The Cleveland Cavaliers are in a weird spot, relative to their last 2+ seasons of basketball. They aren't tanking anymore. Sure, the record is bad. The team is still being very cautious with Kyrie Irving's various maladies. Scott is still force-feeding Tyler Zeller into the starting line-up. Alonzo Gee still usually plays about 30 minutes a game. Wait, are we done tanking? Hold up, let me go read Conrad's article about why we shouldn't be tanking anymore. Alright, got it. The team has won 15 of 32 games, which is bad but represents progress. But where does that leave the team between now and 2014, when a strong free agent class led by LeBron James of the Miami Heat arrives?
I wrote a month ago that it leaves the team in limbo; the time to start trying to win is now, but Chris Grant can't do anything to keep the team from having anything less than $20 million in cap space in July, 2014. Sam did a nice job outlining the Cavs salary commitments moving forward after the trade deadline, and trying to make sense of who makes sense at what price. So my question is, how good can Cleveland be next season? Who will be on the team? The Cavs development path often gets compared to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Whether this makes sense is another question entirely, but for the record, I don't think it does. Kevin Durant's and Russell Westbrook's and James Harden's don't grow on trees. But because this is Kyrie Irving's second year, let's take a look a look at the jump OKC made from year two of Durant, to year three.
Oklahoma City Makes the Leap
In Kevin Durant's second season, Oklahoma City was terrible. They went 23-59 for the season, and only had five players who played in more than 50 games for the team. The team's highest paid player was Malik Rose, and Nick Collison was second. Russell Westbrook shot under 40% for the year, and started 65 games. Only three players started more than 40 games, Jeff Green, Durant, and Westbrook. In other words, guys were getting hurt left and right, they didn't have any old guys taking up a ton of salary and playing time, and their young guys were getting a bunch of time, regardless of whether they were sinking or swimming. At the deadline, they used a first round they had the rights to from Denver to acquire Thabo Sefalosha, and then promptly locked him into a relatively inexpensive four year deal.
This should sound pretty similar to the Cleveland Cavaliers in Kyrie Irving's second season, but Coach Scott has actually had a bit more stability than the Thunder did. Cleveland is on pace to have five players start 50 or more games, in Irving, Dion Waiters, Gee, Tristan Thompson, and Tyler Zeller. The Cavs, due in large part to their improved bench, will likely end up with a record a bit better than the Thunder in Durant's second season. The question, though, is if the Cavaliers can match the huge improvement in wins that the Thunder did for year three of Durant, when they made the playoffs in the tough Western Conference, going from 23 wins, to 50.
How did the Thunder do it? The first thing to note is they didn't make any marquee free agent signings. Their highest paid players, in order, were Etan Thomas, Earl Watson, Matt Harpring, Nick Collison, and Nenad Krstic. The Thunder were blessed with relative health in year three of Durant. Westbrook, Sefalosha, Durant and Green all started in 82 games, and Krstic in 76. They got natural development from Durant, by this time a burgeoning superstar, and improvement across the board from Westbrook, who posted a Player Efficiency Rating of 17.8 in his second season. James Harden and Serge Ibaka were rookies and were allowed to grow off the bench but neither provided much in terms of moving the needle on wins. The team's defensive rating went from 20th in the league the year before, to 9th. In Durant's third season, the Thunder achieved the 8th seed in the Western Conference playoffs, allegedly no-man's land, before bowing out in six games to the Lakers.
The Thunder made the 8th seed without having a single bad contract, without jeopardizing their chances to keep developing as a young group, and without becoming trapped in mediocrity. It is worth highlighting this both because it is incredibly impressive, and because it shows that the Cavs can make a playoff run next season without impeding the chances of the team to keep getting better. In fact, Oklahoma City probably feels that losing to the Lakers in the playoffs was a valuable learning tool. Would getting to the playoffs keep Cleveland out of the lottery? Yes. Is that the only way the team is going to be able to improve? No. Having Irving, Waiters, and Thompson in high pressure playoff games against the Heat, Knicks, or Pacers could be a great development tool.
Can the Cavs follow Oklahoma City in Year 3 of Kyrie?
Despite progress over the course of the season from the Cavs, it isn't easy to see the team winning 50 games next year. While the team's record is better than what OKC put together in their 23 win season, the Cavaliers are much worse defensively than even that OKC team, with a defensive rating ranking 28th in the NBA. While it wouldn't be impossible, it would take a herculean effort for Cleveland to get into the top 10 of the league in defensive rating in just one offseason. But health would certainly go a long way. As Conrad pointed out, the Cavaliers starters were actually pretty good when Anderson Varejao was around. Though all the reports indicate Varejao will be ready for the start of next season, most Cavs fans have given up on the idea of getting a full healthy season from him. Questions about Irving's durability persist. More likely to add wins is simple development from the young players getting heavy minutes for the Wine & Gold. Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters have made obvious and well documented improvements as the season has progressed. There isn't any reason to believe either are approaching their ceilings. Tyler Zeller gets an off-season to reflect on the season, get in the weight room, rediscover his post game and try and come back a stronger and better player.
As Sam pointed out in his salary commitments article, Cleveland is likely to have Varejao, Irving, Thompson, Waiters, Zeller, Gee, and Miles under contract next season, along with two first round picks. If the Cavaliers were to retain Wayne Ellington at a reasonable price, say, $9 million over three years, and give Carl Landry $10 million over two years, it is possible to see the Cavaliers being a dangerous team in next season's playoffs, while retaining full 2014 flexibility. No one is going to want to play Kyrie Irving, and the idea of a long series against Varejao and Thompson probably isn't appetizing for opposing teams either.
Lessons learned from OKC
The most encouraging lesson from the "OKC model" is the basic reason why it is so popular in the first place: a team can become good, and every once in awhile very good, without having to add stars via free agent or trade. The Cleveland Cavaliers are not following the Oklahoma City Thunder, at least not by design. They are building through the draft now, but it doesn't seem to be their only focus. Still, the Thunder provide a precedent for giving young guys a ton of minutes and letting them figure it out on their own. My concerns with waiting for the Summer of 2014 before really trying to make a run to the Finals are well-documented. It is a long ways away, and there are no guarantees that players on the Cavs wish list ultimately come here. And I hate the idea of potential good moves slipping away due to patience. But another year of letting the young guys figure it out might be just what the Cavaliers need; it certainly was for the Thunder.