How can the disappointing Cavs get better?
By KEVIN MCELROY
Here are some true facts about the Cleveland Cavaliers:
They are currently 19–16, and on pace for 45 wins.
They are 18–11 when LeBron James suits up. This is better than .600 ball and projects to 51 wins over a full season.
They started 1–4 - pretty understandable for a group integrating two huge new pieces - and have gone 1–5 again in their six games since LeBron's injury. In between, they went 17–7: a .708 winning percentage. By comparison, the Miami Heat's winning percentage over LeBron James' four years there was .718.
This success, however measured, has all come to pass despite the following:
Kyrie Irving is shooting a career worst 34.7 percent from three despite commanding less defensive attention than ever.
Kevin Love's numbers across the board are down from last year.
LeBron has been accused of spending time in 'chill mode,' which I believe is French for 'covered in ice cream and less of a gamer than Dave Cowens.'
Anderson Varejao is out for the season with 'Being Anderson Varejao.'
Dion Waiters, prior to being traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder, forgot how to shoot.
Mike Miller is a commendably lifelike topiary bush.
Brendan Haywood was hypnotized to think Austin Carr is a sentient, 76-inch-tall potato, and spends every game staring over at him in debilitating horror.
Matthew Dellavedova isn't really a person but just something that Chad Ford made up in the Spring of 2013, and the league office is afraid they'll hurt overseas jersey sales if they tell people he's fictional so they just assign him four points and three assists after each game.
Tristan Thompson's offensive versatility has been frustratingly slow to develop.
That's a lot of adversity and, as shown above, a full-strength Cleveland roster has already shown itself to be fairly effective regardless.
So, first, let's stop saying that the Cavs stink. They don't. They're pretty good and there's still reason to believe that, once LeBron is back and everybody's shooting (hopefully) moves toward the mean, they will find themselves right in the thick of the hunt for the Eastern Conference crown.
But how can the Cavs get better? That's a fair and important question. At the very least, they'll need to take steps to ameliorate the loss of Varejao, especially defensively. Replacing Waiters with Iman Shumpert through Monday night's trade was a decent start - though Shumpert's defensive reputation outstrips his abilities by a fair margin - but it doesn't fill the considerable void left by Varejao's absence.
On/off stats suggest that Varejao hasn't affected Cleveland's point prevention this season (They've allowed 108.1 per 100 with him on the court and 108.2 with him off) but his 636 minutes makes for a mighty small sample and it's very difficult to envision this Cavs team - whose offense may take more than a season to realize its vast potential - getting very far in the playoffs without an athletic, physical interior defender to compensate for Love's shortcomings. Even including its time with Varejao active, Cleveland's defense ranks 22nd in the NBA and a truly woeful 26th in effective field goal percentage allowed.
Even if their sixth-ranked offense blossoms to the tune of a league-best second half, their defensive failings would likely be too great an albatross to overcome. No team since the end of the fast-paced, point-happy '80s has made the NBA Finals while allowing more than 108 points per 100 possessions. More to the point, no team since the 1984 Trail Blazers has even finished above .500 while allowing an effective field goal percentage as high as the 51.7 percent put up on the Cavs to date.
A healthy Cleveland will always be able to put points on the board, albeit at a more pedestrian pace than some hypothesized this summer, but even the most optimistic of Cavs' fans should be rooting for some kind of infusion of interior defense between now and the trade deadline.
To this end, there are a few options on the table. Cleveland could grab a minor piece without giving up anything at all and wait until the offseason to make an actual splash. Prior to being waived Monday night, Samuel Dalembert had been mentioned as a logical trade target for Cleveland and, indeed, the Cavs have been cited in the last 24 hours as his most likely waiver destination. Dalembert has some bona fides as a shot-blocker, and league sources report that his body is quite large.
He is not, however, actually good at basketball; his reputation as a rim protector notwithstanding, his teams have been a stunning 9.4 points per possession worse with him on the court over the course of his career (more surprising yet: 5.7 points worth of that carnage comes on the defensive end, where he reputedly adds value) and while plus-minus has some very obvious flaws in the context of a single game or even a season, when it speaks that loudly over the course of a 12-year career, we can probably start to trust it. The eye test supports the presumption: he hawks for blocks far too often and has a very hard time staying in front of ball-handlers or disrupting the pick and roll - two of Varejao's greatest strengths.
There are other fringe pieces like Dalembert scattered about the league's minnows but, frankly, anybody who could be had as easily as he could is unlikely to impact Cleveland's defensive fortunes much this season. A move like this could be acceptable if the Cavs need warm bodies to weather some injuries - it's not like there's really any downside - but it wouldn't get them anywhere.
If Cleveland is willing to give something up, rumors have swirled around a handful of effective, if unspectacular, interior players in recent weeks, in some cases even before the Varejao injury made the matter so urgent. This is the obvious (and most likely) direction for Cleveland, but will likely require a willingness to part with future draft picks.
Two targets that Cleveland could fit into the $5 million trade exception they received when they moved Keith Bogans* - and thus acquire using whatever combination of draft picks was deemed acceptable - are the Grizzlies' Kosta Koufos and the Nuggets' Timofey Mozgov. I like Koufos more than Mozgov for Cleveland. He's been an underrated contributor his whole career, and is buried behind such a deep front line in Memphis. The Grizzlies, though, have been hesitant to move him in the past and, given their success in the first half of this season, that seems unlikely to change course now. Mozgov carries a $5 million team option for next season, which obviously makes him appealing, and the caught-in-the-middle Nuggets would do well to cash in on him now, while his stock is relatively high, if they like what the Cavs have to offer.
*Keith Bogans was making $5 million!
My favorite option in this category, though, involves a Cleveland/Boston swap for Brandan Wright. Wright, whose $5 million salary also fits into Bogans' trade exception, is in the last year of his deal and the Celtics are (and should be) in fire sale mode. Wright is a highly competent pick-and-roll player on both ends of the court, much like Varejao and very much unlike the two more traditional (or, to put it a bit less kindly, lead-footed) bigs discussed in the preceding paragraph. Wright comes off the books at the end of this year, fits the Cavs the best in the short-term, and may command the least given the positioning of his present employer.
Ultimately, Cleveland is going to have a difficult time bringing in anybody who qualifies as a real difference-maker before the season is out. Accordingly, the Cavs should be hesitant to part with anything of significant long-term value. But they're a good team in a bad conference and they employ the best player in the world, still just a week past his 30th birthday. They're not in a position to go all-in at this point, but they definitely need to play the current hand out and see what happens.
For more sports commentary, visit The Cauldron or follow them on Twitter: @TheCauldron