Checklist for Cleveland Cavaliers to Get Back to the NBA Playoffs Next Season
To say the 2013-14 NBA season was a disappointment for the Cleveland Cavaliers is an understatement, but they aren't that far off from getting back to the playoffs. Despite a 33-49 record, they finished only five games behind the No. 8 spot in the Eastern Conference.
This team has a fair amount of talent. The Cavs might be young, but they have the components to assemble a run to the postseason.
Additionally, while unlikely, another potential lottery pick is on the way in the NBA draft. Cleveland also has substantial cap space entering this offseason.
The Cavaliers need to do five things in order to get back to the playoffs. Some have to do with the draft or free agency, but others have to do with style of play and improvement.
Let's see how this team can finally get over the hump.
Improve Small or Power Forward in the NBA Draft
First, if the Cavaliers could somehow get LeBron James back to Cleveland, they will make the playoffs—that's a no-brainer. But the chances of that are very slim given the Cavs' recent track record.
Luol Deng becomes an unrestricted free agent this offseason after making $14.275 million this year. It's likely he would make at least eight figures annually on his next contract no matter where he plays.
He left the Chicago Bulls and walked into a mess with Cleveland—his 14.3 points on 41.7 percent shooting, 5.1 rebounds and career-low 110 defensive rating were all well below his standards. Even though the Cavs have a lot of cap space, re-signing him to a four- or five-year deal wouldn't be wise. They should utilize their cap space elsewhere.
Taking a look at the draft, the Cavaliers have the ninth-best chance at landing the No. 1 overall pick at 1.7 percent (ESPN's Chad Ford has a lottery game with information here). Odds are they will select ninth, but if Cleveland somehow wins the pingpong battle again, it would become the third franchise to land the No. 1 pick three times during the lottery era.
If the Cavs do land the top pick, Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker would be superb and obvious choices for them, but let's say they pick ninth. This is a deep class at the 3 and the 4, and both spots need improvement.
The Cavaliers would benefit from a guy like Doug McDermott, who is a versatile scorer, has a high basketball IQ and is aggressive on the glass. They could also use Noah Vonleh, who provides needed length inside and would get a lot of one-on-one opportunities with Spencer Hawes stretching the defense at center—if the Cavs can re-sign him.
Re-Sign Spencer Hawes
Getting Hawes to return to Cleveland is more beneficial than advertised.
First off, he's by far the best big man on the team in terms of spacing the floor. He posted 16.3 points per-36 minutes on 44.8 percent shooting from behind the arc in his 27 games with the Cavaliers—both career highs.
It's not the biggest sample size, but he benefited from leaving a rebuilding Philadelphia 76ers squad. He will be entering his eighth season, and he's hitting his prime to perhaps be one of the bigger steals in free agency.
Since he can play pick-and-pop with Kyrie Irving, it makes it a lot easier for the Cavs point guard to get to the rim or make the easy pass. Too many times Irving has had to create his own shot off high-ball screens without a big man who poses a consistent, legitimate threat.
Ultimately, Irving does need to move the ball more, but this would help him earlier in the shot clock.
Furthermore, if the Cavs drafted Vonleh, he would give them a lengthy power forward to work inside. He has fantastic offensive upside and is already physically ready for the pros, and surrounding him with shooters will make his life a lot easier as a rookie.
But for this to happen successfully, they need to re-sign Hawes, who made $6.6 million this year. Given his recent production, I'd expect for his next contract to be more than that annually but nothing close to Deng's $14.275 million.
This gives the Cavs the best opportunity to go after other free agents, whether they are rising stars or veterans. This way, they can address some other areas, such as perimeter defense and a shooter off the bench if they don't re-sign C.J. Miles.
Kyrie Irving Makes His Teammates Better
Irving hasn't had much help during his first three seasons in Cleveland. Anderson Varejao, Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson aren't exactly excellent second options.
But some of the Cavaliers' struggles do fall on Irving. While he's cut down on the turnovers and improved individually on his defense, his shooting percentages have declined, and his other numbers have remained fairly steady, per-36 minutes.
The most alarming area is the assists department. Granted he is the primary scorer and hasn't had a go-to guy, but the Cavs were 20th in assists last season at 21.2, and that's not going to get it done.
We know he can break down nearly every player in isolation off the dribble. He has some of the best ball-handling skills in the league and can score from anywhere on the floor.
But when he starts trying to do too much, that's when the percentages drop. There are moments when he puts the team on his back, but it shouldn't be happening in nearly every game.
There must be more ball movement, and Irving must do a better job of getting his teammates easier looks.
Get Irving and Waiters to Coexist Successfully
The Cavaliers had their problems on and off the court this season, but ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard reported back on Nov. 28 that there were specifically issues with Irving and Waiters.
These two must get on the same page. Irving and Waiters were selected by the Cavs No. 1 in 2011 and No. 4 in 2012, respectively, but they have yet to find great chemistry.
According to NBA.com, the Cavs' six best lineups in terms of plus-minus points (how much a team is winning or losing by) are when Irving or Waiters was on the court, not when they were together (minimum five games played and five minutes per game). Plus, the top two lineups are when Irving was on the bench.
Waiters was initially the starting shooting guard, but C.J. Miles took over after it wasn't working out, and eventually Jarrett Jack started at the 2 to close the season.
Jack needs to get back to coming off the bench at point, which is his natural position. His biggest strength is penetrating the lane, opening the passing lanes and creating opportunities for his teammates.
Waiters is a streaky shooter, but he has too much talent to be a sixth man. Will he settle for that role next season? Maybe, but I doubt it.
Head coach Mike Brown must sit down with Irving and Waiters. The Cavs should figure out some new half-court sets, emphasize fewer shots off the dribble and get these guys playing more in transition.
Play More Uptempo
Teams that are coached by Brown typically are defensive-minded, but that doesn't mean they need to play at a slow pace like the Chicago Bulls or Indiana Pacers. According to TeamRankings.com, the Cavaliers were 16th in the league with 97.7 possessions and 23rd with 10.7 fast-break points.
With one of the youngest teams in the NBA and guards who can get to the rim and shoot it from distance, they would be better off pushing the tempo more frequently. This would help them space the floor and get into a better rhythm.
They may not have incredibly athletic big men to play above the rim like the Los Angeles Clippers or Denver Nuggets, but guys like Hawes and Varejao do an excellent job of running the floor. This comes by attacking the offensive glass or using their hands to catch and finish at the rim.
But those clubs are among the best in defensive efficiency. Cleveland is tied for 16th in that department.
With an inconsistent half-court offense and average defense, Brown may want to let his guys play with some more freedom and run at times.