I was really looking forward to this Cavalier season. No more lottery visits for us, no sir. The Cavs were making a push towards the playoffs. They were taking the Next Step. I was excited to see Mike Brown take over a young team with (potentially) multiple offensive weapons. No longer would Brown be beholden to a superstar, he’d be able to work with multiple young first rounders and mold them into competent NBA players. This year was going to be different.
The Cavs, at 15-27, are not good. They lost by more 40 points to the 15-26 Sacramento Kings. They lost at home to a Bulls team missing roughly their 17 best players. They had not one, but two five second inbound violations against the Mavericks (with one coming on their final possession). And these are games after the Luol Deng trade.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are not a good basketball team.
Sure, the Cavs’ .357 winning percentage is a marked improvement over last season’s .294 pace, but it’s still fairly horrid. The Cavs are one of seven teams with an average point differential worse than negative 4 and their negative 5.4 is fifth worst in the entire NBA. If the Cavs were in the Western Conference, their record of 15-27 would put them second to last, just ahead of the tanktastic Utah Jazz at 14-29.
But thankfully for fans of sub-.500 playoff runs and Chris Grant’s near term employment, our young Cavs play in the East.
In the East, the Cavs are only three games out of the final playoff spot. In the East, only five teams have a winning record (and Indiana and Miami are the only teams more than a few games above .500). In the East, there are actually five teams that are worse than the Cadavers. In the East, no one can hear you scream.
So the Cavs are sticking to their guns. It’s playoffs or bust. They traded notorious knucklehead Andrew Bynum for certifiable Good Guy Luol Deng. Sure, they’ll be riding vets like CJ Miles, Anderson Varejao and Jarrett Jack to a Bobcast-esque first round exit (as opposed to playing all those first round picks they’ve drafted), but the playoffs are the goal. The only way Kyrie will learn how to play defense is if he gets swept by the Pacers.
— Ben Cox (@WFNYBen) December 28, 2013
Friday’s game against the Bucks will be Cleveland’s 43rd of the season, just past the halfway mark. Let’s take a look at where we stand in the middle of the season.
Kyrie Irving: I’ve probably fluctuated on Kyrie more than any Cavalier in my lifetime. He’ll have absolute moments of brilliance (like when he hit five straight threes against the Bulls) followed by… nothing. Voted in as an All-Star starter, Kyrie is an unbelievably skilled offensive guard. At the defensive end… Kyrie is an unbelievably skilled offensive guard. It is frustrating as hell to see opposing point guards like DJ Augustine, Isaiah Thomas and Joe Calderon consistently light up the Cavs1. A lot of folks complain about his leadership and well, that is a sorta fair given that he’s the best player on the team and point guards are generally considered to be the proverbial Coach On The Floor. At the same time, Kyrie is averaging 21 points and 6 assists per night (with a PER over 20) while getting little-to-no help from his running mates. I wanted him to be better this season, to take the Next Step and it hasn’t happened. I’ve been underwhelmed by Irving all season and his sporadic spurts of awesome aren’t nearly as soothing as they used to be.
Dion Waiters CJ Miles: If you follow me on the Twitter machine, you’ll notice I have a running joke with WFNY stat boy Jacob over CJ Miles. Whenever CJ does well, Jacob lets me hear about it. When CJ Miles does poorly, I respond in kind. This happens a lot, as CJ is as streaky of a player as I’ve ever seen. When he plays well, the Cavs do well. The Cavs are 15-27.
Luol Deng: Holy crap a basketball player. To say Deng is an upgrade at small forward is an injustice to upgrades. Going from Alonzo Gee/Earl Clark to Deng is a ColecoVision to X-Box One type of jump. Deng does a ton of little things that the Cavs have lacked, like: move without the basketball, play defense for multiple minutes at a time, and show up ready to play basketball competitively. The Cavs added him to make a push towards the playoffs but, unfortunately, the Cavs seem to be more than simply a competent small forward away2. Also, Deng is an unrestricted free agent after this season and barring a massive overpay, I’d be surprised if he stuck around.
Tristan Thompson: Ah, Chris Grant’s only first round pick who can play defense. But can he play offense? Eh…. signs point to no. Double T has clearly worked hard at his game and he’s developed a few decent offensive moves (a running hook, a jump hook/push shot thing), but he’s not a smooth offensive player (his dribbling and shooting are… not pretty). Opposing defenses aren’t exactly concerned with Thompson, but if left open, he can make you pay. This is an distinct improvement and I’m not joking. He’s a good-to-great rebounder who can find garbage points but the Cavs should never run an isolation play for him ever again ever. Listed at 6’9″, Thompson is a bit undersized for my liking. He gets pushed around too easily and while he’s a solid individual defender, he’s not big enough to make opposing bigs uncomfortable. In certain matchups (like say, against Denver) Thompson looks great but it doesn’t translate every night because, at 6’9″, he’s always going to struggle inside due to his size and limited offensive arsenal.
Andreson Varejao: Varejao is a little bit older and a little bit slower, but he’s still an above average player. Even though Varejao has worked on his midrange jumper, I wonder if he and Thompson can play together long term. Why won’t opposing defenses just pack the paint against them? And sure, while they get ALL THE REBOUNDS, neither TT or Andy is a rim protector or a great help defender. Andy is always in the right spot and always tries hard (which is a novel concept, eh?) but I wonder if he’s getting in the way of Thompson’s (and Zeller’s and Bennett’s) development. If the Cavs decide that this year is a wash (and with the No. 1 overall pick racking up DNP-CDs, we’re getting close), Varejao is far and away the Cavs most attractive trade asset.
Dion Waiters: Hey, remember when Mike Brown said Dion was a starter? Good times. It’s not been the best season for Dion. He lost to me at his bowlathon, his name has been mentioned in trade rumors, he accused Tristan and Kyrie of playing “buddy ball” at a tense players only meeting, Grantland’s Zach Lowe dinged him for showboating versus the Hawks, the Akron Beacon Journal’s Jason Lloyd said other players have grown tired of his act, and he’s still struggling to play next to Kyrie. All that being said, I’ve been more upset with how the Cavs have handled Dion than how Dion has handled himself. They drafted a small, ball dominant guard the year after taking Kyrie (who is also a small, ball dominant guard). They tell him he’s a starter, then they move him to the bench not a month into the season (whoever could’ve seen *that* coming!?). So now Dion comes off the bench playing next to Jarrett Jack… who is also a small, ball dominant guard. Dion needs to be Jarrett Jack, not be playing next to Jarrett Jack. Feels like only a matter a time before Dion is traded.
Jarrett Jack: Jack… has left much to be desired. I don’t like his shot selection and he’s been too careless with the ball for someone who’s supposed to provide veteran leadership. While Jack is averaging less turnovers per game than he has over the past few years, his turnover rate is actually up, as his usage rate has gone down. We’re not a full season in and I’m already wondering if they can flip Jack or include him in some deal. Early in the year, before we knew Anthony Bennett was Anthony Bennett, I got really frustrated with Jack deciding to shoot while Bennett was rolling to the hoop post-pick. “Feed the young guy!”, I screamed at my TV, “reward your big!” Alas, Jack (and CJ Miles) ignored my advice. Also, turns out Bennett is useless as an NBA player so you might as well chuck an 18 footer with 15 seconds left on the shot clock. YOLO.
Anthony Bennett. I feel for the kid. Is he a small forward? Is he a power forward? I don’t know! He’s getting booed at home and he’s loafing at the end of blow outs. He’s been bad. Really bad. He’s been so bad that he’s actually telling reporters he’d be open to going to the D-League. Think about that. The top pick in the draft is saying he’d be cool with a D-League stint and the Cavs still won’t send him down. Are they afraid he’d fail in the D-League? Is he too out of shape to play? Is his asthma a worse problem than we all realize? Are they trying to save face? Again, I don’t know! What I do know is that he’s currently racking up DNP-CDs while the Cavs lose to crappy teams. Which makes zero sense to me. Also, Anthony Bennett is fat.
Earl Clark/Alonzo Gee. Earl Clark is a back up stretch PF who was getting minutes at SF because Alonzo Gee is Alonzo Gee. Both of these guys are somewhat serviceable, but they’re both pretty limited. Gee isn’t much of a shooter and Clark (despite this dribble drive dunk vs the Bulls) can’t really do anything but shoot. Neither guy should be starting or playing big minutes. And they won’t be, at least until Luol Deng leaves in free agency.
Tyler Zeller. Tyler Zeller is a backup big. He’s somewhat quick (he rim runs pretty well) and he’s somewhat skilled but he gets pushed around with regularity. Zell-zell had a rough start to the season, missing all of training camp with a finger injury and then acute appendicitis (negating his offseason weight gain). He’s a fine player, but limited. I feel his destiny is to be a throw-in in a trade and then bounce around the league for a decade.
Matthew Dellavedova. Whoever saw Delly being the most productive Cavalier rookie, please raise your hand. I can see why Coach Mike has been playing the rookie from Saint Mary’s (by way of Australia): the kid plays hard. It’s kinda nuts that Delly is the Cavs’ best defensive guard. Disagree? It’s either him or CJ Miles. Have I mentioned that the Cavs are 15-27? For what it’s worth, there’s a semi-decent chance that Delly would be the Cavs’ lone representative in the Rising Stars Challenge at All-Star weekend. Which is totally not depressing.
Sergey Karasev/Carrick Felix: These guys would be super useful to this particular Cavs squad if they were in their fourth or fifth year. The Cavs could totally use a sweet shooting lefty forward and an athletic, high motor wing. Unfortunately, Mike Brown doesn’t play rookies, so we’ll never know if they’d actually help this particular Cavs squad. Fortunately, the Cavs are willing, unlike with Bennett, to send these two down to Canton for some seasoning.
Chris Grant drafter guy and Chris Grant trader guy are two different people.
— Ben Cox (@WFNYBen) January 7, 2014
Mike Brown: I wasn’t thrilled with the re-hiring of Mike Brown, but I talked myself into it. One of the reasons why I thought Coach Mike would work this time around was that he wouldn’t be under the gun. I thought that Brown would be willing to let his young team learn from their mistakes and not have a such a quick hook with the kids. Nope. It’s playoffs or bust for our Cavs and Coach Mike can’t afford to let Bennett (or Dion or Karasev) make a mistake. Nevermind that the offense is just as ugly as we all remembered. Nevermind that he has a quick hook for some guys, but a longer leash for others3. Also, Dion Waiters is a starter. Until he isn’t. Anthony Bennett is a power forward only. Or he’s maybe a small forward. There’s no consistency. The team routinely commits dumb fouls (cheap fouls on fast breaks that lead to three-point plays) and they’ve had multiple end of game situations where they failed to even get off a shot. The players don’t seem to be buying into Brown’s defensive teachings and I don’t see them doing so until they start winning. Unfortunately, I’m not sure they’re gonna start winning with this roster any time soon4.
Chris Grant, GM: This is a team full of trade assets that nobody wants. It was an open secret that the Cavs were trying to deal the top pick before the draft. Then they were trying to move Dion Waiters earlier this season. Other teams have to know this and are low balling the Cavs. Why? Because if Grant and company really liked Dion Waiters long term, why sign Jarrett Jack to a four year deal? My pet theory is that Grant wanted to flip Dion+Bennett+[stuff] for some kind of Big Name but it’s blown up in his face. No one like Kevin Love or LaMarcus Aldridge ever became available. With the hiring of Mike Brown, the Cavs haven’t put these offensive players in position to even make themselves attractive to the rest of the Association. And while all of Grant’s draft picks can be defended in a vacuum, it’s hard to defend them in the Big Picture. Grant has had six first round picks in three years and only one (Thompson) can be considered an even decent NBA defender. None of them have a major size advantage at their position. The Cavs have to work so hard to score and, barring some late growth spurts, I don’t see how that’s going to change. You can’t maximize Dion next to Kyrie. You can’t maximize Bennett next to Thompson. Zeller is a backup. Plus, they haven’t stashed one second round pick over in Europe for seasoning (a thing smart teams like the Bulls and Spurs routinely do). I liked Grant’s big picture plan of hoarding picks and assets, I just don’t like his execution. They have a team full of trade assets that they can’t even showcase. His Bynum-for-Deng trade was more than solid, but I’m not sure on the wisdom of tanking for the crappy drafts, but gunning for the 8th seed with a flawed roster (filled with okay veterans) during what’s regarded as the best drafts in a decade. This team needs more talent.
Dan Gilbert: You fire Byron Scott and your coaching search began and ended with Mike Brown. One guy, eh? Really left no stone unturned, did ya? Say what you will about the Browns, but at least they talked to more than one guy (not on purpose, but still!). Hell, Chris Grant didn’t even interview Dion Waiters before picking him and it’s unclear when the Cavs found out about Anthony Bennett’s sleep apnea and asthma. I also worry that Gilbert’s lottery night playoff declaration put more pressure on this team than was necessary. Anthony Bennett isn’t playing both because he sucks AND because the Cavs can’t afford to have him suck. Nevermind that Anthony Bennett figuring it out is pretty damn important to the franchise’s future (even if only as a trade piece). The Cavs can’t afford to play the rookies and yet they still lose to a depleted Bulls team. It is beyond frustrating. Oh, and stop with the petty LeBron crap, it’s not a good look.
So where do we go from here? I really have no idea. Pre-Deng trade (while the Cavs were in talks for Pau Gasol), I was ready to blow the whole thing up. And by “blow the whole thing up” I mean I was ready to trade Anderson Varejao and probably CJ Miles, as those are the two guys who could definitely help a playoff team right this instant. The rest of the roster is full of unattractive contracts, players you’d be selling at low value or pieces that other teams just plain old don’t want. They’re an absolute mess.
Tonight’s game against the 8-33 Milwaukee Bucks feels like a turning point of the season, at least to me5. With a victory, the Cavs would be taking their first step in salvaging this five game home stand (with winnable games upcoming against the Suns and Pelicans). But losing at home to the worst team in the worst conference in the NBA would be… devastating? Can a team that’s 15-27 even have devastating losses? Regardless, following up a 3-2 road trip by losing three straight games at home is downright stupid.
Tonight’s game should be fun. The Cavs have a home game against the worst team in the NBA and Kyrie Irving was just named an All-Star starter and selected for Team USA tryouts. Plus, the Cavs just added an All-Star caliber small forward and they’re only three games out of the final playoff spot in the East. This is about a “must win” of a game that a 15-27 NBA team can have in January. But if you couldn’t already tell, I’m not exactly optimistic that our Cavs will pull this one out. The Cavs haven’t realized that other crappy teams see them as an easy win. Hell, Cavs have already lost to this Bucks team once and they needed overtime and a 39 point effort from Irving to squeak past the Buck at The Q back in December. A loss to the Bucks at home, following that putrid performance against the depleted Bulls, means we could have very well hit rock bottom in a season that’s already chock full of so many low points.
- I’m not so sure it’s healthy to be the star of a national ad campaign while also not giving a crap on defense. Opposing guards just might want to take it to Uncle Drew. [↩]
- Big picture, I’m also concerned about how much he’ll actually help. The Bulls teams that Deng was a part of were known for their great defense, but had real trouble scoring. Teams aren’t exactly afraid of Deng from long distance, so he’s not gonna do much to stretch the floor, especially next to limited offensive players like Thompson and Varejao. [↩]
- And I get that you can’t treat all guys exactly the same. But Dion’s defensive lapses can be just as damaging to a win as a terrible CJ Miles shot that leads to a run out, but only one gets pulled. [↩]
- I’d feel much better about this team if their wins weren’t “they looked like garbage but then Irving/Waiters/Deng/Miles/Jack got hot for five minutes and they pulled one out” [↩]
- Narrative! [↩]