What the Cavs should do if the lockout ends
It wasn’t the best year for the Cavaliers. After finishing with the best regular-season record in the NBA for the second consecutive season in 09-10, the Cavaliers had the longest losing streak in NBA history and finished with the league’s second-worst record in 2010-11. In between the two seasons, Decisions were made.
The Cavs’ 2010-11 season was an abomination, but there’s now a light at the end of the tunnel. Thanks to mid-season trade that sent Mo Williams to Los Angeles and forced the Cavs to eat the remainder of Baron Davis’ contract, the Cavs got the Clippers’ 1st-round pick, which turned into the #1 overall pick and Duke guard Kyrie Irving. The Cavs took Texas forward Tristan Thompson with the #4 pick, who they hope will become a Ben Wallace clone. Here’s what the Cavs can do to bounce back from last season:
1. Find an offensive identity:
The Cavs were bad at everything last season, but their offense was slightly more pathetic than their defense, so we’ll start there. The Cavaliers found out the hard way that Mo Williams is a lot worse at scoring when LeBron James isn’t setting him up with wide-open threes, and Ramon Sessions spent most of his time dribbling the air out of the basketball and recklessly driving to the rim for much of the season. Antawn Jamison got his usual empty stats by firing up long jumpers or twisting shots in the paint whenever he got the opportunity to, but he was neither an efficient scorer or willing passer. The team didn’t pass the ball well, they had no way of getting to the rim, and they were never able to score effectively in transition.
The team got noticeably better offensively when Baron Davis took over -- for all the crap Baron takes, he is a true point guard and offensive leader, and he helped the Cavs end the season on a (relatively) high note. (Also, Baron made his threes at a stunningly high clip after being traded last season.) With Davis staying, #1 overall pick Kyrie Irving playing lead guard as well (I think they can co-exist on the court for stretches -- Irving is more of a scorer, and Baron is really a passer at heart), and Anderson Varejao coming back to give them a player who can actually finish a pick-and-roll, the Cavs have a chance to build a real, live offense next season. Those help prevent record-long losing streaks.
2. Get Varejao and Thompson working together
Varejao was the Cavaliers’ best player before he got hurt last season. He doesn’t put up big numbers, but he moves relentlessly without the ball, is one of the best defensive power forwards in the league, and actually did a great job when asked to play out of position and guard centers last season. He was also stunningly competent making jumpers and drives from the high post, which may or not continue next season.
For reasons that are, frankly, beyond my comprehension, the Cavaliers chose Texas forward Tristan Thompson with the #4 pick instead of Lithuanian 7-footer Jonas Valanciunas, who seems very similar to Thompson, except that he is four inches taller, won’t be playing next season, and appears to be better at basketball than Thompson. In any case, the Cavaliers took Thompson and Varejao is one of their few untouchable players, so one hopes that the Cavaliers have some sort of plan in place for how a Thompson/Varejao frontcourt pairing is going to work on both ends of the floor. Both players are power forwards defensively who are capable of playing decent defense at the center position, and both are true centers offensively.
We’ll see if Byron Scott can make this work -- if he can, it’ll provide a much-needed boost to a defense that was absolutely pathetic last season. If nothing else, maybe Thompson and Varejao’s blue-collar playstyle can encourage some of their teammates to start taking pride in the way they defend.
3. Be Patient.
It’s not going to happen overnight for the Cavs, even after the two top-5 picks. Cavalier fans are going to have to be patient. More importantly, the management is going to have to be patient. Look at the Sonics/Thunder, who drafted their franchise player, were very bad for a season, drafted another semi-franchise player, were very bad for another season, and then got another top-3 pick to build around. Once the Thunder made a few good trades and signings to stock their roster with quality role players, they instantly became a contender without needing to spend big money or pull off a blockbuster trade.
Likewise, the Bulls patiently built around Derrick Rose by bringing in a defensive wizard, a rotation filled with quality role players, and didn’t make a big-ticket free agency signing until they were sure they were ready to start contending. (And, to be honest, the Boozer signing hasn’t done nearly as much for the Bulls as the team’s defensive schemes or “bench mob” has.)
The Cavs want to get back to respectability, but they shouldn’t mortgage their future in order to chase a possible run at a 7th or 8th seed. They should bide their time, wait for the right draft prospects, no-brainer trades, and low-cost players to come along, and slowly but surely begin their run back to respectability. If the Cavs can stay patient and not try to force anything, they might return to being the Cavaliers and stop being The Team That Lost LeBron sooner than most people think.