At various times over the past few weeks, the Cavs have run out a starting lineup that has included Alonzo Gee and Matthew Delavedova. Other times it has included Earl Clark and Sergey Karasev. None of these guys has ever averaged more than 11 points per game over a season. It has also included Andrew Bynum and his 36 percent shooting, and Tristan Thompson, who may or may not be right handed. They are bringing Anthony Bennett and his single-digit shooting percentage off the bench. The net result of this is defenses collapsing on Kyrie Irving. We can debate whether Irving is making the best decisions in these situations, but he is essentially deciding what color of lipstick the pig should get, so the choices he makes are less relevant than the choices he is given.
NBA defenses have evolved to the point where a lone superstar can be negated unless his team has enough other weapons to at least distract the other team. When Kyrie penetrates, the lane is already congested because Bynum and Thompson, plus their defenders, are camped out there; if the other guys on the floor are Gee and Delavedova, defenses will not respect them and will collapse even more into the lane. The net result is often 14 seconds of dribbling, leading to a forced shot or turnover. You can essentially substitute Dion Waiters for Irving and get the same results.
There are basic basketball plays that we all learned in seventh grade that should work with the talent on hand. Varejao is good at the pick and roll, and Bynum is very good at passing to a cutter out of the double team or shooting the 10-foot jumper. Irving and Waiters are both among the very best in the league at driving to the hoop. However, nothing works very easily in today’s NBA unless you have a credible threat from the perimeter, and the Cavs do not. In order for the Cavs to have even an average NBA offense, this needs to change.
There are two ways they can do this: either use the current roster differently or change the roster. The first option is simpler and less stressful, so it is worth trying first. Sadly, this will mean moving away from players with “grit” (whatever that is) toward players with talent. The insertion of Karasev into the starting lineup is a good first step. Even though he is overmatched in several aspects of the game at this point, he is a pure shooter who will over time command respect from defenses and open up the interior for Irving, Waiters and the bigs to operate. Another option in the backcourt would be to use Irving off the ball more. Waiters is almost as good as Irving at penetrating, but is not the shooter Irving is. Even though Mike Brown said he would not do this, an offense with Waiters at the point and Irving roaming free looking for open space on the floor may be the best option.
However, this will never be a truly effective offense unless the black hole at small forward is fixed. We can wax poetic about how hard Alonzo Gee plays and his basketball I.Q., but small forward is a scoring position, and Gee’s lack of offense puts the Cavs in a huge hole. I would love to see him and Varejao coming off the bench to bring some energy for 16-18 minutes a game, but beyond that, his limitations start to show. Earl Clark is also a role player. He has value because he can defend multiple positions, grab a rebound, and sink an occasional three, but he doesn’t do any of those things well enough to be more than the third guy off the bench on a good team.
The Cavs could just hand small forward to Anthony Bennett and see what happens. If the season continues to go belly up and the future becomes a higher priority than the present, this will be a tempting option because he has more talent than any of the alternatives. But, as bad as things have been so far, the Cavs are still only a couple games out of eighth place, so it is not quite time to sacrifice the season while Bennett figures things out. Another option is to put Karasev at the three and use a combination of Miles, Waiters, and Jack at shooting guard. The Cavs, however, seem to think that Karasev will cause fewer problems for them defensively at shooting guard. Miles may be effective as a shooter, but he seems more comfortable off the bench.
So it seems that if the Cavs want to maximize their potential for this season, they will need to acquire a small forward via a trade. It has been speculated in many places, including this website, that Waiters is the most likely player to be used as bait in such a trade. In my opinion, it makes more sense to move Jarrett Jack for several reasons. First, it seems logical that a veteran like Jack would net more in a trade than a young player like Waiters who has been deemed a bust by many experts. Second, Jack is what he is: a streaky shooter and lousy defender who is unlikely to evolve beyond that point. Being 30-years old, his four-year deal is likely to become an albatross eventually. As younger players develop, Jack eventually is likely to find his minutes squeezed to the point that he is not part of the rotation. Including Jack’s salary in a deal will also clear more cap space and match up better with what other teams are looking to deal.
There are a number of small forwards who could probably be acquired. Jack may not be enough to get a player that really helps, but Jack and one or two of the numerous future draft picks the Cavs have stockpiled may do the job. Gordon Hayward and Evan Turner were not offered contract extensions by their current teams. It is unlikely that tanking teams like Utah or Philadelphia would want an older player like Jack, but bringing a third team into the deal may get a deal done. Toronto has a couple of decent wings, but the fact that the Raptors are trying hard to move them should probably be a note of caution. Luol Deng is a free agent at the end of the year and a much better shooter than Turner. Jack could fill the hole caused by Derrick Rose’s injury and Deng could serve as a stopgap while Bennett develops for the Cavs.
Other trades may materialize as teams like New Orleans realize that the playoffs are not a realistic target. Other teams may become interested in Varejao. Golden State, for one, has an abundance of wing players and an injury-prone center in Andrew Bogut. Varejao would be a good insurance policy to prevent an injury to Bogut from ruining a promising season for the Warriors.
Such speculation assumes that we understand the motives of various teams regarding the salary cap and their playoff potential, which is probably an exercise in futility. It also assumes that teams will react rationally to the circumstances in which they find themselves; the fact that this is not generally true increases the number of potential trades exponentially. The bottom line, though, is that if the Cavs are serious about making the playoffs this year, they need better shooting, especially from the small forward position.