Whenever big news breaks in the NBA, the Right Down Euclid staff is here to provide expert analysis on story lines that provide debate-filled discussion. In this special edition of the Countertop Conversation, RDE Co-Editor Zak Kolesar and staff writers Jeff Mount and Kevin Stankiewicz sit down to discuss the major headlines that took the NBA by storm in 2013, as well as the stories that subsumed the shores of Lake Erie over the past 365 days. The RDE staff will take the time to talk about their favorite moments from 2013, what they thought about the Wine & Gold’s year and possible enticing story lines going into 2014.
Zak Kolesar: The 2013 portion of the 2012-13 Cavaliers season started off on a much more positive note than their 7-26 start to the season. Like Cleveland will see this upcoming January, a long road stretch out West of five games showed that although the Wine & Gold went 6-7 in the opening month of ‘13, the inexperience and youth on this team was as apparent as ever. Granted, this squad had just lost Anderson Varejao for a third straight season earlier in December, resulting in Tyler Zeller receiving a plethora of minutes as a starter in his rookie season. With Tristan Thompson finally starting to make up the second half of a great frontcourt tag team with Andy, Zeller was forced to consume Wild Thing’s minutes. If you watched any of the games before January, you could tell that Varejao was by far the most energetic man on the floor donning Wine & Gold. If I recall correctly, in an embarrassing loss to the Phoenix Suns at home in November, then head coach Byron Scott was quoted postgame saying, “Andy Varejao was great tonight. Everyone else sucked.” Not having Wild Thing proved to hinder Cleveland’s ability to win the battle on the boards and create chemistry with the starting lineup. With Varejao recently inserted into the starting lineup, how do you think Cleveland’s fortunes will change in 2014?
Jeff Mount: I think the last three games are a good omen for the rest of the season. Except for the first half against Boston, the Cavs played solid ball against three good teams. If they can bring that kind of effort when they play teams like Orlando and Philadelphia over the next week or so, they will get some wins. I’m not sure if this team will recover from the terrible start, but they are still only three games out of the eighth seed, so it would only take one good streak to be right in the thick of it. I only see about three games in January that look like sure losses.
Kevin Stankiewicz: I agree with Jeff. Although the team’s record is bad and, in most years, not good enough for the playoffs, they still are not out of contention, because the Eastern Conference is terrible this year. I am excited to see what Varejao will do now that he is in the starting lineup. I have always preferred Andy coming off the bench, but the way this Cavs team plays, I think he can excel in the starting lineup. He will have to defend the pick and roll better than Bynum (which shouldn’t be difficult) and run the floor better than Bynum (also something that shouldn’t be difficult). So with that said, I think Andy is going to be a better fit in the starting lineup, and it will allow Zeller and Anthony Bennett to get more minutes. I think taking it all into consideration, the Cavs can turn it around enough to squeak into the final playoff spot in the East.
ZK: Moving on, something that I hope to see from the Cavaliers that hasn’t been a strong suit by any means for this team in 2013 is their play against the Central Division. However, you need to take into account that one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference the past two seasons–the Indiana Pacers–live and thrive in this division. But I still believe that contests against teams like the hapless Milwaukee Bucks and the improving Detroit Pistons should be used as measuring sticks as to if this team is improving, staying at the same level of play or, worst-case scenario, digressing. As of right now, I would say the Cavaliers aren’t trending in any direction specifically, which still isn’t a good thing by any means. Overall in 2013, the Cavaliers are 4-10 against their division. I remember an extremely bothering 117-99 loss in February against the Pistons and thinking to myself, “How and when can this team turn the other page on their horrible play against teams they either should be pummeling at this point (i.e. the Bucks) or be playing on an even platform with (i.e. the Pistons)?”
JM: The division isn’t that relevant to me because it has little impact on whether we make the playoffs or not. The teams I have been comparing the Cavs to are Detroit and Washington, because they have seemed to be at a similar stage in their rebuild; at least until the Pistons spent big money last summer. At some point, one or more of these teams will join the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference, and history tells us that there won’t be room for all of them, so the Cavs can’t afford to fall too far behind in their rebuild.
KS: I think it is fair to look at our record against divisional opponents. Now, Jeff is right about it not being important in making the playoffs, but since we face our divisional opponents four times a year compared to two against Western Conference teams and three games against most of the non-divisional teams in the East, the Cavs need to perform when playing teams in our division since we play them more frequently. The Cavs still have two more games against the Bucks in 2014, so we cannot afford to lose those games to the last place team in the East. We must perform well against Chicago because they hold the ninth spot in the East. Three of the four teams in our division are similar to us in their developmental processes, and we have to do well against teams that are like us.
ZK: Speaking on a more positive note in 2013, point guard Kyrie Irving made his first of what will hopefully be many All-Star appearances in Houston. As of the second All-Star balloting returns for the 2014 ASG in New Orleans, Irving still ranks second–only behind Dwyane Wade–by a long shot amongst backcourt members in the Eastern Conference with 524,000 votes. The injured Derrick Rose ranks behind Kyrie with 299,950 votes, and the much-deserving John Wall is fourth with 210,998 votes. With that said, how do you think Kyrie has fared on the court since breaking Brandon Knight’s ankles, winning the Three-Point Shootout and scoring 15 points in the 2013 ASG with higher expectations put upon him?
JM: I feel like he has regressed this year in the intangibles. I don’t mind watching Stephen Curry go crazy, but Kyrie should be able to guard Jeff Teague and Avery Bradley, and both of those guys had big games against the Cavs. I was hoping this would be the year when Kyrie became a leader and made his teammates better, but he’s still not there. He needs to learn that when defenses collapse on him, there is going to be somebody open.
KS: I think when it comes to scoring the basketball, he has been quite all right. He is a very exciting player offensively, still. He will make plays sometimes, and I just shake my head in pure amazement. But Jeff, again, makes a really good point. I don’t think Kyrie is at the point where is making the players around him better. Scoring is only one facet of the game. I am still looking for Kyrie to become an NBA caliber PG defender and a more vocal leader. He is only 21, though, so he has time to work on these.
ZK: I’ll close this year out and this edition of the Countertop Conversation with us all giving a New Year’s resolution for the Cavaliers. Mine is for the Cavaliers to work on extra passes and having players on this team wanting to be the man who provides the hockey assist. The hockey assist is the No. 1 reason why the Heat were able to capture two straight championships these past two seasons. Yes, they do have some very talented long-range specialists on their roster, but the consistent passing created excellent spacing for the Miami shooters these past two seasons, leading to open–and much better–looks. Please, no more possessions starting and ending with 20-foot jumpers inside the arc. Run down the court, don’t allow the defense to get settled by consistent ball movement and get buckets. Simple.
JM: Get a small forward for God’s sake. With Varejao and Thompson on the floor, having small forwards who can’t shoot is suicidal. Use one of the draft picks they have been hoarding and get a guy who can make defenses shift. That is the No. 1 thing keeping this team out of the playoff race. Also, make sure they don’t let Andy get worn out. All of his injuries have come when he was playing 35 minutes a night. Even if he is starting, I would limit him to 28 or so per game. If they need another decent big to make sure that happens, I would pull the trigger on a move.
KS: For 2014, I have my fingers crossed that the Cavs will improve defensively. I talked about it above, but it’s imperative for this young team to grow on defense. Brown says it best that you can’t win every game by outscoring everybody. I want to see this team fully start believing in what Coach Brown is preaching. They need to work on PNR defense. They need to work on closing in on shooters. Laziness will get you nowhere in the NBA. I need to see consistent effort defensively. As for offensively, I agree with Zak when it comes to the hockey assist. Better ball movement will create better shots. It is a simple formula. Kyrie and Dion love the one-on-one game, but they must break that habit, especially in crunch time. The Cavs have lost three close games in a row, and with better ball movement and selflessness, those losses may have become wins.