Grantland's Zach Lowe Breaks Down Cavaliers Without Varejao

Eric P. Mull-US PRESSWIRE

This has undoubtedly been a tough season for the Cleveland Cavaliers, and it doesn't seem to be a situation that is going to get better in the immediate future. The last two season were pretty terrible too. With Anderson Varejao's latest injury, the the NBA world at large is starting to notice just how hard of times have really befallen Cleveland. Zach Lowe, a fantastic writer for Grantland, took a close look.

The first thing I would point out is that Mr. Lowe's piece is largely in line with what the writers and commenters of Fear the Sword have seen in the young rebuilding process. There are no easy answers, no one is happy, three years of abysmal losing is hard, and injuries seem to hammer us more than they hammer other teams. But you know what? We are still here. Coming into the season, FTS writers basically agreed that even if all the breaks went our way, this still wasn't a playoff team. The breaks have decidedly not gone our way. We are not only going to miss the playoffs, but we will compete for the top pick in the draft come June. It sucks, but everyone on this site knew that we were an injury to Kyrie Irving or Anderson Varejao from being in this position. Both have missed time, Varejao's injury being quite serious.

You should all read the whole article, but I have outlined a couple interesting parts that may raise issues for discussion:

And so the Cavs, less than two years after winning the no. 1 pick, have a chance to do it again, unless they use $10 million or so in present-day cap space to upgrade their current roster before the trade deadline. This is, of course, by design.

Basically, this is right. The Cavs made runs at Andrew Bynum and Nic Batum, but otherwise were content to spend another year seeing if any D-League talent would somehow become worth a roster spot or even a serious rotation player.

He then talks about Tristan Thompson at length:

We have seen more of Thompson in Varejao’s absence, and what we’ve seen has been encouraging. He’s shooting 48 percent overall, up from an unacceptable 43 percent last season, and that number is up to a flat 50 percent when Varejao hits the bench. He’s also getting to the line more often in those non-Varejao minutes and showing signs that he could emerge as a decent defensive rebounder after alarming early struggles in that regard. Thompson has been a very good offensive rebounder from the moment he stepped into the league, but he showed little aptitude for translating that skill to the other end, where it is probably more important and requires more attention to positioning and detail. He rebounded only 17 percent of opponent misses last season, a subpar number for a bouncy big man. He was off to an even worse start this year, but he’s picked it up of late, and he has rebounded about 24 percent of opponent misses when Varejao sits — a number roughly on par with the perfectly acceptable defensive rebounding rates of guys like Kevin Garnett and Lamar Odom, per NBA.com

It isn't just the homers and fanatics that think Tristan is improving, the national guys are seeing it too. Varejao was in his 7th season in the league when he started to get the minutes Tristan is seeing right now, and there numbers are incredibly similar. His defense is solid too:

Thompson is already a solid defender, perhaps the best the Cavaliers have in their regular rotation right now. (Gee is the only other candidate.) He’s active blitzing pick-and-rolls, and is generally fast on his feet. Post behemoths can overpower him, but he fights hard, and the best post players can overpower almost anyone.

His thoughts on Dion Waiters and Tyler Zeller:

It’s premature to judge Waiters, but the early signs are troubling. He has no conscience in picking his shots, the main reason he’s shooting a putrid 37.5 percent overall and 31 percent from deep. He has been as lost on defense as Irving was last season, and is especially prone to issues away from the ball — negotiating screens and understanding how to rotate in space.

Almost every rookie perimeter guy struggles with that stuff, and the lack of any scoring punch on Cleveland’s second unit often leaves Waiters — coming off the bench now — to force the offense. But Byron Scott has to get Waiters to dial things back a bit, especially because he's a solid and creative passer when he wants to be. He and Irving should be able to function well together, but Waiters will have to make major refinements to his offensive game for that to happen.

Zeller projects as a useful backup with a potentially reliable jumper and transition game, but he has looked overwhelmed on defense; opponents are shooting 56 percent against him on post-ups, per Synergy, and I’m pretty sure that’s the highest number I’ve seen for a big man over a reasonable sample size of shot attempts.

I think this is exactly where most of the people on this blog are. Zeller should be a really useful back-up as he becomes more accustomed to the game and things slow down for him. Dion does a lot of frustrating things, but also some really fun and good things.

Finally, his thoughts on Byron Scott and the team's defense:

Whether Scott and his modified Princeton system are right for this team, and for Irving, is a different question. Plenty of point guards, including Jason Kidd and Chris Paul, have functioned nicely in it before, and Scott has been willing to run more conventional stuff if his roster and the game situation require it. The lack of progress on defense is disconcerting, but so much of this roster consists of young guards and guys who really shouldn’t be playing much outside of garbage time.

An offense that will work when the roster is ready for it to work, and a defense that is terrible but relies on really young players. Hard to make judgments on Scott just yet. No one wants the Cavaliers to be this bad, no one wants to see the Cavaliers tank. But nothing that has happened this season has made the rebuild a complete failure, or even proven that it is going badly. It may be slow, but it isn't a failure. Kyrie is still Kyrie, Tristan is improving, Dion is frustrating but has some basketball skills and is young, and the team has ways to improve the roster in the coming months.

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