Tag Archives: Cleveland

NBA Finals Preview: The Cleveland Underdogs

“Individual commitment to a group effort – that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.”
Vince Lombardi

I generally don’t consider myself a brilliant writer or anything. I enjoy writing and a couple people have told me that I’m not terrible at it, so that helps. But every once in a while I stumble upon something that even I think is kind of smart.

That is how I feel about the post I wrote ahead of the Eastern Conference Finals. The point of the piece was that this Cavaliers team, beat up and broken and with some unexpected pieces playing major roles, is the exact team that both Cleveland as a city and LeBron James as a player deserve.

The common narrative going into the Hawks series (which continued even during and after) was the idea that it was a matchup of the “team” (the Hawks) against the “individual” (LeBron). And while LeBron was clearly the best player in that series dismantling (averaging nearly a triple double) what bore out through those four games is that this Cavaliers squad is more than just one player. They really are a team. It takes a team to pick up the slack when you are without two All-Star players. It takes a team to play stifling defense and shut down the “machine” that the Atlanta offense was up until they ran into the Cavs. It takes a team to be tougher both mentally and physically than your opponent. It takes a team to sweep a conference finals series.

Cleveland, as a city, is never the favorite for anything. Put aside for a moment that we haven’t won a major sports championship in 51 years. Cleveland from an economic, cultural, political, and societal standpoint is an underdog. About the only thing we’re really good at is being cheaper than other cities for The Avengers to set up shop, destroy, and pretend that they’re saving New York City.

It’s only fitting then that going into the Finals, against a very formidable foe in Golden State, the Cavs actually are the underdogs. As if any team heading into the championship of their given sport—let alone a LeBron-lead one—needs an added incentive to play great, it never hurts to be the betting underdog in Vegas. The Warriors are greater than 2/1 odds to win the championship…which is just fine. Because these Cavaliers were born to be underdogs.

The underdog role suits Cleveland and suits those who call it home. It’s an interesting paradox that the most famous person who calls Northeast Ohio “home” is the one person who is the opposite of an underdog. From the time people began to learn the name LeBron James he was expected to be great. And more than probably any other person with lofty expectations placed on them from an early age, LeBron has met and exceeded them all. And yet, LeBron loves to play the underdog role, and it’s a large part of what makes him great. (That and the fact that God made him 6’8”, 250 pounds with absurd speed, strength, and quickness.)

LeBron’s humble beginnings in the projects of Akron with a single mother struggling to makes ends meet is well documented. The hard work and determination and need to rely on others for help is what LeBron has credited driving his great success. He’s the athlete that you would create in a lab, made to physically dominate all on-comers, and yet he understands what Lombardi was talking about in that quote I used as the intro to this post: it takes a team to win. LeBron didn’t have a team around him when all was said and done a year ago in the Finals as his Heat teammates crumbled under the pressure of the what was the epitome of a team in the 2014 Spurs. LeBron recognized it early on with Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters (RIP) and pushed the individuals on the team to work as one unit. LeBron has done for and with Iman Shumpert and JR Smith was Carmelo Anthony never could—he’s made them part of something bigger than their individual talents. This Cavaliers team has played this postseason with the tenacity and teamwork of an underdog. And the fact is, the individuals who make up the team are underdogs in their own way.

We’ve already covered how LeBron is (and also is not) an underdog. Kyrie is probably the least uderdoggy player on the team outside of LeBron because of his immense skill and everything he’s already accomplished in his young career. But put up against Steph Curry? That’s a different story. Especially given his injuries struggles Kyrie will have a really hard time matching up with Curry defensively, let alone trying to match is scoring production on the other end.

Tristan Thompson, for starters, is from Canada (and no pun was intended equating “Starters” and “Canada” I swear—Pew! Pew!) and no offense to the great white north but it hasn’t exactly been hoops hotbed for very long. Add that to the fact that he’s not super skilled, relies heavily on his energy and hard work, and only recently discovered he’d been shooting with the wrong hand his whole life, and Tristan is the prototypical underdog on the team…if it weren’t for a certain Aussie.

Matthew Dellavedova is from another country (also a place not known for pumping out ballers), went to St. Mary’s, went undrafted, and has only barely held onto a roster spot on this team if you believe Twitter during the regular season. Like Tristan, Delly also has to bust his butt for everything he gets. Only that character quality has been sullied by people who aren’t willing to work as hard and want to call what he does “dirty” which remains the stupidest thing I’ve heard these entire playoffs and I’ve had to listen to a lot of Reggie Miller, Jeff Van Gundy, and Mark Jackson so that’s saying something.

Shumpert and JR were midseason cast-offs from one of the worst teams in the NBA. The Knicks considered them sunk costs and only got back cuttable contracts and a second round draft pick in return—so basically nothing. Shump and JR were considered essentially worthless to the largest market team in the NBA, but have proved to be invaluable to one of the smallest. The two shooting guards have done nothing but thrive since they’ve come to Cleveland and have been (and will continue to be) huge parts of the Cavs’ success this postseason.

Timofey Mozgov is still best known for having his last name turned into an action verb by Blake Griffin. And despite recently being buried on the center depth chart in Denver behind JaVale McGee of all people, Mozgov has looked like the missing piece to the Cavs defense. He’s the anchor. The rock. And with Tristan he makes up part of a terrifying duo on the boards. Don’t sleep on him in those pick and rolls either.

And then, just like everyone expected when they signed him for the minimum this past summer, there’s James Jones. I, like many other NBA fans I expect, was a little surprised to learn after the close of the sweep of the Hawks that Jones, along with LeBron of course, was also headed to his fifth straight NBA Finals. Given that he never saw the court the past several seasons in Miami I had no idea he was still on those teams. You could have told me he’d been cut two years ago off that team I never would have known the difference. He couldn’t get on the court for those teams and even with this Cavs team they clearly signed Shawn Marion and Mike Miller to play bigger roles. And yet, there’s James Jones, still firmly in the Cavs rotation this late in the Playoffs and still knocking down shots. Jones won’t play a huge role in these Finals I don’t think, as he’ll probably only get single digits in minutes per game. But to call the fact that Jones has ANY role in these Finals “unexpected” coming into the season would be an understatement.

No discussion of underdogs or people who were not expected to be here would be incomplete without including the Cavs coach, David Blatt. Never mind that he’d only ever coached overseas before this season and that he had to deal with a constantly developing roster throughout the season…if you believed the national and local media this guy was supposed to have gotten canned back on New Year’s. Only that never happened. And all Blatt has done since is lead this team to play extremely well since mid-January all the way into the NBA Finals. On his way to the Finals Blatt’s team has swept Brad Stevens (who finished 4th in Coach of the Year voting this season), dismantled Tom Thibodeau (finish 7th this season and won COY in 2011), and also swept this season’s COY Mike Budenholzer. All those great coaches combined to only with two games over Blatt’s team. He know has a shot at Steve Kerr who finished a close second.

Throughout this postseason Blatt has made the right decisions with the rotation and matchups. He held out Kyrie when he was ailing, knowing that the team would be fine without him. He put the ball in the hands of his best player and surrounded him with shooters. He’s opted for defense at almost every turn, knowing that is the true key to success in the playoffs. Every series he has out-coached guys that finished ahead of him in the Coach of the Year voting. Go ahead and keep discounting his coaching ability though. Something tells me that Blatt enjoys being the underdog as well.

  
These moments don’t come around all the time, as we well know. It’s been eight years since that magical 2007 Eastern Conference Finals against Detroit when LeBron led the underdog Cavs to beat the Pistons almost entirely by himself (with the help of some Boobie Gibson threes). That team wasn’t supposed to make the Finals. The 2009 and 2010 Cavs, however, were…and didn’t. Nothing is given, as LeBron reminded us this summer. You work for everything you have.

So I’m going to enjoy this moment. Cleveland is in the spotlight. It’s a great time to be someone who calls Ohio “home” (even while currently living 500 miles away).

Cleveland has always been an underdog city. Why should that change for these Finals? Own it. Embrace it. Cleveland pride.

Bring it home, boys.

Cavs in six.

Believeland.

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2014 NBA Draft Preview: The Never Winning But Always Interesting Cleveland Cavaliers

David Stern walks to the podium, card in hand, boos raining down, to announce the first selection of his final Draft as NBA commissioner. He begins, “With the first pick in the 2013 NBA Draft the Cleveland Cavaliers select…” The short portly man with the silver hair pauses for dramatic effect.

This is his last draft after all, he might as well relish the moment. He opens his mouth to speak, his lips clearly about pronounce an “A” before he appeals to the crowd for louder boos. Everyone is thinking at this point the “A” will be followed by “lex Len”, the hotly debated center from Maryland. It was down to him or Nerlens Noel. Everyone said so. Stern holds the form of the “A” for what feels like an eternity before continuing… “Anthony Bennet of Toronto, Canada and the University of Nevada Las Vegas.” On the ESPN telecast Bill Simmons lets out the reaction that everyone at home was feeling: “WHOAH!!!” It was a shocking selection by Chris Grant and the Cavs.

But really, it shouldn’t have been that surprising at all. You see, that’s what the Cavs do these days: they’re always full of surprises.

When they won the Draft Lottery only a year after losing LeBron (with a pick they got for the right to amnesty Baron Davis, no less) it was surprising. When they took Dion Waiters fourth overall over Harrison Barnes in 2012 it was shocking. When the won the Lottery again in 2013 it was unthinkable. When they subsequently selected Bennett, rendering months of blog debates utterly useless, it was drop-your-jaw stunning.

When they re-hired Mike Brown it was puzzling. When they fired Chris Grant and said that they liked the team he built it was puzzling still. When they waited almost a month after the season to fire Mike Brown (again) it was kinda odd. And then only a week later when they (and I still kinda can’t believe it actually happened to be honest) won the Lottery for the third time in four years it was poop-your-pants unbelievable.

So it should come as no surprise to anyone that a month and a half long coaching search concludes with the Cavs hiring a man that has only coached overseas and most people had never even heard of. And it shouldn’t have been all that shocking either when the general consensus top overall player in this year’s draft, Joel Embiid, came down with a broken foot.

For normal teams these events happening essentially on back-to-back days would have been unconscionable. But for the Cavs? Shock and surprise is our normal. At this point the most surprising thing to happen would be if something normal and predictive might happen. So as we lead into the draft this week, with the Cavs holding the No. 1 overall pick, we should all expect the unexpected.

If it was up to me I’d take Andrew Wiggins. At the end of the day I err on the side of betting on potential and Wiggins has the potential to be a great player. Every ability you want out of a top pick is there, he’s just got to put it together. That’s not to say, however, that I wouldn’t be more than happy with Jabari Parker. He’s the surest thing in this draft, a guy that could contribute in the starting lineup from day one with the Cavs. David Griffin won’t get fired for picking Jabari Parker. He could, however, lose his job if he takes the chance on Joel Embiid and it doesn’t work out. Through most of this process my draft top three went 1a) Embiid, 1b) Wiggins, 2) Parker. The raw abilities combined with the size and athleticism of Embiid are truly enticing…even enticing enough to take him in spite of his back issue. But when you add in a broken foot? That makes it a little more dicey. One is a fluke…two is a trend. And the NBA has a long history of big men losing injury battles.

Taking Embiid first overall at this point moves beyond “risky” to “reckless.” Griffin would be putting his job on the line with that decision. The good news is that the Cavs doctors have had a chance to get a look at Embiid and weigh the risk versus reward. If they determine that Embiid will be fine then they could play this situation perfectly. They could trade back to No. 3 and pick up some extra assets and still get the guy they want. And that is ultimately the beauty of where the Cavs are: they control the situation. Oddly, this year’s draft is exactly like last year’s…only the exact opposite in a way. Last year there were about six guys who were the consensus top players in the draft. The Cavs held the first pick and their choice of the lot of them. They really coudn’t screw it up. Some would argue that they did anyways but not me. The fortunes of the 2013-14 Cleveland Cavaliers would not have changed one bit if they would have taken Victor Oladipo, Ben MacLemore, or any of the lot over Bennett. Go look at their stats…they were all terrible. And I still think Bennett has as much, if not more, upside than any of them. [Editor’s Note: The guy with the MOST upside is the Greek Freak who was not a “top guy”] But we digress…the point is that last year there really was no wrong decision.

The same holds true for this year. There really isn’t a wrong decision. Smart minds differ on who is better: Parker or Wiggins? If the Cavs stay put and take one of those two guys they can’t be wrong. The other guy could turn out better but when it’s a 50-50 shot and you take it…the results shouldn’t color the decision. I almost expect nothing exciting to happen. I sorta feel like the Cavs are just going to sit pat and take Parker (if you believe the rumors these days…which you shouldn’t of course).

But it’s when you get lulled into that false sense of normalcy that the unpredictability of the Cavs hits you again. So I expect the unexpected. And nothing will surprise me.

In the end I wouldn’t be surprised if the Cavs traded back, drafted Dante Exum, traded Kyrie for Kevin Love, and brought back LeBron. [Editor’s Note: Lebron has opted out] Ok, I lied…that would surprise me.

But only a little. Because while the Cavs never actually win anything, they’re always interesting.

Believeland Baseball: The end of a fun ride for the 2013 Indians

As we find out all too often in the city of Cleveland…All good things must come to an end.

The 2013 Cleveland Indians season started with a palpable excitement about the potential of a franchise that finally came around to spending some money in the offseason and was looking like a team on the rise. Despite only winning 68 games in 2012 there were elevated expectations for the 2013 squad because of the additions of Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher. But while we all were no doubt hoping that the team would make the postseason, I don’t think many people actually expected it to happen.

So when the Indians went on a hot streak to end the regular season and earned the right to host a Wild Card playoff game it shouldn’t have mattered what happened in that game because the team had already overachieved, right? Unfortunately sports don’t work that way and in this moment the Tribe’s loss on Wednesday night hurts.

It hurts because I fell in love with this team. It’s tough not to get attached when you ride with a team for 6+ months through all the ups and downs. You ride the emotions of the team and even as a fan you try not to get too high or too low during the streaks. So when you get to the end of a long, grinding season and it’s just one game and then it’s all over, it’s kind of a tough pill to swallow.

In a win or go home situation—against a really quality opponent—you can’t squander the few opportunities you get. And that’s just what the Indians did. The Rays are a great team, there’s no denying that. In a longer series I would not have been optimistic about the Tribe’s chances. But when it’s just one game anything can happen and it only takes one break to make the difference. The break never came on Wednesday night. The Indians had their fair number of chances but they could never capitalize. The team that always seemed to have the knack all season long for getting a clutch hit at the right moment suddenly came up bust. No moment hurt more than the Asdrubal Cabrera double play in the fourth with the bases loaded and one out.[1] It didn’t feel like we were going to get anything close to that kind of a golden opportunity again against a stud like Cobb. The chance was there for a moment…then gone. And with it, the season.

For 162 games we witnessed the Tribe pitching staff be steady and solid while the bats were extremely streaky. When they were hot it seemed like there wasn’t a pitcher alive who cool them down. They seemed to feed off of the energy of one another. But when they were cold it felt like a January swim in the waters of Lake Erie. They rode a hot streak to a ten-game winning streak and home field in the Wild Card game only to have a cold wave roll in when they got there. Ultimately that was the difference obviously. The top three hitters in the Indians lineup—a group that was made up of those two exciting new additions and the team’s only positional All-Star—went a combined 0-12.

It feels unhealthy to focus on the sour ending when the totality of the season was so sweet. It truly was a great and memorable ride. I’ve already waxed eloquently about this ball club so I’ll spare you all doing it again. All I’ll say is that I really did love this team and I hope that next year’s group is just as much fun. There’s always going to be some turnover from year to year but with Terry Francona at the helm and the daily doses of energy from Swisher it should be a good one next year. And if guys like Kipnis, Brantley, and Santana continue to improve like they have then the team will only be better on the field.

It’s impossible to say right now what the future holds for this team. It sure feels like they’re on the way up but you never know in baseball. Sometimes it goes away in the blink of an eye.[2] So I’m glad that we (at least I) had this 2013 team to enjoy because you never know when another one like it will come around again. You have to savor the good moments as those are what helps you get through the tough times. So in the wake of the end of the season and an impossibly short playoff “run” I choose not to dwell on the loss but to think about Jason Kipnis’ dirty jersey, Jan Gomes gunning down base stealers, Nick Swisher’s “bro” smile, Michael Brantley’s smooth stroke, Tom Hamilton on the call, Ubaldo Jimenez’s quirky delivery baffling hitters, Chris Perez’s beer gut, the Goon Squad, Danny Salazar’s youthful confidence, and a .183 hitting old man Jason Giambi saving the season with a majestic blast to save the season.

It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

Thank you, 2013 Cleveland Indians. It was a fun ride. Till next year…

Believeland.


[1] I’m not the only one to make this point, but that double play sure felt like a microcosm for Asdrubal’s season. A guy who not too long ago looked like a truly great up-and-coming player is now a guy who seemingly is incapable of coming through in the moment. With Francisco Lindor working his way up the system you have to wonder how much longer A-Cab will be in Cleveland.

[2] Cut to Grady Sizemore nodding.

Believeland Baseball: The Cleveland Indians are in the Playoffs!!!

Team.

That’s the word that best describes the 2013 Cleveland Indians. They are a collection of players that is largely devoid of stars from a national perspective. They are a talented group of individuals for sure but there is no ace of staff, no dominant closer, and no big slugger in the middle of the lineup. No, the Tribe is made up of a group of strong willed players who believe, above else, that together they can accomplish the task at hand.

I’ve been saying all year how much I love following this team. They’re just a fun team to root for. They don’t have Manny, Belle, and Thome in the middle of the lineup like in the 90’s and actually when you look at this team on paper they look more like a team that should finish around .500 and not one that won 92 games and is headed to the playoffs. That’s why I love sports and that’s why I love this team. Because in sports it’s not just about putting a team together on paper and adding up all those player’s collective WAR numbers and coming up with a win total. (Just ask the Angels.) They have to coalesce as a team and act as one unit. The truly great teams are more than just the sum of their individual parts. They become stronger and greater as a single unit than they could ever be on their own.

If you’re just jumping on the Tribe bandwagon now, I’m glad that you’re here but you’ve missed a really fun ride. Baseball is a grind to play but it’s also a grind to follow. The Indians teams over the previous several seasons had tailed off in the second half of the season and I’ll be honest and say that I lost interest in August and September. But this team had me from the start and never let me drift. Not even preseason NFL was enough to draw me away!

The story of the 2013 Indians is a fun one because it really typifies baseball with its ebbs and flows and ups and downs. The down was in late July when they suffered a four-game sweep at the hand of the Tigers and the playoffs looked out of reach. The up is right now: riding a ten-game win streak into the playoffs. But the way that the Indians got to this point was so much fun and that’s why I feel bad for you if you’re just jumping on right now. In order to get to the playoffs in baseball you have to struggle through those ups and downs and that’s exactly what these Indians did.

Many teams are able to get through it with superstar players who are just steady and great all the time like the Tigers have with Miguel Cabrera. But what’s been so fun to watch with the Tribe is how it’s literally a different guy every night. One night it might be the outstanding defensive outfield trio of Michael Brantley, Michael Bourn, and Drew Stubbs who turn doubles into outs. Another night it’s Yan Gomes gunning down potential base-stealers. Many times it’s Brantley getting the clutch hit and looking smooth and confident as he does it. Sometimes it’s Jason Kipnis hustling in the field and on the base paths making plays happen. In some games it’s the energy, passion, and love for the game emanating from Nick Swisher that drives the team. Many times it’s been a starting rotation that is largely devoid of household names or anything you’d consider an ace that comes through with a masterful seven inning, two run performance when the team needed it most. In the second half of the season it’s been Ubaldo Jimenez looking every five nights like the best pitcher in baseball. Some games it’s the “Goon Squad” that comes in with their energy to fuel a win. A couple times it’s been old man Jason Giambi with a pinch-hit walk-off home run. And some days it’s Terry Francona pulling the right strings.

And that’s why I love this team so much. Sure it was a blast to root for those 90’s teams with their seven All-Stars or whatever it was, but there’s something almost more fulfilling about being a fan of this year’s team. They’ve really embraced the city and play like representatives of Cleveland. They aren’t special in special in the eyes of most people from the outside who don’t understand what there is to like about this team and city. But when you’re in it and invested in it, you see the true potential and you get wrapped up in the passion of this team and city that is coalescing into one heartbeat. The 2013 Indians are Cleveland.

I never thought that a baseball team could replace a 2-2 Browns team in the forefront of my consciousness but they’ve done it. There’s nothing like playoff baseball and we’ve got a game coming to Cleveland on Wednesday. That’s something to get excited about.

Now it’s only one game so this fun, magical ride could all be over Wednesday night. They could also continue their hot run and ride that momentum all the way to the World Series. Neither is implausible. That’s baseball. And even if this team only gets one playoff game it won’t change how much fun I’ve had with the 2013 Cleveland Indians. They’ve been a blast to root for from the first game of the season all the way into the playoffs. I can’t wait for Wednesday night. Playoff baseball in Cleveland, people!!!

Believeland.

NBA Draft Preview: Why Alex Len is the Right Pick for the Cavaliers…Probably

In his three years running the Cleveland Cavaliers, Chris Grant has consistently bucked conventional wisdom and made the moves on draft night that he truly believed in, not the ones that smart guys thought he should make. For his boldness, there will always be critics who decry the moves that he makes.

Two years ago the selection of Kyrie Irving No. 1 overall was met with general praise. However, Grant shocked everyone when he took Tristan Thompson at No. 4, choosing to bet on the surest thing he felt was left in the draft. Grant knew that above all else, Thompson wouldn’t bust and that he would work his butt off to improve. Through two years of the Tristan Thompson experience, it appears to most people that that was a very savvy selection and the growth of Tristan has been quite something to behold.

One year ago Grant made another splash when he took Dion Waiters, a guy they had not even talked to or worked out, with the No. 4 pick. Many thought that Harrison Barnes would and should be the pick instead and have since continued to crush the pick. For me, I love it. I was a skeptic from the beginning but I’ve come to understand how Grant arrived at the choice and having watched Waiters play one full season (in which he was named a first-team All-Rookie) I’m excited about his potential to be a very good player in the NBA.

With the No. 1 pick again this year, it appears that Grant is ready to shock everyone again and pass on Nerlens Noel for the generally unheralded center from Maryland, Alex Len. Jason Lloyd from the Akron Beakon Journal has been driving the conversation about Len being a top target for the Cavs for the past month and just yesterday multiple national guys also began to get wind that the Ukrainian big man might be the No. 1 pick:

When David Stern comes to the podium and announces the Cavs selection tonight nothing really would surprise me much, but at this point most signs point to Len being the pick. And for the first time in his last three big selections, I understand upfront why he’d take Len.

The NBA Draft is all about projections. Teams cannot afford to simply take the player that is most ready to contribute from day one. Instead, they must serve as weather forecasters and look to the future and attempt to identify which players will be a raging storm and which will dissipate and ultimately amount to nothing more than a few drops in a bucket. While I’m sure there is a science to what each of these men do, with both the weather man and the GM, the process is far from fool-proof. Chris Grant’s job on Thursday night will be to project whether it’s Noel or Len who will ultimately be the better professional player.

The case for Noel is built mostly on the hope and belief that the elements that are not present in his game currently (jump shot, post moves, poise in the paint, thicker build, etc.) will develop over time. Right now Noel’s offensive game is nothing to speak of short of just dunking the ball. If he is unable to develop a low-post or face-up game then his ultimate NBA future will be consigned to a guy like the Bucks’ Larry Sanders—a skinny, yet very good defensive player and shot-blocking presence but not a threat on offense and therefore, not an All-Star player.

The fans of Noel, for reasons that remain unclear to me, are convinced that Noel will develop into a very good offensive player and has the potential to be an elite player. Their point is generally that when Noel bulks up and when he develops his jump shot and when he acquires a low-post game and when he learns how to handle double-teams that he’ll be a great player overall because he’s already a great defensive player. They treat these improvements as if they’re a foregone conclusion, not one that’s up for any debate. Noel will get much better offensively because he has the mystical secret ingredient “potential” that will get him there.

The Noel backers summarily decry Len’s game and pick it apart. He isn’t strong in the post. He doesn’t demand the ball. If he was so good why aren’t his numbers better? They attribute all the flaws of Len’s game to his lack of ability and ceiling with the brazen conclusion that Len can’t improve his game like Noel can because evidently he doesn’t possess this mystical magic “potential” to get him there.

What has remained a mystery to me is how anyone can judge one player’s potential against another’s. I can understand that if Len was a plodding stiff who looked awkward and lacked athleticism that you could make the case that he has a low ceiling. Lack of elite athleticism for his position is what will likely keep Otto Porter from being a great NBA player. But Alex Len is every bit the athlete and then some that you’d want in an NBA center. He has size, length, quick feet, soft touch, explosion, and good timing on shot-blocks. If you were molding a 20-year-old center prospect out of clay he would look a whole heck of a lot like Alex Len.

Those who want to criticize Len for not being strong in the post somehow seem to forget that Noel was even weaker there. When bodied up against thinker post players, Noel was unable to hold his ground and was over-powered often. Oh wait, I forgot—Noel possesses the mystical juice “potential” so that won’t be a problem for him the pros.

It is true that given his talent, it’s surprising to look at Len’s stat line and see that he only averaged 11.9 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. If he’s so good why didn’t he put up better stats? Why didn’t his team make it to the NCAA Tournament? What these arguments overlook is that basketball is a team game and if the five guys on the court aren’t working together everyone suffers. It’s been thoroughly discussed over the past month how bad Len’s teammates were at Maryland. Their guards especially were selfish and turnover prone. The better question to ask isn’t about his point totals but about his shots. Why was a 7’1” athletic center only getting 8.5 shots a game?

None of this matters though because if Len was so good he would overcome his teammate’s shortcomings the way Noel did. Like how Noel propelled his team to the NCAA Tournament while amassing gaudy statistics that make Len look like a little fairy boy. In reality, Kentucky didn’t make the tournament either and lost in the first round of the NIT. And before the Noel fans jump up and defend their man because “if he hadn’t gotten hurt they would have made the tournament” let me point out that at 17-6 before the Florida game, with losses to Alabama, Texas A&M and Baylor (all non-tournament teams), it wasn’t like they were lighting the world on fire or anything. (For the record, on February 12, the date Noel got hurt against Florida, Maryland was 17-7.)

And about those “stats”…let’s look at Noel and Len’s per 40-minute numbers:

Len—18.0 points, 11.9 rebounds, 3.0 blocks
Noel—13.1 points, 11.9 rebounds, 5.5 blocks

Noel has the edge on blocks while Len has the edge in points. Why again is it a big deal that Len didn’t have the stats? If Len’s “poor” numbers are some sort of indication that he’s not going to be a good pro then why aren’t Noel’s similar numbers an indication of the same thing? Why does the argument only go one way? Why can Noel get so much better but Len can’t?

Silly me, I forgot again about the mystical nectar of “potential” and its powers to turn even the most pathetic offensive player into Kevin Garnett.

Here’s the point I’m trying to get and I’ve gone over the top on purpose: When you get to the level of these players where they’re on the brink of being professional athletes, they all have potential. It’s not some mystical essence that God only deigns to bless certain players with and not others. While it’s true that not everyone is as athletic and physically gifted as others it also doesn’t mean that everyone can’t work hard to improve their game. If Noel had made the same improvements in his game that Len made from his freshmen year to sophomore his fans would point that out as a sign that he’s on his way to stardom! Look at what he was able to accomplish in just one offseason with American coaches! Think of his potential when he gets to spend every summer working with NBA coaches and trainers!

I feel like over the past month leading up to the draft that in making the case for Len as the No. 1 pick that I’ve had to tear down Noel in the process. In reality, I think Noel will probably be a good NBA player. And I can’t say for sure that I think Len will be a superstar. When judging the potential of these two players it’s foolish to make the arguments on when, but rather it should be if.

If Noel is able to bulk up his frame to at least 250 lbs. he’ll be a force on defense. If he can develop a jump-shot or low-post game his offense can blossom to the point that defenses have to account and game-plan for him. If Len has the fire inside him to be great then he’ll only continue to improve his game. If he continues to get stronger with his post play on defense then he too can be a force on defense. If he refines his low-post game then he can be the best offensive center in the NBA.

If, not when.

And I realize that’s not exciting and that’s not sexy. I realize that when we go into these drafts we want to go nuts and talk about how great these players are and how they’re going to transform our franchise into a champion. But the reality is that this is a weak draft. The reality is that if Noel or Len for that matter were so good that the Cavs would have found it a lot easier to trade the pick. But the fact that they haven’t only serves to further cement the notion that there’s not really a whole lot of difference between the No. 1 pick in this draft and the No. 5. Any of those guys could end being the star of the draft. What will ultimately be the deciding factor will be the situation that they find themselves in and how they work to continually improve their game.

For me, I’m willing to bet on Len because I can see the components of his game that are the foundation of what could be a great player. There’s less presumption and projection with Len than there is for Noel. I truly believe that if he continues to improve and maxes out his potential that he can be the best center in the league. Given his size and athleticism it’s not hard for me to project those improvements on his game. I have a harder time doing that with Noel. I have a hard time grasping how long it will take before a guy who some scouts believe isn’t competent enough to get passed the ball on offense right now will develop into a reliable option. I have a hard time looking at his body and figuring out where he’s going to put 50 extra pounds. I’m not saying it’s impossible or that it can’t happen. All I’m saying is that I have a harder time making that projection in my rationale than I do for Len.[1]

Alex Len is the right pick for the Cavaliers with the No. 1 pick………..probably.

How’s that for conviction?


[1] Did I dance around this enough to avoid the Noel fans from jumping down my throat?

NBA Draft: The Mostly Unimpressive Pro Player Comparisons

This year’s NBA Draft is terrible. It’s definitely the worst in the past ten years and you probably have to go back to 2000 to find one that rivals it. We’ve been consistently told that there are no superstar players at the top of this draft. In fact, many don’t think you can even project any of these guys as potential All-Stars. Chad Ford put out his annual “Tiers” column last week and the top two tiers were left completely blank. Ford compiles his list based on input from NBA teams and couldn’t get any of them to consistently project any of these players as future All-Stars. Furthermore, he notes that this is the first time he hasn’t had any players in tiers 1 or 2.

So, seeing as how all these players suck, we thought it would be fun to give you all some comparisons of what you can expect each of the consensus top six prospects to be as pros by comparing them against former players.

Now, since there are no All-Stars in this draft, you won’t find us comparing any of these guys to superstar players. Nerlens Noel does not project to be Kevin Garnett. Ben McLemore is not the next Ray Allen. Heck, we don’t even see Alex Len as comparing to Zydrunas Ilgauskas.[1] We’ll give you two pro player comparisons for each prospect. One that is largely unimpressive…not bad, just unimpressive. These players can have made a maximum of only one All-Star team. You won’t hate the comparison, but you definitely won’t love it.[2] The other comparison will be if the prospect totally bombs…so basically your worst case scenario for each guy. You get the idea…

Note: My editor, Ryan, gave me a lot of help on this one. His takes are included in italics.

Nerlens Noel

Philadelphia 76ers v Orlando Magic, Game 1

UNIMPRESSIVE COMP
Theo Ratliff—Made his bones on the defensive end as a disruptive shot blocker (3.7 blocks per game in 2000-01). Was never a great rebounder because of his weight (only 225 lbs.). Ratliff had a nice long career and made plenty of money simply because he kept getting chances to develop into more of a complete player. GM’s loved his length and athleticism and defense, but the offense and physical build never came.

WORST CASE
Brendan Haywood—Never as a great of a defender as he should be. Has also had injury issues to have held him back.

Editor’s take: How good of a defender can he be? He could be an elite rim protector but I’m not sure he can hold up for 82 games as a post defender. He may be more of a 4.

Alex Len

UNIMPRESSIVE COMP
Rik Smits—“The Dunking Dutchman” was an All-Star in 1998. He was very talented for his size (7’4”) but never developed into a great player. He is beloved amongst Pacers fans for his hard play and occasional great performances. But as the second best player on teams with superstar Reggie Miller, the Pacers never won a championship.

Darko 001

WORST CASE
Darko Milicic—This one was actually brought up by Chad Ford on the BS Report this week. When you list off the strengths of Len’s game (“Skilled big man, Good touch around the basket, Solid perimeter game, Nice passer out of the post, Good shot-blocker and rebounder, Good athlete for a player his size”) they are everything that you’d want out of a big guy in the NBA. But they’re also all the things that were said about Darko.

Editor’s take: It’s hard to see someone like Len developing offensively and defensively equally and not being a bust or superstar. Most likely scenario is that he focuses on one end and plays catch up on the other end the rest of his career.

Victor Oladipo

1994 NBA Finals Game 4:  Houston Rockets vs. New York Knicks

UNIMPRESSIVE COMP
Mario Elie—Not a great player or an All-Star but a versatile defender who was a key piece on three championship teams.

WORST CASE
Tony Allen—Great perimeter defender but a train-wreck on offense. Simply being on the floor during late-game offensive possessions makes it harder for his team to score because he’s not a threat.

Editor’s take: He’s going to be a great defender. Can he be the 3-4th guy on a really good team or the 1-2 guy? Also, this guy isn’t Wade. Dwayne Wade scored 30ppg one season…just STAHP with the Wade projections.

Ben McLemore

Hornacek 001

UNIMPRESSIVE COMP
Jeff Hornacek—A very talented player but is best known for being a great shooter (.403 career 3PT%). A one-time All-Star in 1991, Hornacek is probably best known now for how he finished his career playing as a complementary piece on the Jazz with Malone and Stockton.

WORST CASE
JJ Reddick/Dell Curry—Great shooters, but their inability to create their own shot with the dribble is what reduced them to simply being a bench/role player and not a star.

Editor’s take: His ability to put the ball on the floor will set his ceiling. If he can’t do that he needs to be able to work off of screens extremely well. Mclemore, to me is the least likely to be out of the league in 5 years…he can shoot! P.S.:All of his comps scream best player on a bad team. P.S.S.: How awesome would Mclemore look with Hornacek’s carefully coiffed hair?

Otto Porter

Russell 001

UNIMPRESSIVE COMP
Bryon Russell—Known best for being a defender but not much more. Best offensive season was in 1999-00 when he averaged 14.1 PPG. Never a good enough shooter to be a real threat and make up for his other offensive short-comings.

WORST CASE
Corey Brewer—Very good college player but never anything of note in the pros. Plays with heart and energy but ultimately doesn’t have the skill to make a real difference on a contender.

Editor’s take: The degree to which he can play defense/work out of the post is kind of what will make or break him. Average athletes don’t typically break out as elite defenders right away. Porter needs to stretch his range and develop a herky-jerky post game to get a good second contract.

Anthony Bennett

UNIMPRESSIVE COMP
Cedric Ceballos—Not nearly as big as Bennett but an explosive player who once led the league in field goal percentage. He was an All-Star in 1995 and won the Slam Dunk Contest in 1992. But for all of his talent he didn’t bring it all the time and won’t be remembered as a great player.

Weatherspoon 001

WORST CASE
Clarence Weatherspoon—Our old pal and the guy who coming into the league was called “Baby Barkely”. At 6’7”, 250 lbs. he fits the profile of Bennett. He was also extremely lazy and oftentimes could be found just sitting in the corner on offense waiting to throw up a bad jumper. Ah, those were the days. Possibly an even worse case scenario for Bennett is another former Cavalier, the late Robert Traylor.

Editor’s take: Some fun players…not exactly successful. Larry Johnson/Antwon Walker (best case) separate themselves with better rebounding and longer range. Ceballos had crazy high FG % for someone his size.


[1] Z made two All-Star teams so he’s out of the discussion. Also, if he hadn’t been derailed by all the surgeries he likely would have been a great, maybe even transcendent, center in the NBA. But alas, we’ll never know.

[2] I mean, after all, who wouldn’t love a reincarnation of Big Z in a more athletic body?