1 through 5: Coaching Critique

April 12th, 2013 by Tom Pestak

Five Cavs questions for the writers – all in one place.

Question 1: How would you grade Byron Scott and the coaching staff on in-game execution?

Colin: No snark: are they trying to lose games? I want to know. Surely, the roster was constructed to fail. When Varejao was healthy, the Cavs actually had a nice starting lineup, but then the bench would come in and relinquish whatever advantage the starters had accrued. I think this was by design: let the front end of the roster jell; let the back end of the roster kill the team’s chance to win. But even after the bench-solving Grizz trade (which, we’ll find out this offseason based on who the Cavs keep, may have been almost completely about a mid-first round draft pick), Scott has been, if not trying to lose, vomiting all over himself with wacky substitution patterns that undermine the team’s momentum or by keeping good players off the floor for curiously long stretches. As a tank job, it’s been masterful, but if Byron Scott actually thinks his substitutions are helping the team win, he’s dead wrong and should be fired. I have a feeling I’m going to be doing a lot of hemming and hawing over the course of these questions because I think evaluating coaching is almost impossible–even when you’re right about a coach being good/bad, you can still be totally wrong about what makes them good/bad–but I know one thing just from watching this team from an outsider’s perspective: the way it rotates its players in and out of games is stupid. Anyway, I give the coaching staff 8.2 basketballs out of 17.

Mallory: C-.  Byron’s rotations have been pretty decent since the trade, so there’s a nice plus there.   He did a nice job of creating a second unit that plays well together, and generally knows when to sub guys in and out.  Although it should be noted that he often leaves stars sitting too long and is known to put a weird lineup out there once and a while. I give Byron a deservedly hard time for his end of game coaching.  He’s easily one of the worst end-of-game coaches in the NBA. Out of timeouts the players never have a set play, and often fall apart or turn the ball over.  That’s just not acceptable.  Timeouts are generally used, at the end of a game, specifically for making sure everyone knows their role for the next possession.  Instead, what unfolds is usually a mess.  In addition, the Cavs are horrible at going for two-for-ones, another fault that should be largely placed on the shoulders of their leader, Byron.  Finally, when all falls apart, BS is usually seen detached instead of engaging his players – maybe he’s more engaged after games, but when a problem presents itself repeatedly, it’s the coach’s job  to make sure his players IMMEDIATELY know what they did wrong, particularly when it’s clear the status quo isn’t working. For a perfect example, see the end of Wed’s Pistons game.

Nate: The letter grade would be D+.  That’s a barely passing grade, and only in a non-major subject.  As has been noted, the defense is awful at playing the pick and roll.  Offensively, they’ve done a good job of incorporating different sets and getting into them, but despite all that, until late in the game, the Cavs play below average.  According to teamrankings.com, they are 18th in 1st quarter point differential, 16th in 2nd, 27th in 3rd, and dead last in the 4th quarter, at -1.7 points per game.  This is all despite (or perhaps because of) having one of the best 4th quarter scorers in the league, Kyrie Irving. Kyrie has 141 points in 33 games this year in the last 5 minutes with the score +/- 5, according to stats.nba.com.  But overall, the Cavs are -13 in those situations.  Winning close games comes down to execution.  The Cavs have one late game offensive play: guard isolation.  That play happens whether it’s Dion, Kyrie, Miles, Livingston, or Ellington handling the ball.  It looks slightly different depending on who’s running it: Miles and Ellington pull up, Kyrie and Dion can get to the rack and draw fouls or pull up, and Livingston turns it into a backdown.  They routinely lose to good teams because those teams know it’s coming and trap it.  None of those players are great at passing quickly out of high double teams, with a possible exception of Livingston who’s big enough to see over them.  The Cavs are -30 in the last two minutes of close games, and -40 in the last five minutes.  They are also terrible in late game defensive situations.  The person guarding the in-bounds pass in last second situations is routinely worthless.

Kevin: I grade him as: questionable.  This topic is fairly well exhausted; rotations, use of timeouts, lack of an apparent offensive or defensive system…these are complaints filed throughout the season.  Approaching the completion of a third season, the Cavs are 64 and 162.  I understand reasons for this: youth, injuries, low payroll / lack of talent.  But at what point is it unacceptable for the coach to turn lemons into lemon wedges?  In December, I wrote about Reasons and Excuses, and the slippery slope between them; as it relates to Byron Scott, Cavs fans are definitely teetering at the precipice between the two.

Tom: The Cavaliers execution is poor at the defensive end, and rudimentary at the offensive end.  They don’t seem to make in-game adjustments when they start getting worked. All season long they have had trouble with in-bounds plays, situational awareness, and finishing quarters/games.  The offensive schemes seems to be individual creativity from the starters, and 2-man games when Walton and Livingston check in.  I’m not a paid scout, but I’d award the coaches a D here.

Question 2: How would you grade them on preparedness/scouting?

Colin: I’m probably going off-message here: how does this team still neglect wide open perimeter shooters? I guess you can file this under the heading of “preparedness,” but it’s mostly just a thing that drives my Thunderbird habit. I get that creating turnovers is a primary goal of Byron Scott’s defensive approach, but you can’t double-team and trap other NBA teams like you’re the UNC Tar Heels facing the Virgin Islands A&M Sun Dollops. If you run two great athletes at college kids, most of them will do something dumb; if you run two great athletes at NBA players, most of them will hit the open man and call you dumb beneath their breath. Yet, for whatever reason, Scott insists that this team collapse on driving guards and frantically overhelp on big men underneath, which results in a bunch of open jumpers for the other team’s shooters while Irving or Gee defeatedly close out on them a second-and-a-half too late. Don’t get me wrong: this team is terrible at stopping opponents because it’s composed chiefly of young guys (Irving, Waiters) and bad defenders (Miles, Walton), but the scheme doesn’t help. What were we evaluating? Mark it down: forty-five seconds of your life you’d like to get back out of a life composed chiefly of seconds you’d like to get back.

Mallory: C+.  Generally speaking, the Cavs rarely come out completely flat and rarely fall crazy behind early in games (the Brooklyn game withstanding).  That being said, the lack of any real defense certainly falls on the coach and his inability to create a defensive scheme that works for given situations.

Nate: D-.  The guards routinely don’t know which players to go over the pick on and which players to go under.  They also don’t seem to know who to cover and who to leave out at the line.  The Cavs are very bad at dealing with stretch 4s like Ryan Anderson, as the Cavs bigs are reluctant to step out.  Cavs guards also routinely close out on the wrong side, and don’t know who to send to the right side and who to send to the left, which is directly out of the scouting report.  Offensively, they’re better, and tend to know who they can exploit in isolation or in the post, but Kyrie seems routinely blindsided when teams trap him late (which good teams do), a measure of preparedness.

Kevin: How about a grade of: fair.  The team starts well often enough; early in the season, the starters looked great, now the team thrives at building big leads.  In-game adjustments, exhibited through the frequent third quarter malaise and the blown leads seem to be the bigger issue.

Tom: If I noticed patterns I’d offer a better critique. I’m not sure if lack of variety counts as lack of preparation but the Cavs don’t seem to mix it up too much at the defensive end. Bang-a-Drummond and the zone defense which were both implemented in the last week are the first signs I’ve seen of changing it up based on the scouting report. C-

Question 3: How would you grade them on player development?

Colin: “Player development” entails a lot, and it’s hard to say where Thompson and Waiters will end up–the job is far from complete, is what I mean–but they’ve both shown remarkable progress over their brief Cavalier tenures. TT’s got a nascent offensive game and is developing into a nice post defender, and Dion takes a lot fewer 18-foot stepbacks than he did a few months ago, and now finishes around the rim with a craftiness beyond his years. The only mark against the staff is that Irving is a marginally better defender than when he came in the league, which is to say he’s cheese clothish. Tyler Zeller sort of is what he is. I don’t know what they can do with him other than work on his 15-footer and encourage him to eat a protein-rich diet. 27 adorable baby elephants for Byron and his associates.

Mallory: B+.  As Tom and I discussed on yesterday’s podcast the impact the head coach has on player development is questionable.  Is Byron working on Tristan’s FT shooting with him every day?  Is he the one who taught Dion how to attack the rim?  What about Kyrie’s D?  Is he the one teaching him how to be a lock-down defender?  (That last one was a joke)  I’d wager that the assistant coaches and nature ultimately have more to do with development than Byron.  But there’s no denying there’s been development.  How much is nature, how much is Byron, and how much is the rest of the staff, though, is the big question – one that is ultimately unanswerable for anyone not in the locker room.

Nate: B-.  The Cavs have done a good job of bringing players along.  TT, Zeller, Miles, Gee, and Walton are all much better than they were, at least offensively, at season’s beginning.  TT, especially, keeps growing on offense.  Kyrie Irving has developed some bad habits, though.  He routinely just doesn’t even try on defense, and though his points and steals are up, his assists, and rebounds are down, though so are his turnovers.  But they haven’t turned individual improvement into wins.

Kevin: Regarding the would-be stars: solid.  Regarding would-be role players: poor.  Thompson took huge steps this year; over a 33-game stretch, Waiters average 20 ppg36 with league-average true shooting; Zeller has at a minimum greatly improved his scoring efficiency.  Regarding the bench auditioners though, did you know that Jon Leuer’s PER is up to 18 in Memphis?  The other youngsters with a chance to potentially grow over the last three years are either posting career-low PER’s, never improved from their rookie season, or are out of the league (Gee, Casspi, Samuels, Eyenga, etc).  Certainly, it is more important that the franchise “get it right” with the high draft picks, so no need to complain too much.

Tom: Irving was not deemed a sure-thing out of college and Thompson and Waiters were both considered reaches at #4. There was a point early this season when many analysts wondered aloud whether the Cavs had missed on Thompson and Waiters. People don’t wonder that anymore. I’m not going to withhold credit from Byron Scott and the coaching staff for noticeable improvements those two guys have made. I also think C.J. Miles and Alonzo Gee have been put in situations to succeed and have made the most of their talent under Byron Scott. The big misses are Hickson and Casspi, but you can’t win em all. A-.

Question 4: Go back in time to July 2012 – keep everything identical except coaching: who would you choose and how many more wins would the Cavs have with your dream coaching scenario?

Colin: That we’re using our time machine to go back to July of 2012 so we can restaff the head coaching position of a team that’s probably still going to be pretty bad anyway and not, like, finessing Hitler’s art school application or telling Martin Luther King to maybe avoid balconies for a while seems irresponsible.  Journalist-God Brian Windhorst mentioned this a couple weeks ago, but it’s worth pointing out: there aren’t a lot of coaching free agents more impressive than Scott. I have an affinity for Nate McMillan, but that’s really just because I like defense-first coaches and still have a lingering crush on those healthy Brandon Roy era Blazers teams. It’s not like Nate McMillan has ever been a miracle worker. We’d all like to play with the fabric of reality and have Gregg Popovich coaching our favorite team, but the reality is you’re always either a.) picking someone off the scrap heap, or b.) hoping an assistant coach who’s never been fully in charge a team before can prove himself. Not that those sorts of things never work out. Rick Carlisle has been on the scrap heap multiple times during his career, and the Bulls are flying relatively high without Derrick Rose because Tom Thibodeau, it turns out, is more than a terrific assistant. But I can’t argue that if the Cavs rolled with my boy McMillan they’d be three games out of eighth place in the East. Can I still keep giving out stupid scores? 89 flapjacks out of 89 flapjacks. Flawless flapjack achievement unlocked.

Mallory: This is a hard question because it really takes too many issues into consideration.  Does another coach install a defense, or, as Tom mentioned on yesterday’s podcast, is D a more natural talent than we’re all willing to admit?  Would another coach have realized the freakishly awesome passing skills of Luke Walton pair brilliantly with Livingston?  Would another coach get through Kyrie’s thick skull that you ALWAYS go 2-for-1 when you have the chance?  Would another coach call a timeout at the right moment to prevent hemorrhaging leads?  Would a head coach bring me ice cream after Cavs losses? Byron isn’t a very good NBA coach, at least not in ways that we as viewers can pinpoint.  He’s quiet, pensive, and rarely gets in his player’s faces.  The defense is horrible and the offense often looks disjointed, particularly when it matters most.  He’s bad at calling timeouts and bad at making in game adjustments. I do think another coach might tread those waters more carefully, but who knows.  I wouldn’t want a big name coach, at this point.  The obviously choice would be Brian Shaw, who I think would be a good guy to give his first shot as a head coach.  Maybe he’d manage things correctly, and if so, maybe a few of those coin-flip games fall heads up instead of tails.  I’d predict an extra 5-7 wins.  Not much, but certainly an improvement, and maybe enough to create some moral victories in an otherwise dour season.

Nate: I probably wouldn’t change it.  I mean as much as I love Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich, they would have gotten the Cavs to pointless mediocrity.  Would I like to have had someone who could have taught the team to play defense and to bring the effort every night?  Yes.  Taught the team what to do in close game situations?  Yes.  They might’ve edged out Milwaukee for the last playoff spot and taught some intensity, but that’s if they pushed every button perfectly.  Perhaps the point of Byron Scott is to show Kyrie Irving how the other half lives.  Maybe Kyrie needs to learn to appreciate a coach who makes good offense/defense substitutions or won’t play Luke Walton against Al Horford, or won’t pettily bury a 6’9″ small forward who was leading the NBA in three point percentage.  Byron ran his course.  It’s time to bring someone else in.  I don’t think the timing would have been right in July 2012.  Byron brought a modicum of dignity and calmness, though some might call it ambivalence, to the post LeBrocalypse.  Now the Cavs need someone between stoic Byron and losing-his-voice insane Stan Van Gundy to helm the ship for the next few years.  Scratch that.  Thibs would’ve made Kyrie play defense.  I wish we could have had him.

Kevin: My first preference is Kevin Hetrick; it is a definite pay raise for me.  Unfortunately, Cleveland goes 14 – 68 in that scenario.  Second…Phil Jackson.  The Zen Master melds a second-string front court of Samardo Samuels and Luke Harangody into a 39 win team.  Finally, Luke Walton…player-coach.  In this scenario, the Cavs finish 73 and 9.

Tom: Gregg Popovich is my head coach and teaches offense. Mike Brown is my assistant and he focuses on defense. Mark Price is my shooting coach. Stan Van Gundy is in charge of working with my big men and giving half-time interviews so Pop won’t be bothered. Doc Rivers and Phil Jackson are brought in as consultants when there’s in-fighting or someone needs motivated. And with this team? Add 12 wins. (9th best in the East)  The roster has been in disarray since Byron got here.  As much as I love Gregg Popovich, he’s had a healthy Tim Duncan for 16 of his 17 seasons as HC.  Who has Byron had since he showed up in Cleveland?  Also, the off-season additions of John Kuester and Mo Williams transformed the Cavs from the 20th best offense in the league to the 4th best.  That’s a huge improvement from what seemed like minor changes.  Perhaps the addition of a rim-protector + a healthy Varejao will allow Byron Scott to graft his DNA (whatever it is) onto this team.

Question 5: What expectations or ultimatums do you have for the Cavs coaching staff next season?

Colin: I expect the coaching staff to look different, if not at the absolute top, then in terms of the other dudes in suits sitting next to Byron Scott. They have to get a defensive coordinator of some sort. If Scott’s back with the same staff, we might be in for a long season. It’s tough to lay out other expectations when I’m unsure what the team is going to look like, so I’ll make a meek, blandly general statement: the team needs to stay motivated, and that burden falls on the coaches. I’m sure the inertia of failure and the ever-mounting injuries this year made that task near-impossible, but if we’re to surmise the Cavs will actually make an earnest run at the playoffs next season, the coaches are going to have to keep everyone’s heads on straight, so as to avoid eight-game losing streaks and more than a couple bafflingly uninterested games against bad teams. If the staff can act as a sort of consistency-maintaining mechanism, I’ll rate them three dilapidated burlesque theaters out of five dilapidated burlesque theaters.

Mallory: Next year is it.  40-42 wins is the minimum, meaning a 15 game swing is a MUST.  That’ll be tough, especially if Noel ends up being the guy selected and the front office doesn’t make any major roster improvements.  If Scott is still around, he absolutely must install a defense.  A 20th or better defense is essential to improving the record.  In addition, better in game coaching would be nice – certainly cooling down the opposing team when they get hot with a well-timed TO, as well as better end of game clock management. Ultimately, though, the key is just utilizing what’s on the roster to its absolute peak.  That’s what the best coaches in the NBA do on a nightly basis, and it’s something that Byron has been very mixed at.  If he’s around, he’s got to get better.

Nate: Develop toughness.  Teach the team how to play in late game situations and close out quarters.  Rise to above 20th in opponent FG% (as opposed to the current dead last). Teach a sane and consistent defensive philosophy.  Give opponents some wrinkles.  Teach Dion to play off the ball.  Develop a leadership hierarchy among the players on this team (don’t just hand it to Kyrie).  Most importantly?  Develop a culture of respect, winning, and accountability that will make free agents want to play in Cleveland.  Oh, and have a fun haircut.

Kevin: If Scott is back, it would be with a short leash.  Earlier this season, I took a look at Scott’s career.  The two peaks were guided by hall-of-fame point guards and both situations rapidly unraveled as his teams epically quit on him.  If the team starts 3 and 6 – move on and try some young, fresh, up-and-coming basketball mind.  Brian Shaw from the Pacers, perhaps?  He’s widely regarded as a key-schemer in Indy’s top-notch D.

Tom: No ultimatums from me, although I suspect Dan Gilbert wants some significant improvements at the defensive end. My expectations are that the team learns a few different ways to defend pick and rolls. I’d like to see the bigs hedge and retreat, the guards to anticipate the screener, and the help defenders to know where to rotate. On offense I expect more decisiveness and synergy from the core players, and the ball to swing from side to side. I want the team to start looking more than the sum of their parts. That’s on the coaches.

Commentariat, how would you answer these?