This season was about a lot of things for the Cavaliers. After three years of being terrible, the team was supposed to be something different. No one seemed to know what they were supposed to be. Reputable prognosticators had the team winning 50+ games. Reputable prognosticators had the team missing the playoffs. I did offseason power rankings for the East and had the Cavaliers 5th. Don't I feel silly. The team wanted to get get better and make a move towards the playoffs.
That could still happen, of course. The team is 10-18, though. Even if they make the playoffs because of a horrendous Eastern Conference, I'm not sure it makes me feel that much better about their future. If the Cavaliers want to win a championship they will need the only benefit of the constant losing, their high draft selections, to be really good at basketball. Kyrie Irving has a track record of being excellent. Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters do not. Both have showed flashes, but it hasn't been consistent, and questions abound about their fit and best use moving forward.
The good news is that even as the Cavaliers have floundered over the last week or so, the Cavaliers young core has been playing pretty well after all three started the season slowly. Full disclosure: These are all small sample sizes, and I cherry picked when I wanted to start looking at their improved play. I also will not speak of defense. But you know what, I need this to make me feel good right now. You might need it too.
Let's start with Tristan Thompson. Thompson has played all 28 of the Cavaliers games thus far after playing in all 82 last season. Durability is good. For the season, Thompson is averaging 12.0 points per game, 9.7 rebounds on 45% shooting. He is 68.6% at the free throw line. 45% shooting from the field with a true shooting percentage of 50.1 puts him well below the league averages for power forwards (48.2% and 53.5%). What's more, while Thompson has been taking shots further away from the basket, he still takes most of his shots near the rim, so the lower percentages are even harder to swallow.
But there is good news. Over the last 12 games Thompson has been a lot better. Not necessarily good, offensively, but he is starting to approach it. In just under 33 minutes, Thompson is averaging 14 points per game, recording 10.3 rebounds per game, and has more assists than turnovers. He is shooting 49.6% from the field. His true shooting percentage has been almost exactly the league average for power forwards at 53.4%. Even more encouraging, he has done it while upping his usage rate; it is always good when you can sustain and even improve upon efficiency while shouldering a bigger load of the offense. Add in the 3.9 offensive rebounds he provides every night and he is helping the Cavs offense.
He still presents problems without a credible jump shot, which is why I wanted to maximize his time with Varejao (who can hit the mid-range jumper consistently) as much as possible. But he is taking shots further from the basket and his free throw percentage makes me think eventually he will develop some real range. I have used this before, but here is the chart from Waiting for Next Year's Jacob Rosen:
What about Dion Waiters? In many ways, he is showing across the board improvements in his second year. His Player Efficiency Rating, field goal percentage, true shooting percentage and points per game are all up. His turnovers are up as well, and his assists are down, which is a little disconcerting, but he is a 22 year old second year player and you expect some of that.
More worrying to me at this point in his career are his free throw shooting woes, and possible durability issues. He is a career 73% free throw shooter, below average for a shooting guard, and 68% this year. For a guard, this is awful; the league average free throw percentage was 82% last season. He has also already missed 5 games after missing 21 last season. These seem to minor issues, but it adds up. Given this report from Jason Lloyd in the preseason, it seems like a valid concern early on. Not huge, but it's there.
But if Waiters has improved on the whole this year, his recent play has been truly exciting. In the last 13 games Dion has averaged over 16 points per game on 49% shooting, 41% from three point range. His free throw percentage of 71% is a bit better than where he was at early in the year, though far from good. Waiters put in a ton of time in the offseason on his shot and it is paying off. The Cavaliers have to find a way to get him more spot up shooting attempts. His true shooting percentage in those 13 games? A fantastic 57.3% on moderately high usage. This is cause for serious optimism. Is it a small sample size? Sure. It was for Thompson too. But these guys are young and proving they belong in the NBA.
Finally, we have our All-Star, Kyrie Irving. He wasn't playing like an All-Star for awhile. Rob Mahoney of Sports Illustrated compared him to Rudy Gay in terms of efficiency and it was on the money and made me sad a couple weeks ago. But the thing about guys like Kyrie Irving is that they are really good at basketball. I don't know what his ceiling is and I don't know if NBA Rank was crazy for projecting him to be the 8th best player in basketball this year. But let's look at what he has done lately.
In his last 8 games (starting when he completely eviscerated the New York Knicks), Kyrie Irving has regained wizard status. In 36 minutes per game, he is averaging 28.3 points, 7 assists to 2.8 turnovers, and adding 1.6 steals per game for the fun of it. He is doing it on 48/38/93 shooting. Which is, you know, amazing. It's good for a true shooting percentage of 59, and he is doing it with a ridiculously high usage rate. If he keeps this up, his season long numbers will come in line with his career numbers in no time.
So what are we left with? The Cleveland Cavaliers are really bad right now, there is no sugarcoating it. But the three most important players on the team are trending up, and that's worth some guarded optimism.