We're going to do this review in a back-and-forth dialog style, as to cover as many points as possible, while hopefully getting into different perspectives of each point. So, I figure we should get started in this season review by defining what exactly we want to review about the season, since this could go a multitude of ways. From my perspective, these are the topics that need to be addressed:
1. Overall, was the season successful in terms of if progress was made from last season to this season?
2. Was there improvement among individual players over the course of the season, either statistically, or in overall play?
3. Was there improvement in the coaching?
4. How successful was the drafting in bringing in players for both now and in the future?
5. How successful were the front office moves (trades/FA pickups) over the course of the season?
6. What areas still need to be improved on?
7. Does this team have a legitimate leader and superstar?
So let's start with the first point. In order to figure out if the season was a success, we need to consider the parameters under which we are judging them. The few aspects that we can take into account are wins, whether or not the team made the playoffs, where the team finished compared to the expectations, and what the overall objectives were coming into the seasons.
I would say complete and utter failure is a fair assessment of this season. When the Cavs found themselves in the lottery for what felt like the bajillionth year since LBJ left, Dan Gilbert made it clear that he was as sick of bow ties and ping pong balls as everyone else. When the Cavs somehow WON the lottery (through bribes and threats of physical violence) it seemed like fait accompli that this team would be gifted at least the 8th seed in the East.
But they weren't. The Cavs were one of the worst teams in the lesser conference. And at some point we have to stop holding this team to skewed standards. If you say you're going to make the playoffs, make the playoffs. If you say you're going to win a title, win a title. You can't make false promise, after false promise, after false promise, and assume that the fan base will continue to grit their teeth and smile when you fail to deliver.
Which is why this season was a failure. Period. Full stop.
Now, if we're conceding that this season was Chernobyl then let's look for the silver lining on the nuclear death cloud hovering above. Mike Brown (who I loathe) was brought in to make the Cavs better defensively. According to at least a few statistics they are. For example, the ranked dead last in regular season defensive rankings in 2012-2013. This year the Cavs rank 12th.
That said, improvement on the individual level is still lacking (something we can address shortly in coming topics).
Irving won the All-Star Game MVP Award. That's a pseudo-silver lining that will probably serve to inflate his value higher than it should be. Waiters improved marginally statistically. Anthony Bennett helped boost the Cleveland food industry (and suicide counseling).
But for me, that's it. Those are the silver linings, more or less. We were promised the playoffs. We did not get the playoffs. When you set a goal and don't reach it, you know what that's called?
Since you so set it up so well, let’s look at the players on an individual level. At this point, we can consider the core of this team to include the players that were drafted in the past 3 years, as well as Anderson Varejao. The centerpiece of the franchise going into the season was obviously Kyrie Irving, the young stud point guard out of Duke, who seems to have limitless potential on offense, which we have seen very early on in his career. The 2013-2014 season had a few question marks for Irving though, primarily along the lines of his ability to play defense for more than 3 seconds per possession, and the ability to distribute the ball and get the rest of the team involved on offense.
Unfortunately, this season not only failed to show us that Irving had improved in these categories, but also brought into question his ability to lead the team, which you might figure is a little bit important for the savior of the franchise. Irving put up almost identical numbers to last year, as well as a very similar PER overall (from '12-'13 to '13-'14: 22.5 to 20.8 points, 5.9 to 6.1 assists, 3.7 to 3.6 rebounds, 45.2% to 43.0% FG%, 21.4 to 20.1 PER). Not exactly what you would've hoped for a player in the year where most superstars seem to make a leap into greatness.
Along with this stagnation though, came the somewhat drastic improvement of Dion Waiters, causing a rift in the fan base between the two players that made headlines several times throughout the year.
I think the rift between these two guys is probably the most fascinating sub-plot for Cavs fans. And probably the only Cavs plot that national media and casual fans were even aware of. I'll let you provide the numbers on Waiters improvement (that's your department damn it!) but the Cavs tended to go as Waiters did. If he played well, the Cavs won, and vice versa.
And it's hard to ignore how much better the team seemed to gel with Irving out and Waiters effectively running point.
Listen: I really like Irving. His offensive potential isn't off the charts but it is hitting the graph's ceiling. He's a wizard with the basketball, has a dangerous crossover, and can seemingly get to the rim at will. But he hasn't shown the ability to operate as a pure playmaker, which is what you want from your franchise point guard. He can zero in on certain teammates (Thompson being the most famous beneficiary of his tunnel-vision), and freeze out others.
What makes guys like Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul premier players at that position isn't their ability to score. Rondo and Paul conduct an offense like an orchestra. They read the highs and lows of the game, know when to bring someone in and when to fade someone out, they keep a constant pulse on themselves, their teammates, and the game itself.
Irving doesn't seem to be able to do that. Maybe it's a skill he develops in time, maybe it's something that you're born with (on the other hand, maybe it's Maybelline). If I had to guess, he'll get better at reading the floor but he'll never be Steve Nash or the duo of aforementioned guards.
During a meaty game against the playoff-bound Toronto, the Raptors turned the ball over and Luol Deng streaked down the court. He was wide open, the only man angling towards the rim. Irving had the ball. He could have rifled a pass down the court and banked an easy assist. Instead, Irving dribbled down the court and launched an ill-advised 3-pointer with a defender in his face. It rimmed out and Deng spent the next several minutes throwing his arms in the air as if to say "This is why I'm not trying."
We could spend days just analyzing Irving. The problem is, I'm starting to wonder if he's worth our time.
Well, on July 1st, we'll have that option taken away from us, since the Cavs are almost guaranteed to offer him a max extension, and if he decides to turn it down, they will do everything in their power to trade him for the best possible package they can get back. I think the thing that bugs me the most about Irving is that he's limiting himself. Irving has shown on rare occasion that he has the ability to orchestrate an offense in a manner that is conducive to being a playoff team, but he instead chooses to channel is inner-Iverson. Kyrie can't break out of the role that he has to be the primary scorer on the team, which is easy to understand given his scoring ability and lack of talent surrounding him in precious seasons. This brings us back to Dion Waiters though.
Dion made a strong case for sticking around as long as he continues producing at the level he did this year. There were times last year when Kyrie and Dion didn't seem to gel too well, and even times early this year as well, and it looked like the only logical move was to trade him. Dion showed after his demotion to the bench though that he had the competitive spirit and the absolutely nasty first step reminiscent of a young Dwayne Wade.
Here's the overall improvements that Dion made in his second year on the Cavaliers:
1.2 PTS/G | 0.0 AST/G | 0.3 RBS/G | .021% FG% | .058% 3PT%
While these numbers might not seem like much at first glance, consider the differences between his pre- and post-All Star break numbers:
5.0 PTS/G | 1.0 AST/G | -0.3 RBS/G | .043 % FG% | .018% 3PT%
This means that, not only did Waiters show a decent improvement from last year to this year, but that most of the improvement came in the second half of the year. While Waiters may not have the true superstar potential that Irving does, the ability to continue to grind, improve, and compete that Dion shows day in and day out gives the fans optimism and a light that they can look to when the team has been stagnating.
In all honesty though, while Dion and Kyrie have not necessarily played the best basketball together while both of them are on the court together, it's my belief that by playing Dion at the 1 and Kyrie at the 2 on offense, while switching back on defense can maximize the potential of both players simultaneously. Kyrie has a killer jumper and can cross up just about anyone on the court, but seems to have trouble getting the offense running smoothly, while Dion can facilitate the offense perfectly, as well as drive to the hoop at will. I liken it akin to the guard rotation of the Cavs in the late Lebron years, running Mo Williams and Delonte West together, who both handled the ball well, but had complementary styles of play, as long as they understood their roles. This duo has potential much higher than that (although they are missing a key piece of that team.. *cough* Lebron *cough*).
I agree with almost everything you said. Irving has the higher ceiling, Waiters seems to have more grind. Dion hustles harder on defense, Irving sleepwalks through his assignments.
So instead of belaboring a tired point (the debate between Waters v. Irving as top dog/true superstar) I think we should be asking ourselves something else. Why the hell didn't this team make the playoffs?
Here's this: I can understand losing out to 7 of the 8 Easter Conference Playoff Teams. Even Charlotte had a true superstar (Al Jefferson) who happens to play a very lean position. There aren't many people in the league who can do what Jefferson does. His stats are good, he has a veritable cheat code in the post, and can rack up points and boards.
Fine. Even the 'Cats can be better than the Cavs.
But here's the one I don't understand: The Atlanta Hawks.
Kyrie Irving-Dion Waiters-Whoever the hell-Tristan Thompson-Anderson Varejao is better than Jeff Teague-Kyle Korver-DeMarre Carroll-Paul Millsap-Pero Antic. Yet, somehow, Atlanta claimed the 8th seed and the Cavs are stumbling back into the lottery. Who are we blaming this on? You can't tell me it's solely the supporting cast. I just rattled off the starters on that Atlanta team. They're not great. The bench ain't much better (though I do like the cheeky Shelvin Mack).
Is it solely Mike Brown's fault? I mean, yes, we were running the offense of a glorified 6th grade CYO team. But the defense made a somewhat radical improvement this year and technically the offense improved as well (29th in 2012-2013, 27th in 2013-2014). As much as I'd like to lay this solely at his feet, I don't think that's the right call either.
Some of this has to be on both Irving and Waiters. They allowed a dysfunctional locker room to be the headline that hounded this team. They couldn't figure out a way to play with each other, and instead spent time sniping teammates in the media. This was the stuff nightmares are made of; gobs of talents and muck in the gears. As much as we knew the Cavs could be the 5th or 6th seed in the East, they somehow wound up as roughly the 10th best team.
And when the games mattered the most, the team choked. They got blown out by the Hawks, dropped a tough game to the Bobcats, and were effectively eliminated. In the Hawks game, Irving and Waiters combined to go 14-34. Irving scored 13, Waiters 23.
Against the 'Cats Irving goes off. He drops 44 on 16 of 31 shooting. But Waiters is miserable. He shoots 5 of 16 for a dismal 14 points. And it's worth noting, since we're discussing Irving's ability as an orchestrator, that the Cavs as a team shot a fairly dismal 36 percent in that game.
Man, you're good at setting these transitions up. Before I go on to Mike Brown, I do believe that we saw some drastic improvement over the course of the year in a few players.
Zeller for one looks like a legitimate NBA center right now, and has some scary athleticism. Unfortunately for him, his lack of strength may lead to him always being relegated to the bench, but 7 footers are always in high demand in the NBA. Dellevaedova was a rookie shocker this year, who looked like a very solid backup PG with the ability to control the offense. His ceiling is extremely limited, but he could carve out an Andy Varejao-esque career for himself with his hustle and effort.
Thompson had an average year overall, with some high points and low points, but not anything more or less than what the fan base expected of him. There were spurts where he looked like he could make it to the next level of starting PF in the league, but could never develop any consistency. As a Thompson fan, I want to see him develop into a dominant PF, but that may never happen. In any case, he's worthwhile to have on the team, just at the right price.
Gee and Andy continued to look like Gee and Andy. Gee consistently shows that he can dunk the ball with utmost ferocity, but can't do much else other than play decent wing defense. Andy remains one of the peskiest centers in all of basketball with a nasty habit of getting hurt. I think the one aspect of Andy's game that continues to leave me in shock is the elbow jumper that he's developed. Wild-Thing went from "OH GOD PLEASE DON'T SHOOT FROM FURTHER THAN 2 FEET FROM THE BASKET" to "Thank god Andy is the one with the ball in his hands with 3 seconds left on the shot clock". I legitimately can't think of another player who was able to improve that much on their shot over the course of their career.
Now, given that these are the major players that were on the team last year, it's now time to look at Mike Brown as a coach. There were improvements on the defensive side of the ball (going from 30th to 12th in the league in defensive shooting %) and an increase in 6 wins, but does that mean that Brown was a better coach than Scott?
What can I say, transitions are my thing.
I'll tackle your response player-by-player. Zeller did make strides. He looks much improved. As far as the Cavs go, he's unnecessary though. We now have Spencer Hawes who is more or less a slightly older, slightly better version of what Zeller COULD be. Now, if Hawes walks in the off-season Zeller becomes a commodity. If Hawes stays, we have two 7-foot white dudes who can sort-of stroke from mid-range and further, but get blown over by a stiff breeze on its way to the hoop.
Thompson is overrated by Cavs fans. This has to be said, he is a mediocre starter who has already peaked. If you don't believe me here are his stats from last year and this year, side-by-side: 2012-2013: 11.7 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 1.3 apg, 0.7 spg, 0.9 bpg, with a field goal percentage of .488.
NOW, 2013-2014: 11.7 ppg, 9.2 apg, 0.9 apg, 0.5 spg, 0.4 bpg (GREAT RIM PROTECTION), and a field goal percentage of .477. And his minutes per game increased from 31.3 to 31.6 this season, a marginal difference. They are almost identical.
He struggles against larger, stronger power forwards (most of the premier players at the position are bigger and stronger than Thompson). He gobbles up stats against underachieving, similarly undersized forwards. He made some strides offensively and added some flavor to his post game. But that mostly means he can sometimes hit a running hook shot in the lane. Otherwise, he bricks most mid-range jumpers, a skill he has to develop to be dangerous with his size. And he struggles to do much else than dunk and get put-backs. His free throw shooting percentage jumped from roughly 60 percent last year to roughly 70 percent this year, which explains the drop-off in field goal percentage, but not points.
At some point Thompson could cultivate his mid-range game. Hell, Varejao somehow conjured a consistent jumper, there's no reason Thompson couldn't. But right now he has shown no improvement and has actually regressed in most areas of the game. I'm not sold on him and you shouldn't be either. We need to get a better power forward than Tristan Thompson.
I refuse to write a word about Varejao until we agree he should have been traded two years ago when he was having a career season. I was hollering for him to be moved before his injury and everyone told me I was crazy. Well. Hardy har har. He should have been traded. Gee is a non-starter on this team. He's holding down someone else's roster spot. I'm not going to waste too many words on someone who shouldn't be a major rotation player.
Now. The coach.
Mike Brown is not my favorite person in the world. I think he's a mediocre coach who somehow made a reputation on the back of LeBron James. When that reputation was dispelled in Los Angeles, I thought Brown was probably done coaching. Then the Cavs fired Byron Scott and tried to time machine their way back to the late 2000s.
Except, problem is: MIKE BROWN WAS NOT THE REASON THE CAVS WON GAMES.
His offenses are pedestrian and most of his defensive schemes seem somewhat antiquated. Technically Charlotte had a Top-10 defense this year. They did that by refusing to allow fast-break points. The only member of their team that was allowed to crash the offensive glass was Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and that was because of his astounding athleticism and inability to hit a jumper. The Pacers are built around their team length and the mammoth size of Roy Hibbert. The Bulls have an insane system that should be praised endlessly.
I'm not sure what the Cavs do differently from other teams. Yes, they jumped from dead last to middle of the pack this year, and that's something to be praised. But who improved defensively on an individual level? Waiters is certainly trying harder. Outside of that, I can't point to one player and say "Man, he's playing much better defense now." And I can't look at this team and say, "Man, this system is so unique because X, Y, and Z." It's still an amorphous defense. That, to me, does not represent a recipe for lasting success.
I won't touch the offense. Technically it improved, but it's still in the bottom five of the league.
And Brown had two goals as a coach this year, goals that transcended everything else. First, make the damn playoffs. Second, help the young talent on this team develop.
We covered the first. He failed.
And on the second? Has any of the young talent gotten tangibly, definitely better? Outside of Waiters, who has improved on this team? Then combine the lack of improvement with a dysfunctional locker room and the most embarrassing number one overall pick in decades, and you have a recipe for disaster.
I didn't understand his rotations, his schemes, or the pace he played at. I didn't understand his treatment of Bennett. I didn't understand Brown's inability to control the locker room. There are a lot of pluses to being a players-first coach. This year was an example of all the drawbacks.
I don't know. Look at this season and tell me Mike Brown was a success.
I have no reason to try to convince you that Mike Brown was successful this season, simply because it wasn't. I do think that there was a worthwhile reason for bringing Brown in. For as skeptical I am of Brown being able to make this team a championship contender, I know that Scott was not going to bring any success to this team. Offense is quite fun to watch and points obviously win you games, but championships are won by playing defense.
While Brown is entirely inept at teaching offense, he showed in his previous Cavaliers tenure that he is a master of system defense. Lebron James didn't start out as a fantastic defender, but under the tutelage of Brown, along with playing a system that allowed him to defend whoever he wanted without creating issues for the rest of the team. The big downfall he has though, compared to another defensive genius in Tom Thibodeau, is that he has no ability to coach offense at the same time.
Overall, I would say that there wasn't any improvement between the two coaches in all actuality, as the players are so young that they can only truly put together what they are being taught in the immediate time-frame. Neither coach was able to teach both sides of the basketball to the young players on the team, nor could they command the respect that they needed to from them either. Unfortunately, given that this is Brown's first year on a 4 year contract, and it generally takes at least a full year to install an offense into an NBA team, he will most likely be here for at least one more year.
The most concerning point that you noted though in brief is his treatment of Bennett. None of the rookies that were brought in during Brown's first stint with the Cavs ever really showed any growth whatsoever. That didn't really change at all this year (although Delly might make a little bit of a case for himself). On a team that consists of 7 players in their first 3 years, and the possibility of 2 more on their way, you can't afford for them not to develop. Brown needs to show major growth in this category early next season, or else this team is in deep trouble.
I think a coach's effect on player development is one of the least talked about aspects of coaching. The rumors about Phil Jackson's crazy tactics in Chicago may be more smoke than meat but the fact is this: 6 championships. He elevated Jordan and Pippen's game (and everyone else on that Bull's team) and maximized their potential. Think about Steve Nash without D'Antoni, or Dirk and Carlisle.
The best current example (and maybe the best all-time example) is Pop. Gregg Popovich has created a culture and system that nurtures young talent and maximizes a player's ability. I hear people whine about the Cavaliers passing on Kawhi Leonard in the draft. But be honest with yourself. If Leonard comes to Cleveland, is he half the player he is in San Antonio? Is Manu Ginobli the same player if he spends his career in Philadelphia? What about Tony Parker?
Or Danny Green?
Green was a Cavalier. He was a mediocre rotation guy for the Cavs. Then he winds up in San Antonio and all of a sudden he's dropping 3-bombs on LeBron's head. And you want to know the most impressive transformation? Green averaged a paltry .385 field goal percentage during his cup of coffee in Cleveland. Since joining San Antonio he has averaged: .486, .442, .448, and .432 respectively. Pop figured out where Green should shoot from and his field goal percentage jumped by .40 percent.
This is normally where I'd insert a lame schtick joke like "at least Mike Brown wasn't the coach of the Cavs when we drafted Green and failed to develop him...except he was." I won't do that because you're all smart enough to remember that Mike Brown was the coach of the Cavs for the 2009-2010 season. The one that featured Jamario Moon, dusty old Shaquille O'Neal, antique Antawn Jamison, Mo Williams, and Delonte "I'm off my meds!" West. And young LeBron James dragged those carcasses to a 61-win season. And you know what that team could have used? Three point shooting. And you know how many minutes a game Danny Green got played? A staggering 5.8 a game.
He goes to San Antonio and his minutes jump to 11.8, 23.1, 27.5, and 24.3. And Green's production increases as well.
And don't feed me a line about Green fitting their system, or Cleveland having entrenched starters. The Spurs have been better than the Cavs forever (remember 2007, me neither). They have better starters and a constantly evolving system that has gradually morphed from a grinding defense to free-flowing offense. The Cavs needed 3-point shooting and length to surround LeBron. They didn't give Green a single run of minutes that season and they got bounced in the playoffs.
Which worries me about Brown. Can he spot talent? And, more importantly, can he develop that talent once he has it? Maybe he can do the first, but he certainly seems unable to do the second. And when you have a young team----that's devastating.