Identifying keepers more important than making playoffs


Dec 13, 2013; Orlando, FL, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving (2) and shooting guard Dion Waiters (3) against the Orlando Magic during the first quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Raise your hand if you’ve just about had enough. Raise your hand if you’re still having trouble figuring out how a team of professional basketball players can score six points in an entire quarter, bearing in mind that the Suns are not exactly the 90s Knicks when it comes to defense.  I keep hearing that this is part of a process, that these guys need to learn how to handle adversity and trust each other. Well, I keep listening to postgame interviews after debacles like Sunday night and what I never hear is righteous anger. Guys are perplexed, maybe even embarrassed, but I can’t recall anyone ever just being downright pissed. I’m just a fan and a blogger, and I’m pissed, so why aren’t they?

This five-game home stand was a golden opportunity to hit reboot on the entire season. After a west coast swing that exceeded expectations, the Cavs were looking at five games at home, all of them winnable. Win four of these games and you are looking at passing Charlotte for the eighth seed. The Cavs had played with Luol Deng enough by now that they should have been reaping the full benefits of his skills and experience. And in the first half of the first game of the home stand they completely laid down against Dallas. Sure, they woke up and played an inspired second half, but that only makes you wonder why they can’t sustain that kind of performance for an entire game. The bottom line was a loss, another in a long line of squandered opportunities.

Then they lost to a Bulls team that was missing Derrick Rose, Carlos Boozer, and Kirk Hinrich. Maybe Rose was the only one the Bulls actually missed, but that is because they have developed their young players enough that core players can be replaced without missing a beat. Any local teams you can say that about?

So where does this leave us? Please don’t say playoffs – you have to play well for at least two games in a row before you can seriously consider yourself a playoff team. What really matters for the Cavs at this point is to determine by the end of this season (in some cases, before the trade deadline) which of these guys can play. Not just who has talent, but what combination of guys can co-exist, complement each other’s skills, play intelligently, and give consistent effort. For example, can you find a way to get Dion Waiters and Kyrie Irving each on the floor for thirty-plus minutes a night? At one point I thought that Waiters and Irving would be like Joe Dumars and Isiah Thomas, but Waiters is beginning to look more like Vinnie Johnson, the instant offense guy off the bench. That may be OK, but it means an offguard who can hit threes and defend the best wing player on the other team needs to be a priority, unless you think Sergey Karasev will be ready for such a role next year. The next question that arises from such a situation is whether Waiters is more valuable as a sixth man or as trade bait. There are certainly teams for which Waiters could be the starting point guard, and if one of those teams was willing to give up a player who fits with Irving, are the Cavs better off in the long run?

A similar question revolves around Anthony Bennett and Tristan Thompson. If both of these guys are looked at as power forwards in the immediate future, the only way one of them won’t end up being underutilized is if Bennett continues to flounder. So do the Cavs envision a small lineup with Thompson at center for a significant portion of the time, or can Bennett be developed as a small forward? If you have that in mind, do you move heaven and earth to re-sign Luol Deng, or do you spend your free agent dollars elsewhere? Looking at Bennett, it seems obvious that he will be on a boot camp conditioning program this summer, but it seems to me that as a small forward he would need to lose about 30 pounds and work on his quickness, but as a power forward he would be concerned less with losing weight and more with building strength.  So you would want to have an idea which direction you are going before the end of this season. It seems that this would be a lot easier to figure out if Bennett was playing significant minutes. Sitting him in order to sneak into the eighth seed seems like a fool’s errand, especially when the alternative is Earl Clark.

Other questions: Is Tyler Zeller a starting center? It seems clear that he is a viable backup, but as Anderson Varejao ages the need for a viable alternative in the middle will become increasingly acute. If you don’t see Zeller as capable of handling a starting role, you almost have to acquire a long-term solution at center this offseason, either through the draft or free agency. Since there probably isn’t enough cap room to sign multiple impact free agents, this impacts how much they can offer Deng.

So everything affects everything else. Which means that the remainder of this season needs to be devoted to figuring some of this stuff out. Figuring all of it out would be better; otherwise, next year is another building year and everyone gets closer to the end of their rookie contract without any resolution about who deserves another contract. If Chris Grant can’t start training camp with seven or eight guys who understand what it takes to win an NBA game and are willing and able to do that, I for one will start thinking about the next general manager, because that will indicate to me that all the high picks and all the cap space were in vain.