Thursday, January 15, 2015

Cleveland 2.0

After scuffling around .500, losing Anderson Varejao to a season-ending injury and seeing their coach installed on the hot seat by the national media, the Cavs re-shuffled their roster last week, shipping off Dion Waiters and bringing in Timofey Mozgov, Iman Shumpert and JR Smith. When they get everyone healthy, Cleveland will have almost a completely different team than the one they started the year with. Here's my guess as to how their rotation will look by the playoffs:

PG - Kyrie Irving
SG - Iman Shumpert, JR Smith
SF - LeBron James, Shawn Marion
PF - Kevin Love
C - Timofey Mozgov, Tristan Thompson

All things considered, Cleveland 2.0 has a pretty solid Top 8. You have three of the best players in the NBA in LeBron, Love and Kyrie as well as two-way starters at the other two positions in Shump and Mozgov and three important bench pieces - a 6th man gunner, a versatile defensive swingman and a rotation big man who can swing between PF and C on a second unit. After cashing in a lot of assets to put this group together, this looks like the team going forward. The only obvious place they could upgrade the rotation over the next few months is backup PG, where they have Matthew Dellavedova, whose perimeter D may not be able to hold up over the course of a seven-game series.

At the very least, the team is going to want to see these guys grow together over the next few weeks and then re-assess where they are (and whether they need to do anything about the coaching situation) at the All-Star break.

Of course, that doesn't mean we can't jump to conclusions already. After all, that's most of the fun of blogging. When I look at the roster, what jumps out to me most is the lack of athleticism on the front-line. In that sense, Love and Mozgov reminds me a lot of the lumbering low-post combination of Love and Pekovic in Minnesota. There are clear differences - Mozgov is a much better rim protector and Pek is the much better scorer - but the underlying dynamic of two slow-footed Goliaths in a 4-out, spread pick-and-roll league is still there.

To be sure, you can win and win big with that type of personnel, as the Memphis Grizzlies have shown. However, that requires a team-wide buy in on both ends of the floor, in terms of pounding the ball inside, controlling tempo and not taking a lot of quick shots early in the clock that don't allow you to take advantage of your big men in the paint. Most importantly of all, it requires high-level defensive play at almost every position, since a team like the Grizzlies is not going to be able to outscore teams like the Warriors and the Mavs.

As you might have guessed, that isn't exactly the situation in Cleveland.

Their loss to the Suns on Tuesday was a perfect example of the problem. With the Suns spreading the floor and attacking the Cavs slower big men off the dribble, Blatt was forced to go super-small, playing Thompson at the 5, LeBron at the 4 and surrounding them with Kyrie and a bunch of wings. Neither Love nor Mozgov had any answer for Markieff Morris, who had 35 points on only 15 shots. And if those guys can't guard the Morrii, how are they going to be able to stick Al Horford and Paul Millsap? The answer is they won't. If the Cavs play the Hawks in a seven-game series, LeBron is going to have to stick Millsap.

As you start to break down the match-ups and look at the way the NBA is trending, one thing becomes abundantly clear - if the Cavs are going to be an elite team, it's going to be with LeBron James at the 4. This is what ended up happening in Miami, where they didn't really hit their stride until Year 2, when an injury to Chris Bosh forced the Heat to go small with LeBron at the 4. When Bosh returned, they slid him into the 5 position and played five-out basketball with LeBron, Bosh, Battier, Wade and Chalmers.

Here's the problem in Cleveland. Bosh is much longer (7'5 wingspan to 6'11 wingspan) than Love and he is a much better athlete, so he has the tools to at least survive at the position. Even with Bosh, the Heat were constantly having to fight and claw to beat back bigger teams like the Indiana Pacers. Roy Hibbert could score 30 points a game against Kevin Love. There's just no big man on the Cavs roster, whether it's Mozgov, Thompson or Love, who has anywhere close to Bosh's skill-set on both ends of the floor.

Without a big man like that on hand, you really can't play five-out basketball. In looking for a formula with the players they have on hand, the one that jumps out to me is Golden State. Keep in mind this is not a direct comparison of the players on these two teams, just a look at their size and skill-sets and how they could fit together as a unit.

Steph = Kyrie
Klay = JR
Iggy = Shump
Draymond = Bron
Bogut = Mozgov

If Draymond Green can be a full-time PF in the Western Conference (where the PF's are much bigger and much more skilled), there's no reason LeBron can't either, especially as he starts to lose some of his athletic ability now that he is on the wrong side of 30. Bron at the 4 puts defenses in an impossible bind, since no conventional big man has a prayer of guarding him and there's much less room to send help with only big man on the floor for Cleveland. If they keep their 4 out there, he has to slide over to the 3. This is what happened to the Mavs the last time they played the Warriors - they put Chandler Parsons on Draymond and Dirk on Harry Barnes.

Bogut, like Mozgov, isn't the quickest guy in the world, but he's freaking enormous and the Warriors put so many athletes around him that it doesn't matter. He can just occupy the paint, clean the defensive glass and trigger the fast break. The Warriors play 4-out basketball with a mountain in the middle and it has been remarkably effective.

What the Cavs could really use is someone in the Harry Barnes role, a swingman who can defend multiple positions and provide value on both ends of the floor while also increasing the overall amount of team speed and athleticism. If was drawing up the ideal basketball trade for the Cavs, it would look something like Kevin Love for Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins. That would do two things - it would add a ton of speed to the line-up and it would give Blatt a lot more options in terms of the types of line-ups he could use:

PG - Kyrie
SG - Shumpert, JR Smith
SF - Wiggins, Shawn Marion
PF - LeBron, Anthony Bennett
C - Mozgov, Tristan Thompson

You could have an all D line-up with LeBron at the point and Wiggins, Shumpert and Marion on the wings. You could have an all O line-up with Kyrie, Wiggins and LeBron on the perimeter and Tony Bennett and Thompson as your 4 and 5 men.

The basic game-plan would be to play really aggressive man-to-man defense and try to turn over the opposition, knowing you have Mozgov behind you to cover up the rim. On offense, you have LeBron playing in maximum space, so there's no way other teams are going to be able to stop you. Of course, there would have been a lot of young guys and a ton of up-and-down play, but that is a legitimately exciting team who could conceivably beat the Warriors or the Thunder at their own game. Let's throw Wiggins on Steph Curry/Russell Westbrook and see what happens. And then LeBron gets KD/Klay Thompson.

Over the course of the season, LeBron could take the occasional night off and use the last two No. 1 overall picks like a video game controller, telling them where to go on both sides of the floor. It could have been a 21rst century twist on the Spurs, with LeBron as Tim Duncan, Kyrie as Tony Parker and Wiggins as Manu Ginobili. I always thought LeBron and the Kids was the more compelling basketball storyline for his comeback to Cleveland. We got a pretty good feel for the whole LeBron and his Super Friends experiment in Miami and it didn't seem like there was all that much need for a sequel.

After the insanity of the last four years, it would have been nice to see LeBron on a team where there wasn't an impossible amount of expectations from Day 1. I got a little worn out just watching the circus surrounding him in Miami. The circus isn't quite as big in Cleveland, but that's because there's no way it could be. Things just aren't as interesting the second time around. You can see everyone trying to do the same beats - did LeBron just push his coach? Are there enough shots to go around for Kyrie and Love? What are LeBron's friends doing behind the scenes? - but the energy just isn't there.

The main difference this time around is the other two leads aren't as good. Wade, Bosh and LeBron were so good on offense AND defense that it really didn't matter who you put around them. If Joel Anthony and Mike Bibby walked through that door and were starting on this year's Cavs, they aren't winning 58 games, I can tell you that right now. Love and Kyrie aren't as versatile as Wade and Bosh, which limits the number of ways you can build an elite team.

This group of Cavs would probably be best as the 2011 Mavs (once again - this is just a comparison of size and skill-sets, not overall ability)

Kyrie = Jet Terry
Shump = Kidd
LeBron = Matrix
Love = Dirk
Mozgov = Chandler (?)

If you are going to have two defensive liabilities like Jet Terry (Kyrie) and Dirk (Love) out there, you need a back-line defender like Chandler, a super-fast 7'0 who can cover a lot of ground on defense, defend the post and play above the rim. In other words, you need someone with a little more recovery speed than Mozgov.

You have to build around Love the same way that the Mavs built around Dirk. They had two long, athletic and versatile defenders around him at the 3 (Matrix) and the 5 (Chandler), which meant they could always hide him on defense. A good example of this is the Mavs first-round series with Portland in 2011, when they switched Chandler onto LaMarcus Aldridge. If Dirk had to guard LMA for seven straight games, he would be in foul trouble for most of it and LMA would have put up numbers like he did against Houston when they had Terrence Jones trying to guard him. To win a title with Dirk as their best player, the Mavs needed a big man who could play elite 1-on-1 defense at the 5 and the 4.

It's also worth pointing out that Chandler guarding LMA is only half the equation. The other half is that if you have Dirk at 5, you had better not be allowing much penetration from the 1-3 positions. Chandler playing at 20+ feet from the rim meant there was no second line of defense, so everyone else had to tighten up. The good news it the Mavs had the personnel to do it. They started Jason Kidd, DeShawn Stevenson and Marion and they could bring Cory Brewer off the bench, so they could lock you down on the perimeter. That was the most underrated aspect of that 2011 team and that's where this year's Mavs team falls short.

That, in turn, brings us back to the problem of trying to build an elite team around Love and Kyrie. You can hide one defensive weakness on the floor, but it is hard as hell to hide two. There's only so many holes a ship can have before it starts to sink. If you look at the Warriors, they took David Lee out of the starting line-up and Steph has really improved as a defensive player. They don't have any real weak spots on defense anymore.

To me, if you are keeping Kevin Love, the first question is how can I find a Tyson Chandler? And when you look around the league for a potentially available guy with that skill-set, one guy jumps out at you - Larry Sanders.

The Rodman to LeBron's late era Jordan?

As Charles Barkley always says, every championship team needs a crazy guy on it.

I don't know what Sanders deal is anymore, but that's the kind of piece Cleveland is going to need to put around their Big Three. And even that would still depend on Kyrie Irving developing on D, which might be a few years away in a best-case scenario. The point is that if Cleveland was going to have to wait on Kyrie anyway, maybe they should have thought about waiting on Wiggins too? What's the point of rushing to the finish line when you don't have the pieces to cross it?

When people were looking at Wiggins vs. Love, they were looking at all the wrong things. It was never a matter of how many stats or All-Star appearances that Wiggins would have in his career or how many Love had already racked up - the real question was always how their skill-sets would fit with Kyrie and LeBron.

Here's the funny thing about Wiggins and Cleveland. If his worst-case scenario is James Posey, that would have been a best-case scenario for the Cavs. James Posey is exactly the type of player they need!

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