I followed the media members from a somewhat testy post-game press conference with Coach Byron Scott into the Cavs' locker room. The group moved in a horde straight towards Tristan Thompson, who had had a particularly tough night on both ends of the floor. Two lockers down sat small forward C.J. Miles, slumped back with a dazed look on his face. He had bags of ice on each knee. "C.J.? You mind if I ask you a few questions?" He said sure, and the first thing I thought to ask was how long the icing process took after every game. His response was that he didn't really know, and didn't really care. "For two hours, during the game, everything is fast. After the game, I can go as slow as I want."
Cavs' fans opinions on Miles could be likened to a roller coaster. At the start of the season he played so badly he found himself out of the rotation entirely. The Cavs' bench was an abomination, and his play was very much a part of it. Coming off a disappointing final season in Utah, there was thought that his future in the NBA was in doubt. C.J's reputation coming to Cleveland was a streaky scorer who could fill it up in bunches, but struggled to defend or play with consistency. While this has been the case in 2012-2013, Miles has been better than any Cavs fan could have reasonably hoped for. His true shooting percentage of 55% is fantastic for a scorer off the bench, and his Player Efficiency Rating is a full point higher at 15.2 than it has been at any other point in his career. For a volume shooter on a team sorely lacking outside shooting, his 39% from three point range has been incredibly helpful for Cleveland. He gets to the basket more than you think, and comes off screens looking to attack the rim or shoot. 87% from the charity stripe is pretty great, too, though he doesn't get to the line that often. Miles is a prime example of why simply looking at field goal percentage is a mistake. At 41.5% from the field overall, you would think he was an inefficient scorer. But he is so effective at the free throw line, and so many of his attempts are from three that he is actually quite efficient.
Similarly, Wayne Ellington is finding more success on the offensive end in a Cavs uniform than he has at previous stops in Minnesota and Memphis. Personally, this is exciting for me. I enjoyed watching his North Carolina teams and always thought he could make it in the NBA. He is a smart guy who can play pretty good defense despite not having great athleticism, and he can shoot. It is a small sample size, but since coming to Cleveland he has played pretty well for a shooting guard ideally suited to coming off the bench. That a good percentage of his minutes are coming against opposing teams' starters makes his numbers even more impressive. Never before has he had a PER above 12.2, but since joining the Cavs he is at a slightly below average 14.4. Like Miles, he sports a true shooting percentage of over 55%. He takes more midrange jumpers than I would like, but he is pretty effective with them.
His three point shooting percentage is actually down from what it was at Memphis, but I believe there are structural reasons for this, and they apply to Miles as well. Quite simply, Coach Scott's offense gives guards and wings way more freedom than any system Miles or Ellington have ever played in. Any guard can initiate the offense, and while the Cavs don't play with the pace Scott wants just yet, it means that Miles and Ellington are asked to create for themselves and handle the ball. For example, in Memphis Ellington's three's almost entirely came from designed plays where he came off screens, pin-downs, or was spotting up. In Cleveland, he doesn't get that luxury. At the same time though, he has more responsibility in Cleveland and is able to demonstrate a more well-rounded game. And as more and more research shows the effectiveness of the three point shot, even the 36% he is shooting in Cleveland is still incredibly helpful to the Cavs offense. His usage rate is up, his turnovers are down, and he is scoring more efficiently than he ever has.
I had just finished asking Tyler Zeller a few questions when Ellington came out. His locker was next to C.J.'s, who was finally up and getting ready to go. I mentioned to Ellington his time at North Carolina playing with Ty Lawson, and his time in Memphis playing with Mike Conley, both ball dominant point guards, and asked him how different it must be in Cleveland, where at times it seems like he is almost playing a pseudo-point guard position. He said he liked the opportunity and the challenge, and different systems ask for different things from different players. He wasn't being asked to be a major distributor by Coach Scott, but merely to initiate the offense and get it going. I asked him if it was harder to score with the ball in his hands. My phrasing was awkward, and off, but I meant that if the alternative was coming off screens in designed plays it might be easier to get your own shot. Miles overheard my question, though, and just started laughing. "Harder to score with the ball in your hands! Man, you need the ball in your hands to score!" Ellington was laughing now too, and I couldn't decide if was mortified, being made fun of by an NBA player, or if I thought it was funny too. Before I had to make a decision, though, Miles said "No, no, man that's a great question. It is a totally different mindset." He went on to note that in Utah almost all of his opportunities came off screens and pin-downs, and that Coach Scott's offense allowed for more movement and freedom. It was easier to play loose.
It is overwhelmingly likely that Miles will be back in the Wine & Gold next season, as he has an extremely team-friendly player option. Ellington will be a restricted free agent, so the ball is in Cleveland's court. With Tristan Thompson's development as a passer, perhaps a healthy Anderson Varejao, or a free agent pickup like Carl Landry, the Cavs offense could make a huge leap next year with scoring guards like Irving, Waiters, Miles and Ellington who can all cut and hit open shots. Lost in all the worry about the Cavaliers' defense is that the offense should be just fine. Hopefully Miles and Ellington continue to be a part of it.