A few weeks ago before the finals started a took a look at how the Warriors got so good. Really, another way of stating what I was examining was how the Warriors got so deep. So today, I want to look at the other team– and while I am not above the sensationalist headline, what I am really examining is how the Cavs got so thin or perhaps a better word even than that, how they got so depleted.
I’m going to break down all the talent that’s missing from this team– either from injuries, trades, bad draft choices, or poor signings that are clogging cap space and roster spots for players who aren’t getting any minutes.
Kyrie Irving: Picked #1 overall in 2011, Irving quickly earned himself a reputation for his offensive play, garnering Rookie of the Year, All Star appearances (and MVPs), and Team USA invites. This year, playing alongside Lebron he scored 21 with almost 5 assists per game– down just a scotch from his highest career average scoring of 22.5. Through it all, Kyrie battled a litany of nagging and minor injuries, but persevered and overcame. He played well, even when banged up through the playoffs, then stepped wrong, banged his knee off Klay Thompson’s knee and was done– out for the rest of the Finals.
This one hurts a lot, because not only does it take away a second scorer from the Cavaliers, it was also through the time since Lebron’s first departure the only draft pick they had gotten right. This was the only All Star they had chosen with those picks between then and now, and now Kyrie can only watch from the sidelines as others get his minutes.
Kevin Love: Acquired in a three team trade in which the Cavaliers sent out Anthony Bennett, Andrew Wiggans, and a pick in the upcoming draft for Kevin Love. “My Cousin Kevin” was a monster in Minnesota, averaging 26 and 12 in his best year there, while also anchoring the USA Basketball’s 2012 Olympics run where he lead the team in rebounding, and was 5th in scoring on a crowded roster (behind Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Lebron James, and Kobe Bryant). When the Cavs acquired him last summer, he looked like a top 10 talent in the League.
Then there were rough patches– he didn’t “fit” in Cleveland (mostly because he, Lebron, and Tristan Thompson all play the same position). Or maybe it was just poor coaching– a lot of people are retroactively making Blatt a genius for figuring out how to win some games in the Finals, but I can’t let the fact that he had three of the 25 most talent players on the planet on his team through the entire season and struggled to find places for them or ways to keep them all involved.
Then of course, int he first round series with Boston, Love was injured– out for the playoffs with a shoulder injury on a dirty play made by Kelly Olynyk. Lets be clear about a few things–
1. The Olynyk play was a dirty play.
2. The Cavaliers have absolutely nothing to complain about it.
The way in which the Cavaliers empower Matthew Dellavedova to dive for other player’s knee, they cannot complain that one of theirs got injured on a play designed to injure opponents. Leg locking Taj Gibson from the floor isn’t a basketball play— the play is dead, the ball is no where near there, and its only intent is to try to trip Taj Gibson and injure him. Then the Al Horford play– watch the tape on it again. Then watch it a few more times. There’s a clear point where Dellavedova’s momentum is stalling and the play is pretty clearly over and he makes a second effort to dive at Horford’s knee.
Look– if those are the kinds of plays that Cleveland wants to have be allowable in the NBA, then they have to expect that sometimes their players will be the ones injured by them. Personally I think there are too many injuries as it is, and think that Dellevedova should have been suspended 1 game for the first incident and two games for the second– we have to send a clear message to everyone that GOING FOR THE KNEES is NOT AN ACCEPTABLE STRATEGY.
Unless you want more years with more star players sidelined by injuries, some of which are completely preventable by simply making basketball plays instead of wrestling moves on the court.
The Assets Cleveland Gave Up to Get Kevin Love: Look, I know its hard to count these assets against them, but the fact of the matter is– the Cavaliers rolled the dice for a single guaranteed year of Kevin Love and between the playoff ending injury and the all around inability to make line-ups with Love work that move was a whiff. If they can resign Love in the off season this could flip, but as it stands now its not looking like it was a good gamble.
The 2015 pick that they gave up isn’t a high pick, and it has no effect on the team this year. But keep in mind, low first round picks are often how teams generate talent that lets them extend runs. The Heat’s whiffing on theirs lead to the collapse in last year’s Finals. Also, Jimmy Butler was picked 30th overall, Draymond Green was a second round pick. If the Cavs hope to form a dynasty losing this asset may come back to bite them int eh future.
Andrew Wiggins: Could the Cavs use a hyper athletic 6′ 8″ wing capable of scoring 17 per game? I know this is a false dichotomy because they decided that rather than slot Lebron in for heavy minutes at the power forward (the spot he is best at) they would get Kevin Love and Lebron would go back to being a small forward so they gave up Wiggins to get Love. Also the Rookie of the Year might not have progressed as fast without the opportunity to play as heavy and hold the ball as much with Lebron and Kyrie on the floor.
On the other hand– what is a better way for a young, talented player to cut his teeth in the NBA than playing the starting small forward in a line-up that includes two phenomenal play makers to pass him the ball?
Regardless, this is a piece the Cavsa could have had for these Finals that is missing.
Anthony Bennett: Bennett was basically a throw in alongside Wiggins and the pick in the Love trade, and his play hasn’t justified his being anything more than that. Having Bennett on the bench wouldn’t make the Cavs any better/ deeper in these Finals. But the Cavs spent a number one overall pick on Bennett just two drafts ago.
Here’s a list of players they could have taken instead: Victor Oladipo, Nerlens Noel, Ben McLemore, Trey Burke, Michael Carter-Williams, Giannis Antentokounmpo, Dennis Schroder, Rudy Gobert.
Look– none of these guys are world beaters. Had any of them been the #1 overall pick they probably would have been seen as busts. But none of them are so toxic of assets that they would have necessitated being thrown in along with another #1 overall pick, plus a future pick and then not be able to earn playing time there. Bennett is probably the worst #1 overall selection of all time and its not even close.
A lot of these guys weren’t realistic to take that high– Schroder and Gobert went in the 20s. Nerlens had injury questions and also would be a bad fit alongside Tristan Thompson. Carter-Williams is a point guard, and drafting a point guard with the #1 overall pick just two years after drafting Kyrie was probably untenable at the time. But lets be clear about this– any of these guys would have been better fit and duplication be damned.
Cater-Williams may not be a starting PG in this league– but he’s athletic, he can score if not shoot, and he can defend. On this year’s Cavs roster he would have been a backup and a spark plug off a bench unit that is deeply lacking that. And when Kyrie went down, he’d be far and away better than the other options available to them currently.
Oladipo may not be capable of being the best player on a good team, but he’s a young, tall, athletic shooting guard. He could guard Klay or Steph because he’s fast and a good defender. He’s shooting 43% from the field and 33% from three on an abysmal Magic team where he has to make his own shots constantly– if you don’t think slotting into a starting line-up like what the Cavs would be able to field would improve those percentages you are simply not thinking about this stuff right.
Giannis is one of the craziest athletes in the league. He might be able to carry a team on his own. He’s a building block– and at the time they wasted this pick the Cavs can’t have known they were getting Lebron. Why not roll the dice on a developmental project with infinite upside like the Greek Freak? Pair him with Kyrie? Imagine being able to turn loose his length and athleticism against the Warriors now?
The hypothetical situations for this pick go on and on, but the fact remains- the Cavs took the best 2013 Draft Asset and turned it into absolutely nothing. Even if they still wanted to do the Love trade, had this been a real player they could have gotten away with not sending him– a future first plus Wiggins would have been enough because lets face it, Minnesota doesn’t value Bennett as anything.
Dion Waiters: I’d talk about Waiters here, except this one worked out for the Cavs. True they could have had Damian Lillard, Harrison Barnes, or Andre Drummond– but Waiters retained enough value while on the Cavs that they were able to get THREE assets back for him (JR Smith, Iman Shumpert, plus a pick). Lillard would have duplicated Kyrie, Barnes has been above average but not stellar– so Drummond is the only real upgrade they could have had here. I’ll give them a pass on this one.
Mozgov: Amazingly, the Cavs gave up next to nothing to get Mozgov– the free pick they got from OKC for Dion, plus a pick from Memphis they had from a previous trade. They fleeced the Knicks in that Dion trade, and flipped a bad asset into a valuable big. Of course, had they used the Dion pick on Andre Drummond they wouldn’t have needed a Mozgov, but those two trades really are the core of the Cavs line-up right now bringing in 3/7 players who are actually playing minutes for them in this series.
Tristan Thompson: Until literally this playoffs Thompson would be listed as a bust and a missed opportunity (the Cavs could have for instance drafted a Kyrie/Klay Thompson back-court in the same draft). He’s turned out to be a good asset for the Cavs, coming up big in the payoffs and the Finals. But, if the Cavs knew what they had with him, and already being locked into paying him 5 million this year– why did they throw so many resources at the positions he plays?
Even assuming you slot Lebron as a 3, they still signed Anderson Varejao, traded for Love, traded for Mozgov, and took on Brendan Haywood. That’s four guys that the Cavs picked up with Thompson already on the roster, totaling about 32 million in cap space. That’s a lot of assets to throw at the Front Court– grow to almost 38 million for two spots when you add in Thompson’s deal. And at the end of the day, two of those players are playing (Mozgov and Thompson.)
Anderson Varejao: I know I just ranted about how the Cavs wasted so much on the back court, but I do have to admit part of that was that Varejao (signed to a 9 million dollar multi-year contract this summer) got injured and is out for the season. They don’t trade for Mozgov if Varejao is still playing.
Then again– Varejao has a huge history of injury. When they signed him going into the season everyone couched all the analysis with “if healthy”. And he turned out not to be healthy. Now the Cavs are on the hook for his 9 million, plus Mozgov’s 5 million. Imagine if they had rolled into the season trusting their roster– trusting that Thompson and Love could handle splitting minutes at the five, or that if they could not they could find an answer in season. They could have still gotten Mozgov in the exact same trade, and would have had another 9 million open to use elsewhere.
Maybe this is just hindsight vision. I know that Lebron’s relationship with Varejao complicates things and pushed them into signing him. But Lebron’s agent also reps Thompson– and the Cavs could have told him, “hey– we trust your guy Tristan to get it done and we are going to give him every chance to succeed” and I think Lebron would have bought in.
Brendan Haywood: Taking on Haywood for 2.5 million is just egregious– his career high in points was 10.6, 8 years ago, and he hadn’t averaged five per game since 09/10, and he plays at a position which you already have Love, Thompson, and Varejao to play.
What other kind of players are making about the same money as Haywood this year?
Ignoring players on Rookie deals (even those coming up for extensions who might have been available to the Cavs for a trade like Reggie Jackson) here are some possibilities:
CJ Watson– a good backup point guard. Maybe they don’t have Delly emerge if he’s here, but this guy has done it on good teams in the past. For such a minimal investment he’d be a big time player in this series now backing Delly up and letting that guy get some rest.
Kent Bazemore– mostly a deep bench guy, but he’d surely be worth a look with the Cavs as thin as they are now he could surely be worth a few minutes? He played a lot more for the Hawks than Haywood did for the Cavs this year.
If you instead take back the trade to bring him in, plus the Varejao signing you suddenly have 11 million in cap space which is enough to get a real live NBA player.
I’ve ranted for 2,000 words here– I could keep going, harping on signing guys like Shawn Marion (915K), Mike Miller (2.7 mil), and Kendrick Perkins (200K) with no intention of playing them, but the fact remains pretty obvious– if you aren’t using your line-up you are at a disadvantage, which is why the Cavs are having to deal with cramps for two of their current starters.
There is an alternate universe where the Cavs would be rolling out Kyrie Irving, Victor Oladipo, Giannis, Lebron James, and Mozgov as the starters with Tristan Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, JR, and Shumpert off the bench– a rotation that would be 9 deep even after the Kyrie injury (with James Jones, 10 counting Dellavedova, 11 if they spent the 9 million of Varejao money on anyone who could play) instead of barely 7 deep.