Coming off a blowout loss to the Atlanta Hawks, the buddy ball notes could be depressing. I don't want that to be the case, so let's jump into it.
1. We knew on opening night that the Cleveland Cavaliers had three members of its long term core set and in place. Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, and Kevin Love. Anderson Varejao signed an extension before the season tipped off, and there was optimism about Dion Waiters, as well as consternation with Tristan Thompson coming off failed extension talks and a somewhat disappointing third season. But really, it was the big three.
2. So far, Irving, James, and Kevin Love have played pretty well together. In 627 minutes they are outscoring opponents by 10.5 points per 100 possessions. Given LeBron James hasn't consistently played at his highest level, Kyrie Irving in the midst of a bit of a shooting slump, and Kevin Love is still getting his bearings, this is reason for optimism. The three most important Cavaliers fit, and there's reason to think it will get better.
3. And hey, it's early, but we may have another name to add to the core moving forward. Tristan Thompson! And he even fits in with those three. Almost perfectly, in fact. His true shooting rate is over 57, his defensive tracking metrics are solid, his usage is low, and he's gaining the offense extra possessions with an excellent offensive rebounding rate.
4. Tristan has only joined Irving, Love, and James for 204 minutes this season but when he has the Cavs are just blitzing everyone. They are outscoring teams by 28.3 points per 100 possessions with those four guys. It's a small sample, but it makes some sense. I don't necessarily care if Thompson starts, but he needs more time with all three of those guys.
5. Everyone else has been inconsistent and the lineup data reflects it. Anderson Varejao and Kevin Love, to my eye, just struggle to move laterally. There are a lot of mobile power forwards out there, and without Thompson on the court, the Cavaliers have struggled. So, while Love and Varejao are good individually, I'm not sure they are good together. It also isn't Christmas, so there's time to fiddle around.
6. But I'd like to see David Blatt fiddle around a bit less. It's a hard criticism to make because the Cavs bench has dealt with injuries to Matthew Dellavedova and Mike Miller and gotten inconsistent play from just about everyone, but Blatt could go with rotations that are a bit more consistent. Players are learning a new system on both ends of the court, and learning all kinds of new faces. There hasn't been a ton of practice time. If they see new faces with them on the court every other time out there, or don't know when their number is going to get called, that inconsistency is going to matter.
7. As I write this, Mike Miller is getting inserted into the starting lineup. Blatt is clearly searching for answers. Miller will help unlock the Cavaliers offense by providing shooting that Shawn Marion can't. The search for perimeter defense though, will continue. I'd feel better about this move if Thompson were getting more minutes with that group.
8. My mantra with this team is two steps forward for every one step back. I think that's generally been the case thus far. There have been real bumps on the road, and some uncomfortable losses. The Cavs get 82 games to work through this. They can fine-tune the roster as well.
9. But the Cavaliers have in fact struggled at times this year. They don't have anything approaching a good defense right now, something that contenders have needed as a rule. Now just imagine that instead of Kevin Love, who has made a positive impact, you slide in Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett. Without commenting on their futures, both have struggled to an extent. They have below average true shooting rates, have played inconsistent minutes, and are taking bad shots. Maybe that's all on Flip Saunders. Maybe Wiggins would provide some perimeter defense that would help the Cavs.
Either way, there's no credible way to say the Cavaliers would be better off right now with Wiggins and Bennett than Love. It's a team that has to maximize LeBron's prime. Already there are some signs that he might have peaked in Miami (or maybe even in Cleveland, the first go-round). Players like Love don't become available every day.
10. So what do the Cavs have moving forward? Kyrie is 22 and under contract long term. LeBron turns 30 shortly, is likely in Cleveland long-term. Kevin Love is 26 and likely here long-term. Tristan Thompson is 23 and increasingly looks like a valuable piece. Everything else feels negotiable, but that's a hell of a place to start.
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