was the main reason for the 15-17 record – I might be more inclined to just sit back and continue to field one of the youngest teams in the league.  But I don’t really think they are putting it all together.  I wonder, if the Cavs were still on pace for an 18–win season, would your line of thinking be different?

Kevin: Tom, unfortunately,  I was only able to skim your answer.  Considering I sent my 400 words to you on Tuesday afternoon, only for you to take over two days penning a massive response opus, probably while skipping work, hunkered unshaven at your computer, while I had plans on Thursday evening…I am forced to churn something out on Friday morning before work.  Your lack of journalistic integrity astounds me, but I will forge on.

Pop quiz:

  1. Who was more vital to the win against the Jazz?  Kyrie and Tristan and their combined 36 points, 19 rebounds, 11 assists and +14, or Speights, Walton, Livingston, and Ellington and their combined 38 points, 17 rebounds, 8 assists and +0.
  2. Against Charlotte, which deserves credit?  Kyrie, Tristan and Dion with 56 points, 14 rebounds, 11 assists and +58, or the bench quartet’s 39 points, 18 boards, 14 assists and +34?
  3. Or, what about the team’s shocking win over OKC?  Did you more value Kyrie, Tristan and Dion’s 58 points, 21 rebounds, 12 assists, and +9 or Speights, Ellington and Livingston’s 28 points, 11 rebounds, 12 assists and +12.
  4. Which free agents would return next year in a “Stay the course” scenario?

The first three were trick questions; both group’s contributions were valuable.  Without solid play from the 21-year-old trio, the recent 16 – 17 stretch doesn’t occur; same for the revitalized bench.  Admittedly, the youngsters rarely put it all together during the same game, but if three kids, the equivalent of college juniors, were going out and kicking ass every night…we would be jumping through our ceilings with excitement.  The answer to the fourth question is: Livingston, Ellington, and Walton, three of the primary players you mention.  Assuming a reasonable bill of health, Andy returns and replaces Speights’s 22 minutes per game, and voila! Possibly an even more fun, triangle-offense-running bench unit.

So, with nothing happening, next year features three college-aged players continuing to grow into their stripes, aided by a smart, veteran bench.  A crew where hopefully the old guys teach the youngsters, while the pups invigorate their mentors.  Add in even a marginally productive rookie, minor improvements from Zeller (whose minutes have already thankfully dropped to 24 per game, from 34 in January, when he appears to have massively hit the rookie wall), and the Cavs looks like a playoff team.  I could envision 40 – 45 wins for that group.

And you know what, the stakes are low.  That line-up could be fielded, likely with a team salary in the $48 – 50 million range.  If they win 43 games, gaining the seventh seed, the whole of Cavalier fandom would be super-excited.  If for some reason it didn’t click, the franchise still has Kyrie Irving, several other youngsters that showed promise, a trove of draft picks, and immaculate salary cap flexibility to take into trade deadline / summer of 2014.  If things don’t look extremely rosy in 2014 – 2015, that is bad, but given the recent surge in wins, I think rolling with the current unit makes sense next year.

The team is growing, both individually, both hopefully, and even more importantly, from a chemistry standpoint.  Kyrie, Tristan, Dion and Lottery Pick X need to play well together.  Adding a pricy veteran may upset the structure a little bit.  Right now, the team is built around youngsters, battling to find their role on this team and in the League.  The veterans are also guys playing for their NBA lives.  I think this is valuable to the growth of the team, and could envision the addition of a high-priced vet as possibly damaging the chemistry.  As it stands right now, Kyrie will be the team’s second highest-paid player next year, with Tristan third, and Dion fourth.  Give that a chance, and let them prove their worth for forthcoming extensions.

Over the last fourteen months, I have frequently thought a trade or free-agent signing would be valuable.  Building entirely through the draft is REALLY hard; there is a reason that it doesn’t work several times for every one time it does.  Winning the lottery and drafting a star in Kyrie was extremely fortuitous though.  Now, on the cusp of ascending from the NBA’s dregs, built on the work of youngsters and low-priced veterans, giving this plan one more season to mature is the right plan.