As the losses for the Cleveland Cavaliers mount, it’s imperative to pull back. View the franchise from afar, with an eye toward the future. What players deserve to be there? When the Cavs are a playoff contender, who from this squad makes an impact? Are there difference makers already in place, guys who do things big and small that affect wins and losses?
Larry Nance Jr. is one such player. He isn’t a superstar and will never develop into one. His skill set, however, is essential to winning. Nance can be a top 4-6 player on a playoff team. While his limitations prevent him from leading a franchise, teams don’t win without meaningful contributions from players such as Nance, willing to do whatever is asked and having the talent to do so.
Nance is a Swiss army knife; not great at anything yet capable of everything. About to turn 27 on New Years’ Day, he’ll enter his prime as a player without an obvious flaw. A poor outside shooter to this point in his career, Nance dedicated his summer to becoming a dangerous option on the perimeter. Bigs who knock down 3’s are among the most valuable commodities in the league, providing space for penetrators to attack the basket on offense and keeping size on the floor to discourage the same on defense. Nance recognized a weakness in his game and worked to eliminate it. Before this season, he’d shot just 168 threes in his career, making 28% of them. He’s already fired 58 this year and his percentage has skyrocketed, canning 39% from deep. A key to the comeback against Milwaukee on Friday night which fell short, Nance Jr.’s 3 threes pulled Giannis and Brook Lopez away from the basket, allowing Cedi Osman and Collin Sexton more space to get to the rack. Because of the diminutive size of Sexton and Darius Garland, opponents’ length has caused each problems early in the season. Nance’s (and Kevin Love’s) shooting will be essential going forward to clear the lane for their teammates.
Another overlooked aspect of Nance’s game is his passing acumen. A big whose touches can be sporadic, he was 2nd on the team last year, averaging 3 dishes per contest. While his numbers have dropped this season to just 1 per game, Nance sees the floor well, possessing the size to see over defenses and the ability to find the open teammate. He’s adept at pocket passes in tight spaces, quick bounce passes to other bigs or cutting guards that open up the Cavs’ offense.
Perhaps leading to lower assist totals, Nance is scoring in double figures for the first time in his career. His true shooting percentage, 12th in the league at 64.1% according to teamrankings.com, is another sign of his improvement. He’s averaging 2 points per game more than a year ago despite having almost the same usage rate. Nance is scoring more without burdening the offense. He just fits in any lineup John Beilein wishes to put him in.
The enhancements to Nance’s game over a year ago aren’t specific to his shooting numbers. He struggled to stay on the court last year, committing 3 fouls per game. Nance has cut those in half this year to 1.5. His turnover rate dropped from 1.4 to 0.9, all while playing the same number of minutes. He has examined his game and has shown he can improve upon weaknesses. Though he’ll never be an All-Star, the bet here is that Larry Nance will become a valuable contributor to playoff teams in the future.
One fact for the front office to be cognizant of concerning Nance is who he’s on the floor with. At 6’7”, Nance is undersized at the center position and struggles to guard 5’s. The best lineups featuring him include Tristan Thompson. For all his attributes, he cannot overcome his size issue. Talented bigs such as Kristaps Porzingis and Joel Embiid can shoot over him. The Cavs lack of size has become more glaring as the season has progressed and will need addressed in future drafts. A long, athletic 7 footer is a must. In the short term, playing Ante Zizic next to him will help. Zizic is a mystery, though he’s shown flashes of talent during the little time he’s had on the floor. Given the lack of size, Beilein should try to find him some minutes. A healthy John Henson would help, too. Henson gave the Cavs’ second unit a boost defensively in the eight minutes he’s played this year. While counting on anything from the oft-injured center is foolish, his presence in the lineup would help Nance, Love, and Thompson, all over-matched when guarding the center position.
What’s What Around the League
1. If you could transport a player from today’s game back in time, allowing them to play in an era better suited for their game, DeMar DeRozan would be a good choice to ship to the ‘90s. DeRozan’s mid-range game is exquisite. He averages 21.7 a game and shoots 52%, taking nearly all of his shots inside the arc. But on a Spurs team also employing LaMarcus Aldridge, its redundant. San Antonio is 7-13, 12th in the West, and stuck in a time warp. DeRozan would have been more appreciated twenty-five years ago, before math taught us the value of the 3. He makes 27 million this year, with a player option for the same next year. Does anyone want to pay that much for a semi-high usage rate player who has a sketchy playoff history? DeRozan got caught on the wrong side of the 3 point revolution.
2. Brooklyn, 4-7 with Kyrie Irving, is 6-2 since he’s sat with a shoulder injury. Instead of bashing Irving, let’s give credit to Spencer Dinwiddie. Since Kyrie’s injury, Dinwiddie is averaging 24.5 points and 8 assists, up from 17 and 4.5 when Kyrie was on the court, in full control of the Nets’ offense. Dinwiddie has performed this role before, taking the reins of Kenny Atkinson’s squad when DeAngelo Russell went down with injury last year. He’s a pro, respected by his teammates and trusted by Atkinson to get the offense in their sets. He’s also their go to option in crunch time, hitting a game winner in Cleveland at the buzzer on Monday. Did the Nets make a mistake in signing the dynamic, if mercurial, Irving? Let’s see how the Nets fare after Kyrie returns and gains more court time with his teammates before jumping to conclusions.
3. The Toronto Raptors’ defense, and Marc Gasol specifically, held Joel Embiid scoreless this week. Embiid shot 0-11 from the field, and with Al Horford now a teammate, Gasol has become the new Embiid stopper. The Raptors continue to surprise in their title defense. Expected to be a trade candidate at the deadline, why would Toronto trade Gasol now? This Raptors team, with Pascal Siakam vaulting into the MVP conversation, has as good a shot as any Eastern Conference team to make the Finals. Gasol’s defense against Embiid in a seven game playoff series would be invaluable.
4. At 12-7, the Indiana Pacers have continued their success without Victor Oladipo despite a slight remake of the roster over the summer. Domantas Sabonis is a beast in the paint, averaging 18 and 13. Malcolm Brogdon has been better than expected, posting 19 points and 8 dimes a game. Nate McMillan continues to impress, imploring a funky roster to play over their heads. What happens when Oladipo returns? He and Brogdon seem to be a perfect backcourt duo. Both are good defensively and either can handle the ball or play off it. The question will be what Oladipo looks like when he returns. If he can get 90-95% healthy by playoff time, the Pacers could spring an upset.
5. Is there anything better than the Patrick Beverley–Russell Westbrook feud? Started during the 2013 playoffs when Beverley lunged at Westbrook and injured him as he dribbled toward the sideline to take a timeout, which knocked Russ out the rest of the season, don’t look for cooler heads to prevail anytime soon. Both players run hot, which is why I love them. Each’s game is imperfect, but both play with a fire that demands respect. A Clippers-Rockets playoff series is a must.
6. It takes a light brush of the arm or a hot breath in the face of a shooter for the defender to get whistled for a foul. Meanwhile, offensive players in the post get beaten, arm barred, and slapped without so much as a second look. Protecting shooters is important, but players are taking advantage of quick perimeter whistles. Referees need to watch the tape. They’re getting fooled into calling fouls when little contact occurs on jump shooters while allowing big men to get mugged in the paint. While the three point shooting revolution has ultimately been good for the NBA, watching players shoot foul shots isn’t. Give perimeter defenders some leeway.
8. There seems to be a good player somewhere inside Mo Bamba, but he only appears in fits and starts. Long and athletic with touch from 3, Bamba’s size and skill set fit today’s NBA. He was 5-5 on threes in Cleveland last week and, after looking lost defensively earlier in the year, has become more aggressive on that end, averaging 2.5 blocks in his last 5 games. Orlando’s jammed frontcourt lacks minutes, but they need to find some for the sixth pick in the 2018 draft. Nik Vucevic’s injury has opened up minutes at the center position for Bamba, but he’ll need consistent time on the court once Vucevic returns to continue his development. If not, a smart team with minutes would be wise to buy low on Bamba if Orlando relegates him to the bench.
9. After a so-so sophomore year, Jayson Tatum is turning a corner, although just like a semi-truck. While slow, Tatum is improving his shot selection, taking 2.5 more 3s and 1.3 more foul shots this year over last. These numbers are key for Tatum’s career arc. He’s also taking 5.5 shots more per game overall, another welcome sign, considering his disappearing act in games in the past, going shifts on the court with no one recognizing he was on the floor. Tatum is the key to the future of the Boston Celtics. For the franchise to reap the benefits of the draft pick haul from the Nets, to prove they spent the picks wisely, Tatum must become a superstar. Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown are fantastic; they’re secondary players on a championship team, however. For the Celtic rebuild to be a success and for Boston to win a title, Tatum must get to the level he showed during the playoff run his rookie year.
10. I’m all for fresh ideas to spice up the regular season, but an in-season tournament isn’t it. The NBA has proposed a single elimination tournament, college style, perhaps in December. Christmas Madness, if you will. Rumors are the league would award the winning team a draft pick, yet that won’t be incentive enough to create the do-or-die atmosphere present in the college game. The league struggles with getting its star players on the floor now. Think Kawhi Leonard will play through injury for a semifinal game against the Jazz? Tournaments work only with high stakes. Home court advantage in the playoffs won’t do it, either. Since no team’s season would be over with a loss, fans and players will not care. Back to the drawing board, Adam Silver.
All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com