Having the No. 4 overall pick for two drafts in a row may have seemed like a blessing at the time for the Cleveland Cavaliers, but these decisions will, for the moment, just be “what if” moments due to the success players they could have picked, and would have fit their positional needs as well, are having as of now. In the 2011 class, Cleveland scooped up the Texas project Tristan Thompson and passed on guys like Jonas Valanciunas and Nikola Vucevic. Although not many of the players from the 2011 are having much success outside of Kyrie Irving and Thompson, Cleveland still could have a solid center for the future in Valanciunas and Vucevic, and they wouldn’t have to put so much pressure on Andrew Bynum. Not to mention, Anthony Bennett would see more playing time in this situation, which needs to happen this upcoming season.
Dion Waiters, Cleveland’s first pick in 2012, will be the biggest “what if” if he can’t learn to play defense, as there is one player who comes up in conversation about this topic often in Harrison Barnes of the Golden State Warriors. If you were a reader of our website just over a year ago, you would know that I loved the possibility of adding Bradley Beal as our starting two to pair with Irving. He was a well-rounded choice, which is why the Washington Wizards decided to pair him up with John Wall. The Cavs needed a big, so they went with Thompson. Then the Cavs needed a Batman to Kyrie’s Robin, so they picked up a sixth man to start in the NBA. A combination of Irving-Barnes-Varejao-Valanciunas and the choice of going with Victor Oladipo this year would make this an extremely young, and threatening corp.
For this post, I will be talking about the “what ifs” and if I thought the Cavs could have done better than the presumed re-draft scenario. These things are never fun, especially for Wine and Gold fans, but it’s important to analyze general manager Chris Grant’s decisions over the past three drafts by using this season as a gauge. I think there is one draft from the last three years that could end up being a big mistake. Let’s take a look what could have been in place of Thompson, Waiters and Bennett.
2011 No. 4 pick Tristan Thompson (Cavaliers) vs. 2011 No. 16 pick Nikola Vucevic
After seeing less than 16 minutes of action per night with the Philadelphia 76ers, Vucevic thrived playing over 30 minutes per game, averaging 13.1 points, 11.0 rebounds and 1.0 blocks, while shooting 51.9 percent from the field. Thompson, in comparison, averaged 11.7 points, 9.4 rebounds and 0.9 blocks, while shooting 48.8 percent from the field. Now being undersized at the power forward, Thompson still took most of his shots in the paint and was actually one of the most blocked players in the NBA, having 17 percent of his shots blocked inside. A seven-footer in Vucevic has more increased range than Thompson, but I like what Thompson is doing to his arsenal as time goes on. He’s learning that he’s going to have to be creative around the rim in order to be an offensive threat, so being ambidextrous will help Thompson get down automatic shots in the paint. For now, here is what their respective shot charts look like courtesy of Hotshot Charts.
As you can tell, Vucevic, for his value at No. 16, looks like the better pick right now, but with Mike Brown on his side now Thompson will finally excel this season at the primary thing he was brought in to improve; defense. Thompson is much more versatile than the seven-footer, and is less injury prone as you can tell by his iron man status and six games missed in his rookie season.
What if?: Cavaliers will be enjoying this pick more down the road (even if he is traded) more so than if they would have reached for Vucevic at No. 4, so no regrets here.
2011 No. 4 pick Tristan Thompson vs. 2011 No. 5 pick Jonas Valanciunas
Although Valanciunas didn’t play the 2011-12 season, his rookie campaign with the Toronto Raptors was a success and a sign of better things to come. Compared with Thompson’s rookie season stats (60 GP, 23.7 MPG, 8.2 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 1.0 BPG 43.9 FG%, 55.2 FT%), Valanciunas holds an advantage despite being overseas for the season following the draft. In 62 games, Valanciunas averaged 8.9 points, 6.0 rebounds and 1.3 blocks, while shooting 55.7 percent from the field and 78.9 percent from the free throw line. In Summer League play this season, he earned MVP honors, averaging 18.8 points and 10.0 rebounds. Although he feasted on much smaller competition, he looks to be a star at the NBA level if he stays healthy. A young core of Irving-Waiters-Bennett-Valanciunas is much more fun to look at than throwing Thompson in the bunch and banking on Bynum or Varejao being healthy. Per 36 minutes, Valanciunas averaged 13.5 points, 9.0 rebounds and 1.9 blocks, and for a rookie, that sounds like a very promising defensive prospect that can shoot very effectively. Valanciunas ranked first among NBA rookie centers in true shooting percentage (61.8 percent) who averaged over 20 minutes and played at least 50 games. Per 36 minutes, Thompson averaged 12.5 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks with a true shooting percentage of 46.9 percent. Not too much discrepancy, but the pick made much more sense at the time and still makes a lot of sense for the Cavs moving forward at the moment.
What if?: Center would have been the way to go, in my opinion, at this point in time, but I’m either pro Valanciunas by a hair or looking at this like an even comparison. Nevertheless, Valanciunas would be thriving in Wine and Gold more so than he is in Toronto.
2012 No. 4 pick Dion Waiters vs. 2012 No. 7 pick Harrison Barnes
Waiters saw more playing time than Barnes, thus is the reason why the Golden state small forward put about 7.8 shots per game and converted on 43.9 percent of them, while Waiters put up 13.4 shots per game and converted on 41.2 percent of them. But, with the spotlight on him, Barnes was able to put talks of Waiters out producing him in the regular season to rest in the 12 playoff games he appeared in, which he started all of them. The former North Carolina Tar Heel averaged 16.1 points and 6.4 rebounds, while shooting 44.4 percent from the floor, 36.5 percent from three and 85.7 percent from the charity stripe. Even though the two guard was a position that needed to be filled going into the 2012 offseason, small forward was much more important and still is the team’s biggest need and question mark heading into this season. Brown would love working with a core of Irving-Victor Oladipo-Barnes, but what’s the fun in torturing you with another scenario that seemed like a better fit then and now. This team would be much more filled out at the two and three than it is now.
What if?: The Cavaliers would be much better off with Barnes on the roster than having Waiters continue to chuck up the ball at a low percentage than the man following him in the draft. If Waiters improves immensely on the defensive side of the ball, I may end up changing my mind. But it seems like the teams picking after them knew who the best available player was.
EXTRA CREDIT: Will Bennett be a pivotal part of the Cavaliers’ rebuilding process?
I don’t even want to talk about this a lot right now, because how asinine is it to discuss having a different player on the roster instead of one you chose a month ago and haven’t seen play yet. I think Bennett will develop into a destructive force on offense in the Cavaliers’ pick-and-roll game, but it’s a matter of when he will see significant minutes with the Wine and Gold. Otto Porter was who I wanted with the No. 1 pick, but now Washington has both of the players I wanted the past two drafts to be paired with their star point guard. This team would be 10x more cohesive with those three than any previous possible combination I mentioned in this post earlier. Bennett won’t be the frontcourt member to be trade bait. For his sake, hopefully one of those guys gets moved so Bennett can see the playing time needed to not be considered a flop according to our very own writer Hiroki Witt.