Bench Week!

March 25th, 2013 by Kevin Hetrick

Really, this is a little late.  With Kyrie and Dion out, the Livingston – Ellington – Miles – Walton – Speights second-unit ceases to exist.  But the success of this group served as one of the more unique stories of the Cavalier season.  And while the story received frequent recap coverage, we at Cavs: the Blog felt a more thorough memorialization was due.  For six weeks, this crew, affectionately dubbed the Herculoids, unexpectedly provided one of the NBA’s better benches.  Consider:

  • None of these guys ever played together prior to January 2nd.
  • Since joining the Cavs, Shaun Livingston’s PER is 15, better than any of his previous ten stints with an NBA team.
  • During his three seasons in Minnesota and early part of this year with Memphis, Wayne Ellington never posted double-digit PER.   In 600 minutes in Cleveland, he soars to a 15.4
  • Same story for Mo Speights, an 18.3 PER exceeds anything done in Philly or Memphis.
  • And of course, C.J. Miles joins in also.  His 15.2 PER in 2012 – 2013 serves as a career-best.
  • Unfortunately, Luke Walton’s PER is only his best since 2008 – 2009.  His assist rate and assists-per-36-minutes easily reach peak levels though.

In his tenth NBA season, did Luke Walton find his calling as a second-string point forward?

Not impressed yet?  How about this then, from January 25th, when Ellington and Speights arrive, through March 10th (Kyrie’s last game)?  The Cavs go 10 – 10 during this time, as:

  • Walton ups his assists per 36 minutes to 8.8.  His previous career-high rate was 5.6…from his rookie season.  His assist to turnover ratio was 50% better than his career average (3.32 compared to 2.15)
  • Livingston’s 6.5 assists per 36 minutes are only bested by his rookie season.  His 3.67 assist to turnover ratio, which would rank 5th in the NBA, dwarfs the remainder of his career (2.22).  Also, as a player with career 51% true shooting, Livingston scorched the nets with 61% during these six weeks.
  • Per 36 minutes, CJ Miles scored 22 points on 63% True Shooting.  Ellington posted 15 and 61% TS, and Speights dished-out 21 and 10 rebounds.  They were killing it.

Each of these guys are 25-or-older.  What facilitated them playing at peak levels at the exact same time?  I mean, these guys were not highly-regarded NBA players.  Is it luck associated with small sample size, or was something bigger going on?  This week, Nate, Tom and I will explore that question.

Today: I will briefly talk about the things a player can’t control that may decide his success or failure.

Tuesday: Nate will talk about Shaun Livingston’s role on the Cavaliers.  Just how have he and the coaching staff adjusted the offense and defense to enable to Shaun to have the best months of his career?

Wednesday: Tom will talk about the different approaches to the game between the core and the Herculoids and what the core needs to assimilate from their brethren.

Today, I focus primarily on Luke Walton and Wayne Ellington.  Early this season, Walton was horrible, continuing a several year trend. Of Cavs fans, 99% assumed his usefulness ceased to exist.  Of non-Cavs NBA-fans, 100% probably thought he retired.  The slim super-minority supporting him (including Tom) weren’t saying “he is better than you guys think”; it was more like “he teaches the youngsters to play the right way” (which oftentimes meant without athleticism and with extremely errant jumpers). Basically, court-vision & passing serves as his only remaining, apparent skill.

Prior to joining Cleveland, Walton spent his entire career playing alongside Kobe; the offense did not run through Luke very often.  Early this season, playing alongside ball-dominant guards like Jeremy Pargo or Dion Waiters; same story.  And this makes sense – why would you build an offense around Luke Walton?

The Herculoids were perfectly suited for Walton’s skill-set though.  The guards were low usage: one a skilled passer and the other a proficient floor-spacer.  The Center offered a bruising low-post presence that picked up the rebounding-slack and spaced the floor.  Suddenly, Cleveland started running the second-string offense through him, surrounded by solid shooters and smart cutters, and he looked like an offensive maestro.

For four seasons with two teams, did Wayne Ellington simply never get the right opportunity to showcase his skills?

For Ellington, his career began on a horribly dysfunctional 15 -win Timberwolves team, with the minutes and usage leaders being Al Jefferson and Jonny Flynn.  The next season featured Michael Beasley and Anthony Randolph, and the assists leaders averaged 5.4 and 3.4 per game; during both seasons, Minnesota ranked bottom-four in the NBA for percentage of assisted field goals.  By his third season, as the Wolves started getting fun, he was an afterthought, seemingly playing out his rookie-contract towards a short career.  According to basketball-reference, the players most similar to him after three years were: Pace Mannion, Chris Corchiani, Gerald Glass, Mike Holton, Harold Ellis, and Franklin Edwards.  Huh?

Then, traded twice in six months, the second as a salary dump, he suits-up for a new team and promptly posts career highs in PER, offensive rating, usage, defensive rebound rate and steal percentage.  In 25 games with Cleveland, he matched his previous career total for Offensive Win Shares, accumulated over 229 games.  Double huh?  Given additional offensive freedom and matched with a pair of excellent passers, he showed enticing ability scoring off-the-dribble, cutting to the hoop, and with his trademark shooting (career 39% from three).

What does it all mean?

Basically, for every Kyrie Irving or Kevin Durant, players destined for stardom regardless of circumstance, there are one-hundred players whose NBA career hinges on forces not under their control.   These aspects could include: coaching, system, organizational commitment, or a positional logjam.  Within those, exist subsets; coaching could include the boss’s relationship with or confidence in a player, or the instruction received.  Lack of fit with a system perhaps hinges on the actual play-calls or perhaps a mis-assignment of role within the given plays.  Perhaps items as diverse as the quality of an organizations trainers, strength coaches, nutritionists, or doctors, even give a player advantages over a similar guy.  And sometimes, all that is needed is an opportunity.

Obviously this isn’t an amazing, new idea.  Matter of fact; here is a podcast from last season between Henry Abbott and David Thorpe, talking about Royal Jelly. For this quintet, their recent opportunity in Cleveland possibly changed the remainder of their careers.  In Luke Walton’s case, it may just be another year in the league.  For Ellington, the resultant perhaps comes through contractual security this off-season.

These considerations are also vital as Cleveland hopefully melds myriad youngsters into a contender.  The brief discussion of Russell Westbrook in the “Royal Jelly” podcast made me think of Dion Waiters. In the right situation, the young Cavalier shooting-guard develops into a star; in less suitable circumstances, perhaps he devolves into an inefficient chucker.  The value of opportunity, solid positional coaching, and organizational-confidence in a player already surfaces in young Tristan Thompson.

Anyways, I’ve lost sight of my theme.  Come back the next two days, for an in-depth look into the inner-tickings of the unlikeliest, excellent bench squad the NBA witnessed this season.  Tom and Nate promise to bring their “A” games, backing up this Monday post (and probably finishing +11, compared to my -8).