Cleveland Cavaliers: Trading for Defense and the Youngn’s

Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Cavaliers News

The Cleveland Cavaliers have strung some wins together, victorious in 4 of their last 5. The schedule has softened and the young talent is becoming more assertive on the floor. A need to free up minutes for Kevin Porter while also netting a return on a soon-to-be free agent allowed the Cavs to make a deal with Utah last week.

The Cavs traded Jordan Clarkson to the Utah Jazz for Dante Exum and two second round picks. A logical trade for each team, the acquired players better align with the timelines of their new teams. Clarkson provides the Jazz with much-needed scoring from their second unit. The Jazz rank 29th in the league, getting 26.7 points off the bench (NBA.com). A team with realistic title hopes entering the season, Utah has underperformed. Mike Conley has struggled with his new team, Rudy Gobert’s defense is ticking downward, and Donovan Mitchell’s ascendancy has plateaued. The Jazz have shown themselves to be a second half team under Quin Snyder, however, providing hope they’ll still be a force in April and May. Clarkson should help, and his expiring contract adds flexibility for the front office next summer.

The acquisition of Exum for the Cavs was the proper decision for multiple reasons. On the floor, Exum adds length and a defensive presence to a small backcourt. Friday in Boston, Cleveland’s lack of size was obvious. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward took advantage of Darius Garland and Collin Sexton, shooting over the smaller guards and bullying them in the post. Exum showed upon checking in the effect he’ll have on his new team. A lineup of Nance/Exum/Porter/Henson/Dellavedova showed promise as a unit John Beilein can go to for defensive stops. An athletic five, the length of that lineup shuts off passing lanes and provides rim protection. The scoring, however, is suspect. For that five to get buckets, Kevin Porter will need to provide offense, and he’s still erratic. It’ll be an interesting lineup to watch.

Exum will help Garland and Sexton too. Splitting their minutes by placing either alongside Exum relieves pressure on the defensive end. He’ll guard the more dangerous offensive threat and should provide resistance to opposing offenses, something that’s nonexistent now. John Henson’s return from injury has caused a dramatic change in the Cavs’ defense when he’s been on the floor; Exum should provide the same.

Off the court, Dante Exum’s acquisition helps the books. The difference in the money of his contract compared to Clarkson’s (9.1 million vs. 12.5 million) gives the Cavs an extra 3.4 million cushion to play with in future trades. Just 1.7 million under the luxury tax level before the trade, the swap gives them extra cash to play with. Cleveland won’t go over the taxpayer level for a 25 win team. They need to avoid the tax line, or they’ll be subject to repeater penalties, costing Dan Gilbert even more money. This trade gives Koby Altman a touch more breathing room when discussing Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, or anyone else on the roster with other GMs.

The second round picks acquired give Altman another tool in his chest to grease the wheels on trades. He used 4 second rounders to trade back into the 1st round to draft Porter. Another interesting element is the years the picks fall, 2022 and 2023. Most expect the NBA to revoke the age limit for players eligible for the draft in either 2022 or 2023. There will be a college freshman class eligible and the first high school senior class available for drafting, doubling the talent of the pool. The value of picks in those drafts should only appreciate.

These are the trades and returns to expect from the Cavs in the coming weeks. While they’ll hunt for young players and 1st rounders, the pieces Cleveland can trade likely will bring back 2nd rounders and draft busts or oft injured players teams have lost patience with. Other than Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson, the Cavs have no one of help to a contender. They don’t seem to be in a rush to trade those veterans, and shouldn’t be. Unless a team is willing to meet their high demands, keep both and allow them to continue molding the young talent.

What’s What Around the League

1.The L.A. battle on Christmas Day only re-emphasized the fact the Clippers are the Lakers’ biggest threat to the title. While the James-Davis duo is devastating and capable of carrying the team themselves, Doc Rivers’ squad matches up well against their arena mates. Patrick Beverley proved his determination on the defensive end again, blocking LeBron James’ final shot attempt despite giving 8 inches and 65 pounds to him. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George’s defensive reputations are beyond reproach, Mo Harkless is 14th in the league in Defensive Box Plus/Minus (3.5), and Montrezl Harrell has improved each year on that end of the floor. The fifth best scoring team in the league can lock anyone down and has the reigning Finals’ MVP in tow.

2. The 76ers also won on Christmas, but their future is murkier. Joel Embiid was fantastic, yet the team’s offense is too reliant on the whims of their 3 point happy center. Embiid hoists 4 threes a game, makes 33% of them, and has shot 2 less 2’s per game this year over last. Teams running an offense through a traditional center are clunky, yet it’s Philly’s best option. Embiid needs to work as hard each night as he did on Christmas. The Sixers are a unit that has never made an Eastern Conference Finals, yet flows in and out of games. They’re too inconsistent. Milwaukee failed to show on Wednesday, and Embiid defended Giannis superbly. In a seven-game series, however, I doubt those results hold.

3. Nikola Jokic made himself an easy target by coming into the season out of shape, but the Serb’s game is picking up. His vision and covert ball handling skills are exquisite.

4. Another byproduct of the NBA’s new challenge system is the annoying habit of players spinning their finger in the air after a questionable call, pleading with their head coach for a challenge. Coaches feel obliged when star players are making the request, and Nick Nurse succumbed to Kyle Lowry on Saturday night on a meaningless play in the first quarter. Toronto led by 7, and though the Raptors won the challenge, saving Lowry a foul, this isn’t the best use of the system for coaches. They need to implement a “no challenge until the fourth quarter” rule to keep the players off their backs. Since they’re permitted only one challenge per game, using it in the 1st quarter is a waste. Save them for crunch time.

5. While we’re on pet peeves: how come when a defender brushes a shooter’s elbow during a jump shot, referees have a quick whistle, yet if a player is on the ground with the basketball, defenders may jump on, grab, shove, and fight to procure a jump ball call? Once there’s a chance of a loose ball, anarchy ensues. The court turns into a football scrum after a fumble. Jumping unto a player already on the floor should result in a foul call, not a reward.

When there’s a loose ball

6. The Oklahoma City Thunder used an unprecedented amount of leverage against the Clippers in the Paul George trade, bleeding them dry of 1st round picks for the next half decade. The best asset acquired in the heist, however, was Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. A long guard capable of causing havoc on defense (1.2 steals per game), Gilgeous-Alexander has found his scoring touch. He shoots 36% from three and has raised his scoring average this year from 10.8 as a rookie to 19.8. He’s averaging 27 over his last 5, and he and Chris Paul have the Thunder comfortably in the Western Conference playoff bracket, sitting 7th with a 3.5 game lead on the 8th seed. SGA (that name sucks to type out over and over) is a franchise changer and, paired with Paul, has made the Thunder rethink the tank. While they’ll trade Paul to any taker (he’s due 123 mil over the next 3 years), the knowledge SGA is siphoning off Paul is invaluable. With the picks and Gilgeous-Alexander, the Thunder’s 5-10 year future is brighter than anyone else’s in the league.

7. Derrick Jones Jr., murderer of Defensive Players of the Year.

8. The Heat aren’t fading. Winners of 5 in a row, Miami is the second best team in the East. With a go to crunch time superstar in Jimmy Butler, a championship winning coach in Erik Spoelstra, and a do everything center in Bam Adebayo, the Heat match up with any other team in the league. They do almost everything well. Second in three point percentage (38.5%), seventh in defensive rebounding, eight in scoring, second in free throw attempts, eight in assists, fifth in field goal percentage, 10th in field goal percentage defense, and 12th in scoring defense, the Heat’s roster has few holes. They play hard each night and never get out-toughed. Other than against Milwaukee, it would be difficult to pick against them in a seven-game series in the East.

9. If you don’t already love Giannis and the Bucks, your tune will change after viewing their pre-game routine.

10. Trae Young’s offensive game is jaw dropping; a marvel to watch. Atlanta has 6 wins, however, worst in the league. If Young can’t at least try on defense, his wizardry with the ball will be for naught. 440th in the league in defensive rating (115.6), the only players lower are fellow Hawks’ teammates, injured guys, and a boatload of Wizards unaware that there are two ends to the court. Young should make the All-Star team for his offensive exploits, but will he ever pilot a playoff team? His size will never allow him to be a great defender, but his effort level and awareness have to improve or he’ll never be more than a fun sideshow.

Young (11) with little desire to stay in front of Sexton

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com.

 

Cavs Problems, Beilein Solutions

Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Cavaliers News, NBA

The Cleveland Cavaliers are in the weeds. They’ve lost six in a row and 12 of 13. After a respectable start, they now rank 29th and 27th in offensive and defensive ratings. The sniping has started, according to the Athletic, and questions about the makeup of the roster are growing louder. Who is talking? Do any of the guys other than Kevin Love have value on the trade market? How do you form cohesion between 19-year-olds and vets with rings?

It’s best to ignore the comments made last week by anonymous players to the press. Beat downs create frustration, and the Cavs have endured plenty of them. Twenty games in, the players quoted are grasping at something to blame for their poor play. A college coach dipping his toes into the NBA waters makes for a perfect scapegoat. Long film sessions and practices, lack of communication, and a better rapport with the head assistant are standard complaints made by excuse makers unwilling to take responsibility for their current situation. Who on this roster will be around when the Cavs are good again?

The struggles reveal who doesn’t belong as much as who does. Any player or coach or front office member unwilling to shoulder their share of the problems can go. Subtract LeBron James. What success has anyone involved with the Cavaliers’ organization experienced?

John Beilein has proved over a 40 year career that he can rebuild basketball teams. His experience at molding players is all that matters at this stage. Anyone unwilling to accept him as the voice of the franchise doesn’t belong. If good players get traded or cut, so be it. No player on a 5-17 roster is indispensable.

This would never be a quick rebuild. Owners and execs preach patience, but is it practiced? The young guys show flashes, but overall have been bad. There’s no guarantee Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, or Kevin Porter Jr. will be here when the team is competing for a playoff spot. Establishing a culture of responsibility is imperative. Look at Miami. And Dallas. Those organizations have won titles and lost icons. They’ve struggled through disappointing seasons, yet the voices at the top are the same. Rick Carlisle and Erik Spoelstra remain because they provide stability regardless of the players on the floor. They’re running the two most surprising teams in the league because they’ve built a sustainable system. Look at the NBA landscape. Player movement is rampant. Counting on players to steady the franchise is fruitless.

Beilein is this guy for the Cavs, and the front office and fans must put their trust in him. For however long his age and drive allows, he needs to be the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Nothing on the floor works right now. A few quick hits of things in need of improvement.

Matthew Dellavedova is shooting 11.4% from three. He averages 1.5 fouls and a turnover in 13 minutes a game.

No one stops the ball on defense, whether in transition or in the half court. The lack of athleticism and length is a factor, but the scheme isn’t helping. Defenders are sagging too far off their man when providing help. When the ball swings, defenders are out of position, can’t recover, and are giving up layups. Another factor is the Cavs’ on ball defense. They’re shading guys to their weak hand, giving them driving lanes. NBA ball handlers are unfazed by defenders forcing them left and take advantage of the free space. Guard guys chest to chest.

The offense is stagnant. Too often, one action gets run early in the shot clock, then the team stands and watches as the ball handler prods at the defense for 8-10 seconds, searching for a nonexistent opening to attack. Beilein preaches ball and player movement, but neither is happening. While simplistic, the Cavs would be better served running pick and roll over and over. And over. They have quick ball handlers and three capable screeners in Love, Tristan Thompson, and Larry Nance Jr. Love and Nance can shoot, while Thompson and Nance are capable rim runners. The action will move defenses, opening cutting lanes on the weak side and providing open shots. It isn’t sexy, but there’s a reason pick and roll is the bread and butter play for NBA teams.

4 guys standing behind the 3 point line watching Thompson dribble isn’t ideal

What’s What Around the League

1. The jokes centering on Nikola Jokic’s fitness level are abundant and on point. The Joker neglected to hire a personal trainer last off-season and his game is suffering. Shooting percentages -from 2 and 3-, points, rebounds, assists; they’re all down. The fourth place finisher in last season’s MVP vote, Jokic expected to lead the Nuggets deep in the playoffs. Denver is third in the West without his best, however, getting strong contributions from the rest of the roster and sporting the second best scoring defense in the league. Denver’s task is tall; the Lakers are a juggernaut; the Clippers haven’t hit their stride yet, and Luka Dončić has the Mavericks ahead of schedule. Jokic needs to return to form, and soon.

Jokic family meal time

2. The Lakers’ length causes huge problems for their opponents. JaVale McGee, Dwight Howard, and Anthony Davis are three of the most athletic big men in the league. With LeBron James orchestrating L.A.’s offense, oops and savage dunks are plentiful. They lead the league in blocked shots, while opponents record the fewest swats per contest. Though the game is being played further from the hoop, paint protection remains vital. Slash and kicks are the most efficient way to get open looks from 3, yet penetrators shy away from the forest of Laker big men inside the paint, making it difficult to generate open looks. With a strong defense to fall back on, the Lakers have catapulted into the favorites spot for the title.

3. The Russell Westbrook experiment in Houston has gone as expected, though Russ’s broken shot is worse than ever. Look at these percentages:
3 point%- 21.6
EFG%- 42.8
3 to 10ft.- 46.6
Hell, he’s only 11-16 on dunks. Westbrook is a bulldog. He plays at light speed with the ball in his hands and competes with a fire possessed by no one else in the league. He’s an alpha, however, on a team already with one. For Houston to be successful, the ball must be in James Harden’s hands. This leaves Westbrook as a catch and shoot player. Not ideal. Westbrook is best leading the fast break and still causes havoc for Houston in these situations. When the playoffs roll around and these opportunities wither, however, the Rockets may as well.

4. Montrezl Harrell is the best bench player in the league. He does everything, including textbook high-low passing.

5. Cory Joseph and the Kings put on a clinic Friday in San Antonio on how to botch the last two minutes of an NBA game. And they did it twice. Up 9 with two minutes left in regulation, Joesph turned it over twice, Harrison Barnes got whistled for a charge and missed a free throw, and the team lost Marco Belinelli with 4 seconds left, allowing him to can the game tying 3. In overtime the Kings missed FOUR attempts in the last seventeen seconds to win the game. Whew. The Kings have rebounded, however, winning back to back tough road games in Dallas and Houston. Sacramento seems to have used Friday’s implosion as a team building moment. When De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley return, the Kings should begin to resemble the playoff team some predicted them to be.

6. The Pistons have won 4 of 5, trying to rebound from a poor start and re-enter the playoff hunt. Derrick Rose has been superb in their last ten (plus/minus of 6.7), forcing the action off the bench while also leading the team in crunch time. He beat the Pacers in the last minute on Friday, sinking 2 clutch baskets while assisting on Blake Griffin’s dagger 3, drawing the defense with penetration before kicking the ball to a wide open Griffin. A game winner Monday night against the Pelicans added to his fantastic week. Rose will never return to his MVP form and will become the first winner of the award not to make the Hall of Fame. He’s proving those who thought he was washed wrong (raises hand), however. He provides scoring and playmaking off the bench; the Pistons are 10 points better offensively when he’s on the court. If the Pistons have any shot of making the playoffs, Rose’s stellar play must continue.

7. The fourth best offense in the NBA? None other than the Washington Wizards. While Bradley Beal is a top 25 player in the league, the rest of the roster is lacking. Scott Brooks, often derided, deserves praise for designing an offense around Beal while extracting every ounce of talent out of his squad. While 30th in the league in defense, the Wizards are “run of the mill” bad instead of “worst team in the league” awful. Washington leads the league in assists and has four players shooting over 38% on threes. Beal has improved his game again, scoring 28 per game while dishing 7 assists. His playmaking skills were unknown with John Wall controlling possessions, yet Beal has showed he’s capable of running an offense. If they add a high pick in this year’s draft and John Wall can return at somewhat the same level, the Wizards become interesting again.

8. Giannis’ dunks are breathtaking to watch.

9. Ben Simmons has canned two three pointers this year, an improvement over his career total of zero. While it’s a step in the right direction that he’s taken a few from deep, his game is still a problem for Philly. He’s taking two fewer shots per game and averaging almost 3 points less than last year. The 76ers offense has no easy button. Their best player is a center. Tobias Harris, who they signed to a 180 million dollar deal in the off-season to be their crunch time scorer, is shooting 30% from 3, lowest since his third year in the league. Philadelphia may have the best roster in the East, and they can lock down teams defensively. Their offense is a slog, however. How will they score in the playoffs, when the transition points disappear? Unless they can keep games in the 80s, it’s hard to imagine a path to the title for Philly.

10. Many picked the Bulls to make a playoff push this year, but nah. Zach LaVine is an inefficient, score only guard best suited for the slam dunk contest. The real problem, however, has been the erosion of Lauri Markkanen’s game. He’s down almost 6 points per game on four fewer shots than last year, shooting worse from in front of and behind the arc, and is even rebounding less. Chicago lacks star power, and while Markkanen may be ill-fitted for the role, he’s the best shot on a roster full of role players. The Bulls should shift shots from LaVine to Markkanen. Jim Boylen should establish a hierarchy in Chicago with the correct player at the top.

LaVine’s specialty

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com