Originally written on Waiting For Next Year  |  Last updated 4/14/12

"Remember Lester, only make game TYING buzzer beaters"

With their the overtime loss to the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday night, the Cavs are officially out of the playoff race. This was expected. The Cavs are in the middle of their rebuild and are in full tank mode.

I wouldn’t consider myself “happy” that the Cavaliers lost, but I do tend to think of these late season losses as a Good Thing. I never like watching the Cavs lose and I’m not rooting for shots to clank off the rim or guys to miss their defensive assignments. I just realize that this team is a year or two away from competing and they’d benefit from a high pick in June’s draft.

Now, does tanking always work? Of course not. For every Oklahoma City or San Antonio there’s sad cases like Toronto and Golden State; teams that spend years in the lottery drafting poorly or picking guys who turn out to be good, but not great. I get that.

But what is the way to build a (championship) team? Is there even a blueprint? The NBA has more repeat champions than any other sport. 29 teams don’t win the title every season and odds are, those same 29 won’t be winning one the following year either (since 1980, nine teams have won the Larry O’Brien trophy. Nine teams in 31 years. Five teams, the Lakers, Celtics, Bulls, Pistons and Spurs, account for 26 of them).

What lessons can you draw from those five teams? Trade Vlade Divac for Kobe Byrant? Get Kevin Garnett really cheap by trading with a GM who has his number retired by your franchise? Tank and draft Tim Duncan? Tank and draft Michael Jordan? Have lots of sunshine, be situated close to Hollywood and throw a bunch of money at Shaq?

I dunno.

Here’s what I do know: in my lifetime the Cavs have been a legitimate title contender twice. The first time was in the late-80s and early-90s, with the Mark Price, Brad Daugherty, Ron Harper, Larry Nance teams. The second time was with that LeBron guy.

The Price team was built through the draft. In 1986, Cleveland took Daugherty first overall and Harper at seven. Price was drafted 25th by Dallas but was traded to the Cavs. The following year, the Cavaliers acquired Larry Nance at the trade deadline by giving up their 1987 first round pick, Kevin Johnson (drafted 7th). There’s their core: home grown draft picks and players acquired for other home grown draft picks.

Conversely, the LeBron teams were a mess. I’ve touched on this before:

In the three drafts following LeBron, the Cavs had just two first round picks (oops!) and used them on Luke Jackson and Shannon Brown (double oops!). By completely blowing the drafts, the Cavs were forced to build around LeBron by overpaying mediocre free agents (Larry Hughes, Donyell Marshall, Damon Jones, Ira Newble, Kevin Ollie) and then trading those mediocre free agents for other, different, mediocre, overpaid veterans (Ben Wallace, Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison, Shaq).

And then we were all shocked that LeBron decided to not-resign with a team of mediocre veterans and no capspace. Weird.

So both times the Cavs were title contenders, they had the number one overall pick on their roster. Interesting. Also, interesting, the Cavs currently have a number one overall pick on their roster, Kyrie Irving.

How should the Cavs build around him? How do you propose the Cavs add talent, if not at the top of the draft?

-

ESPN’s TrueHoop/HoopIdea has been pounding the anti-tanking drum recently and they have a couple ideas on how to “fix” tanking and, probably unsurprisingly, I disagree.

First, I don’t necessarily think that tanking needs to be “fixed.” And by tanking, I don’t mean players throwing games or intentionally missing shots, as TrueHoop says:

In fact, when I talk about tanking, I’m not even talking about something players, or even coaches, are doing. I’ve watched the video, and looked at the substitution patterns. It is very tough to come up with strong evidence any players or coaches are doing anything other than trying to win.

For the GMs and owners of about half the teams in the league, however … everybody knows it’s not smart for them to try to win every game. They don’t throw games by intentionally missing shots. But they do strip rosters bare of high-priced talent, hoarding cap dollars for another day, and knowing that the inevitable losses that ensue — the tanking — will come with some of the most valuable rewards in all of sports.

In other words, in a sport based on the excitement of live competition, they are trying to lose, which attacks the integrity of the game.

We’re not talking about players or coaches intentionally throwing games. We’re talking about GM’s setting up their roster for the future. Why is that a bad thing?

Look, rooting for a bad professional sports team sucks. It is no fun when your team is out of playoff contention and there’s still a month of the season left to play. As a life long Cleveland fan, you can trust me on this.  But this isn’t a situation unique to the NBA. Baseball teams routinely bring up prospects late in the season, in order to get them experience against big league competition. Same thing happens in football. If you’re out of the NFL playoff hunt, why not let the rookie-QB get a few snaps and see how it goes?

For the Cavs, they made the choice to “tank” when they traded Ramon Sessions (a player who wouldn’t have been a Cavalier next season) to the Lakers for an extra first round pick in this year’s draft (though I’d argue the choice was made for them the minute Anderson Varejao got hurt). I like the move, as it gives the Cavs an extra pick in exchange for a player who was gone anyways. Plus, losing Sessions helps improve Cleveland’s draft position for next year. For what it is worth, ESPN’s John Hollinger gave the Cavs a “D” for the Sessions deal.

HoopIdea would call the Sessions trade tanking. I call it being realistic and making a long term move. I don’t see how the Cavs adding an extra pick while improving their own draft chances is any worse than the Tribe trading Casey Blake at the deadline for some prospect.

Most of the tanking fixes that HoopIdea has offered seem silly to me. One proposed fix was that we could just get rid of the draft and let rookies become free agents. Awesome. As a Cavs fan who just watched a kid who grew up 30 minutes from Cleveland leave a 60+ win team (with a new practice facility and a owner who’s willing to spend!) for less money, you can imagine how much I like this idea. Midwest cities like Cleveland will always have trouble attracting free agents, regardless of the sport. When you take away the draft, you take away their only equalizer.

The latest HoopIdea involves some kind of preseason ranking system and punishing teams who do worse than predicted:

For this article, we’ve used the pre-season over-unders from SportsMemo. As an example, Miami was predicted to win 50.5 games. The latest Hollinger prediction has Miami winning 48. 48 divided by 50.5 = an Attainment Score of 95 percent. Currently, the Heat are on pace to perform slightly below expectations, which would put them a bit later in the draft, but not as late as, say, the Mavericks, who are on pace to finish with about ten fewer wins than projected by betting lines.

No more tanking

Sacramento, Toronto and Charlotte were all predicted to be pretty bad. The over/under for all three teams was predicted to be 15.5 wins each. However, as you’ll see in the table below, Toronto and Sacramento are predicted to win 23 and 22 per John Hollinger’s predictions. They have significantly exceeded expectations and would be rewarded for that with the first and second picks in the draft.

Charlotte, on the other hand, actually leads the league in underperforming expectations. With only nine wins predicted, Charlotte’s on pace to attain just 58 percent of their goal, last in the NBA.

So because Charlotte under performed, they’d be punished by not getting the first pick (which, you know, they aren’t guaranteed under the current lottery system). The pick the Bobcats would receive under this system? 30th. That’s because they have bad management and have under performed and, well, you shouldn’t reward bad management.

Charlotte’s 44 win team got swept in the first round by Orlando and they would’ve picked 16th for their troubles (except they had traded their 2010 first rounder for Raymond Felton). So the idea is that the Bobcats should’ve gone forward with their Stephen Jackson, Felton, Boris Diaw team is ludicrous to me (assuming you want to reward good management decisions).

In my opinion, you can bemoan the fact that NBA teams often have to get worse in order to get better. That’s a fair argument, but that’s the system. What isn’t fair is slamming GMs (or fans) for looking and building towards the future. Don’t be mad at me because my GM is taking advantage of the current system (and his market’s limitations) and I recognize this fact.

As I stated earlier, it sucks when your favorite team is just playing out the string. And while you don’t have the “tanking” issue in other sports (though the NFL just went through a year of “Suck for Luck”), I think that’s mostly because of the nature of the sports themselves.

With basketball being just five-on-five, one player has more influence over a basketball game’s outcome than he does in football and baseball. A great player can impose his will on the basketball court. In football or baseball, a great player is helpless if his team’s defense can’t stop the run or his closer blows a save. That’s why teams waste years clearing capspace for shot at a player like LeBron or Dwight Howard.

They’re worth it.

TrueHoop quotes Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball:

With Hakeem and Jordan looming as draft prizes, both the Rockets (blew 14 of their last 17, including 9 their last 10) and Bulls (lost 19 of their last 23, including 14 of their last 15) said, “Screw it, we’ll bastardize the sport,” and pulled some fishy crap: resting key guys, giving lousy guys big minutes and everything else. Things peaked in Game 81 when a washed-up Elvin Hayes played every minute of Houston’s overtime loss to the Spurs. Since none of the other crappy teams owned their picks, only Chicago and Houston controlled their destinies (hence the tanking).

Hmmm, Jordan and Hakeem, eh? Two Hall of Famers, with eight NBA championships between them. I wonder if the Bulls and Rockets could do it over, would they choose to “bastardize the sport” again?

I tend to think they would.

-

With the playoffs officially out of the question, the Cavs are playing out their string.  D-league call-up Lester Hudson has provided some late season highlights (and maybe earned himself a job), but for the most part, the last part of Cleveland’s season has been pretty unwatchable (unless you enjoy watching Omri Casspi, Antawn Jamison and Anthony Parker. And if that’s the case, you are a sick, sick individual).

Last season, the Cavs were historically bad and for their troubles, they got the fourth overall pick (using it on Tristan Thompson). So if the Cavs were tanking last season, it didn’t really work (I mean, how would you feel about Chris Grant’s rebuilding plan without Kyrie Irving?). But the Cavs got lucky when the Clippers pick acquired in the Baron Davis deal jumped to the top spot, allowing them to select Irving, and accelerating Cleveland’s rebuilding plans considerably.

Getting a high pick doesn’t guarantee a team anything. Sometimes it’s a weak draft (Andrew Bogut instead of LeBron), sometimes the player doesn’t pan out. But the Cavs lucked out with Kyrie Irving and now they have four of the first 34 picks in next June’s draft. With the late season losses piling up, their first pick should be in the top five of the lottery. Picking that high (or potentially higher *fingers crossed*), Chris Grant should have a shot at any number of good players (personally, I like Thomas Robinson from Kansas).

If you consider yourself a Cleveland Cavaliers fan and you’d rather be mad at a late-season loss to Toronto than excited for their future, that’s on you. Myself, I’m spending these last few weeks of the season counting down the games Antawn Jamison has left in a Cavalier uniform (Magic Number: 10!!) and day dreaming about the face of the franchise taking the new rooks under his wing at Summer League.

But to each their own.

Some Random Thoughts

- Right now I think the Cavs have anywhere from one to four long term pieces on the roster. Irving is a stud, Thompson is intriguing and guys like Alonzo Gee and Lester Hudson are proving they can play in this league. While I like Thomson, Gee and Lester, none of them should preclude the Cavs from taking either a power forward or a swingman at the top of the draft. The only position the Cavs don’t need is point guard.

- These last ten games should basically be an open audition for Kyrie Irving’s backup. Manny Harris, Donald Sloan, Lester Hudson, who wants this job?

- I’m OK with the Tristan Thompson pick. While I think there’s a lot to like about Tristan (defense, rebounding, athletic ability), I can certainly understand the concerns about his (lack of) offense. The issue isn’t necessarily Tristan’s offense, but Tristan’s and Anderson Varejao’s offense together. If you play Tristan with Andy, why wouldn’t teams simply pack the paint and dare either of Cleveland’s bigs to shoot from the outside? That being said, you can do worse than a hardworking, athletic big man with a good attitude.

- But isn’t it a bit underwhelming to only get a “hardworking, athletic big man” at the fourth overall slot? I guess so, but it was a weak draft. And there are some experts who have Tristan going second overall if they’d redo the 2011 draft.

- If the Cavs would luck out, jump to Number 1 overall and select Kentucky center Anthony Davis, I fully expect Thompson (and Varejao) to immediately be on the trading block.

- A lot of fans wanted the Cavs to select center European center Jonas Valanciunas with the fourth pick. People seem to think that the Cavs didn’t select Jonas V because of his contract issue (he’s playing this season in Europe). I don’t think that’s the case. The Cavs traded JJ Hickson literally minutes before the NBA Lockout took effect, presumably because they didn’t want to have to decide whether or not to pay him following a lockout canceled or shortened season. So if the Cavs were willing to get rid of JJ because they thought the lockout could ruin the season, why would they not take Jonas V and have him miss that same lockout shortened season? I just think the Cavs liked Thompson.

- For the most part, I like Byron Scott. I think he’s a solid NBA coach who can reach current players. I would’ve liked to see to see him play Thompson with Irving a bit more this season, but that’s a small quibble. However, I’m not gonna lie, I do get kind of concerned when I read things like this:

From Elias Sports Bureau, the Cavaliers are the first team in NBA history to lose consecutive home games, each by 35-or-more points. In between those two defeats, Cleveland lost to the Knicks in New York on Saturday night, 91-75.

Following the loss to the Spurs, Cavaliers head coach Byron Scott repeatedly said that his team is “not even competing.”

Last season the Cavs tied the North American Sports record for longest losing streak and earlier this season they set the franchise record for worst home loss, to a Derrick Rose-less Chicago Bulls team (which, considering the franchise that Scott is coaching, is pretty impressive). I know Scott is in charge of a team full of projects and washed up vets, but is it too much to ask that the Cavs not be historically bad?

- And finally, if you haven’t heard it, I highly suggest listening to Chris Grant’s interview on WKNR from March 26th. I like everything that he says, except for when he humors Kenny Rhoda by pretending to care about Kenny’s draft board.

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