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Thompson and Waiters: Cleveland’s Future?
Posted By Nate Duncan On August 22, 2013 @ 11:54 am In NBA | No Comments
The Cleveland Cavaliers are finally one of the more intriguing teams in the NBA following three years in lottery purgatory after the departure of LeBron James. While the traditional team building ethos would view this as a consolidation year for the Cavs to learn exactly who among their myriad young players will be a part of the next great Cavs team, owner Dan Gilbert has accelerated the timetable by demanding a playoff berth this year. Part of the impetus is the worry that star Kyrie Irving may grow frustrated with another losing season as the time for his rookie extension comes near next summer. Fortunately, the Cavs’ dreams of luring LeBron back to Cleveland have prevented them from cashing in their young players or giving up flexibility in favor of long-term contracts for middling veterans.* As a result, the Cavs are in an enviable position with a host of young assets and ample cap space in the summer of 2014.
*While the Cavs’ overall team building is not the focus of this article, Gilbert would be wise to remember the past in two respects. The first is that no player has ever turned down a maximum rookie contract extension since the 1999 lockout instituted the current max salary scale; Irving seems unlikely to do so whether or not the Cavs make the playoffs this year. The second is that short-term moves to assure contention and placate a star did not work out too well with the previous apple of Cleveland’s eye.
Cleveland’s young players present two main personnel questions for the coming year. The first is who will be their power forward of the future. They have now invested No. 4 and No. 1 picks over the last three drafts in that position between Tristan Thompson and Anthony Bennett, but it does not appear they can play together. The second is whether Dion Waiters is the long-term answer as a starting shooting guard. These two players, both surprise No. 4 picks at the behest of Cleveland’s analytics, could well determine the ceiling of the Cavaliers’ resurgence.
Thompson quietly improved across the board last year in his second season, although it escaped much notice because Kyrie Irving injured his shoulder and the second half of Cleveland’s season devolved into (Marv Albert voice) gar-bage time. A 16 PER for a player who just turned 22 in March is quite promising. Thompson recently garnered more attention when it was reported he would be switching his shooting hand this season. The former lefty will now take jumpers and free throws with his right hand after discovering that he was more accurate with that approach. Indeed, he started shooting a few more jumpers right-handed as the season went on.
As this is an unprecedented development so far as I know, one can’t really say how this will affect his shooting long-term. However, Thompson showed great improvement in his jumper last year, shooting 39 percent from 10-16 feet* after being under 20 percent outside of 10 feet the previous year. If he can extend that range a little further and boost his efficiency into the low 40s he should be able to avoid gumming up the spacing in the Cleveland offense as a power forward.
*He was only 3-14 on shots beyond that range.
The Canadian also showed promise as a scorer, ranking in the 70th percentile on isolations.* He generally prefers to turn and face and go to his now-dominant right hand in this scenario. Thompson’s first step to his right is pretty quick, and he has developed better touch with hooks and floaters than one might have expected for a guy who had a reputation of being unskilled coming out of Texas.
*It should be noted though that he was in the 42nd percentile on post ups. Because he so likes to face up on his post ups, the line between postups and isolations is a particularly blurry one for him. The 70th percentile ranking on isolations likely overstates his performance as a result.
Thompson also enjoyed putting bigger players in the mix with a live dribble on occasion, although it is hard to imagine this will be a major part of the Cavs’ offense.
The biggest weakness in Thompson’s offensive game right now is finishing off the pick and roll, as he ranked in the 24th percentile on such plays. He seems to have some tools in this area, but he will never have the finishing ability of the truly elite roll men. With his relatively average jumping ability he isn’t a huge threat to catch alley-oops or dunk on people as the roll man, as he commonly has to either catch and make a move or attempt a less efficient floater or hook from the dreaded 3-9 foot range. His lack of elite athleticism also hindered his scoring on cuts and dump offs, where he was in only the 33rd percentile league-wide.
On defense, the Cavs were equally miserable with Thompson on or off the floor. His statistics on pick and roll defense were poor, in only the 29th percentile as the big defender on pick and roll ball handlers and 42nd percentile in preventing points by the roll men. But while he has an upright stance, Thompson does not do a horrible job on pick and roll D. A bigger problem was Cleveland’s horrible defensive guards failing to get over the pick with any alacrity, presenting Thompson with a difficult decision between giving up a wide open jumper to the ball handler or exposing the pass to the roll man. With the benefit of Mike Brown’s disciplined defensive system, Thompson certainly has the potential to be a very capable big defender in time.
Ultimately, Thompson’s ceiling seems limited because he hasn’t an elite skill aside from his offensive rebounding. He lacks the great shooting ability or elite athleticism of the truly great power forwards. He certainly could develop into an above-average starter, but he doesn’t appear to be the true frontcourt star the Cavs want to pair with Kyrie Irving long-term.
So Who Do the Cavs Choose?
It does not appear that Thompson and Bennett would be able to play together in Cleveland’s base lineup, even down the road. Despite his ability to shoot 3s, Bennett really should be a full-time four. Indeed, that ability is what would make him so effective at the four, where he would be deadly against other power forwards on the pick and pop and also projects to be able to score in isolation.* Playing him at the three will turn him into a mere jump shooter, as he won’t be able to get by opposing wings and won’t have space to post up due to the presence of other bigs on the floor. And any three who can dribble or shoot will roast Bennett in isolation or coming off screens.
*Bennett’s floor spacing at the four would also be helpful to facilitate Andrew Bynum’s post ups if he is healthy.
Nor would it make sense to play Thompson much at center. Thompson certainly has the offensive rebounding ability to do so at 15th in the league with a 13.2 offensive rebound rate*, and could hold up ok for a few minutes a game in a smaller frontcourt with Bennett. But Thompson is a good rather than elite athlete, and at 6’9” with a 7’1” wingspan does not have the size to play center full-time. He is also only an average shot-blocker for a power forward, and does not project as an above-average rim protector. Moreover, at least in the short-term, playing Thompson at center would keep Bynum and Anderson Varejao off the floor.** Those two will be essential to the Cavs’ defense and rebounding.
*The Cavs should be excellent on the offensive glass. Varejao led the league with a 16.9 ORR in his 25 games last year, Bynum was in the top 50 in his last healthy year, and Bennett averaged a healthy 3.5 offensive boards per 40 at UNLV last year.
**Sadly, injuries may end up doing this anyway given their brittle histories.
Fortunately, the Cavs do not need to make a decision between Thompson and Bennett immediately, but one will likely need to be made this summer when Thompson still has another year remaining on his rookie deal. If Thompson hits restricted free agency in the summer of 2015 and requires a more lucrative contract, his trade value will decline significantly. Assuming Bennett has started to realize his immense potential as a scorer by then, it will likely be Thompson who is dealt for more help on the wing.*
*We will assume for this that LeBron James does not return to Cleveland in the summer of 2014.
How much help the Cavs will need on the wing depends on the other darling of their advanced statistics, 2012 No. 4 overall pick Dion Waiters. Offensively he was quite a mixed bag. He shot very poorly overall, with a 49 percent True Shooting Percentage. The Syracuse product made 31% of his 203 three-pointers and 54 percent of his 275 tries at the rim. He wasn’t too bad on long 2s at 41 percent, but really struggled in the mid-range, shooting just 31 percent from 3-16 feet. Despite the bad shooting overall, he rode a 26.1 percent usage rate to a decent PER of 13.9 at age 21. He also proved an extremely low-turnover player for a rookie guard.*
*This may actually indicate that he has less of a ceiling, as turnover rate is one of the primary areas in which rookies improve dramatically in later years. Waiters doesn’t have much room to improve there.
All of this presents somewhat of a mixed bag. Clearly, Waiters must improve his three-point shooting if he is going to keep taking so many. And his shooting at the rim is only ok, even for a guard. Like Thompson, Waiters is more good than great athlete, so expecting him to get much better in close may be asking too much.
It is in his situational statistics that the Waiters puzzle gets even more interesting. Waiters ranked slightly above-average in isolation (57th percentile) and as a pick and roll ballhandler (61st percentile). The problem is that so much of his offense came from these relatively inefficient play types; even though he did well relative to the league, he still only averaged 0.78 points per possession on those plays. But on spot ups,* Waiters was in the 78th percentile at a sterling 1.075 points per possession. Meanwhile, 76% of his made 3s were assisted, which would indicate that he shoots much better off the catch than creating them for himself off the dribble. Indeed, on no-dribble spot up jumpers he had a scorching 62.6% eFG percentage, which ranked in the 87th percentile.
*These can be either spot up jumpers, or drives to the basket after a close out.
But the biggest obstacle to being a starting shooting guard is on the other end of the floor. Waiters’ defense was atrocious in every possible respect. He ranked in the 16th percentile or below in every major category except off screens, highlighted by a sixth percentile ranking in opposing spotups. Part of the problem was the amount of penetration the Cavs allowed, but more of it was simple inattention by Waiters. For example, here he simply loses his man in anticipation of a leak out opportunity that never comes.
Below, he is shocked to see Roddy Beaubois* flash to the wing, then gets blown by as he makes a late closeout and a halfhearted (really more like quarterhearted) attempt to stay with the Frenchman as he drives past. These were not isolated incidents.
*Beaubois made my list of potentially undervalued free agents, but has not even gotten a sniff in the free agent rumor mill. It is very surprising for a guy who was nigh untouchable for the Mavs after the 2010 season. While he’s obviously fallen off, at only 25 he is at least worth a minimum flier somewhere.
The carnage was equally bad in other key areas, including 16th percentile on pick and roll ball handlers, and 12th percentile on isolations. The Cavs’ 27th ranked defense was even worse with Waiters on the court, to the tune of 4.5 points per 100 possessions.
If Waiters can improve his defense to passable levels under Brown’s tutelage, he should mature into a reasonable starter at the 2. While he does not have ideal defensive size for the shooting guard position, his inexperience and inattention is the bigger problem. Waiters and Irving* are the key variables in the Cavs’ defense this year, because if Bynum and Varejao are healthy the backline should be solid enough.
*Whose defense was nearly as bad.
While many believe Waiters’ future is as a sixth man, a deeper look at the stats shows he could prove a solid complement to Irving as a starter if he can dial back his usage a bit and concentrate more on playing off others. This will allow him to utilize his already solid spot up game and attack off closeouts.
At this point, the Cavs have no other natural 2s on the roster and nothing approaching an average starter at the 3. For Waiters to move into a sixth man role, the Cavs would have to acquire a starting level 2 and 3. It would be much better for the team if he simply becomes the starter.
In Thompson and Waiters, the Cavs have acquired two building blocks. Although neither seems likely to become a star, they do have the potential to become solid starters at their positions.
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