The Cavaliers are running out of playable options on their roster heading into Tuesday’s tilt against the Bucks.
Kevin Love is expected to miss Tuesday’s tilt against the Bucks, the Cavaliers will have three of their 15 rostered players unavailable to suit up. Mo Williams and his $2.1 million salary are still on the books, and Chris Andersen is officially out for the year with a torn ACL.
To make matters worse, the Cavaliers still employ James Jones, who they are loathe to give regular playing time to at this point in his career. Mike Dunleavy Jr. has been a massive disappointment to the point that Tyronn Lue has preferred to play an eight or nine-man rotation than to give him minutes.
Meanwhile, Kay Felder hasn’t proved ready for a regular rotation, and Jordan McRae hasn’t shown that he’s a good enough player to earn minutes on the team. This, unfortunately, leaves Lue in a not-ideal spot.
The Mo Williams situation is admittedly pretty weird, as he’s retired, but still on the Cavaliers books. Birdman’s injury just happened, so it’s fair to give David Griffin some time to figure things out. That said, with Tyronn Lue being unable or unwilling to play Williams, Andersen, Jones, Dunleavy, Felder and McRae, the Cavaliers are suddenly left with six of their 15 players that we should not expect to be in the rotation in the short term.
An inherent part of employing LeBron James is to give him substantial input over the team’s roster, and, in the Cavaliers case, that means having veterans on the roster that provide more value off the court the court than they do on it. LeBron himself has said that James Jones is functionally guaranteed a spot on whatever team he plays for indefinitely.
To some extent, this is the cost of doing business. I think every rational basketball observer (and even the irrational ones) would agree that they’d rather have LeBron on the team no matter what, even if it means bringing along veterans that are well past their prime. In addition, veterans are important! The younger players on the roster are soaking up valuable information every day, and it goes a long way towards their long-term development.
The Cavaliers can absolutely survive, even on their current short-handed roster, because their core is so good and fits together so well, that they’re still going to beat most teams, even if they have to drop to an eight or even seven-man rotation.
This also isn’t an enormous cost with regards to the postseason. There’s more time off between games, and the stakes are so high that fringe rotational role players often get their minutes completely chopped from the rotation. Hell, even Matthew Dellavedova, who was a mainstay in the rotation for the Cavaliers in the regular season, found his role shrinking in the postseason until he was axed from the rotation altogether in the Finals.
In the regular season, however, the end-of-rotation players are valuable.
Kevin Love's injury is a bit of a bummer because it'll lead to increased LeBron James and Channing Frye. Need them saving energy for May.— David Zavac (@DavidZavac) December 20, 2016
The only player averaging more minutes per game than LeBron James in December is one (LaVine) who's played in 2 OTs: https://t.co/ctTH49t7Di— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) December 18, 2016
Our fearless leader and NBA.com’s John Schumann combine to make an important point here. The Cavaliers survive and thrive without a 10-man rotation, but LeBron James and co. have to play more than they should in games they should get a degree of rest.
Now, LeBron James has noted that it’s the entire process of getting up for a game that causes him the majority of his fatigue, not the total number of minutes he plays. Still, the Cavaliers would be wise to rest him as much as they can, and with their roster as currently constructed, the amount of rest they can afford to give him is “not much.”
So, what are the solutions?
One thing the Cavaliers could do is play guys they don’t really want to play and just take a short-term loss, especially in the guard and wing rotation. DeAndre Liggins has been a pleasant surprise, but maybe the Cavaliers should stick players like Kay Felder or Jordan McRae onto the court for more than mop-up duty.
On the wing, it might be wise to let Mike Dunleavy play through whatever funk he’s in. The back clearly is an issue for Dunleavy, and maybe this is what he is now and that’s why Lue has relegated him to this bench. Regardless, if the long-term goal is to preserve LeBron James, giving Dunleavy some forward minutes might be the smartest choice.
Among the bigs, the Cavaliers are backed into a corner among in-house options. With Birdman hurt, the Cavaliers are down to three big men on the roster in Tristan Thompson, Kevin Love and Channing Frye. A three-man big rotation is probably fine for this team on a day-to-day basis (with Richard Jefferson and LeBron James playing spot minutes at the PF spot), but if anybody has to miss time due to injury or foul trouble, their absence is really felt and with Andersen’s injury, the team doesn’t even have a body to throw in for spot duty.
Until the team finds a place to move Williams’ and Andersen’s contracts, their filled roster spots are albatrosses hanging around David Griffin’s neck. There are replacement level bigs on the free agent market, but while the team has 15 players, their hands are tied.
There’s some scuttlebutt about the team potentially waiting to sign Mario Chalmers bumping around the rumor mill, and that might go a long way towards solving the team’s depth issues. Even so, the team probably needs to find a way to add another big via trade or free agency. They don’t really need to be world beaters at this point in the year - they just need to sop up some minutes.
Even then, the use of the word “need” feels a little silly. This team doesn’t “need” to do anything. They’re the defending champions and comfortably the best team in the East. They’ll almost certainly be fine either way, and almost any criticism of the team’s construction or play on-court is going to feel hilariously nitpicky.
David Griffin has proven to be a wizard with his team’s finances and trading and signing players in ways that allow his team maximum flexibility. He’s got some work cut out for him, and it’s fair to expect that he’ll find a workable solution in the near future to keep LeBron and the other Cavs’ stars odometers from racking up numbers too quickly.