Monday, June 2, 2014

Counterpoint: Cavs Deserved to Win the Draft Lottery

By Corrie Trouw

Last week, the Cleveland Cavaliers defied staggeringly low odds and won the NBA Draft Lottery, finding themselves atop the draft order for the third time in the past four years. Aside from the predictable currents of shock and conspiracy theory, a clear narrative developed that very night: The bungling Cavs — the organization that couldn't win with LeBron James, will get to pick a presumably great player, a gift they do not deserve.

This narrative, however, conveniently omits the logical follow-up question: What should they have done instead? Let's consider three key drivers of the Cavs' current state, including two from last season, and fairly determine whether the organization failed in these opportunities or the opportunities failed the organization.

They've had four top-four picks in the past three drafts. Other than Kyrie Irving, who was a gimme, they've screwed up each.

Looking at "could have had" draft scenarios is always comical, especially when players several picks later are used as possible options. Yes, Tom Brady was passed over 198 times in the 2000 NFL Draft. There are also quite a few people who would have chosen different lottery numbers last night had they known the winning combination. But let's review the Cavs' four lottery picks versus their legitimate alternatives and see just how much they really screwed up.

2011: No. 1, Kyrie Irving — I cannot stress enough how split draft experts were on this pick. Irving, with a Rookie of the Year and All-Star Game MVP on his resume, looks like a no-brainer now, but there was significant momentum for the Cavs to draft Derrick Williams first and use their No. 4 pick (see below) to take another point guard, either Kemba Walker or Brandon Knight. This storyline persisted into the early part of the 2011-12 season, as I distinctly remember sitting in the Maui airport (#Humblebrag) reading tweets about the preseason-opening game between Cleveland and Detroit, pitting Irving against Knight. Former Cavs GM Chris Grant unfairly gets very little credit for this pick, but Irving/Williams was truly one of those Manning/Leaf, all-or-nothing choices that scare the pants off of GMs.

2011: No. 4, Tristan Thompson — This is where the alternatives get fuzzy. After Irving, the other two excellent players from the 2011 lottery were Klay Thompson (No. 11) and Kawhi Leonard (No. 15). Now, I won't completely write off either; many mock drafts had Leonard going comfortably within the top 10 and Thompson's slot is probably close enough for him to have been a realistic consideration. But Thompson and Leonard have both thrived in much better situations than the one they would have arrived to in Cleveland. We're getting into chickens and eggs here, but I don't think either player, Leonard in particular, would look as desirable now had his name been called at No. 4 that night.

Furthermore, for an organization whose front line consisted at that time of whatever part of Anderson Varejao was healthy and nothing else, the need for a big was glaring. The other legitimately interior players taken in that lottery after No. 3: Jonas Valanciunas (10.3 ppg, 8.8 rpg), Bismack Biyombo (4.3, 6.0), and the Morris twins (Marcus: 8.1, 3.5; Markieff: 10.0, 5.1). Thompson's career averages are 10.8 and 8.6. Maybe you like Valanciunas' upside or Markieff Morris' development this past season over Thompson, but three full seasons after this pick, it seems pretty clear Grant's search for an NBA-starter-quality big man in this draft was doomed from the start.

2012: No. 4, Dion Waiters — While Thompson's selection veered somewhat off the draft's expected course, Grant's selection of Waiters turned down a completely unmarked road. But first, let's get the obvious out of the way.

The Cavs passed on eventual Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard, eventually taken at No. 6. This fact should have no bearing on evaluating their draft performance because, a.) It's extremely unlikely Lillard would have been Rookie of the Year while sharing the court with Irving, and b.) Taking a ball-controlling, scoring point guard to complement another ball-controlling, scoring point guard while ignoring all of the other options available makes zero sense. And yet, Grant is casually held accountable for this "miss."

As for the legitimate options, we're only two seasons past this draft, but the lack of impact players beyond Anthony Davis is striking. Had they not taken Waiters, the Cavs reasonably might have considered three other options. Thomas Robinson, taken No. 5 by Sacramento, has been traded twice and is trending directly toward "bust." Harrison Barnes, taken No. 7 by Golden State, has shown flashes of very goodness throughout his college and professional careers, but his 9.3 ppg/1.3 agp/4.1 rpg line pales to Waiters' 15.3/3.0/2.6 line. The advanced metrics suggest the same poor comparison.

Andre Drummond, taken No. 9 by Detroit, may be the second best player from this lottery. Many reports suggested the Cavs considered him, and selecting Waiters over Drummond is probably their biggest black mark over the past three years. With that said, Drummond was considered extremely raw in pre-draft evaluation and clearly represented a high-risk, high-reward proposition. Waiters also carried that high variance tradeoff as a prospect, though to a lesser degree. But if Waiters over Drummond is your scarlet letter sin, were you really that bad?

2013: No. 1, Anthony Bennett — Oh boy, the vultures came out early on this one. Let's be clear: Bennett had an awful rookie season, starting with a summer shoulder injury that saw him arrive in camp out of shape, continuing as he failed to make a field goal through the team's first four games, and alternating DNPs due to injury or coach's (merciful) decision.

With that said, who were the Cavs supposed to take? In a familiar trend, the Cavs had no interest in taking a ball-controlling point guard in eventual Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams. The initial presumptive first pick, Nerlens Noel, is yet to play an NBA game. Alex Len, another popular consideration, averaged 2.0 points in 8.6 minutes per game for Phoenix.

The only possible regret the Cavs might have would be Victor Oladipo, taken No. 2 by Orlando. With that said, Oladipo's Orlando season doesn't really translate to how he would have looked in Cleveland. The Magic used Oladipo has a point guard-leaning combo guard, a role which Oladipo filled with mixed results. In Cleveland, he would have been the third guard used as part of a very undersized three guard look or as the defensive-minded half of a shooting guard platoon. The 2013 Draft's rookie season was stunningly forgettable. Was choosing Bennett first a mistake? Compared to what?

They fired Mike Brown one year into a five-year contract.

To fairly judge Brown's end in Cleveland, we first must consider his beginning.

In some kind of Finance 101 class, you probably heard the term "sunk cost" thrown around. Simply put, a sunk cost is any previous investment that is now basically worthless. Sunk costs are the nasty reminders of old mistakes, and as a result, people inevitably let the pain of those mistakes impact future decisions.

The day the Cavs signed Mike Brown to a five-year, $20 million contract that guaranteed the first four years and part of the fifth, that money was gone. With that in mind, the Cavs' willingness to fire Brown after only one season despite the embarrassment and wasted money is a sign of healthy organizational decision-making. Brown clearly did not fit with the current roster, so replacing him was the only reasonable option.

But still, we now know that in the last four NBA seasons Mike Brown has been fired three times. Only an incompetent organization could have hired him for that third stint, especially considering that same organization is also the one that fired Brown first, right?

Eh, not so fast. Many believed (and continue to believe) Brown's firing from Cleveland in 2010 was in response to a soured relationship with James, who you may remember had a big free agency decision coming up. The Cavs more than anyone know if that was the case, and by rehiring him in the summer of 2013, they essentially acknowledged Brown had been an unlucky pawn in a larger gambit. And for the basketball writers who are quick to giggle at Brown's coaching legacy, let's not forget he was named him the 2009 Coach of the Year by, you know, the basketball writers.

To appreciate what Brown looked like as a coaching candidate in 2013, let's consider the careers of two mystery coaches with similar beginnings. Each coach was 50-32 in each of his first two seasons and spent at least four seasons with one team and part of two seasons with another.

Coach A: 272-138 (.663) with Team 1, 42-29 (.592) with Team 2
Coach B: 100-64 (.610) with Team 1, 181-147 (.552) with Team 2

Coaches A and B were both fired by Team 2 as their winning percentages declined, but both were rehired for a third head coaching position after taking some time off. Coach A is Mike Brown after his dismissal by Kobe Bryant the Lakers. So who is Coach B, the seemingly inferior candidate at the time of his second firing?

Rick Carlisle, who went on to win an NBA Championship in Dallas, his third gig.

In 2013, was Mike Brown a more ridiculous hire than when Dallas brought in Carlise? Hardly.

They signed Andrew Bynum.

We're more than a little separated from last summer when Bynum proved an old basketball axiom, "They will pay you to be tall." A year separated from meaningful basketball, Bynum signed with the Cavs in an apparent buy low opportunity in 2013. And yet, by New Year's Day 2014, Bynum had been banished from the team and was later traded, immediately cut, signed after a lengthy unemployment, then told to stay away from a third team in just one NBA season. A brutal miscalculation by the Cavs, right?

It could have been, but in developing Bynum's contract, the Cavs accounted for this possibility. (Well, to be fair, I don't think anyone could have accounted for the center allegedly shooting every time he touched the ball in an infamous practice session, including beyond half court.) But the Cavs structured Bynum's contract to be only partially guaranteed and opted to use it as the keystone in a deal to land Luol Deng. Disagree with the decision to pursue the playoffs by adding Deng if you want, but the Cavs converted a time-limited asset (their 2013-14 cap space) into an asset with several options (keep Bynum at his full salary, cut him to save part of his salary, trade him to acquire something else). It's not as if the Cavs sacrificed other serious options for the right to babysit a seven-foot man. With Deng almost certain to leave in free agency, the Cavs find themselves more or less where they started from before signing Bynum last summer.

So when you see new commissioner Adam Silver announce Cleveland is on the clock to start June 26th's NBA Draft, quell your sense of injustice. Yes, the organization will have another opportunity to add talent after several previous failures, but this time the opportunity will real.

The Cavs have been a disorganized mess since James left, but considering their alternatives, can you blame them?

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