On the Cavs, Tanking and Lester Hudson

"Remember Lester, only make game TYING buzzer beaters"

With their the overtime loss to the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday night, the Cavs are officially out of the playoff race. This was expected. The Cavs are in the middle of their rebuild and are in full tank mode.

I wouldn’t consider myself “happy” that the Cavaliers lost, but I do tend to think of these late season losses as a Good Thing. I never like watching the Cavs lose and I’m not rooting for shots to clank off the rim or guys to miss their defensive assignments. I just realize that this team is a year or two away from competing and they’d benefit from a high pick in June’s draft.

Now, does tanking always work? Of course not. For every Oklahoma City or San Antonio there’s sad cases like Toronto and Golden State; teams that spend years in the lottery drafting poorly or picking guys who turn out to be good, but not great. I get that.

But what is the way to build a (championship) team? Is there even a blueprint? The NBA has more repeat champions than any other sport. 29 teams don’t win the title every season and odds are, those same 29 won’t be winning one the following year either (since 1980, nine teams have won the Larry O’Brien trophy. Nine teams in 31 years. Five teams, the Lakers, Celtics, Bulls, Pistons and Spurs, account for 26 of them).

What lessons can you draw from those five teams? Trade Vlade Divac for Kobe Byrant? Get Kevin Garnett really cheap by trading with a GM who has his number retired by your franchise? Tank and draft Tim Duncan? Tank and draft Michael Jordan? Have lots of sunshine, be situated close to Hollywood and throw a bunch of money at Shaq?

I dunno.

Here’s what I do know: in my lifetime the Cavs have been a legitimate title contender twice. The first time was in the late-80s and early-90s, with the Mark Price, Brad Daugherty, Ron Harper, Larry Nance teams. The second time was with that LeBron guy.

The Price team was built through the draft. In 1986, Cleveland took Daugherty first overall and Harper at seven. Price was drafted 25th by Dallas but was traded to the Cavs. The following year, the Cavaliers acquired Larry Nance at the trade deadline by giving up their 1987 first round pick, Kevin Johnson (drafted 7th). There’s their core: home grown draft picks and players acquired for other home grown draft picks.

Conversely, the LeBron teams were a mess. I’ve touched on this before:

In the three drafts following LeBron, the Cavs had just two first round picks (oops!) and used them on Luke Jackson and Shannon Brown (double oops!). By completely blowing the drafts, the Cavs were forced to build around LeBron by overpaying mediocre free agents (Larry Hughes, Donyell Marshall, Damon Jones, Ira Newble, Kevin Ollie) and then trading those mediocre free agents for other, different, mediocre, overpaid veterans (Ben Wallace, Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison, Shaq).

And then we were all shocked that LeBron decided to not-resign with a team of mediocre veterans and no capspace. Weird.

So both times the Cavs were title contenders, they had the number one overall pick on their roster. Interesting. Also, interesting, the Cavs currently have a number one overall pick on their roster, Kyrie Irving.

How should the Cavs build around him? How do you propose the Cavs add talent, if not at the top of the draft?

ESPN’s TrueHoop/HoopIdea has been pounding the anti-tanking drum recently and they have a couple ideas on how to “fix” tanking and, probably unsurprisingly, I disagree.

First, I don’t necessarily think that tanking needs to be “fixed.” And by tanking, I don’t mean players throwing games or intentionally missing shots, as TrueHoop says:

In fact, when I talk about tanking, I’m not even talking about something players, or even coaches, are doing. I’ve watched the video, and looked at the substitution patterns. It is very tough to come up with strong evidence any players or coaches are doing anything other than trying to win.

For the GMs and owners of about half the teams in the league, however … everybody knows it’s not smart for them to try to win every game. They don’t throw games by intentionally missing shots. But they do strip rosters bare of high-priced talent, hoarding cap dollars for another day, and knowing that the inevitable losses that ensue — the tanking — will come with some of the most valuable rewards in all of sports.

In other words, in a sport based on the excitement of live competition, they are trying to lose, which attacks the integrity of the game.

We’re not talking about players or coaches intentionally throwing games. We’re talking about GM’s setting up their roster for the future. Why is that a bad thing?

Look, rooting for a bad professional sports team sucks. It is no fun when your team is out of playoff contention and there’s still a month of the season left to play. As a life long Cleveland fan, you can trust me on this.  But this isn’t a situation unique to the NBA. Baseball teams routinely bring up prospects late in the season, in order to get them experience against big league competition. Same thing happens in football. If you’re out of the NFL playoff hunt, why not let the rookie-QB get a few snaps and see how it goes?

For the Cavs, they made the choice to “tank” when they traded Ramon Sessions (a player who wouldn’t have been a Cavalier next season) to the Lakers for an extra first round pick in this year’s draft (though I’d argue the choice was made for them the minute Anderson Varejao got hurt). I like the move, as it gives the Cavs an extra pick in exchange for a player who was gone anyways. Plus, losing Sessions helps improve Cleveland’s draft position for next year. For what it is worth, ESPN’s John Hollinger gave the Cavs a “D” for the Sessions deal.

HoopIdea would call the Sessions trade tanking. I call it being realistic and making a long term move. I don’t see how the Cavs adding an extra pick while improving their own draft chances is any worse than the Tribe trading Casey Blake at the deadline for some prospect.

Most of the tanking fixes that HoopIdea has offered seem silly to me. One proposed fix was that we could just get rid of the draft and let rookies become free agents. Awesome. As a Cavs fan who just watched a kid who grew up 30 minutes from Cleveland leave a 60+ win team (with a new practice facility and a owner who’s willing to spend!) for less money, you can imagine how much I like this idea. Midwest cities like Cleveland will always have trouble attracting free agents, regardless of the sport. When you take away the draft, you take away their only equalizer.

The latest HoopIdea involves some kind of preseason ranking system and punishing teams who do worse than predicted:

For this article, we’ve used the pre-season over-unders from SportsMemo. As an example, Miami was predicted to win 50.5 games. The latest Hollinger prediction has Miami winning 48. 48 divided by 50.5 = an Attainment Score of 95 percent. Currently, the Heat are on pace to perform slightly below expectations, which would put them a bit later in the draft, but not as late as, say, the Mavericks, who are on pace to finish with about ten fewer wins than projected by betting lines.

No more tanking

Sacramento, Toronto and Charlotte were all predicted to be pretty bad. The over/under for all three teams was predicted to be 15.5 wins each. However, as you’ll see in the table below, Toronto and Sacramento are predicted to win 23 and 22 per John Hollinger’s predictions. They have significantly exceeded expectations and would be rewarded for that with the first and second picks in the draft.

Charlotte, on the other hand, actually leads the league in underperforming expectations. With only nine wins predicted, Charlotte’s on pace to attain just 58 percent of their goal, last in the NBA.

So because Charlotte under performed, they’d be punished by not getting the first pick (which, you know, they aren’t guaranteed under the current lottery system). The pick the Bobcats would receive under this system? 30th. That’s because they have bad management and have under performed and, well, you shouldn’t reward bad management.

Charlotte’s 44 win team got swept in the first round by Orlando and they would’ve picked 16th for their troubles (except they had traded their 2010 first rounder for Raymond Felton). So the idea is that the Bobcats should’ve gone forward with their Stephen Jackson, Felton, Boris Diaw team is ludicrous to me (assuming you want to reward good management decisions).

In my opinion, you can bemoan the fact that NBA teams often have to get worse in order to get better. That’s a fair argument, but that’s the system. What isn’t fair is slamming GMs (or fans) for looking and building towards the future. Don’t be mad at me because my GM is taking advantage of the current system (and his market’s limitations) and I recognize this fact.

As I stated earlier, it sucks when your favorite team is just playing out the string. And while you don’t have the “tanking” issue in other sports (though the NFL just went through a year of “Suck for Luck”), I think that’s mostly because of the nature of the sports themselves.

With basketball being just five-on-five, one player has more influence over a basketball game’s outcome than he does in football and baseball. A great player can impose his will on the basketball court. In football or baseball, a great player is helpless if his team’s defense can’t stop the run or his closer blows a save. That’s why teams waste years clearing capspace for shot at a player like LeBron or Dwight Howard.

They’re worth it.

TrueHoop quotes Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball:

With Hakeem and Jordan looming as draft prizes, both the Rockets (blew 14 of their last 17, including 9 their last 10) and Bulls (lost 19 of their last 23, including 14 of their last 15) said, “Screw it, we’ll bastardize the sport,” and pulled some fishy crap: resting key guys, giving lousy guys big minutes and everything else. Things peaked in Game 81 when a washed-up Elvin Hayes played every minute of Houston’s overtime loss to the Spurs. Since none of the other crappy teams owned their picks, only Chicago and Houston controlled their destinies (hence the tanking).

Hmmm, Jordan and Hakeem, eh? Two Hall of Famers, with eight NBA championships between them. I wonder if the Bulls and Rockets could do it over, would they choose to “bastardize the sport” again?

I tend to think they would.

With the playoffs officially out of the question, the Cavs are playing out their string.  D-league call-up Lester Hudson has provided some late season highlights (and maybe earned himself a job), but for the most part, the last part of Cleveland’s season has been pretty unwatchable (unless you enjoy watching Omri Casspi, Antawn Jamison and Anthony Parker. And if that’s the case, you are a sick, sick individual).

Last season, the Cavs were historically bad and for their troubles, they got the fourth overall pick (using it on Tristan Thompson). So if the Cavs were tanking last season, it didn’t really work (I mean, how would you feel about Chris Grant’s rebuilding plan without Kyrie Irving?). But the Cavs got lucky when the Clippers pick acquired in the Baron Davis deal jumped to the top spot, allowing them to select Irving, and accelerating Cleveland’s rebuilding plans considerably.

Getting a high pick doesn’t guarantee a team anything. Sometimes it’s a weak draft (Andrew Bogut instead of LeBron), sometimes the player doesn’t pan out. But the Cavs lucked out with Kyrie Irving and now they have four of the first 34 picks in next June’s draft. With the late season losses piling up, their first pick should be in the top five of the lottery. Picking that high (or potentially higher *fingers crossed*), Chris Grant should have a shot at any number of good players (personally, I like Thomas Robinson from Kansas).

If you consider yourself a Cleveland Cavaliers fan and you’d rather be mad at a late-season loss to Toronto than excited for their future, that’s on you. Myself, I’m spending these last few weeks of the season counting down the games Antawn Jamison has left in a Cavalier uniform (Magic Number: 10!!) and day dreaming about the face of the franchise taking the new rooks under his wing at Summer League.

But to each their own.

Some Random Thoughts

– Right now I think the Cavs have anywhere from one to four long term pieces on the roster. Irving is a stud, Thompson is intriguing and guys like Alonzo Gee and Lester Hudson are proving they can play in this league. While I like Thomson, Gee and Lester, none of them should preclude the Cavs from taking either a power forward or a swingman at the top of the draft. The only position the Cavs don’t need is point guard.

– These last ten games should basically be an open audition for Kyrie Irving’s backup. Manny Harris, Donald Sloan, Lester Hudson, who wants this job?

– I’m OK with the Tristan Thompson pick. While I think there’s a lot to like about Tristan (defense, rebounding, athletic ability), I can certainly understand the concerns about his (lack of) offense. The issue isn’t necessarily Tristan’s offense, but Tristan’s and Anderson Varejao’s offense together. If you play Tristan with Andy, why wouldn’t teams simply pack the paint and dare either of Cleveland’s bigs to shoot from the outside? That being said, you can do worse than a hardworking, athletic big man with a good attitude.

– But isn’t it a bit underwhelming to only get a “hardworking, athletic big man” at the fourth overall slot? I guess so, but it was a weak draft. And there are some experts who have Tristan going second overall if they’d redo the 2011 draft.

– If the Cavs would luck out, jump to Number 1 overall and select Kentucky center Anthony Davis, I fully expect Thompson (and Varejao) to immediately be on the trading block.

– A lot of fans wanted the Cavs to select center European center Jonas Valanciunas with the fourth pick. People seem to think that the Cavs didn’t select Jonas V because of his contract issue (he’s playing this season in Europe). I don’t think that’s the case. The Cavs traded JJ Hickson literally minutes before the NBA Lockout took effect, presumably because they didn’t want to have to decide whether or not to pay him following a lockout canceled or shortened season. So if the Cavs were willing to get rid of JJ because they thought the lockout could ruin the season, why would they not take Jonas V and have him miss that same lockout shortened season? I just think the Cavs liked Thompson.

– For the most part, I like Byron Scott. I think he’s a solid NBA coach who can reach current players. I would’ve liked to see to see him play Thompson with Irving a bit more this season, but that’s a small quibble. However, I’m not gonna lie, I do get kind of concerned when I read things like this:

From Elias Sports Bureau, the Cavaliers are the first team in NBA history to lose consecutive home games, each by 35-or-more points. In between those two defeats, Cleveland lost to the Knicks in New York on Saturday night, 91-75.

Following the loss to the Spurs, Cavaliers head coach Byron Scott repeatedly said that his team is “not even competing.”

Last season the Cavs tied the North American Sports record for longest losing streak and earlier this season they set the franchise record for worst home loss, to a Derrick Rose-less Chicago Bulls team (which, considering the franchise that Scott is coaching, is pretty impressive). I know Scott is in charge of a team full of projects and washed up vets, but is it too much to ask that the Cavs not be historically bad?

– And finally, if you haven’t heard it, I highly suggest listening to Chris Grant’s interview on WKNR from March 26th. I like everything that he says, except for when he humors Kenny Rhoda by pretending to care about Kenny’s draft board.

  • Mark

    Nice article Ben. Totally agree with your take on tanking. I honestly don’t understand Sam Amico’s tweets on this. In a season like this, with that lack of talent on the roster, it makes no sense not to tank. We need a high draft pick and we need to hit on it.

    I also agree that aside from Irving, no position is so solid that you wouldn’t draft the BPA at it. I’m sorry to say it but I think we are pretty far off from being a real playoff contender let alone making a serious run at the title.

    Can you elaborate on why you would trade Andy and/or Tristan if we lucked out and landed Davis?

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Great article, wow, long one too.  It made me remember 1986 and I didn’t need an STO commercial.  Not only did the Cavaliers have probably the greatest draft of any Cleveland sports team BUT the Browns beat the Jets in a thrilling OT game for the ages.

    As far as tanking goes I don’t believe the Cavaliers have tanked at all.  I also don’t believe trading a backup PG should or did cause this team problems.  It didn’t help.  It didn’t help Varejao breaking his wrist either.  It didn’t help Irving hurting his shoulder.  It didn’t help Casspi forgetting how to play basketball.  It didn’t help having a virtually talentless bench.  And finally it didn’t help playing a compact schedule do to the lockout/strike whatever that mess was called.

    Unlike the Browns I think the Cavaliers have a plan and will turn it around much faster.  I realize due to roster size it should be easier for the Cavaliers but lets face it, nothing is easy for Cleveland sports teams.  Trading Sessions for a pick hurts now but should pay off later.  It would be straight sick if Nick Gilbert could pull off another draft lottery coup with the #1 pick but that’s dreaming.  Until then let Thompson gain the experience eventhough he’s playing out of position and guys like Hudson and Sloan audition.  I’ve seen enough of Manny Harris to know he’s an 11th or 12th guy on the bench.  Hudson has shown the most promise.  If he stays then you lost nothing by trading Sessions other then games.

  • Matt

    Great post! Love the caption. 1 thing- let’s say we get lucky again and win the lottery, thereby winning the right to draft A. Davis (What’s not to like?). Why put both Andy and Tristan up on the trading block? Why put either really?

    I just love the idea of having some front court depth. You bring Andy off the bench as a sixth man/energy guy. All we would need is a wing scorer and a couple more bench players and we are seriously competing.

    By the way, first time commenting but am an avid reader of WFNY. Keep up the good work guys.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Oh I forgot throw some $$$ at either/both Roy Hibbert or Eric Gordon too.  Both are restricted free agents but at the least you drive up the price for each of their respective teams to resign them.  Worst case scenario the offer isn’t matched and the Cavaliers would have either a starting C or SG.  Then in the draft you address whichever position of the two you didn’t land.  Now your rebuild went from 2-3 years to possibly 1-2.

  • Basically, they’re all too similar offensively IMO. You’ll need a big who can stretch the floor and open up driving lanes for Kyrie. If you could trade Andy or TT for a legit wing…

    but a defensive rotation of Davis, TT and Andy would be pretty sick.

  • This sounds simplistic but picking smart and having a healthy organization is more valuable than picking high. 

    Whoever San Antonio gets in the 20s will be better than whoever Charlotte does at 1-4. Environment and culture counts. It’s why the Cavs are by far the most likely Cleveland team to be a contender anytime soon.

    Totally off topic, but I’d much rather have the fourth pick than the second. Second pick lends itself to drafting more on potential it seems like.

  • Mark

    I agree with your basic premise of that the value of an organization is an underrated commodity. But I’m not sure I can say it is more valuable then picking high in the right draft. With San Antonio you have the poster child for how a team should be run. They are the class of the NBA. But they still got there with Duncan. I’m very curious to see if they can win a title once he is gone. Can they do it without that top of the lottery stud player?

  • Oh I agree its not an either/or at all and I’m also curious about San Antonio post-Duncan. I do think good orgs are set up to maximize players, so that drafting smart at #8 will give you a good player. Somehow the spurs are always turning up these diamonds in the rough year after year. There’s always luck involved as well – no doubt.

  • Oh I agree. Team culture and scouting are hugely important. But still, the higher you pick, the better pool of talent you have to choose from. I’d rather my smart team pick 4th than 8th.

    From what I’ve seen, the Cavs are “smart” and have a healthy culture (this is why I’m thrilled that Kryie wants to lead their summer league squad. When you have a superstar who wants to work/allows himself to be coached, it makes everyone else fall in line).

    as for 2 vs 4, I can see that. Lot’s of 2nd picks have been projects (thabeet, beasely, darko)

  • Eric Gordon would be the dream pickup. 

  •  all too similar offensively. trade from a position of depth (defensive bigs) to shore up the wings.

    That’s the idea, anyways.


  • Gooden is my favorite #2 pick haha

  • AlexMathews

    I’m assuming his thinking is too many defensive players, not enough scoring? And then you’d have an abundance of PF/C talent on the roster. I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary to trade anyone though. The championship Pistons of a few years ago won with this kind of thinking.

  • Dinner

    Sounds like your expecting Davis, TT, and Andy to average similar career numbers to Serge Ibaka. And no amount of assistance from Byron, Z, or Tim Duncan will help improve their performance huh?

  •  Gooden was 4th. :-

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    It’s hard to use SA as a model because they do everything right.  They have had a future HOF head coach for years which gives them stability and they have been able to utilize foreign players like no other team.  On top of that they have had a history of unselfish players from Robinson to Elliott to now Duncan.  It’s a culture.  They brought in ex-Cavalier Danny Green and brought back Stephen Jackson and haven’t missed a beat.

  • Shouldn’t that be the model since they do everything right? Pop wasn’t always a hof coach either. For all his faults its one reason I liked coach mike – it was a foundation and not one of these journeyman coaches.

  • Kirk

    Great stuff, Ben. I’m surprised to hear you’re a big fan of Robinson (TD is grinning somewhere). I agree, though, Davis or Robinson should be picked if available despite who we have on the roster.

    As for Tristan, he can’t and won’t be traded. If you have to deal, it’s Andy. I truly believe that Thompson will benefit plenty from an offseason with Z and the rest of the staff working on some sort of mid-range game and developing more than one post move. They even improved his free throw stroke mid-season, and now he’s shooting close to 60%. It’s a start.

  • Dave

    I tank and trade for draft picks all the time to rebuild a championship contender in 2K games all the times.  I know thats different than real life but when your put in a position like the Cavs were, where else do you go?  Honestly is a starting lineup of Sloan, Parker, Gee, Jamison and Thompson really good enough to compete night in and night out?  Then you throw in the bench bums, Samuels, Harangody, Hudson, Casspi, Harris, and other D-league auditions.  The Cavs are in great position to rebuild.  And how can you say a team is tanking when they push playoff teams into OT or fight them to the finish.  Yeah they might go legendarily miserable and get blown off the court but they dont have the talent right now to compete and I’m fine with that.

  • at some point w/offense, guys either ‘get it’ or they don’t. see, Ben Wallace, Varejao, etc. They can improve and mask some faults, but very rarely do bigs in the NBA start off raw and develop a consistent offensive game.

    I mean, TT basically needs to rework his entire shooting form. Can he improve? Sure. Will he ever be a go-to guy down the stretch or someone who can stretch a defense? I doubt it. Would love to be wrong though.

  • ya, but Rasheed Wallace is 1000X more polished offensively than any of these guys. 

  •  I think Andy would be the guy to go too. But I don’t think anyone sans Kyrie is ‘untouchable’.

  • Ritz

    I think Davis will develop and be a good to very good offensive player. He already has a nice mid range shot and can even shoot further outside (he just didn’t do it much at UK). I am fully convinced that Andy and Davis could start together on a championship level team. Then TT is nice off the bench.

    I just don’t like trading talent on a roster devoid of talent. Yes, the pieces might not fit the ideal NBA roster on paper in terms of balance, but in my mind, trading young talent (TT) or talent that can still be here a while (Andy) is not smart.

  • Ritz

    Problem is there is no way in heck either of those teams would let those guys go, that’s just dreaming the impossible.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Possibly but if you don’t try you’ll never know.  The Cavaliers will have alot of money to play with and unlike the other sports team in Cleveland I’d like to see them use it.  At the worst you make those teams pay to resign those guys.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Well I meant they are a very difficult model to duplicate.  Gilbert tried with the hiring of Ferry who in turn hired Brown.  I didn’t like either of those choices although Ferry did better in his job then did Brown IMO. 

  • Phil

    Great article!

    I think you should give Andy and TT a chance to play together in the frontcourt. I really think they can change a game with their rebounding and cause the opponents a lot of trouble.

    If we pick a swingman in the top 5 and maybe get lucky with one of the other three picks we have a solid core to build around. 

    Irving – Gee – Kidd-Gilchrist/Barnes ??? – Thompson – Andy could compete and maybe had a chance to get the Nr. 8 seed.

  • Brad

    One issue I don’t feel u addressed is that tanking can mask the fact that your gm sucks, but u might believe that he’s good and just helping his team tank. So far, we have a jj hickson or capi trade, which I think was iffy at the time, looks even worse for cavs now. Kyrie was obvious and pick and Thompson too early to tell. But then u say take David and trade Thompson?? What are we goin to trade Thompson for? No team is going to give us a lottery pick for him, and do u want to trade him for another career journey man, ala someone like Jamison? Or if we trade Andy, again, he’d get more than TT, but what? Is the Andy trade going to be a different version of JJ v caspi?

    I do believe u can plan for the future. The sessions trade was necessary. But it’s too early to tell if our GM will pick a good player with it or a bum.
    U talk about Jordan and Hakeem to make ur point, but forget Portlands mistake of taking olawkandi. Then Portland tanking again and taking oden instead of KD.
    Good teams/winning cultures find/create good players. Bad teams tank and hope to get lucky. I just hope the cavs aren’t getting lucky.

  • Dan Gilbert actually hired Mike Brown as head coach before hiring Danny Ferry as general manager.

  • Nice article! Definitely like the reference to the Bulls & Rockets of 1984. I recall hearing that it was because of the Bulls’/Rockets’ “tanking” at the end of that season (and gaining the rights to draft Jordan & Olajuwon at #3 & #1, respectively) that the NBA implemented the Draft Lottery one year later.

    An interesting tidbit about the Spurs is that they have only had 3 lottery draft picks since the advent of the draft lottery: David Robinson, Sean Elliott, and Tim Duncan. Overall, they have been a playoff team almost every year of their existence, dating back to the ABA days.