Give And Go: Assessing the future for the Eastern Conference’s cellar
Give And Go is a recurring feature in which The Point Forward’s Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney bat an NBA topic du jour back and forth.
This week: assessing the bottom six teams in the Eastern Conference. Through Tuesday, the Raptors, Pistons, Magic, Cavaliers, Bobcats and Wizards were all at least 5½ games out of the No. 8 seed.
1. Which of these six teams has the brightest future?
Ben Golliver: At the risk of dumbing down a fairly complicated question and short-cutting a thorough, all-points analysis, I’ll rush to pick the Cavaliers and not think twice. Nothing is brighter than a budding superstar still on his rookie deal, and that’s exactly what the Cavaliers have in point guard Kyrie Irving. Last week, I selected Irving as the second-most-deserving player among potential first-time All-Stars. If he makes it to Houston this season, which he absolutely should, the Cavaliers are looking at eight (eight!) years of All-Star play before Irving could leave in unrestricted free agency. (That’s assuming he signs a five-year extension, a la Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook, on top of the next two-plus years of his rookie deal.)
There are young lottery picks to like among the other five teams — including Charlotte’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Kemba Walker; Washington’s John Wall and Bradley Beal; Detroit’s Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond and Brandon Knight; Toronto’s Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross; and Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic — but Irving’s future outshines them all, even when injury risks are factored in. Come on, Irving is averaging 23 points, 5.6 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 1.7 steals and shooting 41 percent from three-point range — and he’s still not 21 years old.
This isn’t just about Irving (although it could be). The Cavaliers have been bad enough for long enough to set themselves up for a quick rise with a couple of right moves. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of Tristan Thompson (No. 4 pick in 2011 draft), Dion Waiters (No. 4 in 2012) or Tyler Zeller (No. 17 in 2012), but they all look like rotation pieces and are on affordable rookie deals. Anderson Varejao is, at worst, an above-average trade chip. The Cavaliers will have loads of cap space this summer to improve Irving’s supporting cast, although they must be sure to dole it out to deserving players. Owner Dan Gilbert’s demonstrated commitment to spend what it takes to win adds an optimistic shine to their long-term outlook.
Rob Mahoney: Cleveland is undoubtedly the pick here, for precisely the reasons you mentioned, Ben. Irving is as compelling a prospect as they come, and though the Cavs have a long way to go before they put together a playoff-worthy roster, they already have a handful of useful pieces to build around, and their cap outlook is unbelievably clean. There isn’t a single player under contract beyond this season who shouldn’t be, and no asset on the roster that could even remotely be considered overpaid beyond Luke Walton and his $6 million expiring contract. That gives GM Chris Grant the opportunity to pursue all manner of free-agent targets in his efforts to round out this roster, and just as important is the ability to take on extra salary in a potential trade. Teams under the cap wind up being the ultimate facilitators due to the salary-matching rules, leaving Cleveland in a position to pick up some quality picks or players in exchange for little to nothing. It’s up to Grant to leverage that opportunity into something tangible, but the Cavs have only $27.5 million on the books for next season — a total roster payout that should allow Grant to make some moves and retain that flexibility in the process.
Beyond the Cavs, though, I’m most optimistic about the Bobcats. Though Charlotte may still be on the hunt for high-ceiling offensive players, Mike Dunlap’s infrastructure offers promise for a group of perfectly sturdy complementary types. Walker is coming into his own as a pick-and-roll player, and alongside him is a world of defensive potential between Kidd-Gilchrist, Gerald Henderson and Bismack Biyombo. Things aren’t looking great right now for the Bobcats because of their lack of firepower, general lack of experience and forced reliance on Byron Mullens, but a single shot creator and a few years of working their way into the playoff picture should position the ‘Cats for a long run of success.
2. Which of these six teams has the bleakest future?
RM: The answer likely depends on how you interpret the word “bleakest.” If you’re looking for the team with the longest road back to relevance, it might be Detroit or Charlotte. Yet if you’re looking for the team with the grimmest probable future, then Washington — a team that could well wind up capping out in mediocrity — is the choice. The Wiz needed to rid themselves of all the bad mojo instilled by JaVale McGee and Andray Blatche, but in the process they took on a lot of salary and made parallel trades for win-now pieces. The timing of the contracts acquired still allows a fairly clean slate in 2014, but the cap figure doesn’t yet factor in an extension for Wall, nor new deals for Jordan Crawford, Kevin Seraphin or Trevor Booker. Those potential extensions won’t soak up all of Washington’s cap room, but they could pull just enough in salary to make the next stage in the Wizards’ roster development a bit difficult. Things in Washington aren’t completely dour as long as Wall and Beal continue to develop, but I do see some potential obstacles on the horizon as they cobble together a better roster.
We also shouldn’t disqualify the Magic from this conversation — they’ve done surprisingly well in Jacque Vaughn’s first season, but are delayed from beginning a true rebuild by the puzzling deal given to Jameer Nelson, the contract of Hedo Turkoglu and the years remaining on the deals of Glen Davis and Al Harrington. Their current standing should put the Magic somewhere in the mid-lottery, and they’ll need to make the most of that selection while attempting to shed some of the extraneous salary on their books.
BG: There are so many good options and none of them are truly wrong; it’s just a matter of which flavor of ugly you prefer. In Washington, there’s the “take the plunge by trading for overpaid, middling veterans because we’re sick of sucking” option. Detroit offers the “sign terribly bloated free-agent contracts, slow down a rebuild by sticking with the bad deals and then lose future assets by finally dumping them” version. Orlando represents the “no star player, too good this season to get a super-high lottery pick” variety. Toronto’s got the “hopelessly overmatched player cast as a franchise guy and lots of contracts that look OK one week and absolutely terrible the next” thing going. Finally, there are the Bobcats, whose biggest issue continues to be that Michael Jordan is the owner, although GM Rich Cho has proved himself capable of overcoming that limitation and embarking on a logical long-term rebuilding effort.
I guess a process of elimination in the only course here. I’ll cast out Charlotte from this conversation first. Its core — Kidd-Gilchrist, Walker, Biyombo, Henderson and Ramon Sessions — is a decent start, and the salary-cap flotsam present (Ben Gordon and Tyrus Thomas) isn’t overly crippling. While it takes a little work to get excited about Orlando’s pieces, there’s no questioning the general culture that’s been instilled under Vaughn. That goes a long way in keeping a team out of the “awful” category for multiple years. Like Cho, Magic GM Rob Hennigan has a stint with the Thunder on his résumé, so his approach to a multiyear rebuild is likely to be sensible. And, like Gilbert, Magic ownership has shown a willingness to spend in the past.
That leaves Detroit, Toronto and Washington. Of those three, Washington seems to have the worst combination of young talent on hand and bad future salary commitments. The Wizards are likely stuck with a broken roster until July 2014, whereas there are glimmers of hope with the Raptors’ youngsters and, finally, some cap maneuverability coming for the Pistons this summer. On the bright side for Wizards fans, at least Wall is finally back from his knee injury.
3. What’s the most glaring roster need?
BG: The single greatest need for any NBA team, not just these six, was a real point guard for the Wizards. Washington ranks last in offensive efficiency, trailing the rest of the league by nearly four points per 100 possessions, and last in field-goal percentage. The Wall-less Wizards should have renamed themselves the Contested Jumper Caucus. Wall’s return from injury isn’t like to save this from being a lost season, but at least he offers a reason for fans to watch games and for his younger teammates to stick with the program.
The Wizards should have learned a valuable lesson about the importance of a capable backup point guard, even if the plan is to play Wall as many minutes as humanly possible. Washington got caught with its pants down when Wall went down and life only got that much more unbearable when A.J. Price broke his hand. Developing Beal by putting him in a position to succeed must be a top organizational priority; making that happen should involve the presence of a competent distributor on the court with him at all times. Washington has all sorts of needs, but falling apart as quickly and violently as it did without Wall should be enough motivation to ensure similar calamity doesn’t strike again every time he tweaks an ankle or suffers from flu-like symptoms.
RM: I couldn’t agree more, but I also see a huge need for the Cavaliers on the wing. Irving will control the ball and between Varejao, Thompson and Zeller, Cleveland has the big men necessary to form the basis of a functional rotation. But no wing player has come close to posting even a league-average Player Efficiency Rating this season, as C.J. Miles, Alonzo Gee and Omri Casspi have proved incapable of taking on a substantial role on a talent-strapped team. These aren’t potential contributors who just needed a chance to break out, but role players to their very core. They can help a team — be it the Cavs or another — but only as a third option or in a role that would otherwise absolve them of such considerable responsibility. As it stands, Irving and Waiters have to create damn near everything for Cleveland offensively, and though their teammates have at least done well in converting their open three-point attempts, all involved would benefit if the Cavs were able to pick up a more dynamic wing to either round out their starting five or bolster their bench.
4. Which team is in most need of a coaching change?
RM: Maybe I’m just the forgiving sort when it comes to coaches put in bad situations, but I don’t see the immediate need to fire any of this lot. The only cases that are even up for debate are Washington’s Randy Wittman and Detroit’s Lawrence Frank, and though both have their flaws in terms of rotation management, both were expected to coach lottery-bound teams. Attempting to coach the Wizards without Wall (not to mention Nene) doomed Washington to problems that even a first-rate coach couldn’t solve, much less one as decidedly meh as Wittman. He doesn’t do much of anything to inspire confidence, but, for the moment, I see no reason to pin the faults of a crippled team on a coach who failed to piece together a miracle season.
As for Frank, your opinion of him likely comes down to his handling of Drummond — an amazingly productive rookie big man who is being brought along slowly. I’d love nothing more than to see Drummond play as much as possible, but I respect that Frank had a plan in place with regard to the evolution of Drummond’s role and is sticking to it despite all kinds of public pressure. Drummond deserves more playing time, but it’s not as if Jason Maxiell is struggling or Frank is holding back Drummond on a whim. There’s a patient design at work here, and though it deprives all of us of seeing more of Drummond, that hardly seems like an appropriate reason for Frank to lose his job.
Plus, let’s not forget that he’s given Kyle Singler a chance to crack the rotation, dusted off Charlie Villanueva and gotten a ton out of reserve guard Will Bynum. I’m still not entirely sure why Jonas Jerebko never plays, but again: Is that the kind of offense worth firing Frank over?
BG: Orlando’s Vaughn, Charlotte’s Dunlap and Toronto’s Dwane Casey have nothing to be ashamed of despite their teams’ records. All three have gotten good effort from their teams (at least once the Raptors’ Andrea Bargnani went down with an elbow injury). There’s not exactly a ton of evidence in favor of the job Wittman has done in Washington, but he deserves at least a month with a fully healthy Wall before he goes the way of Flip Saunders. I can’t see too many protest marches being launched or tears being shed, even by Wittman himself, when he eventually gets the ax. In Cleveland, the time to put up or shut up in the wins column is coming for Byron Scott, possibly as soon as the beginning of next season, but Varejao’s injury and the Cavs’ incredibly young roster is enough reason to give him a pass through the rest of this season.
That leaves Detroit’s Frank. He would be my pick, although I don’t think it’s necessarily urgent. As with all of these guys, Frank could fairly argue that he hasn’t been given much to work with and his roster’s key pieces don’t fit together all that well. His nomination here boils down to a simple truth that might not be his fault: His rotations have been too veteran-heavy when this season should have been totally focused on talent development. There are two possibilities: Pistons president Joe Dumars has given him the wrong marching orders, or Frank has decided that he prefers to live his life on the hot seat by playing known quantities rather than unpolished youngsters.
Barring some DeMarcus Cousins-esque personality concerns, there is just no logical reason for a team this bad to limit a player like Drummond to 19.7 minutes per game. The online basketball intelligentsia shouldn’t need to scream for months — as it has — for Drummond to get starter’s minutes. Drummond is averaging 13 points, 13.3 rebounds, 3 blocks and 1.5 steals per 36 minutes. By the way, he’s shooting 59.7 percent from the field. Here’s a plan: Play him 36 minutes a night and never look back.
5. Which team should consider a new general manager?
BG: Detroit’s treatment of Drummond is particularly strange because Frank recognized Singler’s value, even as a rookie, and rewarded him with a starting job in mid-November. Frank has alluded to some unspoken behind-the-scenes reasons for limiting Drummond’s playing time, while the former UConn big man has said he’s OK with being eased into NBA life. Management should have no problem making clear its priorities and philosophy regarding a player who shows this level of talent and production this early in his career. Management also shouldn’t have any problem embracing the greater long-term good that comes with increasing Drummond’s playing time immediately compared to the risks associated with letting a teenager learn on the fly. If it’s Frank’s decision not to play Drummond, Dumars should be screaming at him to reconsider. If it’s Dumars’ decision, he should be screaming at himself in the mirror.
If the incomprehensible treatment of Drummond was Detroit’s only problem, Dumars might get a pass. The list of his rotten decisions is a mile long, though, and has been run down before: the regrettable signings of Gordon and Villaneuva; the decision to sacrifice a first-round pick to dump Gordon; the unbalanced roster stacked with small forwards; and the long-term deal for Tayshaun Prince when retaining him made no sense during a rebuilding cycle, among other moves. Detroit enters the summer with a meaningful level of cap flexibility for the first time in years. Unfortunately, Pistons fans look forward to that possibility with one hand covering their eyes as long as Dumars is the one spending the money.
Another totally acceptable answer: the Wizards and GM Ernie Grunfeld, especially given how badly his splashy plays over the last year have backfired. You could see the thinking behind the acquisitions of Nene, Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor, but not even Grunfeld himself could categorize them as successful. It’s probably accountability time.
RM: I’ll take that “totally acceptable answer” and run with it — you’ve always been a generous man, Ben. Grunfeld is hardly the worst of NBA general managers, but let’s review the moves that Washington has made in the last few years that could independently be categorized as positive or at all successful:
• Drafting Wall and Beal in 2010 and 2012, respectively (Washington had top-3 picks on both occasions)
• Traded to acquire Kirk Hinrich and the rights to the pick that became Seraphin, then flipped Hinrich to acquire Crawford and the pick that became Chris Singleton (an arguably squandered pick, depending on what you think of Singleton)
• Traded Quinton Ross for Yi Jianlian (didn’t work out, but the underlying gamble was sound)
• Acquired Nene in exchange for (essentially) Nick Young and McGee in a three-team trade (the jury’s still out on this one, especially given Nene’s substantial salary)
• Signed Garrett Temple as a free agent (life is all about the little things)
And that’s pretty much it. Much of Grunfeld’s tenure has been spent trying to get out of mistakes that he himself made, whether by sacrificing assets or simply cutting ties with players who had to go (Gilbert Arenas, Blatche, etc.). To flip this concept on its head: What has Grunfeld done to deserve to keep his job, particularly during Washington’s rebuild? He shouldn’t be blamed for some of the self-destructive forces that were well beyond his control, but he should be held responsible for signings gone wrong, draft picks that haven’t panned out and trades that mortgaged the Wizards’ immediate future without any remotely helpful payoff.