For the first time in a long time there are reasons to be excited about the Cavaliers. The team currently sits 4.5 games out of the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference with five games to play. While it is unlikely the Cavaliers are able to make up the ground necessary to earn their first playoff berth since 2010, the growth this team has shown over the last two months has been tremendous. Young players such as Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, and Tristan Thompson have learned how to play together and have begun to consistently give the effort needed to win in the NBA. That being said, there is still much room for improvement.
The summer is when you hear reports of NBA players spending long hours in the gym and on the basketball court, improving various aspects of their games. Each member of the Cavaliers, from Sergey Karasev to Anderson Varejao, has some aspect of their game that could be improved upon. Today, Right Down Euclid takes a look at each member of the 2013-2014 Cleveland Cavaliers and dissects what could improve each player’s game before next season as the Cavs look to take another step forward (Scotty Hopson is left of this list because I know absolutely nothing about him). This is done under the assumption that all of the players on the roster our returning, which there is virtually no chance of.
Luol Deng- More consistency from deep. From 2007 through 2012, Deng averaged 37.2 percent from three while averaging two attempts per game. While he is shooting just over 34 percent on 3.2 attempts per game with the Cavaliers, his accuracy from deep has been well below average over the last two seasons. While Deng will never be Stephen Curry, or even Mike Dunleavy, if he can get his three point percentage back up to previous levels, it would make teams respect him more from that area and open up the floor that much more for the Cavaliers’ offense.
Anderson Varejao- Health. Varejao has already played in 60 games, his most in four seasons, but injuries remain a problem for the long-time Cavalier. He has missed sixteen games due to injuries to his back and shoulder, and the Cavaliers typically struggle without his terrific play off the bench. Unfortunately much of this is simply beyond anyone’s control. While reduced minutes have helped Varejao’s health this season, one has two wonder if the Cavaliers would be better off with a similar big man who may not be quite as effective, but has a better track record of health. It would not be a shock to see the Cavaliers move Varejao and his partially guaranteed contract this summer.
Spencer Hawes- More consistency on defense. Hawes has been a tremendous fit for the Cavaliers in many ways. He is a solid rebounder and his three point shooting has been a perfect fit alongside both Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson, as both men desperately needed the space his shooting creates. Unfortunately he has not been able to contribute much on the defensive end. Hawes is an adequate shot blocker and solid defensive rebounder, but he shies away from contact on both ends of the floor. Opposing centers currently sport a PER of 18.0 against Hawes during his time in Cleveland. While Hawes will never be an elite defender, if he can learn how to protect the rim ala Zydrunaus Ilgauskas that would improve the Cavaliers tremendously.
Jarrett Jack- Improved defense. As frustrating as watching Jack shoot long twos off the bounce can be, his defense is arguably even more aggravating. While he holds opposing guards to a respectable PER, and the Cavaliers’ defensive rating is no different whether he is on or off the floor, the eye test isn’t flattering. Jack not only has trouble with opposing point guards, shooting guards constantly lose him by running around screens or even off the dribble. He also does a poor job guarding three point shooters and regularly commits poor fouls. While it’s unlikely that he will suddenly get quicker at thirty years old, Jack should be able to use his length and strength to muscle opposing guards and at least send them towards some help in the front court.
Kyrie Irving- A recurring theme is growing in the form of improved defense. While Irving has shown some improvement on defense this season (particularly the last two months), he still has a long way to go. The Cavaliers’ defense is 7.8 points per 100 possessions worse when Irving is on the floor. That is an insanely high number and the reason some fans and analysts think the Cavaliers would be better off trading Irving for other assets. Quick guards such as D.J. Augustin and Isaiah Thomas give Irving fits every time he matches against them, and he often resorts to simply trying to outscore them. While this strategy can work at times, an elite player cannot simply ignore defense and still call himself an elite player.
Anthony Bennett- Where do we begin? How about a greater dedication to fitness. When your rookie season is the train wreck that Bennett has to experience, going back to the most basic level seems to make the most sense. A big part of Bennett’s struggles early on were due to him being overweight, which combined with his asthma, made him unplayable for more than a few minutes at a time. Indeed, as Bennett finally got into shape this season, he began to show flashes of the player the Cavaliers thought he could be before going down with a strained knee. There is no doubt that Bennett has talent, but he must show greater dedication to his craft to be a successful player in the NBA. Improving his fitness would be a great place to start.
Tristan Thompson- Thompson’s work ethic and elite rebounding skills (fifth in the league in offensive rebounds and top twenty in rebounds per game) will allow him to stay in the league for a long time. That being said, he still has some rough edges that need to be smoothed out, particularly on the offensive end. If Thompson can develop a varied post game, that would allow him to score more efficiently and often within the flow of the offense. Part of his struggles in this area are probably due to his much-publicized hand switch last offseason. Indeed, the push shot he developed last season has all but disappeared. If Thompson can develop some offensive moves, he will be worth the pay raise the Cavaliers (or another team) will be giving him soon. It may be time to spend some time with Hakeem Olajuwon.
Dion Waiters- Consistency at the free throw line. Waiters has slowly begun to improve his shot selections as well as his shooting percentages. He also has become a better defender as the season has gone on. That being said, he still has a long way to go if he is going to reach the potential many see in him. While his poor finishing at the basket is a concern (he doesn’t really seem to elevate on his drives, which we will touch on another time), his poor free throw shooting is an even larger issue. Waiters is currently shooting 68.3 percent from the line, a horrendous number for a wing, and half a percent worse than Thompson, who is shooting right handed for the first time in his career. Waiters often will complain about non-calls to the referees on his forays to the basket, but it doesn’t really matter whether or not you get to the line if you can’t convert with regularity.
Alonzo Gee- A better handle. Gee has done a nice job as Luol Deng’s backup over the last few weeks, but his poor shooting remains a concern despite posting the highest three point percentage over a full season of his career (shooting just under 34 percent from deep, slightly below league average). Mike Brown and the Cavaliers have been quite vocal in their hope that the swingman would develop a consistent corner three shot in their attempts to mold him into a Bruce Bowen type of player, but right now that looks unlikely to happen. Gee is a solid finisher at the rim however, provided he gets there without turning the ball over. Gee currently sports at one to one assist to turnover ratio this season, and is actually worse than that over the course of his career. If he can simply avoid losing the ball on his way to the rim, that would help his offense tremendously.
C.J. Miles- The sprained ankle that has sidelined Miles for the last few weeks may wind up being beneficial to the Cavaliers. Over the last two seasons Miles has been one of the best bargains in the NBA, providing scoring, outside shooting, and underrated defense for less than three million dollars per year. He has also been one of the Cavaliers’ leaders in plus/minus over this time. It was likely he was looking at deal somewhere around the midlevel exception. Now, the Cavaliers may be able to resign Miles as their backup at both wing positions without breaking the bank. As good as Miles has been, there is still room for improvement. Miles remains a poor rebounder and passer, and this has had a negative effect on the Cavalier’s overall game as the guards have done a poor job rebounding as a whole and his “have ball, shoot ball” tendencies don’t mesh well with Irving or Waiters. If Miles is able to round out his overall game it would be a huge bonus for the Cavaliers.
Tyler Zeller- Zeller has improved tremendously this season. His work in the offseason has raised his field goal percentage by nearly eight percent (a huge number) and his PER by almost three points (also impressive). His additional strength has also helped him on defense, but he has a long way to go on that end. Opposing big men routinely perform like All-Stars against Zeller (18.6 PER for centers and a whopping 29.2 for power forwards, basically every power forward is LeBron James against Zeller), and he remains a foul machine, averaging 4.8 per 36 minutes. Zeller has come a long way, but he still needs to improve his defense to be a real contributor for the Cavaliers.
Sergey Karasev- Fifteen pounds of muscle. Hopefully Karasev is going to have an offseason conditioning plan similar to the one followed by Zeller last summer. Like Zeller was, Karasev is simply too skinny to guard his position at the NBA level, especially if that position is small forward. He’s also a bit slow to guard shooting guards, but is probably better off at that spot right now. That being said, Karasev is only twenty years old, and the Cavaliers knew that it may take a while for his body to catch up with his skill level. Hopefully an offseason of NBA conditioning will help him become a bigger contributor next season.
Matthew Dellavedova- Dellavedova has been a terrific find for the Cavaliers as an undrafted rookie. His energy on defense as well as his pass-first attitude on offense have been huge for the Cavaliers on both ends of the floor. While he is better as a point guard offensively and more effective guarding shooting guards, this tends to work as it allows Irving, Waiters, and Jack to look for their shots on offense and not have to guard a large shooting guard on defense. That being said, the best way to improve Dellavedova’s offensive contributions as a shooting guard would be to improve his shooting, particularly from the outside. Dellavedova is already shooting at very respectable 36.8% from three this season, above league average. But if he could get that percentage well into the upper thirties, over even the low forties, he could become an effective spot up shooter who could play the off guard on offense more often.
Carrick Felix- Health. Right now no one knows what kind of player Carrick Felix can be. If his play in the NBA Summer League or time with the Canton Charge of the D-League is any indication, he shows potential as a “3-and-D” player with solid passing skills. That kind of player is in high demand in today’s NBA, but if Felix cannot stay healthy enough to develop his skills, then his career at the highest level may be over before it truly has a chance to begin.
There you have it. One writer’s perspective on what each member of the Cleveland Cavaliers can work on to help the team take a big step forward next season. Certainly there are many other thoughts on this matter. What are yours? Let us know in the comments section below or send a tweet to RDECavaliers or @Mike_RDE.