The Boots: Talkin’ Cavs long-term upside and the 2014 East Playoffs

tristan dunkIn my usual half-rapid fire, half-prose form, I’m back with another edition of The Boots. For those unfamiliar with this feature, I assign loosely defined “Boot Up” or “Boot Down” votes to trending sports topics. With a disappointing Indians loss last night, let’s get excited about the Cavs.

Boot Up: Tristan Thompson’s potential — The NBA Summer League appears to be a dream work spot for a NBA writer. It’s not really free time or a true vacation of any kind since there are players everywhere, games all day everyday and boatloads of storylines for a writer to address. Oh, and it’s Las Vegas too, so that’s fun.

Throughout the Cavs’ Summer League jaunt into the quarterfinals, we’ve gotten lots of cool nuggets of information from the Cleveland writers out in Vegas with the team. My favorite of the bunch? It might just be what the Akron Beacon Journal’s Jason Lloyd shared from Mike Brown in two tweets last night.

Mike Brown, who I wrote more about in The Diff on Wednesday, has an incredibly impressive track record of working for some of the most dominant NBA teams of the last 15 years. A team that had his direct involvement on the bench last missed the playoffs in 1999. He’s a valuable resource when he says something notable.

Per Lloyd, Brown thinks very highly of second-year Cavs forward Tristan Thompson. He said the lefty from Brampton, Ontario (oh wait, the 22-year-old, not the rookie 20-year-old), is one of the top-five hardest workers he’s ever been around.

“He’s an absolute joy to be around … I’ve been around some pretty good workers …For as young as he is, he is up there.”

Fear The Sword’s Conrad Kazcamarek later tweeted an early prediction of how he thinks Thompson belongs on the Most Improved Player watch list for 2013-14. Which is just part of the point to make today: Fans are forgetting the high upside that Thompson still has, and his presence often gets lost in the mix of Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Anthony Bennett and Andrew Bynum Cavs hype.

Thompson averaged 11.7 points and 9.4 rebounds per game last season. Those are impressive numbers for any 21-year-old, and he was even better after Anderson Varejao went down. Thompson showcased a quirky push shot that was a far improvement over his lack of a offensive go-to move in his rookie campaign. This offseason, he’s said to be working on his right-handed shooting, which seems to be odd for a player once they’ve already cemented an NBA role.

But don’t sleep on the University of Texas product. He nearly averaged a double-double last season. While his minutes could decrease from the 31.3 he averaged per game last year, he’s only likely going to become more and more efficient. And the high praise of his work ethic from his coach only seems to back up his long-term potential. He’s going to be fun to watch.

Boot Down: Bad Eastern Conference — From Wednesday’s The Diff, if there was a single fact that I would have added to the fold among the other fun facts Cavs fans keep forgetting, it would have been this: The Eastern Conference is going to be terrible in 2013-14. Yes, the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers and Brooklyn Nets all will still be very talented. The latter team got significantly better thanks to their bountiful resources. But after that? A whole lot of meh.

Sure, the New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls are likely playoff locks. I might even be underestimating both teams, as based on the health and dominance of their respective stars Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose, they could be NBA Finals threats. That’s not how they looked consistently this past season, however.

Then after those five teams? It gets drastically worse. Toronto has a chance if wizard-like new GM Masai Ujiri can keep pulling amazing tricks1. Milwaukee is in a confusing state of forward flux. Atlanta’s youth movement had one of their best players move out of town. Detroit added said near-All-Star (Josh Smith), which just leads to a slightly more promising state of forward flux.

Washington is an up-and-coming team, but might be mortgaging its future on John Wall. Boston hired a college coach and dumped off two of its long-time stars. Philadelphia traded its best player for draft picks galore, including the rights to Nerlens Noel. Orlando will be better, but still was dreadful last year. Charlotte might soon be the Hornets, but they switched coaches again and don’t seem to have a plan.

Got all that? That’s my drawn-out way of saying that after the East’s top five, I see the next 10 being a clear level down. It’s possible that 40 wins could be enough to grab the No. 6 seed, although just by default because of all these other bad teams, a 40-win team in talent could be more than that.

In the end, yes, it’s good for the Cavs this season that the East is so weak. Ever since lottery day, Cleveland’s front office has been aiming for the playoffs and to not be back at the lottery show next season. That’s looking more and more likely by the day, not just because of their own moves, but because of the competition they’ll be facing up against most nights next year. I’d comfortably give them early 75% odds of squeaking into the 6-8 range somehow.

Boot Up: Sergey Karasev’s signing — Other positive news from the last 24 hours: The Cavs are likely to sign and introduce their recent No. 19 pick by early next week. This is tremendous news for the team, as murmurs had starting to emerge on the Internet of Karasev possibly not making the jump over to the NBA this coming year. Now that he will, we can again get pumped about what he brings to the table.

Ryan had a Sunday Six Pack on reasons to love Karasev a few weeks back. As a 19-year-old, he’s labeled as being seasoned beyond his years in terms of his NBA-readiness. He dominated the recent World University Games competition, earning the tournament’s best player nod while averaging 19.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists in 24.9 minutes per game.

Scouting reports detail how Karasev’s feel for the game has out-paced his production in most levels to date. That was the case in April’s Nike Hoop Summit, where he didn’t play much but yet impressed scouts quite a bit, leading to his stock upgrade to a guaranteed mid-first rounder. Labeled as an aggressive, confident, eager scorer with fantastic shooting ability, high offensive IQ and more, he’s one of the best European wing prospects in the last several years.

While he might not receive that many minutes in his rookie season as he adjusts to the game, it’s crucial for Karasev to get his NBA transition done and over with sooner rather than later. Yes, he’s just 19. But if he’s able to slowly adjust over the course of the 2013-14 season, learn more defensive schemes from Brown, start to gain chemistry with his teammates and gradually play more, then that’s all that can be expected.

Previously, a Twitter conversation led to the rookie year comparison of Evan Fournier. Last year’s No. 20 pick by the Denver Nuggets, the French wing appeared in only 12 games through the end of December. He still seldom received much playing time until the Nuggets were decimated by injuries down the stretch. His final nine regular season games: 12.3 points, 51.9% shooting and 22.8 minutes per game.

Gradually, if that’s what Cavs fans can see out of Karasev, they’ll take it. He has the upside to mirror the rest of the young stars on the roster. Because injuries always do happen, he’ll find his way to playing time in 2013-14. Now let’s just get him to training camp and let Brown take over with his coaching acumen.

Boot Down: The small forwards — Entering this offseason, the biggest weakness if the Cavs starting lineup was pretty obvious: small forward. A crazy assortment of replacement-level players have manned the position over the past three years, including such forgettable names as Luke Walton, Jamario Moon, Christian Eyenga and Omri Casspi.

The two players expected to return at the position for the Cavs were Alonzo Gee ($3.25 million team option) and CJ Miles (unguaranteed deal $2.25 million). Most accurately, these two represent the incumbency of mediocre small forwards that have been the issue for the team. And unfortunately, they remain the only two options with much NBA experience at the position.

Gee, 26, somehow managed to receive over 4,300 minutes of playing time the past two years after a low-key pedigree that brought him from Alabama to the Wizards and the D-League. He got a special mention recently from Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry for being the NBA’s worst shooter from the left corner. He’s athletic but not a shooter with a career 46.3% efficiency field goal percentage. Frustrating to watch, the Cavs actually were 5.3 net points better per 100 possessions with Gee out, despite the fact he averaged 31.0 minutes per game in all 82 contests.

Miles, also 26, was signed by the team from Utah as a free agent last summer. At the time, it seemed like his signing was a risk-free proposition: A high-upside high school draft pick in 2005, he had a back-and-forth tenure with the Jazz, but had carved out an NBA niche as a somewhat decent bench scorer. He had a career season from behind the arc in 2012-13, hoisting 8.7 threes per 36 minutes and converting 38.4% of them. But yet, his upside is limited, his defense is suspect, team offense isn’t an attribute and he takes more bad shots than good.

So yes, if a normal team would like to contend for the playoffs in the NBA, these are not the only veteran small forwards you would have on their roster. Most notably, the team signed free agent Earl Clark, who could end up being the starter over Gee. Clark’s intriguing history shows how he has the ability to defend multiple positions, but hasn’t proven much offensively or consistently in the NBA. A natural 4 with sparse NBA playing time at the 3, he’s an intriguing option, but at 25 years old, represents a long, defense-oriented version of the same replacement-level Gee/Miles mold.

The Cavs have stated repeatedly that rookie Anthony Bennett will play as a power forward exclusively this year. Long-term, perhaps he could handle the intricacies of the 3, but he’s not there yet especially because of shoulder surgery. Karasev could help perhaps, although the team also referred to him as a shooting guard after the draft and he won’t be expected to be a part of the team’s usual rotation early on. No. 33 pick Carrick Felix has hustled his way into some Summer League notoriety, so it’s possible he could be on the active 12-man roster on a regular basis for some minutes beyond just garbage time.

But overall, this is a pretty weak small forward rotation. It’s the black sheep of the Cavs’ playoff hopes. Long-term, the roster screams Karasev or bust. Short-term, it appears the answer is getting as much as possible out of the Gee/Miles/Clark trio and hoping for the best. It’s not what I would have done, but we’ll see.

Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

  1. The Raptors probably scare me the most out of any of these teams. While Washington avoided big man injuries last year, Toronto has emerging star Jonas Valanciunas who was dominating the Summer League. Valanciunas and the Cavs will likely be eternally linked because of the team’s early interest in him and later passing on him for Thompson in the 2011 draft. Oh, and the Raptors finished last season on a 30-29 run, too. []

  • BenRM

    I got to watch a little bit of the Summer League over the last week, and I am psyched for the Cavs season.

    As you mentioned, the Eastern Conference is such a mess at the bottom. The Cavs, even without a healthy Bynum, really ought to make the playoffs. If they don’t, something went terribly awry.