SB Nation NBA blogs are each exploring the biggest surprises of the new NBA season for their respective teams today. The Cleveland Cavaliers have already been subjected to a number of surprises this season, most of them negative. But all is not dark, and there is a light at the end of tunnel, flickering though it may be.
First, lets look at some of the disappointing surprises. The team, blessed with an uncanny amount of health coming into training camp, has been battered in the first 10 games of the season. Kyrie Irving will perhaps miss a month. Tyler Zeller got his face mashed as soon as he started to show some real promise. Tristan Thompson got his face mashed in and no one knows how or why it happened. Anderson Varejao missed a game with a bruised knee. Kyrie Irving and C.J. Miles were violently ill for about a week. Daniel Gibson has had his usual assortment of maladies.
I would love to tell you the horrendous start and the lackluster play from prized off-season addition Miles surprised me, but I will be a jerk and just tell you that I told you so. I was chastized in the preseason game threads for not being a fan of Miles' shot selection, and, well, it didn't exactly get better once the regular season got off the ground. Here is what i wrote about how I thought the Cavs would start their season in our preview:
I differ a little bit in how the season will go, though. I could see the team really struggling in the early going while the new parts try and mesh together, Gee and Miles and Casspi figure out who will have what role, and Waiters and Zeller adjust to the NBA. Because of this, I don't think the Cavaliers will ever be in that serious of contention. The team will get better each month, though, and by the end of the season have somewhere between 30-37 wins. There will be lots of optimism for next season.
Now, it very well may be that I was not nearly pessimistic enough. 30 wins might end up being a pretty tough number for this team to reach, sadly. But hey, Nerlens Noel, or something.
I thought about writing about how the general terribleness of the bench has been surprising, and it genuinely has been, but I feel like we have focused enough on that for the time being. No need to delve any deeper. It should be said, though, that there was real optimism that a decent rotation could be pieced together from Daniel Gibson, Tyler Zeller, Jon Leuer, Donald Sloan, and Samardo Samuels. I even entertained the notion that Omri Casspi might be an NBA player. It is early, and for most of the bench, the performances can only get better.
I will finally mention that Gibson has been playing some pretty good basketball. I still hate watching him dribble pretty much all the time, but he has been hitting shots, stays active defensively (no, he isn't really a good defender), and knows his role. Maybe we will be able to get something for him at the trade deadline. Even more remarkably, I don't hate the idea of bringing him back next year. Someone on this team without the name Irving has to be able to shoot the ball.
But the real subject of this has to be advanced stats' utter and complete devotion to the games of Alonzo Gee and Tristan Thompson. Yes I just gave an inanimate object, statistics, human traits. I'm actually about to do it again. Thompson and Gee don't have the prettiest of games, but advanced stats don't care. They are blind. They only want results. When I worked in a Produce market, my boss revealed the secret to picking out a good cantaloupe. It is just like picking out a husband, he said (this was only helpful when helping female customers); the better looking a cantaloupe is on the outside, the worse it would be on the inside. However, while the ugly cantaloupes might not have the same visual appeal, they were certain to be sweet on the inside. The analogy holds for Tristan and Alonzo. They might not be good at dribbling, or at shooting for a high percentage, but if you look a little deeper, they are pure gold.
Here is where you say, "But David, what are these advanced stats you are talking about? I saw their Player Efficiency Ratings and they weren't even that good." Well, lets look at Alonzo first. Gee has played 68% of the team's possible minutes this season, and the team is +15 when he plays. For a 2-8 team, that is pretty impressive. He has been to the free throw line 30 times this season, and made 28 of them. The Cavaliers haven't been that great at the line as a team, but Gee has been doing his part. With Gee on the court, the team scores 108.3 points per 100 possessions. With him off the court, that number falls to 85.8. This is obviously not all on him, but he clearly knows how to compliment Kyrie Irving. Even with Gee on the court, opponents score 107 points per 100 possessions. When he leaves, however, things get downright ugly, and opponents score 113 points per 100 possessions. Anyone want to say he is just relying on Kyrie for helping the Cavaliers have a better defensive rating? No?
Well maybe he is getting some help from Tristan Thompson. Sunday nights match-up with the Sixers was a showcase, in my mind, for what Thompson can really become. His own statistics were not mind-blowing, but they were pretty darn good. 14 points, 13 rebounds, 2 assists. For all of you wondering if Tristan is developing at all after hearing about how hard he worked over the summer, look no further than his assist numbers. He has 15 in 10 games. Last season he had 27 in 60 games. He is learning his role in the offense, he is learning to make the right pass, and he is functional on that end. Last season, he steadily improved at the free throw line, and I expect his current percentage of 55% to go up as the season progresses. But it wasn't the offensive end where Tristan really made his presence felt. He is on his way to being a fantastic on-ball defender in the post, athletic enough to step outside on stretch 4's, and strong enough to hang in there with a lot of NBA centers.
How did it manifest itself against Philadelphia? Thaddeus Young is a very good player who is athletic and can score. He played 37 minutes on Sunday night and scored 7 points and had 6 rebounds. He shot 33% from the field. Tristan shut him down. Varejao may have been on him at various points, but for the most part Anderson was on Spencer Hawes. I mentioned in the comments that I thought it was his best game, and some people pointed out a game from last season against the Nets. I am going to hold onto my view that this was better. His positioning was excellent, and he played smart.
Thompson has improved his Player Efficiency Rating, his true shooting percentage, his assists, his defensive rebounding rate, and his total rebounding rate. Opponents are scoring an astronomically high 120 points per 100 possessions with Tristan off the court, and 102.7 points per 100 possessions with him on the court. He is already a great defensive presence, and he is still learning the game of basketball. Remember, he played at Texas, where the coach doesn't have a clue, and then didn't have a real training camp last season. He worked hard, and we are starting to see it pay off. He is young, and will get better. I think he is the positive surprise of the Cavaliers young season.
Special thanks to Basketball-Reference.com and 82games.com for the numbers used here.