The Cleveland Cavaliers turned their off season around
If given only one word to describe this Cleveland off-season, I’d chose value. That’s not necessarily a good thing. Every move made was a highly calculated move that provided excess benefit to the cost paid, and in a vacuum, Cleveland did add several value contracts in both the player and personnel departments. That being said for all the value added, value doesn’t directly correspond with improvement.
What an organization defines as success subsequently defines what a successful offseason looks like. For Cleveland, while LeBron James’ contention window remains open, success is nothing less than winning a championship. With the behemoth that is Golden State out West and dark horse scoring powerhouse Houston potentially waiting in the wings, a successful offseason wasn’t regular season improvement but making small self-corrections that compliment James and co. With this in mind, Cleveland’s offseason becomes a question of the difference between value and effectiveness.
Value, as defined by myself, is overall on and off court effectiveness/cost of contract. To measure overall on court effectiveness I will use win shares (how much did this individual player contribute to the overall season win total) plus notable statistics unaccounted for through WS. Off court generally is negligible, however, there are some exceptions. Kendrick Perkins for example, provided a veteran voice and set several hard screens during the NBA playoffs creating value that can’t be measured by traditional statistics.
Cleveland has a history of signing excellent value contracts. For example, Richard Jefferson’s 2015-2016 contract was set at the veteran minimum ($1,499,187) and with a 2.9 Win Share Jefferson’s pure value was around 500,000 dollars per win provided. For comparison, the average salary in 2016-2017 was 6.2 million dollars, with a WS of 2.5, meaning the pure value of an NBA win ranges slightly around 2.48 million dollars per win. This already means that Jefferson is about 5 times as valuable as the average NBA contract (though it should be mentioned that this average varies based on position, with several positions including point guard and small forward being talent saturated raising their averages). Additionally, Jefferson’s contract increased its value due to his NBA finals play. During the five game stretch where Cleveland won 4-5, Jefferson provided a net +4 of on court time, primarily on the defensive end, acting as a switch defender and limiting Golden State’s options.
If value is a quantitative measure that can be tracked using prices and statistics, effectiveness is a qualitative measurement. For the sake of this article, effectiveness is measured by a team’s success in improving towards their stated goal. Oklahoma City’s current priority for example would be retaining Russel Westbrook. The best way to do this would have been to surround him with complementary pieces such as switch defenders and a second max star. Trading for Paul George, signing Patterson and Felton and getting Andre Robertson on a discount contract, OKC couldn’t have fulfilled their needs better.
While committing to and improving on an identity should be the primary goal, a team can continue to improve their effectiveness through plugging weakness (which in and of itself is a recognition of one’s identity) and solidifying themselves. This is where Cleveland ended up flopping in the offseason. Kobe Bryant provided an excellent breakdown of Cleveland’s team identity, called the Two Kings. Cleveland previously ran their offense through either LeBron or Kyrie, setting a plethora of weapons around the side. In this sense Cleveland’s offensive identity is set, and free agency wise, what Cleveland should have strove for was a large defensive presence. Instead, Cleveland chose a value play.
Looking at Cleveland’s needs, the offseason would logically prioritize the following: A General Manager, low economy wing defender, off-ball backup point guard and youth. Rather than that, Cleveland chose value contracts and big names.
While no Kevin Durant, Cleveland’s most notable addition in the offseason was Derrick Rose as the (as of now) backup point guard. Getting Rose, a former MVP, on a 90% contract discount defines value. Based on strictly his numbers last season, Rose’s strict numerical contract value sits somewhere around 1.25 wins per million paid. By sabermetrics standards, Rose’s contract looks excellent. Not only is Rose mathematically producing high value wins, his name value drums up additional fan interest, creating additional revenue. For a team paying the luxury tax, that second point brings a smile to Dan Gilbert’s lightened pockets. Where Cleveland’s front office fails with this acquisition is on the effectiveness.
Last season Rose shot 51% from driving attempts and 40% from midrange shots. That should add an additional weapon to Cleveland’s already overflowing pockets. That said, Rose is not a low economy option. A career 28% usage (Plays which that player adds something to their box score, such as assists, rebounds et cetera) rivals that of LeBron James (Career 31.5) which will force Cleveland to either run Rose additional plays when staggered with the first unit or force Rose to adapt to a lower usage presence. Additionally, Rose’s defensive limitations raise issues with his ability to provide outside of the regular season, where the additional film and study time eliminates Rose’s advantage. With Isaiah Thomas already almost unplayable against premier offensive squads such as the Golden State Warriors, a lack of a strong secondary point guard continues to create issues regarding Cleveland’s team composition.
This section initially was going to be dedicated to personally ragging on Gilbert and his front office for signing Kyle Korver with their taxpayer MLE. Cleveland would have been best served spending that money on a low economy wing defender such as Omri Casspi, Luc Richard Mbah A Moute, Thabo Sefolosha or Patrick Patterson. I was going to write that section on Sunday, August 20th. Now we have a one Mr. Jae Crowder, I guess we’ll just move on.
Dan Gilbert took a gamble when he decided to lowball and subsequently choosing not to rehire David Griffin. Additionally, he took a risk in not having a full front office tackle free agency. For the most part, that gamble failed. Signing offense first players with low defensive versatility (see Green, Calderon, and Korver) may help in the regular season, but as mentioned before Cleveland failed to improve towards their overall goal. Here is a list of things I came up with that Cleveland might have been able to accomplish with a general manager and staffed front office:
-For one, coaxing Indiana back into a Paul George deal. With Cleveland’s front running free agent choice turning his eyes westward, adding a top 15 player in the NBA in exchange for Kevin Love, even if only for a year, would drastically improve Cleveland’s short term outlook.
-Though the end of the story may have worked out, Kyrie Irving’s saga with Cleveland was not handled… tactfully. Cleveland didn’t take an exit meeting with Kyrie, failed to trade him during the draft, and failed to contain the negative press (such as his desire not to report to training camp) that nearly tanked his value. For the most part, these Kyrie issues could have been headed by a competent and popular general manager, such as David Griffin.
-There is no reason Iman Shumpert should still be on this team. Houston had an army of non-guaranteed contracts they accumulated over the course of Daryl Morey’s tenure, which he seemed interested in using to acquire Shumpert. Moreover Morey was willing to part with a future pick as well in the exchange. With Cleveland knowing they’d trade Kyrie in the future, this trade would have removed bad salary, added a future asset and created a trade exception. The fact that Cleveland wasn’t willing to agree to this swap sooner alone baffles me.
-In a normal offseason, the Detroit Pistons waiving Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s qualifying offer, making him an unrestricted free agent, would be one of the most notable events of the offseason. Not a month earlier it seemed either Detroit or Brooklyn would offer the max for the young defensive-minded shooting guard. KCP ended up taking an 18 million dollar one year contract with the Los Angeles Lakers. Seen as a make good, KCP is looking to prove himself as a premier defensive shooting guard in the league, why not sell the value of playing next to an all-time creator that happens to skyrocket his teammates future market value. This proposal is by far the longest of shots, but if that talented a player comes along looking to prove himself, every general manager in the league should be calling the agent with their best sales pitch.
Almost all of these issues might have not occurred if Gilbert was willing once again to pay the competent and successful General Manager that built this team in the first place. Instead, Gilbert rather chose to roll the dice, holding out until someone took his equivalent of a veteran’s minimum at the General Manager position. Luckily enough for Cleveland, the low-balling strategy just might have paid off in the form of Kyrie Irving’s return.
The Kyrie Irving trade has likely, by the time of this articles publishing, been covered by every outlet and their mother. Now it’s my turn to laud Kobe Altman. Critics of the Cavaliers front office often slander the team by calling out LeBron James’ influence on the free agent process. In their eyes, it wasn’t David Griffin, but LeBron James that negotiated with free agents and drew ring chasing veterans to Cleveland. Kobe Altman has quickly shed any doubts of this with his first transaction, turning a disgruntled star into an improved present and future.
Altman’s transaction does satisfy Cleveland’s trend towards value, as sending off Kyrie Irving significantly cuts Cleveland’s luxury tax bill as well as adding two of the highest value contracts in the NBA. For almost a third of Irving’s contract, Isaiah Thomas provides Cleveland with near identical production. Crowder is likely a long-term piece in Cleveland, with the small forward under contract until 2020. His above average defensive presence could provide Cleveland with a lockdown defender in closeout line-ups. Zizic has another four years on his rookie scale contract with a chance to become a rotation player within the next year.
There are some questions raised regarding effectiveness. Thomas will likely be unplayable against the Golden State Warriors, though in general the point is seen as the least important defensive position. Zizic performed abysmally in the Las Vegas Summer League this year, making him seem more like a project on a team that’s built to win now. Yet, effectiveness oozes from this trade, not only in the short term but the long as well.
Cleveland existed in a crossroads, a limbo between winning now and preparing for life after LeBron. There was no good answer, yet just as Oklahoma City worked their way out of an impossible situation by trading for Paul George, Cleveland found answers to both. If LeBron stays, Cleveland can send the Brooklyn pick out with matching salary to add an additional star and continue to compete. Additionally, Cleveland can now send their own first round pick with a salary this year to acquire an additional wing defender such as Wilson Chandler or rotation calibre player. If not, Cleveland’s 2019 Atlanta commitment is Lottery protected, meaning Cleveland doesn’t lose their pick if a rebuild occurs. In such a rebuild situation, Crowder makes perfect sense as a quality small forward starter, or high value asset to flip for picks. Zizic would fit into a rebuild timeline and Cleveland would have one year left on Love’s contract to sell as a rental. With Isaiah, he’s made it known that he’s seeking a max contract after this one expires. With the market for such a deal likely cold, Cleveland can wait until after LeBron makes his decision to resign or not. Additionally, this likely lower than average interest could allow Cleveland to negotiate a shorter deal (such as the one Kyle Lowry signed with the Raptors). As a whole, the Kyrie Irving trade was a net positive for Cleveland in just about every way.
What started as a Dan Gilbert fuelled disaster, might have actually been salvaged through a bit of luck. Cleveland’s tendency towards shedding salary and signing value deals looked to have been backfiring on them, with a front office in shambles, ineffective player signings and inability to conduct negotiations with other teams. Instead, Kobe Altman’s first move as general manager, getting a return for Kyrie Irving that was nearly double what Oklahoma City paid for PG13 or Minnesota payed for Jimmy Butler, could be considered a rousing success and restored confidence in the front offices ability to conduct moves over the next several seasons. For all these reasons, and possibly more in the future, Cleveland scores a C in their midseason grade.
Cleveland got the biggest thing right, and they hit a home run with it. If this grade was based only on the Kyrie Irving trade, Cleveland would be walking out of the offseason with a strong A. That being said, that’s not all Cleveland did this offseason. Losing Griffin, failing to replace him for over a month, signing poor fits and sowing seeds of discontent with LeBron all tend to add up. Cleveland had a straight up F for their offseason before the Kyrie trade, meaning its only fair to weight the coursework and the final as even, and award an average offseason ranking.