23rd Day NBA Diary: Rebuilds

I’ll be writing about the NBA all season, like I’ve always done since I started the blog. This time around, you can find them all under the NBA Diary Series tag. Enjoy. 

It’s still early(ish), but the Cavaliers have already held a players-only meeting, listened to Andrew Bynum talk about retirement, watched their first round pick endure a lengthy field goal drought to start his career and on top of all that, have been one of the worst offensive teams in the league

I liked the team’s playoff chances coming into the season because they had a bonafide superstar in Kyrie Irving and enough pieces surrounding him that one injury or two would not necessarily derail them. Sure, there are very few sure things on this roster—more, question marks with high upside— but take into account the rest of the East, 40-45 wins did not seem inconceivable. 

Of course, they may still get there, but the bigger issue when watching this team is wondering just where the current roster as constructed is headed long-term. For the sake of discussion, let’s assume that not all of their problems will be erased by the return of LeBron James next year.

This is the fourth year for the post-LeBron Cavs. Their rebuild started with the 2011 draft when they landed Irving and Tristan Thompson with two of the top four picks. The question then, and now, of course is whether the team should have drafted Jonas Valanciunas—who went with the pick after Thompson to Toronto—instead. 

There was speculation that Valanciunas and his agent Leon Rose expressed their feelings about not wanting to be in Cleveland. But also, given general manager Chris Grant’s “advanced metrics” approach identifying the best player available in the draft, it’s entirely possible that the Cavs weren’t concerned with a holdout or the buyout cost associated with Valanciunas but simply saw Thompson as the better player. He has not been a complete bust, but watching the two players it’s easy to see which one possesses the higher ceiling. 

In the 2012 draft, the Cavs took Dion Waiters with the fourth pick. A lot of hindsight is in play here, but looking at upside, you wonder if players like Harrison Barnes or Andre Drummond would have been better fits (excluding Damian Lillard here since it would not have made sense with Irving). I’m not as against this pick, and there’s still time for Waiters to improve his game, but like the rest of the picks post-Irving, it feels more likely that Waiters skill set will plateau rather than improve. 

Also worth noting to is that they traded three of their picks in the draft to Dallas for Tyler Zeller, who the Mavericks took with the 17th pick. None of the players going the other way (Jared Cunningham, Bernard James, Jae Crowder) have come back to haunt the Cavs, but Zeller isn’t exactly a household name either. If the Cavs were intent on packaging assets into something, was there not a better way to do so?

In this year’s draft, the team took Anthony Bennett—to the surprise of many— which we’ll now say was instead of Victor Oladipo, who was taken second by Orlando. In a draft year without a consensus first pick, again Chris Grant went with a combination of both best player available, his metrics, and, perhaps in some ways, avoiding the shooting guard position because of the Waiters pick the year before. 

So with two first overall picks, and four top-4 picks in a three year span, the Cavs have one franchise player in Irving, two low-ceiling rotation players in Thompson and Waiters and a still-too-early-to-judge-but-high-risk pick in Bennett. 

It does leave something to be desired for and puts the team in a position where they have moved on from bottoming out to win-now without certainty to their core group. It’s a perfect example of how teams end up perpetually stuck in the middle and never moving to the elite, before eventually falling back into a rebuilding phase again. 

Of course, draft picks are a tricky proposition. If you go back and look at draft results for the last decade or even further, it’s hard to find any year where both of the top two picks panned out. For all the emphasis put into tanking— which is more a necessity under the cap system and availability of free agents to certain markets— it is still largely a crapshoot. 

The Cavs, of course, are not the only victims of this. The Bobcats have drafted in the top-10 eight times since 2004, and they’ve come up with: Emeka Okafor, Raymond Felton, Adam Morrison, Brandan Wright, D.J. Augustin, Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller. The Thunder, who are the best counterargument to this, of course landed Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden in consecutive years. But even they had their hiccups, taking Mouhamed Sene and Robert Swift with top-12 picks just the few years prior to that. The Wolves, of course, are their own example entirely

Of course, for all the draft picks you don’t get right, you really only need two slam dunks to allow you to start building the rest of your team (Wall and Beal, Love and Rubio, and so on). It’s not as if this is an irreparable problem for Cleveland. And it might still be too early to write off Waiters, Thompson and Bennett from being that second guy. But it does feel like they might have let a three-year window of building through the draft slip away without obtaining much long-term stability to their roster. 

With significant cap room next off-season, a lot of these holes can be filled through free agency, and this conversation might be moot. But as the Cavaliers continue to get back to even the fringe of the playoff race, we revisit these draft picks and wonder if it was the catalyst for keeping Cleveland from returning to contention, sooner rather than later.  

Footnotes, or, you didn’t write enough words already?

1. The image to this post is the cover of Cavs Zine 4, which you can read more about here. Unfortunately, it looks like the zine is only available to a certain list of people in the Cleveland area. I would have loved to purchase a copy online, because Mike Brown and ODB mash-ups don’t happen everyday. 

2. If LeBron does ever go back to Cleveland, Nike just needs to add one more scene to his commercial and have him run home to Cleveland with all the kids following him. It would be perfect. 

3. This post involved excessive amount of hindsight and assumption of Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett’s future play. On the other hand, also assumes Kyrie Irving will finally stay healthy.

4. I’ll be using the end of each post to tell you about a book project that I’m very close to finishing. I figure if you read all the way to the bottom of these posts, this will probably interest you.

It’s a book featuring my writing and original illustrations from a bunch of really talented artists. You can see some sample layouts here (KobeBarry BondsDennis Rodman). I will be setting up a Kickstarter soon to recoup some of the print and shipping costs, an early estimate of the book will be $20. It’s going to be an entirely non-profit project for me, which my parents will be sad to hear about considering I hold a business degree.

All of this to say, please subscribe to the mailing list by clicking here if this sounds like something you’d be interested in, it’d help me gauge the interest of the project. 

Thanks. 

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