After firing the polarizing, controversial former Cavaliers general manager– Chris Grant– Cleveland has taken off under his successor David Griffin! They are 6-0! Six straight! Their jerseys are starting to look less like vomit and more like wine!
This is the team’s first four-plus-game winning streak since LeBron!
After watching this season-long tragedy of a team that was on the verge of entering its final act, it inexplicably turned around. It has left us sitting here, marveling at our computer screens– too jubilant to be confused– like Walt Jr. when he believed he had donations pouring in from around the world on his website. It’s too good to be true, and it’s time to peer into what’s sustainable.
I have to take my hat off to Mike Brown, whom I criticize daily.
The first time the Cavs played the Kings this season, they got absolutely waxed by 44 points. I think it was a 30+ point game by the end of three.
In that game, they sent hard-hedge after hard-hedge at Isaiah Thomas. Because he’s Isaiah Thomas, he absolutely burned it each time. This presented the Kings with 4-on-5 after 4-on-5 (Boogie Cousins and Jason Thompson completely owned the Cavaliers front court, which pushed this blowout from embarrassing to headline-worthy), and well, playing 4-on-5 is really easy if you’re not the Cavs (see: Lakers 2/5).
For the rematch in Cleveland, he learned from his previous mistakes, and let the big man defending the pick n’ roll sink back. This more conservative approach also makes the back-line rotations much easier to execute, which has cut out most of the egregious defensive breakdowns that have become synonymous with the Cavs over the past few years. This is the scheme he’s implemented since Grant’s departure, and it’s working.
In addition to his more conservative approach to defense, he’s started playing the right guys! Dellavedova is clocking in 15.6 minutes per game; Dion Waiters is at 26.7 (which includes the game he left in the second quarter after logging 15 minutes); Miles registered 24, and 25 minutes in respective games before going down with a nagging injury (he’s making his way back to those minutes, but had a rolled his ankle Wednesday night); Jack played an average of 18.2 minutes per game before Waiters’ injury.
I love ragging on Jack, and playing him less is always great, but he has actually provided what we expected of him coming into this season, at times. In the games he’s played big minutes, he’s actually been pretty effective.
Jack’s averages over the first three games: 2 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.3 turnovers, 0.7 steals, and 1.3 points on 20/0/0 shooting splits over 14.9 minutes;
Jack’s averages over the next three games: 3.3 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 turnovers, 1.7 steals, and 8.3 points on 34.8/50/77.8 shooting splits over 28.5 minutes.
This uptick in production is in large part due to facing the Sixers and Pistons versus facing the stiffer defenses of the Grizzlies and Wizards over the first three games.
The one thing you can take from all six games is that Jack is not playing selfishly, or, at least, he’s playing a lot less selfishly. He starts at shooting guard, and plays off-ball mostly; he’ll handle the ball if Kyrie is performing an action off-ball, but he has mostly cut out his isolation-to-contested jumpers brand of basketball in favor of playing spot-up shooter and facilitator. He’s finally augmenting what Kyrie is doing offensively.
Jack’s new role has helped build a more Kyrie-centric style, and Brown is to thank for that change. The team is feeding off of Kyrie’s unselfishness, and generally sharing the ball more.
Kyrie hasn’t done too bad for himself over this streak, either: 20.5 points on 46.3/56.5/91.9 shooting splits, 6.3 assists, 3.8 rebounds, 2.7 turnovers, and 1.2 steals over 33.9 minutes per game isn’t half bad, I guess.
Beyond this general unselfish energy, and great play from Kyrie, guys are simply stepping up– namely Anthony Bennett, Tristan Thompson, and Tyler Zeller.
- Bennett has averaged 8 points on 47.4/40/53.3 splits, 6.7 rebounds, 2 fouls, and 1.3 turnovers (those last two might be the most impressive improvements) over 18.7 minutes per game! He’s had two double-doubles! This guy is coming into the game and bringing it like a professional basketball player who was drafted no. 1 overall (in a weak draft)!!!!! About a month ago, I compared him to LaRue Martin! It’s amazing what a trimmer figure, added confidence, and a few mandated smiles from David Griffin can do for a player.
- Thompson is putting up 13.8 points on 53.8/65.4 shooting splits, 10.5 boards, 1.3 assists, 1.7 turnovers, and 1.2 steals over 32.4 minutes. If you factor out the inevitable beating he took against Z-Bo, he was two rebounds shy of 5 double-doubles. My favorite stat: he’s shooting 65.4% at the rim, which is a +14% from where he was on the season before this streak.
- Zeller has started at center for the past four games in Anderson Varejao’s stead. His first two games were pretty rough, but he found himself over his last two games. He saved the game against the Magic, he’s running the floor, punishing guys as a roll man, and as a reward his PER has risen to 15.04– he’s officially an above-average player!!!!!!!!
There are two sobering facts about this streak:
- These are five games against sub-.500 teams, and one against a road team without its best player this season on the second night of a back-to-back.
- The Cavs face the hardest schedule in the Eastern Conference going forward
There is nothing, statistically, suggesting the Cavs have a ice cube’s chance in hell of taking over the Bobcats for the 8th seed in the East, let alone beating out the Pistons and Knicks.
Still, this team is winning, smiling, and it feels like they have turned a corner– and in the heat of the moment, it feels like that’s all that matters. There is a strong contingent of Cavs fans who have been deprived of good basketball, and want to see a decent team stay in tact. But the trade deadline is upon us, and it’s time to make decisions that will effect the future of this team.
This is the conundrum the Cavs are faced with: keep this team in tact and let time sort it out, or blind yourself to this recent success and give away the team’s attractive trade pieces.
This is where I have to call into question this prevailing idea that the Cavs had significant, irreplaceable contributions from Luol Deng and Varejao during this transformation into a formidable team– the Cavs’ two biggest trade pieces– over this streak.
Varejao played two of these games– two!
I am not trying to sell him guys down the river, but if the Cavs are winning winnable games without Varejao, and Zeller is coming into his own, maybe that’s indicative of the systematic changes yielding results more than anything. If that’s the case, and the Cavs have found something in this tweaked system that yields better all-around basketball doings, maybe they don’t need 27 games of Varejao busting his ass to teach them how to play the right way.
Because that’s his role on the team, right? A veteran who keeps them competitive. A guy to keep the Cavs from falling into a lull many young teams like the Kings are victims of because they never learned how to compete. Now that they are starting to figure things out, the chemistry is building, and there is functionality… Varejao is kinda looking like a baby-sitter for a 15-year old. He’s gone at the end of the year via trade or waiving, and they don’t need him to keep the team from busting apart at the seams anymore, so why not trade him for assets and/or possibly dump Jack with him?
Deng has averaged 13 points on 38.7/50/83.3 splits, 4.4 boards, 2 assists, and 1 steal over 32.5 minutes per game. The big headline is “will Deng stay in Cleveland?” If the Cavs ride the wave, and bet on him staying (and he’s reportedly not thrilled about the situation), he might just leave at years end; if you trade him now, though, you will prevent your team from growing. I mentioned those stats for a reason. Deng’s not really gelling with this team… Why would anyone pay $12-13M per year over 2-4 years for that production from a 29-year old (come free agency) player with a lot of mileage?
Is it ridiculous to say the Cavs could get this production from the average small forward? Would you rather have a stop-gap small forward for the rest of this season who can shoot (which this team has never had), play defense, and bring veteran experience –like Francisco Garcia– while adding a pick, or have a deteriorating Deng in a bad situation where he will put up meh numbers for $12-13M per year for 4 years? It’s just strange to me that it’s been decided Deng is helping the Cavs that much past just being an upgrade over Alonzo Gee to warrant keeping him as opposed to raking in future assets.
The Cavs have put together a fantastic six games, but treating this team like an ethereal masterpiece with parts that shouldn’t be moved is ridiculous. There is a big picture for this team, and that’s what you should have gained from this streak. Almost all of the primary contributors have been guys who haven’t come close to their primes yet, and for the first time, it’s cohesive.
Instead of going into the deadline afraid to move veterans, this streak should make moving Varejao and Deng even more enticing.
I don’t know what Griffin and the Cavs’ front office will do. Hopefully they aren’t too high on their recent success to see what’s in front of them. We’ll know shortly.