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 edition of the Countertop Conversation, RDE Co-Editor Zak Kolesar and staff writer Trevor Magnotti first sit down to discuss the high usage of guards in recent Mike Brown lineups. Following the analysis of the plethora of guards Brown is using with multiple sets as of late, Kolesar and Magnotti are joined by SB Nation Blog a Bull contributor Jason Patt to break down the Luol Deng trade and to talk about the direction of these teams following the move.
Zak Kolesar, RDE Co-Editor: On Tuesday night against the Philadelphia 76ers, albeit one of the worst defenses in the NBA this season from a statistical standpoint, Wine & Gold fans were witnesses to somewhat of a fruition regarding head coach Mike Brown’s recent jumbling of the roster. With backup combo guard Jarrett Jack missing his second straight game because of back spasms, the trio of guards, consisting of Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Matthew Dellavedova, accounted for 22 of the team’s 29 assists, while starting shooting guard C.J. Miles went on a record-setting tear from beyond the arc. Before this game, Brown was trying to see if three-guard sets with Delly, Waiters and Jack were going to produce results similar to what we saw on Tuesday. But it seems as if the lineups with Jack, as of right now, aren’t as offensively stimulating as what fans and GM Chris Grant were hoping for when they signed the veteran backup guard in the offseason. Now, with Miles’ role having more of a range to it as of late, which three-guard lineups that Brown has used this season do you think are combinations that we should see with the Cavaliers moving forward?
Trevor Magnotti, RDE Staff Writer: Well, when the Cavs have gone small with Dion and Delly together this season with either Jack or Kyrie, that produces solid results. Delly/Jack/Waiters lineups are the second-most common three-guard unit the Cavs work with, and when these guys play together, they produce 106.4 points/100 possessions and a turnover ratio of 12.9, the second-lowest of any three-man group that’s logged over 100 minutes together this season. The fourth-most common three-guard lineup is Kyrie/Dion/C.J., a lineup that is less skilled defensively, but produces points at the same rate. The issue is playing Kyrie and Jarrett Jack together. For whatever reason, Jack and Irving are a trainwreck on both ends together. In just over 450 minutes this season, lineups pairing these two are outscored at a rate of 11.4 points/100 possessions and have an abyssmal 45 percent eFG%. The issue appears to be that you just can’t pair Kyrie with another primary ball-handler. However, when you put either of these two with Dion, Delly, and/or Miles, who can all handle the ball and spot-up to be effective, the offense goes from horrid to not just acceptable, but actually pretty efficient! Therefore, I’m okay with three-guard lineups, and hope for their continued use, as long as Irving and Jack never see the court together. That being said, should Jack’s minutes get cut to avoid this pairing?
ZK: With the recent play of Miles, both from an offensive and defensive standpoint, I have become a big proponent of, yes, having Jack’s minutes being cut in favor of three-guard lineups that rotate amongst Irving, Miles, Waiters and Delly. With the insertion of Anderson Varejao back into the starting lineup, I would be in favor of the fairly efficient trio of Irving/Miles/Waiters paired with Tristan Thompson and Wild Thing much rather than throwing Jack in the mix. Like you mentioned above, I’m not quite sure what it is that is making the combination of Jack and Irving not work out in the way that we had envisioned during the offseason. Bringing in a ball handler and distributor like Jack was supposed to give Kyrie the freedom to play more off the ball on offense, freeing him up from beyond the arc, thus resulting in a higher eFG%. As we saw early on in the season, with Kyrie’s slow shooting start in the 2013 portion of 13/14, Irving playing a lot of off-the-ball offense just wasn’t going to work for this team. But getting back to my original point of the Irving/Miles/Waiters lineups, paired with TT and Varejao; this has been one of the most offensively stimulating lineups (per 82games.com), while also boasting a +/- ratio of +14. The only lineup with a higher +/- number than this one consists of the same frontcourt duo, but with Jack and Delly instead of Irving and Miles. So with that said, yes, I am a proponent of cutting Jack’s minutes not only overall, but trying to limit his time with Irving as well. Dion’s not going to log eight assists (a career-high against Philly) every night, so putting him out there with a reserve lineup paired with Jack and Delly works both in theory and in practice. Even though we haven’t been able to gauge the pairing of Irving and Delly that much, however, what would you like to see as far as those two hitting the court at the same time?
TM: This pairing, by itself, has been fairly efficient this season, converting at a 47.5 eFG%, and scoring at a rate of 106.1 points/100 possessions. However, my big issue here is that this backcourt pairing bleeds points. With Kyrie and Delly on the floor, the Cavs have no one that can effectively guard big shooting guards, and Kyrie’s just not a good on-ball defender. It’s better than Irving/Jack defensively, because Dellavedova can at least pretend like he can guard a PNR, but these two are just too small to handle a big lineup like the ones Philly used Tuesday with Hollis Thompson or Evan Turner paired with Michael Carter-Williams. But pair these two with Dion, and the offensive power outweighs the defensive shortcomings. I completely agree with you that one of the point guards, Delly/Miles, and Waiters is the ideal grouping for using three-guard lineups, and I hope we continue to see lineups with this setup. That being said, how often do you expect to see the Cavs use these lineups with our new toy arriving Friday for the game against the Utah Jazz?
ZK: Great segway, because, obviously, things are going to be a whole lot different regarding roster management with Luol Deng in town. Over the past two seasons, Deng has finished the year at the top of the NBA list in minutes per game. Although Deng is in his 10th season (all previously with the Bulls), he has still logged a fair amount of minutes for Chicago in his 23 games in 2013-14. This should be an encouraging sign for Cleveland fans, especially given the all-around player Deng is on offense and the fact that he provides an above-average effort on defense, although his play hasn’t been the same in that department since earning All-Defensive Second Team honors in 2012. Because his high usage at the three means that 1. We won’t be seeing Brown struggle with the decision of whether to start the game off with Earl Clark or Alonzo Gee and 2. Even when it comes time to sub out Deng, we won’t be seeing Clark, and especially not Gee, logging that many minutes for the Wine & Gold if all goes as planned. With this, it also means that the Cavs will most likely do away with a lot of their three-guard rotations, but not entirely. Deng does provide defensive length and height at the three (something that has been missing for some time in Cleveland), which will (hopefully) help out guys like Irving and Waiters. If we’re going to see any three-guard lineups in the future, I would say that it’s most likely going to come in the form of a reserve group of Jack, Waiters and Dellavedova, which make up the top two defensive lineups (per 82games.com) for the Cavaliers this season. Do you see any three-guard lineups thriving with Deng added to the mix?
TM: It’s hard to find evidence of this being something Deng has even performed with that often before. You have to travel back to the 2010 Bulls to find a real lineup that Chicago ever used with Deng and three guards, with the Bulls often going Derrick Rose, Kirk Hinrich, and John Salmons together with Deng at the four. That was actually a somewhat productive lineup, mainly because it spaced the floor well for Rose and Deng to get to the rim, and produced a ridiculous free throw differential in favor of Chicago. So far this season, the Bulls rarely used lineups with Deng and three guards. However, we know Deng has the size to play some stretch four, and if the lineups Vinny Del Negro used with Deng at the four are any indication, the Cavs will be able to space the floor this way, even if the Cavs don’t have the shooters the Bulls did and do. I can’t see this being something the Cavs try too often, especially because Deng and Tristan Thompson will both be playing big minutes, but when TT sits for a few minutes with Deng at four, I think this is still something we’ll see fairly often. But more on Deng. How do you see the Cavs using him offensively?
ZK: I’m envisioning a high usage of Irving/Waiters/Deng/Thompson/Varejao offensively. Although this seems like an obvious choice, it’s similar to the build that Chicago used before Derrick Rose went down this season. Although Andy is getting up there, he has been as productive and healthy (knock on wood) as ever when he has been at the forefront of the offense these past two seasons. And with the evolution of Tristan’s offense, I envision the addition of Deng paired with our two highest scorers as being a destructive offensive force in the East. Although this seems like a stretch given the struggles that Brown has had with the offense this season inserting Clark in what will now be Deng’s position, I also can envision a highly-effective offense consisting of Irving, Clark and Deng to go with the aforementioned frontcourt of TT and Andy. Deng will be able to provide better spacing for Irving and Clark, and although Earl has struggled with wide-open shots as of late, the addition of Deng will really help build the fast break and transition offense up to a point where Clark could be a piece we’d like to see in an odd wing pairing at times. Can you see this working out? And if not, how do you think the Cavs offense runs most effectively with the addition of Deng?
TM: I can’t really see that as an effective strategy, mainly because that lineup would be very slow, and Clark’s shooting is the only thing spacing the floor there. Given how he’s performed over the last two weeks, that’s not ideal to me. Deng was used mostly as a spot-up shooter in Chicago, something he’s certainly not the best at. However, he’s a great cutter and post-up threat for the Cavs to use. I think this is where he helps out the team most. Deng gives the Cavs a quality slasher for Kyrie or Dion to kick the ball to on pick-and-rolls, and he’s a great player at moving without the ball, which the Cavs don’t really have. He’s not going to be a gunner for this team, which is good. The Cavs have needed a guy who can cut to the rim and facilitate movement for the offense. Deng’s also a pretty good pick-and-roll ball handler, which will come in handy, especially if Mike Brown gets creative and starts running Deng/Varejao PNR, which I’m a fan off. Offensively, I think the ideal lineup to use Deng would be Irving/Waiters/Deng/Thompson/Varejao. Varejao’s abilities in the high post would free up space for Deng to post-up at times, and Waiters and Kyrie can both attack the basket, drawing defenders away and letting Deng finish at the rim. I think that’s pretty ideal for the Cavs.
Jason Patt, Blog a Bull Contributor: Completely agree that the most ideal lineup would be Irving/Waiters/Deng/Thompson/Varejao. With an elite shot creator in Irving and a blossoming one in Waiters, Deng is free to do what he does best, which is moving without the ball and making himself available via cuts and spot-ups. Deng has always been one of the better off-ball cutters in the league, and his mid-range jump-shooting has seen a bit of an uptick this season after a few really down years. Deng’s three-point shooting is down in attempts and percentage this season, but perhaps playing with guys like Irving and Waiters can create better looks for him. Deng also wouldn’t be counted on to handle the ball and make plays quite as much, but he certainly is capable of doing those things from time to time. In terms of possibly playing small, Deng has at least shown the ability to be competent at the 4, although the Bulls usually didn’t use small lineups unless it was out of necessity. But Deng has the size to be effective defensively at the 4 against certain players, and he has shown an improved post-up game. I think it could work in small doses in the right situations.
ZK: Moving along, let’s talk about the structure of the deal and how each team made out in that department. The Bulls made the obvious decision of opening up cap flexibility by dealing Deng and cutting Andrew Bynum as soon as he was acquired, but does this really help the Bulls out that much? Deng was going to be a free agent at the end of the season and, at worst, was going to be off Chicago’s cap by next season if not re-signed, which wasn’t looking like it was going to happen anyways. After declining a three-year, $30 million extension to remain on the Bulls past this season (according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports), Chicago supposedly offered Deng a four-year contract at the same rate that would be offered to the small forward in the offseason. This wasn’t enticing enough to keep Luol in town, so the team decided to stockpile draft picks. But these picks may turn out to be nothing more than second rounders. Did Cleveland pull a fast one on the Bulls here?
TM: The main advantage for the Bulls here is that they no longer have to deal with Deng’s cap hold, even if they couldn’t re-sign him. The Bulls wanted flexibility, and when it became apparent that Deng would not want to come back, that ruined this for this summer. Remember, while Deng was shopping for a team or negotiating a new contract, the Bulls would still have a cap hold worth 125 percent of his contract on the books, eliminating their chances of making any significant move while Deng was on their books. With Bynum, the Bulls cut him right away, removing not only his contract, but also the threat of this cap hold. Also, I’m not so sure the draft picks aren’t useful to the Bulls. The Bulls have drafted pretty well under the Forman/Paxson regime, and even a late-first rounder that the Bulls might pull from the Cavs could turn out well for them. Also, everyone seems very set in their idea that the Kings won’t draft outside of the top 10 before 2017, but with their new regime, that’s a LONG time for a team to suck, especially with Demarcus Cousins looking like an absolute animal this season. Even with Rudy Gay, there is no way the Bulls don’t get a first-rounder out of this pick. I think the Bulls came out pretty nicely here, especially if they bring over Nikola Mirotic next season. That sounds like a pretty good rebuilding plan, right?
JP: It definitely isn’t the worst rebuilding plan in the world. Once Derrick Rose went down again and it became clear Deng and the Bulls were just too far apart to realistically think they could come to terms in the offseason, moving him now was the way to go. One could argue the Bulls could have waited a bit longer and perhaps gotten a better return from another team, but the Bynum situation provided a unique opportunity to get under the luxury tax, get some future assets and also get worse in the short term, which could be better for the long term. Armed with the extra cap flexibility and the hopeful amnesty of Carlos Boozer this offseason, the Bulls can open up a good chunk of cap space. This would allow them to offer Mirotic more than the MLE, which may be necessary given just how good the young Euro has been overseas this year. The Bulls could also potentially go after the Pacers’ Lance Stephenson as Grantland’s Zach Lowe suggested, or even make a run at Carmelo Anthony. However, those kinds of pursuits would likely make the Mirotic situation murky. In addition to the cap space, the Bulls could also make a splash in the draft. Getting into the lottery seems unlikely given how bad the East is, but the Bulls should still have a top-20 pick. They could also wind up with the pick owed to them by the Bobcats, which is top-10 protected in this draft. The picks acquired in the Deng trade may not wind up being much, but I have some faith the Kings and Cavs can turn things around soon. There’s certainly talent in place. Overall, I think the Bulls did pretty well in this deal, although there’s always the chance it backfires.
ZK: This could end up biting Cleveland in the behind as well, especially if the team doesn’t improve by a noticeable amount by, say, the trade deadline in February. It was a good move by the Cavaliers to make the trade for Deng before the deadline because it gives the team more time to grow with Deng before it comes to crunch time for the playoffs. But let’s look at two situations that could happen: 1. The Cavaliers improve with Deng starting at three, Cleveland makes the playoffs at a seed higher than 7 and then Deng either signs with the Cavs in the offseason or bolts or 2. The Cavs falter with their new addition, fail to make the playoffs and Cleveland is stuck in the same predicament at small forward with Clark and Alonzo Gee at the three. Which do you feel is more likely?
TM: I think Deng will end up making the Cavs into a quality team, and they’ll sneak into the playoffs. However, I don’t think the Cavs are all that screwed if Deng leaves. For one, the Clark/Gee conundrum isn’t an issue. Gee has a team option this offseason, and I don’t think he stands a chance of being re-signed. Clark has a team option to his contract, and with how he’s played lately, that doesn’t look like it will get picked up either. Second, Anthony Bennett and Sergey Karasev will be expected to make improvements, and both of these two can play the three. It’s not farfetched to say that Bennett might make enough of a leap to justify significant playing time next season. Third, there are a solid amount of quality small forward options available for the Cavs to pursue this offseason. Among them? Shawn Marion, Danny Granger, Khris Middleton, Trevor Ariza, and Shane Battier. All of those guys could be useful to the Cavs while Bennett develops. Therefore, I’m absolutely not worried that the Cavs will suck as badly as they did through the first 35 games of this season, because there’s tons of quality options available to them even if Deng leaves.
JP: At this past draft lottery, Cavs management made a big deal about making the playoffs this season. So once the team got off to a rough start, it seemed like only a matter of time before a bold move was made to upgrade the team and make a run at the playoffs. Given the hole at the 3, Deng always seemed like the logical target once Rose went down with another knee injury. The question was what it would take to get him. Considering the Cavs were able to acquire Deng without giving up a guy like Waiters, who was mentioned in trade rumors earlier in the year, they have to be pretty happy. It’s a risk to give up the draft assets for an expiring player who may or may not lead the Cavs to the playoffs, and it honestly may have just been better to be bad this year with the excellent 2014 draft looming. But again, Cavs management is facing pressure to make the playoffs, and the acquisition of Deng should make scenario 1 a high possibility as long as the key players stay healthy. When it comes to re-signing Deng, things are a bit tricky. He’ll be 29 next season and will be looking for that last huge deal of his career. It will cost a pretty penny to re-sign Deng, and while he’s a solid player, there are questions about whether it’s smart to give him big money given all the wear and tear he has accumulated over the years. But given the Cavs’ situation, they may be more willing than the Bulls were to shell out that kind of money. Deng bolting would be a tough blow, but at least the Cavs would have some cap space to try and replace him. And maybe Bennett wakes up out of his coma!