Studs and Duds from Cleveland Cavaliers' First Slate of Games
With only five games under their belt, the Cleveland Cavaliers have enjoyed as much of a roller coaster start as any team in the league—highlighted by gritty home wins, disheartening road losses and myriad individual performances that were both heroic and not-so heroic.
As the team moves forward under head coach Mike Brown toward what the organization hopes will be a postseason run, there's reason to believe that this precocious squad may be able to snatch one of the eight playoff seeds in the East.
Whether or not they get there, however, will be a matter of who can succeed in buying into the team's revived defensive identity while also contributing as complete of a two-way game as possible for a Cavs team whose offensive rating has declined to last in the league.
With that in mind, and without further ado, let's see who the studs and duds have been for the team through the first slate of games.
All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
Stud: Tristan Thompson
It should come as no surprise that Tristan Thompson kicks off our list of studs.
The No. 4 pick in the 2011 NBA draft epitomizes the state of the Cavaliers—young, talented and prone to the occasional lapse but ultimately defined by a conscious effort to improve.
His decision to switch shooting hands starting this season has already been documented ad nauseam, especially as it has pertained to a dramatic jump in his free-throw shooting percentage, which has risen from from 60.8 percent to 76.2 percent so far.
But just as notable is how the change has affected his confidence in exploring offensive options away from the basket. Although the sample size is small, Thompson has taken nearly 43 percent of his shots (20-of-47) from outside of eight feet, per NBA.com. By comparison, Thompson took just over 21 percent of his shots (169-of-799) from outside of eight feet last season.
It's already known that Thompson is a capable defender, and he's earned playing time under the defensive-minded Brown as a result. Through five games, Thompson remains the team's leader in total minutes and rebounds, and he's one of just two starters to have a net-positive plus/minus rating at plus-8.
However, should Thompson succeed in expanding his offensive repertoire, he should easily find himself as more than just a stud in the Cavs' rotation.
Dud: Dion Waiters
Speaking of No. 4 picks, 2012 choice Dion Waiters has certainly shown flashes of the sort of tantalizing talent that has fans hoping for a sophomore surprise from the 6'4", 225-pound combo guard.
In fact, he's the only other starter, along with Thompson, who has been a net-positive on the floor through five games, with a team-leading rating of plus-17.
So, why consider Waiters a dud?
Despite improvements over the course of last season in shot selection, Waiters has opened up this season by producing shooting splits that are down on all fronts. He's only made 37.7 percent of his 12.2 field goal attempts per game and is shooting at a mere 64.3 percent clip from the charity stripe.
The advanced metrics do Waiters no favors either; prior to Wednesday night's game against Milwaukee, Waiters was one of three rotation players with a negative mark in win shares per 48 minutes. (Spoiler alert: The other two players are featured on this list as well.)
In other words: the inefficiency of his offense is actually costing the Cavs.
And it's not as if Waiters is compensating with stalwart defense either. His transition defense has been especially atrocious, and his inability to close out on sharpshooters helped to make the Bucks' O.J. Mayo and Gary Neal appear as if they were the Eastern Conference's Splash Brothers.
Stud: Kyrie Irving
Had this been published a day earlier, it would have been very tempting to list Irving as a dud—a sentiment that should be rightly preposterous for someone considered by ESPN as the NBA's eighth-best player.
But to be fair, the Kyrie Irving that showed up for the Cavs' first four games did not even remotely resemble the player whose outrageous shooting and mind-boggling clutch stats took the league by storm in just his second year, per 82games.com.
While his 5.5 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game were on course for third-year improvement, he found himself in an uncharacteristically bad shooting slump (36.9 percent from the field, 18.2 percent from three, 61.1 percent from the free-throw line) through the first four games that would have even made Waiters blush.
And then Wednesday night happened, as Irving kindly reminded the hoops world that few young point guards can rain points quite like he can in the fourth quarter.
Over the course of 70 seconds, Irving single-handedly scored 10-straight, unanswered points in a comeback that was capped off on the next possession by a C.J. Miles three-pointer to give the Cavs a 104-103 lead.
And while that lead was ultimately relinquished thanks to Caron Butler's tip-in off an O.J. Mayo bunny, it was Irving's MVP-caliber burst that turned an otherwise dull blowout into the best near-comeback of the early season.
Dud: Earl Clark
To say that Earl Clark isn't quite playing up to par with his $4.25 million salary would be something of an understatement.
The 6'10", 234-pound combo-forward was signed this offseason as part of the Cavs' relief effort to provide Alonzo Gee and the diminished 3-spot with an able body. And while Clark certainly has the physical tools to function as a prototypical three-and-D specialist, his effort thus far just hasn't been evident.
He has attempted only three 3-pointers on the season, with many more possessions ending in off-the-dribble mid-range shots that he has been hitting to the tune of a paltry 33.3 percent.
As such, his playing time is already in a questionable decline, with Gee resuming the bulk of minutes at the 3 and thereby further limiting an already hamstrung offense.
Stud: C.J. Miles
Of all the studs to be found in the Cavs' roster, C.J. Miles stands tall as the team's premier early-season revelation.
Thus far, Miles has thrived off the bench, posting a career-high 14.6 points on a team-leading true shooting percentage of 63.8 percent (also a career-high).
It is that efficiency, combined with the per-minute production, that has Miles posting a ridiculous 27.69 player efficiency rating through five games—a figure that is usually reserved for MVP-caliber players, of which Miles has proven himself to be, at least within the early season for the Cavs.
Beyond the tangible figures, Miles presents as one of the few veterans on a squad that could use more veteran leadership, and his willingness to do virtually everything the coaching staff could possibly ask for makes him an irreplaceable asset for the Cavs in the early going.
Dud: Anthony Bennett
To Bennett's credit, he finally broke through against the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night, scoring his first NBA bucket for the season (and of his career) with a 26-foot three-pointer above the arc with 9:45 left in the second quarter.
However, his historically slow offensive start hasn't exactly been encouraging, especially for a No. 1 overall selection.
Pegged as a tweener before the draft, in the mold of fellow UNLV graduate and former NBA All-Star Larry Johnson, Bennett has had several setbacks en route to his regular season debut. Combined with a paltry amount of playing time, as Coach Brown is trying to ease his rookie into the NBA regular season, there's reason enough to believe that the best is yet to come from Bennett with a majority of the schedule left to go.
But for now, and until Bennett can rediscover the offensive versatility that made him such a force at UNLV, the Cavs will have to continue to look elsewhere for major contribution.