Give And Go: Considering the Cavaliers’ options with the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft
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: Digging into three key questions surrounding the Cavaliers, who hold the No. 1 pick in Thursday night’s draft.
1. Which players should qualify for the “short list” of candidates worthy of consideration for the No. 1 pick?
Ben Golliver: For the first time in at least a half-decade, the draft night intrigue starts at the very top. Not only is this class lacking a consensus No. 1 pick a la Blake Griffin, Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis, circumstances dictate that there are multiple, legitimate options worthy of more than the manufactured debates we saw with Derrick Rose vs. Michael Beasley or John Wall vs. Evan Turner. That might not be the case if Nerlens Noel had March Madness and a few weeks of pre-draft workouts to blow everyone’s minds, but his season-ending knee injury and the months that have passed since allowed at least four other players to enter the “short list” conversation. That quartet: Alex Len, Victor Oladipo, Otto Porter and Ben McLemore.
Casting the net that wide says more about Cleveland’s current roster, needs and timeline than it does about which players are most deserving of the No. 1 pick. Absent all other factors (except health), I see this as a two-horse race between Noel and McLemore, as their star potential seems most certain. A thin frame isn’t going to keep Noel from using his outstanding physical attributes to become an excellent rim-protector and reliable rebounder; his limited offensive game has plenty of room for growth, but it’s far from being a major handicap. As for McLemore, his size, athletic tools and shooting stroke are a very desirable package, even when acknowledging his consistency issues.
That said, there’s no squinting involved when it comes to envisioning Len, Oladipo and Porter fitting in smoothly in Cleveland. Regarding Len, Cleveland’s need for a productive, big-bodied center is obvious, especially considering Anderson Varejao’s injury history. A solid two-way 2-guard that can shoot, Oladipo would fit well next to Irving and allow Dion Waiters to fill the microwave scoring role for which he is best suited. Your grandmother would have a shot at starting at small forward for the Cavaliers, and Otto Porter, blessed with excellent size and a well-rounded, mature game, is definitely better than your grandmother. This trio might lack the “sizzle” we associate with No. 1 picks, but they are all certainly worth Cleveland’s time.
Rob Mahoney: Noel and McLemore are undeniable inclusions on such a list, while Porter and Oladipo make good sense as well. I stop short of adding Len, though, if only because I’m not quite sure how he’s vaulted up draft boards or claimed such a prominent spot in pre-draft rumors. Len looks like he’ll be a fine pro, as his combination of size and mobility will make him a player of interest on both ends while his post game continues to develop. But with the top pick in the draft, teams have every reason to expect more. Len’s ultimately not polished or promising enough to really make the Cavs think twice about selecting Noel if they opt for a big, and he has an injury of his own (a partial stress fracture in his left ankle) that would nullify any immediate advantage Cleveland might gain from drafting him over Noel. Len will surely make sense for some other team a few picks later, but with the option to choose any player on the board, I would have a hard time talking myself into Len over the more explosive Noel.
That said, I think it’s still prudent to consider McLemore, Porter and Oladipo, particularly for a Cleveland team that’s so flimsy on the wings. I very much like Ben’s idea of shifting Waiters to the bench as a bucket-getting Sixth Man, and players like McLemore and Oladipo would provide a nice means to that end. If the Cavs opt to bank on the development of an athletic scorer, McLemore would be the pick. If they’d rather use the pick to add a high-level perimeter defender, Oladipo would make more sense. And if they’d rather address the biggest need of their young, developing roster, Porter would make a great get. It all depends on what Cleveland is looking for.
2. Assuming that the Cavaliers keep the top pick, which player should they select?
Mahoney: If I didn’t telegraph my perspective already, I’m opting for Noel. In drafts with a debatable top choice, it’s not uncommon for analysts and fans to begin to bail on the likely top pick at this stage in the draft season. Given that Noel is hardly a definitive choice for the top slot, that turn is understandable; one could easily look at Noel’s undeveloped offensive game and see a glaring red flag. But I’m sold on both the Tyson Chandler archetype — a big man who can rotate quickly, leap to defend the basket and finish consistently on offense — and Noel’s ability to fill it, which, to me, makes him a wonderful fit for a team looking to establish itself defensively and find better help for Irving.
To this point, Noel has largely succeeded by way of his athleticism and instincts — both of which allow him to make plays that few other players can. He tries to jump entry passes into the post too often and can be sold on predictable pump fakes, but he’s also a 19-year-old who played in a mere 24 collegiate games.
The fact that Noel is so obviously lacking for savvy might make him a distasteful top pick to some, but Noel’s ability to shape the game through quick-footed help and soaring interior D makes him the most sensible choice for the top slot. His presence on the backline could help make up for some of Cleveland’s errors on the perimeter, particularly given that Noel will be learning on the job alongside a terrific pick-and-roll defender in Anderson Varejao and under a largely successful defensive coach in Mike Brown. He has a ways to go on both ends, but it doesn’t take much imagination to conjure an image of the shot-eating, space-swallowing force that Noel might soon become.
Golliver: The temptation to rush the process must be overwhelming in Cleveland. Owner Dan Gilbert and his son, Nick, made it clear on the night of the lottery that a return to the postseason was the organization’s goal in 2013-14. Former Cavaliers forward LeBron James winning his second straight title with the Heat only ups the “Win now!!!!” sentiment. Add on the fact that three Eastern Conference playoff teams — Boston, Atlanta and Milwaukee — could look drastically different by the end of the summer, and making the leap into the postseason doesn’t seem unrealistic at all. Finally, toss in the cap space that is surely burning a hole in Gilbert’s pock and this starts to look like a genuine powder keg.
Be quick, but don’t hurry, John Wooden reminds us. Even under the conditions facing the Cavaliers, drafting at the top of the board shouldn’t be about what happens in the next nine months but what happens over the next nine years. That’s especially true when holding the No. 1 overall pick, even in a weaker field like this one. The NBA’s four-year rookie deals and five-year rookie extensions make these picks a near-decade long investment.
For the Cavaliers, the equation then becomes: Who is the best player to team up with Irving over the long term? Which individual can eventually evolve into a player capable of playing a major role in a championship contending core? In that context — with the focus set on the really, really big picture — losing Noel for part of next season, and possibly delaying a return to the postseason, seems like a much less important deal. With bankable defensive instincts and the body to become a game-changer, Noel would be my guy.
3. Which makes more sense for Cleveland at this moment in time: Using the pick to draft a young talent or flipping the pick to acquire an established forward?
Golliver: Many of the trade scenarios thrown out over the last few weeks appear to fall into the “Way, way too good to be true” category. Kevin Love? LaMarcus Aldridge? The Cavaliers shouldn’t think twice about throwing the No. 1 pick into a package for players of that caliber. Finding a sensible deal for the Timberwolves or Blazers in such a scenario is a much more difficult task. There needs to be a low-risk, immediate return coming back for a franchise player with multiple year on his deal and this draft, and the Cavaliers’ available trade assets, don’t really fulfill that criteria. I remain skeptical that a “Wow” deal takes place here, which isn’t exactly going out on a limb, considering that the first pick hasn’t been traded in 20 years.
If a trade involving the No. 1 pick does happen, I would expect it to be a pick-swap deal with a team in the top half of the lottery that is willing to pay a premium to land Noel.
Mahoney: As Ben noted, it very much depends on the player. Stars of Love’s and Aldridge’s caliber won’t be had for the top pick in this year’s draft, but those kinds of pipe-dream scenarios are exactly what the Cavs are looking for in exchange for this pick.
This draft class may be perceived as lacking in relative terms, but the ability to choose from the lot without having to jockey for position is an incredible luxury, to say nothing of the high hit-rate on top picks overall. Players like Noel and McLemore will need plenty of developmental work, but their chances of stardom seem undersold by the general sense of “weak draft” worry.
Plus, given where the rest of the Cavs’ roster is developmentally, I see no fault in adding one more quality young player to the pool. This is still a franchise that should be playing the long game, and while the addition of a few competent starters via trade would likely push Cleveland into playoff contention this season, there are greater goals at stake than the fight for the 7th or 8th seed. Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and Tyler Zeller are still growing into their games. With that in mind, where exactly is the harm in seeing if a player like Noel could become the kind of lanky, mobile rim-defender that the Cavs need, or rolling the dice with a talent like McLemore, who could be a better fit than Waiters alongside Irving?