Monday, August 11, 2014

Tristan Thompson

The Kevin Love for Andrew Wiggins deal was about as win-win as such a major trade could be, although I have reservations about the deal for both teams - Can Love and Kyrie play enough D to allow the Cavs to compete with the Spurs and the Thunder? Can Wiggins reach his potential in Minnesota or would he have been better of being LeBron's Padawan? Nevertheless, you can see the rationale for why both pulled the trigger. If there's a clear loser in the whole proceedings, it's one of the players left behind in Cleveland - Tristan Thompson.

After three years as a starter for one of the worst teams in the NBA, Thompson looked like one of the players who would benefit from the prodigal son's return home, even getting a shout-out in LeBron's open letter in Sports Illustrated. Before the Love trade, he had a pretty secure hold on the starting PF position in Cleveland and as a lottery pick entering his fourth season in the league, he looked headed for a big extension prior to the October 31 deadline. He is represented by the same agent as LeBron and that type of quid-pro-quo happens all the time in the NBA.

With Love in town, though, all of that is thrown into question. Thompson could see his playing time from last season cut in half. Love will get 35-40 minutes a night at the PF position and his complete inability to protect the rim means he is unlikely to get much run at C, especially during the playoffs. And while Thompson could survive as a small-ball C on offense with Love stretching the floor, those two won't exactly form the most intimidating defensive front-court in the NBA. Once David Blatt figures out his rotation, it's not hard to envision a scenario where Thompson gets 15-20 minutes a night as a second unit 4/5.

He's still a 22-year old with a decent track record, but his career 15 PER doesn't exactly scream future star either. In that respect, Thompson is a bit of a jack of all trades master of none - he's not great on either side of the ball and his best skill (rebounding) is one that a lot of other PF's share. He's a bit of an anachronism - a traditional PF in a stretch 4 league - and it's still unclear whether he can hold down a starting job on a good team. It's hard to build an elite team around a PF who can't stretch the floor, command a double team in the post or play great interior defense.

If he becomes trade bait, take a look around the rest of the league and ask yourself how many teams does Thompson really improve as a starting PF? People talk a lot about the depth of PG's in the modern NBA, but PF is a pretty stacked position. Once you take out teams whose scheme requires a three-point shooter at the position, the list of suitors for Thompson becomes pretty thin. Is he an upgrade on Jared Sullinger in Boston? Cody Zeller/Noah Vonleh in Charlotte? John Henson/Ersan Ilyasova in Milwaukee? Jason Thompson in Sacramento? Enes Kanter in Utah? And those last 3 teams are still trying to figure out if they will run a 4-out offense. 

If Thompson ends up as a third big man instead of a starter, that's a pretty dramatic pay decrease. Just two examples - Amir Johnson is on a 5-year $34 million deal while Trevor Booker just signed a 2-year, $10 million deal with the Utah Jazz. You would think Cleveland will take care of him, if only to keep Rich Paul happy, but they will need to manage their cap pretty carefully given how much money they have committed to their new Big Three, especially if they end up needing a rim protector. What might make sense is a deal similar to the 2-year $24 million deal Kris Humphries got with the Brooklyn Nets, which would create a salary slot the Cavs could use in a potential trade without committing them to another big long-term deal.

That's probably the biggest thing Thompson has going for him at this point. The Cavs don't have a lot of other ways to add talent to their roster given how close they will be to the cap over the next few years, so they need another salary slot they can send back in a trade. Either way, though, it's hard to see a scenario where Thompson becomes a coveted piece after his playing time and opportunities are dramatically decreased in Cleveland. Instead of riding a full season with LeBron to pad his statistics, he's going to have to scratch and claw for everything. Let's hope his much publicized decision to switch shooting hands pays off because he's going to need it.

Minnesota's New Direction

At RealGM, a look at why the post Kevin Love shouldn't be as bad as the post KG one.

Friday, August 8, 2014

LaVine and Wiggins

The Minnesota Timberwolves got about as much for Kevin Love as a team could reasonably expect in the situation - the No. 1 overall pick in the draft (Andrew Wiggins), a two-way starter at Love's position (Thad Young) and a future No. 1. However, with no guarantee that Young sticks around in Minnesota or that a late first round pick becomes anything useful, it looks like their return on Love will depend in large part on what becomes of Wiggins.

But while Wiggins becomes the franchise player in waiting in Minnesota, he's probably not going to be a starter from Day 1, as they have a solid pair of vets - Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer - entrenched at the wings. And while he's a very exciting prospect, I'm not sure he has that much more potential than their original first-round pick in this year's draft - Zach LaVine.

Going into the draft, I had LaVine rated higher than Wiggins because, of the two, he's a better ball-handler, passer and shooter and he's just as good an athlete. That may seem crazy when you look at their production in college, where LaVine was a 7th man at UCLA while Wiggins was an All Big 12 performer at Kansas, but so much of what a freshman can do depends on the role they have on their team.

UCLA didn't get a ton of publicity this season, but they had a preposterous amount of talent. They returned two first-round picks on the perimeter - Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson - and another upperclassman (Norman Powell) who has a chance to be drafted next season. Kansas, on the other hand, was replacing their entire starting line-up from the year before, giving Wiggins plenty of opportunities to dominate the ball and show what he could do.

My judgment on how the two compared with each other was based mainly off the eye test, and the few games where LaVine was given the chance to dominate the ball at UCLA, but there were a few nuggets in the statistics that hint at what I'm talking about. They had the exact same FG% (44%), while LaVine was the better three-point shooter (37% to 34%) and had the better assist-to-turnover ratio (1.8-1.1 as opposed to 1.5-2.3). Assist-to-turnover ratio is the gold standard to me - that tells you what type of decisions a guy makes with the ball in his hands and LaVine had more assists than Wiggins despite far fewer opportunities.

When they were placed in roughly similar situations in Vegas, given the chance to dominate the ball on haphazard summer league teams, LaVine put up slightly better numbers. He averaged more points (15.7 to 15.5), more rebounds (4.2 to 3.8) and more assists (2.8 to 0.3) on almost identical FG% (39.7 to 40.5). The assists are the telling numbers to me - LaVine is just much more comfortable making plays with the ball and he has a better feel for the game at this stage in their careers. Wiggins had the edge in blocks and steals, which you would expect given his advantage in size and length, but the difference between the two players isn't as big as you would expect given their reputations.

Of course, now that they are on the same team, it doesn't really matter whose the better of the two in a vacuum. If anything, they should complement each other extremely well on the second team. At the start of their careers, I expect Saunders will use them a lot in tandem, coming in together and changing up the dynamic of the game with their otherworldly athletic ability. The Wolves bench will be trying to go up and down as much as possible, especially with Nik Pekovic out of the game.

Since LaVine is weaker on the defensive end and Wiggins is weaker on the offensive end, they can both look out for each other. LaVine can spread the floor and create easy shots for Wiggins while Wiggins can take the tougher of the two defensive assignments on the wings. In a few years time, they should eventually move into the starting line-up together where they will form the most exciting wing combination in the NBA. Wiggins should be a great player in the NBA, but I wouldn't be surprised if he becomes part of LaVine's supporting cast down the road.

Friday, August 1, 2014

DeMarcus Cousins and Team USA

On one level, you can see the argument for taking Mason Plumlee over Demarcus Cousins for the US team. Coach K has always preferred to play super small in international tournaments - Lamar Odom got most of the minutes at C in 2010 and LeBron James was the biggest player on the floor for big chunks in 2012. With Anthony Davis entrenched at the starting 5 position, K is going to play a lot of small-ball behind him and he's probably never going to play two big men together, even against Spain.

For the most part, the backup C on Team USA is going to be a spare part, enclosed in a glass case and broken only in case of emergency. Plumlee is hardly ever going to see the floor in Madrid while his ability to move his feet in space and roll to the basket in the two-man game is a better fit for the style of play that Coach K wants.

On another level, though, c'mon. Plumlee and Cousins play the same position and there is no argument as to who is the better player. Cousins is a fourth-year player who averaged 23 points, 12 rebounds and 3 assists on 52% shooting last season - Plumlee is a rookie who averaged 7 points and 4 rebounds a game. If you were sitting in Cousins shoes, it would be hard not to take the decision as a slap in the face.

It's certainly not like Cousins couldn't fit with the rest of Team USA. At the very least, he deserves a chance - if they end up playing Spain in the gold medal game, he's much more capable of matching up with the Gasol brothers. He's a really good basketball player and he's easily one of the 12 best players in Las Vegas. Isn't that what it should ultimately be about?

That's been the theme throughout his career. He's always been the biggest player on the court and he's always attracted an outsized share of the attention and blame for everything that's going on, often for things that are not his fault.

John Wall got all the publicity, but DMC was the best player at Kentucky. He was much more efficient (56% to 46%) on offense - he was the guy other teams came into the game worrying about stopping. Everyone wanted to talk about the blow-ups between him and Coach Cal, but that wasn't why they lost in the Elite Eight. West Virginia sat in a 1-3-1 zone to neutralize Cousins and dare Wall, Bledsoe and the rest to beat them from the 3-point line and they couldn't do it. But guess who got the blame and fell all the way to No. 5 in the draft.

He's been one of the most productive big men in the league since he came to Sacramento, but somehow it's his fault they've been stuck in the lottery for the last four seasons. Yes, Cousins needs to improve on defense, but not many big-time scorers come into the NBA with defensive chops. Not even LeBron did. It's a lot to ask of a young player to be a team's best offensive and defensive player and single-handedly carry a franchise like the Kings.

They didn't even really have an owner in his first three seasons in the league. Take a look at the rosters they've put around him - it's laughable. The best player he played with in that span was Tyreke Evans and he's now a sixth man on an average New Orleans team. The best player he played with last season was Isaiah Thomas and he's now a sixth man in Phoenix. Guys aren't leaving Sacramento and snatching up starting spots on good teams - they are moving to the bench. Rudy Gay is their second best player now and the list of NBA teams wiling to pay him $18 million a season to dominate the ball goes about one deep.

With all the incompetence around him, it's a minor miracle that Cousins has been able to put up All-Star caliber numbers in Sacramento. Should he have made the All-Star team last year? You can make the argument either way, but when Anthony Davis ends up making the team in his second season, after paying less dues than Cousins on a team that wasn't much closer to making the playoffs, you can see why he would be a little upset.

From his POV, he's getting robbed of draft positions, All-Star berths and spots on Team USA not because of anything he's done on the court, but because of some petty personal BS. It's open season on DMC in the NBA world and everyone and their mama feels free to take as many shots at him as they want, even though he's performed about as well as could reasonably be expected at this point in his career. Of course he has a chip on his shoulders - if you were in his shoes, how could you not?

It's hard to call a guy paranoid when people really are out to get him.