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The Three-Team Race For Eighth

With approximately two weeks remaining in the NBA regular season, the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference is a three-team race. The New York Knicks, Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers all have a chance to qualify for the right to face either the Miami Heat or the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the playoffs.

Let’s take a look at how the race has intensified over the last several weeks. 

New York Knicks

The Knicks' troubles are mostly on the defensive end where they rank 25th in defensive efficiency, but they haven’t improved much defensively as of late. Rather, their improvement at the other end of the floor is the reason for their 11-3 record over their last 14 games.

Stat

Offensive Eff

Defensive EFF

Net EFf

Full Season

105.2

106.7

-1.5

Last 14

112.8

106.2

+6.6 

One might think the improved offense is a result of some new strategy but it seems that the Knicks are simply making more of the shots that they have been taking all season. They have traded some of their 2-point attempts for more 3’s but not by a significant amount. And they aren’t assisting much more or turning it over much less than their season average either. The two main reasons for the offensive uptick have been increased playing time for Amar’e Stoudemire and more accurate shooting from J.R. Smith.

Mike Woodson has bolstered the offense simply by giving Stoduemire more minutes. Stoudemire's field goal percentage has hovered right around 55% all season and he’s able to get to the free throw line better than anyone on the roster other than Carmelo Anthony. More time for an efficient scorer like Stoudemire has unsurprisingly led to improved offense.

Over the last 14 games, J.R. Smith’s field goal percentage has been about 6 percentage points better than his season average but it’s not because he’s taking better shots. In fact, he’s taking and making more unassisted 3-pointers, which are shots that don’t tend to be the most successful. His 3-pointer on the first possession of Wednesday night’s game against the Nets exemplifies the kind of shot that Smith has been making more of recently.

http://on.nba.com/1q7zil8

Stoudemire’s increased playing time and Smith’s improved shooting accuracy have enabled the Knicks to vault themselves into serious contention for the 8th seed in the Eastern conference. 

Atlanta Hawks

Many thought the Hawks would fall apart when they lost Al Horford to a torn pectoral muscle for the season in late December. Initially, it seemed as if they would be able to hang on to a playoff position, as they garnered a 9-8 record in their first 17 games without Horford. Since the start of February, however, they have fallen apart because of injuries to first time all-star Paul Millsap and sharpshooter Kyle Korver. 

When Millsap sat out for five games at the end of February and beginning of March, the Hawks’ defense collapsed. They allowed over 100 points to the Bulls and Celtics (two of the bottom three eams in the league in terms of offensive efficiency) and 129 points to the Suns. Losing Millsap forced Hawks Mike Budenholzer to play Mike Scott and DeMarre Carroll at the power forward position where both are unequipped to deal with opposing big men. Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah had their way with the thin Hawks frontline and the Celtics badly took advantage of Atlanta on the offensive glass.

Korver’s injury demonstrated his value to the team’s offense, as the Hawks were largely incapable of scoring during his absence. The Hawks failed to break 90 in three of the six games that Korver missed, two of which were against average defenses in the Portland Trail Blazers and the Minnesota Timberwolves. Those poor showings reflect the Hawks reliance on Korver’s perimeter excellence (and simply the threat of him being there) to fuel their offense, especially without Horford.

Since Horford Injury

 

Minutes

Offensive Rating

Korver ON

1281

103.5

Korver OFF

841

99.0

http://on.nba.com/1lG3u7C

Check out this play where the threat of Korver coming off a curl screen creates an opening for Millsap to get a look at the rim. Plays like this one demonstrate how Korver’s value on offense comes from his shooting and his ability to create openings for others. His shooting prowess enables him to attract the attention of the defense just by being on the floor and the result is easier shot attempts for his teammates.

The Hawks record hasn’t been good without Horford, but that is largely due to the fact that they are 1-11 when either Millsap or Korver has had to sit out. With Millsap and Korver playing (since Horford went down) the Hawks’ record is a respectable 15-18. Atlanta can ill afford to lose Millsap or Korver again during their final 8 games if they want to make the playoffs over the Knicks and the resurgent Cleveland Cavaliers.

Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavaliers' newly assembled roster was finally starting to mesh when they were victorious in consecutive games on the road against the Suns and the Warriors. Unfortunately, Kyrie Irving went down with a biceps injury in the following game and the Cavs lost their next four. However, that losing streak included competitive games against the Heat, Thunder, and Rockets. Further positive signs emerged when the Cavs defeated the Knicks, Raptors, and Pacers in the same week without Irving. 

It is tempting to point to Irving’s absence as the explanation for the aforementioned victories but in reality, those wins represented an extension of the positive signs that were on display in the wins against Phoenix and Golden State.  In the 9 games without Irving, the Cavs offensive efficiency didn’t improve much but it didn’t decline either, which is surprising given that they were missing their leading scorer. The offense was able to maintain its level of production because everybody became more willing to share the ball. The Cavs averaged 21.1 assists per game in the first 11 games with Hawes and 23.6 assists per game in the following nine games in which Irving sat out. Two players in particular increased their number of assists in the aforementioned nine games.

2/21 – 3/14 (With Kyrie & Hawes)

Player

Assists/48

USG

AST/USG

Dion Waiters

4.1

31.2%

13.14

Luol Deng

2.9

20.2%

14.36

3/16 – 3/30 (With Hawes & No Kyrie)

Player

Assists/48

USG

AST/USG

Dion Waiters

6.2

27.9%

22.22

Luol Deng

5.0

20.8%

24.04 

Both Dion Waiters and Luol Deng averaged more assists per 48 minutes after Irving’s injury. And that’s not only because they had the ball more. Waiters, in particular, increased his assists despite seeing his usage rate decline. He has showed an increased willingness to create plays for his teammates rather than for himself. 

http://on.nba.com/1lG7oNO

This sequence against the Toronto Raptors illustrates how the Cavs have operated more smoothly on offense as of late than they were early in the season their offense consisted mainly of stagnant isolations. In the clip, Waiters catches the ball on the wing after a pin-down screen from Hawes and then quickly moves into an elbow pick-and-roll with Varejao, which results in an easy layup.

The Cavs offense was getting better before Irving’s injury not because of it. If Coach Mike Brown can find a way to combine Waiters’ and Deng’s increased assist levels with Irving’s unique offensive skill set, the offense should improve dramatically. Perhaps even enough to vault the Cavs into the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

That’s how the bottom of the Eastern Conference got to where it is now. With two weeks to go, it’ll be interesting to see which team is able grab the eighth seed and whether that team can pose any kind of a threat to the Pacers or Heat in the first round of the playoffs. 

2014 First Round Picks (Which Teams Own The Picks?)

While RealGM has an excellent database of the draft picks that have been traded between teams, I wanted to put together a summary more focused on the upcoming draft. For the sake of clarity, this version will only deal with the first round.

Atlanta Hawks- Have the right to swap their own pick with Brooklyn’s. At this point, it appears Atlanta will just keep their own and move on.

Boston Celtics- Have their own first and the less favorable of Atlanta and Brooklyn, likely Brooklyn right now. They have a future first from the Sixers as well, but it only goes this year if Philadelphia makes the playoffs. We all know that will not happen.

Brooklyn Nets- No matter what, they lose their pick without getting one in return.

Charlotte Bobcats- Their own first goes to Chicago as long as the Bobcats stay remotely on track (top-10 protected) but they pick up Portland’s unless the Blazers effectively lose out. The lingering question is Detroit- if the pick is 1-8, the Pistons keep it but if it’s 9th or worse it goes to Charlotte. My gut feeling is that once Detroit knows they will not make the playoffs we will see a push to the bottom reminiscent of the 2012 Warriors.

Chicago Bulls- Have their own pick and Charlotte’s unless the Bobcats collapse. The Sacramento pick they acquired in the Luol Deng trade is top-12 protected so it will not come this year.

Cleveland Cavaliers- Have their own pick free and clear and no other first rounders.

Dallas Mavericks- One of the more interesting situations in the league. By having top-20 protection on their pick (it goes to Oklahoma City if it falls 21-30 this year), the Mavs could lose their pick if they make the playoffs. Right now, the bottom seeds in the West look to be about even with the 3-4 spots in the East, so it could go either way.

Denver Nuggets- They keep the better of their pick and New York’s, sending the worse one to Orlando.

Detroit Pistons- Keep their pick if it is eighth or better, otherwise it goes to Charlotte. I fully expect them to understand the incentives and lose enough to retain it.

Golden State Warriors- Their first goes to Utah no matter what.

Houston Rockets- Have their own pick free and clear and no other first rounders.

Indiana Pacers- Their pick is going to Phoenix as a part of the Luis Scola trade from last summer.

Los Angeles Clippers- Have their own pick free and clear and no other first rounders.

Los Angeles Lakers- Have their own pick free and clear and no other first rounders.

Memphis Grizzlies- Have their own pick free and clear and no other first rounders.

Miami Heat- Have their own pick free and clear and no other first rounders.

Milwaukee Bucks- Have their own pick free and clear and no other first rounders.

Minnesota Timberwolves- The pick is top-13 protected, meaning they have to make the postseason or have the best record of any non-playoff team to send it to Phoenix. At this point, it looks like the pick will be No. 13 and thus the Wolves will keep it.

New Orleans Pelicans- Their pick goes to Philadelphia unless it lands in the top-five. It will be hard for the Pelicans to jump enough of the teams “ahead” of them, but they still have a shot of jumping them in the lottery itself.

New York Knicks- They lose their pick no matter what, though the destination could change.

Oklahoma City Thunder- They have their own pick and get Dallas’ first if it ends up between 21 and 30, certainly a possibility.

Orlando Magic- Retain their own pick and get the less favorable of Denver and New York’s selections. This could end up swinging on whether the Knicks can make the playoffs- if they do, the pick falls a few spots to No. 15.

Philadelphia 76ers- They keep their own pick as long as they miss the playoffs (just a formality at this point) and pick up one from New Orleans as long as it falls outside the top five.

Phoenix Suns- They have their own pick and Indiana’s on lock and appear likely to pick up Washington’s since the Wizards should make the playoffs. Minnesota’s pick has top-13 protection, so I expect the Suns to only end up with three this year.

Portland Trail Blazers- Their pick is going to Charlotte unless the Blazers have a truly epic collapse.

Sacramento Kings- Their pick has top-12 protection, so the Kings look like they will keep it even if they rattle off some late-season wins.

San Antonio Spurs- Have their own pick free and clear and no other first rounders.

Toronto Raptors- Have their own pick free and clear and no other first rounders.

Utah Jazz- They have both their own pick and Golden State’s.

Washington Wizards- They will send their pick to Phoenix barring a major letdown.

Grading The Deal: Bulls Trade Luol Deng To Cavaliers

Before getting into the nitty gritty of the deal, here are the exact terms as they have been reported.

Cleveland Cavaliers acquire:

- Luol Deng (expiring this year, $14.275 million full-season salary)

Chicago Bulls acquire:

- Andrew Bynum (functionally no money since he will presumably be cut right away. If not, $6 million this year and $12 million next year if they elect to keep him)

- The right to swap picks in the 2015 draft if both teams make the playoffs and Chicago finishes with the better record

- Sacramento’s pick owed to Cleveland. According to our database, the pick is top-12 protected this season and top-10 for 2015-2017. If the pick falls in the top 10 each of those seasons, it becomes a 2017 second-round pick.

- Portland’s 2015 second round pick

- Portland’s 2016 second round pick

For the Bulls

In effect, evaluating the trade for the Bulls centers on the idea of whether Luol Deng would have returned to the team once he hits free agency this summer. There are plenty of reasons to expect that he would have left, particularly considering the medical procedure last year. If the team was convinced Deng would head elsewhere after this season, they did a pretty good job moving him. Plus, they avoid potentially overpaying him, which could have been rough with so many other large commitments.

In terms of the assets they acquired, it seems fair to effectively write off the 2015 pick swap since it does not seem super likely that the situation will present itself or yield a big value if it happens. The most it could swing would be from #30 to #15 which would be valuable but it seems unlikely that the Bulls and Cavs will each be that good. Honestly, I am not convinced that Deng stays (more on that later!) and Cleveland’s spot as a playoff team is far from secure either way. Even then, we will have to see what Chicago looks like a year from now as well.

The pick from Sacramento is tantalizing but not super impressive due to the protection. The big factor here is the fact that it reverts to a 2017 second rounder rather than being unprotected if it stretches out that far so the upside is much lower. Still, the Kings are trying to get better so that could end up being a near-miss lottery pick in a season or two. Not bad.

The second rounders are extra swings at prospects and that’s fine.

It may turn out that the biggest asset the Bulls got by trading Luol Deng came from how it affects their own 2014 first round pick. With Rose and Deng out of the picture, the Bulls are clearly not looking to win this season and I would not be surprised to see both Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson miss meaningful time down the road. A Tom Thibodeau team can still make the playoffs, though it seems like the edict is pretty clear at this point. In a lottery this strong, that pick could be huge. At the same point, if that ends up being the best thing they get out of trading a player with value like Deng, they likely could have gotten more from another desperate team before the deadline.

The other meaningful benefit comes from the luxury tax. Just this weekend, I was talking with another member of the NBA media about how strange it was that so few teams were just over the luxury tax line and the Bulls managed to get themselves under via this trade. If they stay below it next season, it effectively removes them from the destructive “repeater tax” for the remainder of this CBA. If those savings eventually make their way to the team, it could be a huge benefit.

Grade for the Bulls: B+

For the Cavaliers

In an incredibly downtrodden Eastern Conference, even a tired and worn down half-season from Deng could be enough to make the playoffs. Unfortunately, the Cavs were worse than most people thought before making the trade and will still need plenty to go right in order to make the playoffs this season. Whiffing on so many draft picks made it much harder, but Deng turns one of their biggest weaknesses into a strength when he is on the court. If both he and Kyrie Irving can stay healthy, they might find a way to get above teams not necessarily interested in winning this season, a group that likely includes Chicago now.

What makes matters worse is that this could produce enough pressure to have management overpay Deng when he becomes a free agent this summer, which would actually be the worst of both worlds. While I love Deng as a player and competitor, his value to teams will erode as he gets older and he appears destined to get a bigger contract than his play will warrant for his early thirties. Plus, Cleveland had cap space to work with anyway so they are relying on Deng taking a “hometown discount” for a team he plays with for a few months that also does not lead to him getting overpaid. A risky proposition.

The bigger question is why. Like the Charlotte Bobcats and Sacramento Kings to a degree, the Cavaliers appear to be going all-in at exactly the wrong time. This draft looks to be the best in a decade and there just is not enough talent beyond Irving on this Cleveland team to make any noise in the postseason even if they make it in.

At this point, the second-biggest competitive advantage in the NBA is competent ownership. By wanting to win now, Dan Gilbert’s team lost assets to be better for a year that means very little to the long-term arc of the team. Years ago I used the term “Timetable of Contention” to describe when a team would be best as the lens with which to view potential transactions. For the Cavs, that should be a few seasons off in the distance before and after this trade.

While I do not think that the assets they gave up were particularly valuable, they certainly made more sense for this core than worsening their own draft pick, spending more money, and not getting any long-term assets when the long term should be the focus of the front office.

Grade for the Cavs: D-

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