By Joe Mags
After months of speculation, then weeks of deliberation, LeBron James is coming home. Pickinsplinters will be looking into the impact of The Decision 2.0 all week long. Follow our coverage using the hashtag #LeBronToClev.
The Cleveland Cavaliers shot like it had both eyes closed last season. The top eight team leaders in FGA all shot underneath 50 percent from the field; the Cavs had the fourth-worst field goal percentage in basketball (43.7 percent) below the Bucks, Magic and Jazz.
The Cavaliers had nine players log more than 1,000 minutes for them last season. All but Anderson Varejao and Matthew Dellavedova recorded negative plus/minus scores, according to NBA.com. And while none of the Cavs had a particularly good campaign, Kyrie Irving seemed to personify the franchise’s woe in a misstep of a third season.
Irving made his first career All Star game in his third season but the shoot-first point guard missed 57 percent of his shots on 17.4 attempts per game. He was horrendous from the right side of the floor, according to NBA.com, shooting under 30 percent on long twos and threes from that corner and shooting just 29.4 percent from deep on that wing. (Compare this to 44 percent shooting on long twos and threes from the left corner and an impressive 41 percent on 3-pointers from the left wing.) While his attempts did skew slightly to his better shooting side on these shots (210 attempts from the left; 183 from the right) that’s a startling drop off in percentage, something Irving will have to improve.
He too often drives right, which is particularly off-putting when keeping in mind how much better he is from the left side of the floor. He took 83 FGA from the right elbow compared to 44 from the left elbow; 112 FGA on the right side of the lane against 60 FGA from the left; and he averaged just 4.8 FTA per contest, a mark well below the likes of his most of his fellow 20 ppg scorers. (Only Stephen Curry, Dirk Nowitzki and Al Jefferson averaged less FTA per game among such scorers. Yeah, I’m not sure how Jefferson got to the line that few amount of times either.)
After playing under head coach Byron Scott for his first two seasons, a coach that created winning offenses around Jason Kidd and Chris Paul in New Jersey and New Orleans respectively, Irving was clearly uncomfortable playing for the defense-first head coach Mike Brown this past season. While Cleveland needed and still needs a defensive backbone – Irving the most of any of the Cavs – Brown was a strange re-hire for a team built around a highlight real point guard.
Brown’s offense was predictably uncreative. The team finished in the Bottom 10 in assisted 3PA, a bad sign for any team built around three ball-handlers (Irving, Dion Waiters, Jarrett Jack). Cleveland finished 2014 with a ghastly 101.3 offensive rating, the eight-worst mark in the NBA. They never established a working pace, finishing with a bland number of possessions per game despite having one of the youngest rosters in the NBA; it should be disallowed by NBA rules for any team to build a below-average tempo offense around Irving and Dion Waiters.
Cleveland essentially wanted Brown to teach the Cavs young core how to play defense really quickly, hoping that would expedite the process of becoming a winning team. That failed miserably.
Team owner Dan Gilbert famously promised a playoff birth for the Cavaliers at the 2013 NBA Draft lottery. After drafting Anthony Bennet, a non-factor for most of 2013-14, Cleveland struggled early in the season. So the team traded a bundle of goodies for Luol Deng and Spencer Hawes, both on expiring contracts. Brown couldn’t assimilate these veterans quickly enough to right the ship, and Cleveland finished behind the nose-diving Atlanta Hawks and one-man-band New York Knicks for 10th place in the worst East in years.
Oh, how luck can change any team’s fortune. Astonishingly, Cleveland won the lottery for a third time in four years, and drafted Andrew Wiggins atop a loaded 2014 draft class. With Wiggins penciled into next season’s starting lineup, Cleveland’s roster was transformed from an inexperienced collection of spotty shooters and ball hogs into a young up-and-comer with cap space. And the rumors began flying of how King James would reenact the prodigal son myth in order to flee an aging Miami Heat roster.
Then it happened; LeBron James – after lots and lots of deliberation – came home to Cleveland. After the season they just had, after all of the blown draft picks and strange personnel decisions, after the questionable re-hiring of Brown, all the Cavaliers really needed to catch LeBron’s eye was a ping pong ball to bounce their way for the third time in four years.
So what is this team going to look like next season? They lost Deng and Hawes, traded away Jack, and added Brendan Haywood – keep getting them checks, Haywood. LeBron and Kyrie are the only two players on the roster that seem locked in for next season; every other player either has major question marks or has been rumored in trades. (More on that in a bit.)
First time NBA head coach David Blatt takes over the position from Brown. While there will always be growing pains for a first-time head coach in the Association, Blatt is no Jason Kidd or Derek Fisher – he has coached overseas since 1993. He seems to prefer high tempo basketball with motion and Princeton-style sets. His Cavs are going to pass and move the ball – although that became more true the instant Jack was traded as well – and there is James/Wade ball sharing duty potential in James/Irving.
But as James alluded to in his brilliant letter: this is not a quick fix. Major questions remain on the front line, where Varejao is the only big man perform at a medium-to-high level, and he is guaranteed to miss double-digit games each season. Cleveland is without any rim protection, and forward Tristan Thompson is a fraction of the player, at 23, that Chris Bosh has been the last four years for Miami. Thompson is unreliable on jump shots at or beyond 18 feet, and while he has pulled in more than nine rebounds per game each of the last two seasons, he is due a pricey new contract next summer – one that Cleveland should think long and hard about before giving to him.
Waiters has had a rough beginning to his career in Cleveland. He has unfairly been assigned as the problem child of this group, routinely asked throughout last season if he and Irving have a problem with each other. Then there was the black eye incident…
Look, Waiters didn’t draft himself, and the Cavaliers over the last two seasons have done little, as an organization, to provide a cohesive environment for both of its Top 4 overall selection guards. He is a very talented player who averaged nearly 16 ppg in less than 30 minutes a night; while Waiters is not the centerpiece of a trade package for another team’s superstar, he is a starter in this league and a young piece that Cleveland should be able to unleash with Blatt and James in the fold.
Speaking of centerpiece prospects that could be dealt for another team’s superstar… I’m very high on Andrew Wiggins. He’s a freak athlete, an impressive young man, a defensively inclined young player – that’s always a good sign – and the team can offer him more money and years than any other team for the next seven seasons.
So it is with that established that I mention one of the hottest conversations in the post-Decision 2.0 NBA: Is Kevin Love going to Cleveland? Minnesota has maintained publicly throughout the Love saga they are trying for the playoffs next season and are not interested in trading the 3-time All Star. And yet, more so than Boston’s package of young players and draft picks, more so than Golden State’s package (with or without Klay Thompson), if Cleveland put Wiggins on the table I don’t see how Minnesota could say no.
But is that trade in the Cavaliers best interest? Love is only 25 and already one of the best players in basketball, and the Cavaliers would have to be considered the team to beat in the East with a trio of James, Irving and Love – with Irving/Love as the evolutionary Wade/Bosh.
I say no, but I know why others say yes. James/Love pick-and-rolls would be unguardable; Irving and Love would drive opposing defenses crazy in a similar way, and James would eat up awesome post-up opportunities on the weak side of any Irving/Love two-man games.
But for the sake of being original, what if the Cavs build around the length and athleticism of the James/Wiggins tandem? Wiggins can guard the other team’s best player most nights, a luxury that could go a long way to saving James’ body over the next decade – and something James hasn’t had since Shane Battier first arrived in South Beach. Irving might never be a good defender, and having two players who are huge pluses defensively will help in a point guard heavy league.
Is Love a sure thing offensively? Of course. Wiggins is not; nobody really knows what type of scorer he will be at the next level. But I don’t think the answer is trading Wiggins before he even debuts in Cleveland, not when Wiggins, essentially, is the reason LeBron was able to consider coming home in the first place. (Seriously, doesn’t LeBron just stay in Miami for another season or two if the Cavs draft No. 7 and end up with Noah Vonleh?)
It is impossible to look at this Cavs roster and not draw comparisons to the Big Three Heat teams LeBron just championed to four consecutive Finals appearances. Zach Lowe brilliantly pointed out Bennett, who is reportedly in great shape this summer after a disastrous rookie campaign, could be a Big Battier on the offensive side of things. Waiters is a similar player to Wade, and while Wade in his prime was on another planet, Waiters really should be unlocked as a cutter and finisher on LeBron James-led fastbreaks. Ray Allen and James Jones have already been rumored as potential Cavaliers signees this summer, as surrounding James with shooters was probably written into his contract.
Cleveland, laughably, moved up to 4-1 odds in Vegas to win the NBA Finals after LeBron came home. This is a flawed team, and even if they traded Waiters and/or Wiggins in order to secure frontcourt talent, they are not very deep or experienced beyond James, and Blatt is a first-year head coach. Realistically, a 50-win season would be a nice start for a Cavaliers team that has been arguably the worst franchise in the sport over their four years without James. In the East, 50 wins with LeBron James is surely possible, and once in the playoffs, having LeBron is enough for Cleveland to do some damage.