Whenever noteworthy news breaks in the NBA, the Right Down Euclid staff is on site to provide expert analysis on story lines that provide debate-filled discussion. In this edition of Laptop Conversation, RDE Co-Editor Zak Kolesar and staff writer Mike Schreiner sit down to discuss Cleveland’s nice finish to the regular season. After Zak and Mike dive into draft, free agency and trade talk, the two discuss their expectations for the team this year and predict the next step the Cavs need to take next season.
Zak Kolesar, RDE Co-Editor: Even though the Cavaliers played competitive basketball for the final month of the regular season, the end result after 82 games remains the same in the post-LeBron era: no playoffs. There are those who would have preferred to see the Cavs tank the rest of the way, thus improving their shot at selecting a star in this year’s draft, and then there are others who were just fine watching the Cavs improve and play meaningful basketball in March and April. In my opinion, Cleveland made — and is making — the right move by continuing to play competitive basketball even with the playoffs out of reach. Although the futures of a few players still remain unknown for this upcoming offseason, it was good to see camaraderie, ball movement and fast-paced basketball over the past few weeks. Are you on the same page with me in terms of how Cleveland finished off the final 12 or so games of the season?
Mike Schreiner, RDE Staff Writer: Absolutely. Look, youth doesn’t win in the NBA, and most young players have to learn how to win the hard way before they can do anything in this league (the Oklahoma City Thunder are the exception, not the rule). At some point the young players on the Cavaliers had to learn about the sacrifices it takes to win rather than just tanking away the season for another young player. In fact, I think a lot of the struggles in the first half of the season were because of the Cavaliers’ younger players not realizing just how much effort winning would take, both in terms of effort on both ends of the floor and playing true team basketball. This year’s playoff push, whether they made it or not, was essential to the futures of players such as Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, Tyler Zeller and even Matthew Dellavedova. My only concern related to their draft slot is that I don’t see a really good fit for them after Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker or Joel Embiid.
ZK: I’m really hoping that the Cavaliers put a lot of their stock (most of it, preferably) into the free agent market, because, just as you pointed out, I don’t see any substantial help coming the Cavs’ way unless by miracle they end up with either Wiggins, Parker or Embiid. There is talent, however, at the small forward position around the area where the Cavs are projected to pick. With Luol Deng’s future with the Cavaliers not looking very bright, Cleveland will once again be on the hunt for a caliber starting three this summer. Whether or not the fill the hole is hard to tell, as they’ve passed up on multiple opportunities over the years to fix the gaping hole at the three. Rodney Hood, Doug McDermott and Kyle Anderson would all make great pickups for the Cavs, but I think it’s really important to keep the starting core together even though it looks extremely unlikely. The starters carried the team over the team’s end-of-the-season run, and I highly doubt we’ll see both Deng and Spencer Hawes on the Cleveland front line next season.
MS: Just when Deng was starting to truly fit in, the season ends. I am pretty confident the Cavaliers will be able to resign Hawes if they want him back. In today’s NBA you need one of your starting big men to stretch the floor and the other to be a good dive man to the basket and a force around the rim. Hawes fills one spot, and I think the Cavaliers are still hopeful Tristan Thompson can fill the other. But unless Deng lowers his asking price, which he may have to, I think he is gone. I’m also not sure he really fits in the offense with his lack of three point shooting. If the Cavaliers draft a small forward, I like all three of the guys you mentioned in terms of three-point shooting. However, they all scare me on defense and I don’t see the Cavaliers putting the ball in Anderson’s hands the way it would need to be to use his passing skills. Besides those three I think James Young of Kentucky might get a look as well. As far as free agents go, I wouldn’t mind them making a run at Trevor Ariza. His career numbers are closer to Deng’s than people think and he’s a better three-point shooter. A trade wouldn’t shock me either. Do you see them being active on the trade front?
ZK: I can definitely see the Cavs being active on the trade front, and I think it will start with Draft Day 2014. Cleveland has used some of their stockpiled picks in mid-season trades this year, but the Cavaliers will still have some leverage to work with, and this could result in Cleveland trading down if they don’t feel a true fit somewhere in the 8-12 range. I think enough time was wasted, which is why I also believe that the Cavaliers fought extra hard these last few weeks in order to build momentum and comfort with each other. There are enough young players on this team now that are ready to take the next step up that the Cavaliers need some valuable veterans that may be too high of an asking price if Cleveland strictly takes the free agency route. What do you think the next step for the Cavs needs to be and did they leap over your expectations this season?
MS: As far as my expectations for this season, they were actually pretty close to what the season turned out to be. I wasn’t nearly as confident as others that the Cavaliers were going to make some sort of huge leap for a variety of reasons. Shaun Livingston played really well for the Cavaliers last season, and even last year’s Jarrett Jack is probably an upgrade by only a win or two. I was just as concerned with Andrew Bynum’s attitude as I was his knees, and it turns out both kept him from helping the Cavaliers. I thought Earl Clark might be a minor upgrade over Alonzo Gee who could cover Anthony Bennett defensively, but that maybe adds one win as well. I was never a fan of the Bennett pick because I have seen too many tweener forwards struggle and I knew Karasev was a project because of his age. I remember telling a friend that if the Cavaliers finished with 35 wins and pushed for a playoff spot, I would be happy with the progress. They will be pretty close to that.
As far as the next step in their development, I think that they need to decide who is part of their long-term plans and trade and draft pieces to fit around those players. For example, if Aaron Gordon or Noah Vonleh fall to the Cavaliers and they like those guys better than Tristan Thompson, draft one of them and trade Thompson for a small forward of equal value. I like Thompson, and this is just an example, but it’s time to field a team of players whose strengths compliment each other.
ZK: I completely agree, and I think a lot of players on the current roster made a statement regarding wanting to be a part of Cleveland’s long-term build. Dion Waiters stepped up in ways I would’ve never imagined in the absence of Kyrie Irving, Tyler Zeller proved that he can be a valuable building block off the bench and Spencer Hawes added a very lethal weapon to the Cavaliers’ starting five: a diverse perimeter attack. I wish the rumors surrounding Kyrie would stop, because I think the media is blowing it out of proportion. I also think he’s an excellent long term fit with the Cavs, and he’s becoming more of a do-it-all point guard by the game. It doesn’t make sense for a young player to want to have to restart in a new situation, get a brand new feel for different teammates and take less money (which is the least important in my eyes). The Cavaliers have a good core heading into next season, but there is still a lot of room for them to learn and pieces to pick up. The next step in my eyes has to be the playoffs, and if the Cavs can’t be a plus .500 playoff team next season in the East, then I would officially label the rebuilding process as a failure.
MS: I’d have to agree. To me the team the Cavaliers resemble the most is last year’s Washington Wizards, complete with elite young point guard and injury-prone Brazilian big man. If you remember, the Wizards had a horrible start to last season (mostly due to John Wall’s injury, but still) before greatly improving as the season went on. They then signed Wall to a max deal in the offseason and will probably finish just over .500 this season. I think the Cavaliers should be next season’s Wizards, or even better depending on the moves they make. I would look for something between 42 and 50 wins next season and possibly the second round of the playoffs.