The 2013-14 season was perhaps the weirdest Cavs season I can remember. Weirder than LeBron James choking and leaving in 2009-10. Weirder than LeBron James coming back in 2014-15. The Cavs made a lot of moves to make the playoffs, and none of them ultimately worked. The Cavs didn't make the playoffs, and now only two and a half players from the 2013-14 season are even going to play any minutes when the 2015 playoffs begin.
The biggest outcome of all these moves was unintentional. The Cavs won the 2014 draft lottery. That gave them the resources to trade for Kevin Love. Looking at the 2013-14 season through butterfly effect lenses, that's enough for me to say I'm okay with what went down, but that's also no fun. The discussion of the impact of that season would mostly begin and end there. It's easy to say all the Cavs moves last year were worth it when you can argue, "Well, they got the first overall pick out of it."
So screw it. Let's talk hypotheticals. Let's say we live in a world where no matter what moves the Cavs made, they would have finished with the same exact record. They would have gotten the same first overall draft pick. It's not that far fetched that a different combination of moves would have lead to the same record anyway. So let's not look at the 2013-14 season through the prism of how it landed the Cavs the first overall pick. Let's look at how it affected the Cavs in every way except that.
Any discussion of last season begins with head coach Mike Brown. If I could pick any coach to improperly and uninventively utilize Kyrie Irving's skill set, I would pick Brown. Clearly, his "offense" didn't do Kyrie any favors. If anything, it was so bad and so reliant on Kyrie going one on five that it caused Kyrie to develop bad, inefficient habits.
In theory, Brown's impact on Kyrie's game was supposed to be on the defensive end. That didn't happen. Kyrie had to expend so much energy carrying the offense that he may have even regressed on defense last year. And if he didn't regress, he sure didn't improve. Who knows if some of the things Brown preached has carried over to Kyrie's defensive improvement this year, but I hesitate to give him any credit based on what I saw last year.
The most harmful, unacceptable thing that happened was Matthew Dellevadova got a lot of run under Brown. Then because he looked good in stretches last year, he became and stayed the backup point guard the entire year this season. If Brown had buried Delly on his bench, there's a good chance the Cavs would have found a better backup point guard.
The one positive from Brown's stay was Dion Waiters. Waiters was (and still is) an extremely talented player. The same reason Brown's offense made Kyrie look worse also made Waiters look better. Last year, everyone could blame an unimaginative offense for why Waiters does boneheaded stuff. He was put into a bad position the same way Kyrie was and used his talent to look halfway decent for stretches. This helped to obscure the fact that Waiters is going to play the same way whether he's in a terrible offensive system with bad players or a good offensive system with good players.
It's only now that I've seen Waiters on two different good teams that I can admit he probably won't figure it out. He probably can't be a useful guy on a good team. At least not at his age right now. Systems are largely meaningless to him, but having him play in a bad system allowed his market value to rise just enough for the Cavs to trade Waiters and one first round pick to get J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov. So kudos to Brown. Your bad system hid how bad Waiters is as a player. A better coach may have helped uncover that fact and lower his trade value.
Looking at it optimistically, then, if Brown helped that Waiters trade happen on any level, his coaching stint last year was worth it. The other moves will be harder to spin in retrospect, but I will admit I was happy about each and every one of them at the time. Just to give you full disclosure about my hindsight opinions.
I talked myself into Anthony Bennett when Noel dropped in the draft. He was, and still is, terrible. I'm still not sure if drafting Noel would have been a good idea no matter how well he's playing this year. The reason he wasn't drafted until sixth overall was medical. One year where he still got injured quite often doesn't make me less afraid of having him on the team. I don't think any other player the Cavs could have drafted outside of Bennett would have survived the Love trade. Especially if Noel was off the table. So here, I don't think the draft pick made much of a difference. That pick would be gone either way.
The only what-if I can think of would have been considered the ultimate stretch at the time. I love Giannis Antetokounmpo, and yes I had to look up how to spell his name. And yes, I'm not completely confident I got it right despite looking it up. I think Giannis is going to end up being the best player from the 2013 draft.
There are a few questions about what would happen if the Cavs drafted Giannis instead. I wonder if Giannis would have been included in the deal for Love. I suspect the Cavs could have gotten away with trading Dion Waiters in his place, so I guess I'll go with that. The entire point is moot if it would have been Giannis in that trade still. The situation doesn't change.
I also wonder if the Cavs would have ultimately been better than they are today if they drafted Giannis because I think they would have kept him. Assuming the Cavs would have found another way to grab Mozgov (just by including a different pick than the one they got from the Waiters trade, easy), it comes down to whether Giannis this year is better than JR Smith and Shumpert. I don't think so. It would be one thing if his three point shooting was a little better (admittedly, maybe it would be in the Cavs' offense, playing next to LeBron), but that's not the case.
I think Giannis would far and away be better than those two combined maybe as soon as next year. I think there's a chance the drop off between those two combined and Giannis alone wouldn't be great enough this year to give up that potential. But I would still hesitate to trade JR Smith and Shumpert for him. They're just so good on this team. They're so good this year, and this year may be what matters most.
The move for Bynum was destructive in two ways. First, he helped wreck a locker room of impressionable young players. That's never good, but at least the lasting effects of that seem to have been mitigated since then. Worse than that, Bynum had a favorable contract that helped the Cavs trade for Luol Deng. I thought that contract and deal was awesome at the time, but I was wrong.
Deng never fit or played well in Cleveland. Part of that has to be on Mike Brown. Part of that has to be because Deng had nagging injuries last year. Part of it was fit, but then again a better coach could have made that work despite the bad fit.
The optimistic spin on him was that he helped the professionalism in the locker room. There's some value in that, but since Kyrie and Thompson are now in a really good, strong locker room this season, the value is minimal. They're learning more about professionalism this year than they've probably learned at any point in their lives.
That means we have to look at the actual value of what the Cavs gave up for Deng when evaluating the impact of that trade, and it doesn't look great. The Cavs gave up a heavily protected Kings first round pick and two Portland second round picks. Those are picks the Cavs could have traded this year to shore up their backup point guard position. Any time a team trades a first round pick (even a protected pick), it better work out. Here, it didn't.
And yet, I am somehow pretty okay with the Spencer Hawes trade. Maybe because Hawes fit into both what the Cavs were doing and what they wanted to do this year. He gave Irving a chance to play with a floor spacing big man. That hasn't resulted in a perfect transition to playing with Love, but there's at least a morsel of value there. Hawes was also good at rebounding and starting fast breaks, which Love does very well. For me, having Kyrie and Tristan play with an extremely poor man's Kevin Love was worth a few second round picks.
Together, those trades have some drawbacks and benefits. Giving up as many picks as they did for two players who eventually walked isn't ideal. The second round picks given up in the Hawes trade was made worse from the three picks given up in the Deng trade. It's a lot of assets, and I can't fully excuse it.
But the upside of having both those players on the Cavs for the second half of the year was Kyrie and Tristan got to experience an actual playoff push. They played in games that had actual meaning for most of the second half of the season, and that's going to matter going forward. It wasn't worth the overall cost. Not even close, but it's a silver lining.
I was most excited about the Cavs signing Jarrett Jack, but that proved to be their most disastrous move of the 2013 off-season. To make room under the cap to sign LeBron James this year, the Cavs had to trade Jack and include Sergey Karasev, Tyler Zeller and a first round pick to do it. Zeller would have been a great fourth big for the Cavs. Karasev has the potential to be a good shooter in the future. A first round pick has its own value, which is great. It's a lot to give up just to get rid of a contract, and it hurts.
That single move made the Cavs worse than they could have been this year. It was a lot to give up for the future of the team. The Cavs essentially traded away two first round picks, four second round picks, a useful backup big man and a young shooter for three guys (Jack, Deng, Hawes) who aren't on the team this year.
Everything I am saying here is nitpicky. I don't really have room to complain about how things have gone down for the Cavs. They're one of the best three teams in the NBA right now, and if they can keep Love in the off-season, this should be their worst roster of the second LeBron James era. For all the assets the Cavs traded last year, they still got to this point this year. That I'm complaining about it at all is kind of selfish on my part.
Still, there's a part of me that can't help but nitpick. Chris Grant was great at asset accumulation and terrible at actually using those assets to do anything useful. That kind of sucks. For as good as the Cavs are, I always want them to be even better. David Griffin's clean up job has been excellent. I just selfishly want those picks and Zeller back. I want to have it all.