Age and Expectations

November 29th, 2013 by Nate Smith

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“Expectations are premeditated resentments” –The Alcoholics Anonymous “big book.”

Many of the Cavs’ problems, and our problems as fans, stem from expectations we formed before this season started. Entering the fourth year of rebuilding since the LeBrocalypse, many of us thought the Cavs were poised to become a playoff team or even a winning team (which aren’t the same things in the Eastern Conference).  The source of those expectations came from Kyrie Irving’s preternatural development as a young point guard.  Buoying that hope: a handful of top 4 picks, two more top 20 picks, and the accumulation of solid veterans. At last June’s draft lottery, Dan Gilbert expressed the expectation of “not being back,” to the lottery after the 2013-2014 season.

But so far, the Cavaliers have failed to live up to most expectations. It’s not just the losing.  It’s how they’re losing: blowout losses, mounds of turnovers,  horrible shot selection, and half-assed effort and execution on both ends of the floor. What’s causing this? Could it be that that these guys just can’t play together? Is Mike Brown a lousy coach? Do they just stink? Could it be that many of the problems with effort, consistency, and chemistry have stemmed from players failing to live up to their own expectations and those of Cavaliers management and ownership? Too many Uncle Drew commercials? Space aliens? The answer is more likely that we all had really ridiculous expectations, and our resentments are causing us to miss the reasons the Cavs are bad — because we really should have seen this coming.

Age and Winning

If you go strictly by the number of games played, Dion Waiters is still a rookie. Kyrie Irving is smack in the middle of his second year.  Tristan Thompson hasn’t quite finished his sophomore season.  74, 135, and 157: their respective games played count: they are all still very inexperienced by NBA standards. If the Cavaliers are following the Thunder model of team building, then everyone knows that the Thunder had an unbelievable 27 game improvement from year two to year three after drafting Kevin Durant. But they also had the unbelievable good fortune to draft players that developed immediately and the good fortune to stay healthy in that time. But, Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka are the exceptions, not the rule when it comes to player development.

Every player develops at his own pace. For instance, James Harden didn’t start playing well till about 100 games into his career, and he didn’t start playing really well till about 140 games in. Mike Conley? 210 games and three seasons before he posted a PER above 15. Joe Johnson? 250 games and three seasons before he posted an over 15 PER.  Those players were on the late end of the development curve. We don’t yet know what the curve is for KI, TT, and Dion.

Furthermore, the Cavs are an unbelievably young team.  Youth, in the NBA, is an anathema to winning.  The effective age of the Cavs is roughly 24.9 years old. (Age is defined as the player’s age on Dec 31st of the given season) .  Effective age is the average team age of the Cavs weighted for minutes played.  Kevin Pelton, in 2009, wrote a paper on the correlation between effective age and winning percentage, and came to the conclusion that from 1979-2008, the correlation between team age and winning percentage is .515, which is “fairly high.” ] BlazersEdge studied this trend as well. Based on this graph from their research, judging by effective age alone, the Cavs would project out to about a 35% winning percentage, or 29  23 wins, which is exactly the pace they are currently on.

The Cavs don’t just weight young.  The arithmetic average age of the players on the team is 24.2, and the Cavs lead the league in the number of players on their roster aged 18-23.  They only have two players over 30.  Clearly, the relative youth of the team needs to be taken into effect when evaluating the problems. The Cavs, for the last several years, have fielded teams where a large portion of the team was made up of D-League level players. They have mostly replaced those players with youngsters. A more balanced approach to ages of this team may have been helpful, particularly among the bigs and the wings, where a more experienced mentor might have been a good idea.  Varejao, Bynum, and Miles don’t exactly seem like the great communicators. But the team the Cavs have is the one we’re stuck with, and anyone who studies age and the NBA shouldn’t be surprised.

What should the Cavs do?

HitchhikerIn the words of Douglas Adams. Don’t Panic! A bad trade, or some other ill-conceived move is the last thing this team needs. There are lots of rumors floating that the Cavs have been calling around, gauging the trade market for Dion Waiters in light of the events described in the recent Chris Broussard article. The Cavs have denied that they are shopping him. The likes of Iman Shumpert, Evan Turner, and Luol Deng have been discussed.

First, Iman Shumpert is not a good player.  He’s been a bit of a headcase in New York and he can’t shoot. Shump recently posted the first game in 3 years where a player played 20 minutes and didn’t post a point, rebound, steal, or block. No thanks. Evan Turner, is a slightly above average player with a 16 PER, who plays below average defense, and whose scoring numbers are massively inflated because Philly plays at a ridiculous pace. Some idiot will give him $12 million dollars next year, and regret it two months after the season starts. Luol Deng is a nice player, but why would you give up Dion for a player you can sign in the off-season? Additonally, he makes $15 million dollars. He’s not going to settle for less than that in an extension without testing the market, first.  Is Luol Deng worth $15 million a year?

The trade value of anyone else on the team besides Irving is questionable, at best. Yes, the Cavs do have a lot of future draft picks they can leverage, but they should not use them unless they can get a player that can clearly help them over the next two to three years. Until that deal comes along, we — Chris Grant and Dan Gilbert included — should all be patient.

While many threw their hands in the air over Wednesday’s Miami loss, I was incredibly encouraged by the amount of fight and poise the Cavs displayed. Yes, they still had their turnover problems, but the effort was consistent throughout the game. Improvement never happens instantly.  It’s a grind. Before you can learn to play hard for four quarters in order to win, you have to learn to play hard for four quarters even when you’re probably going to lose. There’s no shame in playing hard and losing to the best team in basketball.

The Irving/Waiters Conundrum

Young NBA teams often fail.  One reason is because they don’t realize the amount of work and experience it takes to be consistently good. Dion has been very inconsistent in his effort and focus at times this year and last, but Dion Waiters was a revelation Wednesday. If he can play with that kind of intensity and focus every game, then there’s no way Cleveland should trade him right now. Dion has not regressed. He has picked up some habits that are conducive to winning this season.  While his field goal percentage is down last year, his three point percentage is almost 10% higher than it was last year.  He has become an effective catch-and-shoot player, and he is getting to the free throw line. What limits Dion is awful mid-range shots off the dribble (a virus running rampant through the Cavs guards right now) and taking bad angles on drives.  But as the game against Miami proves, when he can limit those tendencies, he has the potential to be great.

What I have loved about Dion recently, and what has caused a rift in the Cavs organization, has been Dion (allegedly) calling out Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson on playing “buddy ball” and Kyrie being a ball hog. As Jason Lloyd painfully pointed out, “The Cavs’ struggles haven’t trickled down to Irving; rather Irving’s struggles have trickled down to everyone else.” A “slumping” Irving is still a 19 PER player who scores 21 points a game, but part of what is ailing the Cavs is that Kyrie needs a Yoda to help him what he’s learned over the last two years. Waiters is right that Irving isn’t held to the same standard that everyone else on the team is held to. I’ve rarely seen Irving pulled out of a game for lazy defense or stupid turnovers. Under Byron Scott, Kyrie Irving was allowed to develop some incredibly bad habits.

Irving gets away with bad pick and roll play too: over-dribbling, not passing to the roll man, taking too many mid-rangers, and executing at bad angles. He tries to score with his handle too much, and tends to look for the home-run pass instead of the easy pass. And yes, I’ve seen Kyrie Irving freezing out Dion, as well as other Cavs. Kyrie’s biggest offensive problem is that he seems incredibly flustered by the double teams and shading that teams are running at him. A good point guard loves to see a double team, because it means someone will be open. That double team should allow the Cavs to get easy scoring opportunities. Kyrie Irving need to work on making that happen. Teams “ice” Kyrie because they know the Cavs will not swing the ball to the weak side quickly enough to make them pay. Kyrie Irving is a great scorer. But he’s still not very good at winning basketball games. Byron Scott did a pretty bad job of teaching Kyrie how to play point guard.

This whole “buddy ball” fiasco could be a good thing. Now that the fallout from the incident isn’t festering, the team can move past it. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone from the team leaked this story just to clear the air and motivate everyone. Against Miami, there was a concerted effort to engage with each other and pass to each other from Kyrie and Dion. It was the best chemistry they’d had all year. Hopefully, both of them realize there’s no reason they can’t play with each other. With Waiters’ and Kyrie’s catch-and-shoot prowess, they both need to realize that it shouldn’t be hard to play off each other, it should be easy if they move, pass, and shoot when they’re open.

A note on Wild Thing

The Cavs’ problems aren’t limited to Kyrie and Dion. Tristan Thompson has been maddeningly inconsistent in effort and effectiveness. Anthony Bennet’s problems are well documented. No one seems to know how to play with Bynum. But Cleveland’s biggest offensive problem revolves around the fact that they’re not putting the ball in hands of their best offensive player often enough. Anderson Varejao is having a fantastic year. He’s shooting better than he ever has in his career. He’s 50% on the year on jumpers (not including end of the shot clock 3 pointers), 57% at the basket. Furthermore, he’s got the lowest turnover rate per minute on the team, and by far the best assist to turnover ratio at just over 2:1.  The fact that Tristan Thompson’s usage is at 17.9% and Varejao’s is at 13.2% gives some credence to Dion’s supposed “buddy ball” accusations. Anderson Varejao has not “lost a step” (sorry John), he’s simply not getting the ball nearly enough. While those mad dives to the basket on the P/R are not as prevalent this year, it is more the (poor) design of the offense that is causing the problems, and not Andy. The Cavs don’t pass the ball when guys roll, so the bigs often settle for pick and pops instead of pick and rolls. Fortunately, Andy is still effective at both. The Cavs need to consider moving Tristan Thompson to the bench and starting Andy with Andrew Bynum. It would fix the spacing problem that TT has with Bynum, and allow for high/low action that Tristan is currently incapable of executing. Andy is among the best high post players in the league. They need to get him the ball there.

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Andy’s shot chart is one of the few offensive bright spots

 

Conclusions

There’s nothing to do but wait. We’ll know more after this weekend’s games against Boston and Chicago. Hopefully, the Cavs learn they can’t only “bring it” when they’re on national T.V. But to make comic sans decisions now, would be folly. At the very least, we and Dan Gilbert need to give the Cavs until the beginning of January before blowing anything up. Why then? Dec. 15th is the first major date in the NBA.  It’s the date that free agents signed during the summer of 2013 can be traded. The Next date, January 6th is when teams can sign players to 10 day contracts, and January 10th is the date that all NBA contracts become guaranteed (or the day that Andrew Bynum is sure he’s making $12 million instead of six). Most NBA trade action doesn’t take place until front offices have the full Swiss Army knife of tools available. Sometime around the end of January will be the first “hot zone” of trade activity, building through the All-Star break, and peaking at the trade deadline. Until then, we should give the Cavs opportunity improve.

Earlier this season, I said that “the road to mediocrity is paved with lowered expectations.” I still believe in that, but my stance has softened. The expectations should be consistent play: player to player, quarter to quarter, game to game. The focus has been too much on goals, and not nearly enough on “taking it one day at a time” (to borrow more from AA). It’s all about the process. We shouldn’t let Dan Gilbert’s expectations for the season and our own unrealistic expectations lead to irrational resentments.

Correction: Kevin is quite right. I not very good at maths.  The Cavs are were on pace for 23 wins (worse than that now) at the time of this article. The article originally said 29 wins.

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