In typical Cavaliers fashion, the team waited until the final 15 minutes to step up and play some defense last night, finally blowing out the Wolves 125-104. They outscored Minnesota 16-1 over the last 3:10, an extraordinary offensive outburst fueled by defense – including four Wolves turnovers, half by old friend Anthony Bennett, who added a loose ball foul on a rebound that sent Kevin Love to the line. Five different guys scored, nobody more than four points.
The offense is humming at a good clip – including 64 first half points. The defense remains a work in progress. This is exacerbated by the fact that every team is gunning for the Cavs, something many of the players – including Love – aren’t used to, never having played on a team that opponents are always up to play. However, when they buckle down, they’re good. Even the bench is rounding into form.
And then the other sneaker fell. The real take away from the Minnesota game is the loss of Anderson Varejao who went down with very little contact midway through the third quarter. He tore his Achilles tendon and is done for the season. It’s such a shame because Wild Thing’s presence is such a boost to the team, his upbeat attitude contagious and he was having a career year reunited with LeBron. Thankfully for him, he signed a 3-year, $30 million contract extension (two years guaranteed) at the end of October.
So where does this leave the Cavs? We’ve discussed some of the potential options briefly before, but we’ll take this opportunity to look more seriously at the different alternatives out there, with an assist from the rumor mill.
Because of the salary cap rules, the Cavaliers must match whatever comes in with equal salaries going out, this makes many players unattainable, because the Cavs don’t want to send any significantly salaried players out if they can help it. But they have a $5.3 million trade exemption from the 48 hours Keith Bogans spent here. They’ll look to fit a player in that. (A trade exemption can not be combined with other outgoing salary to get a higher salary player.)
We’ll start by dismissing the Cavs’ interest in Kosta Koufos as one-sided. While the Cavs could potentially interest the Grizzlies in Dion Waiters, he’s a bad fit for their low-post, grind it out offense. Further, the other night they even started Koufos with Mark Gasol (usual power forward Zach Randolph has been out) giving them a twin-towers setup. Whatever their issues at the 2/3 position (Tyshaun Prince? Tony Allen? Courtney Lee? Quincy Poindexter?), they want Koufos for their title run. So let’s call this a pipe dream and move on.
The Denver Nuggets’ 28-year old starting center Timofey Mozgov was linked to the Cavs in August when Coach David Blatt admitted they’d had talks and Mozgov said he’d like to play for Blatt again. They first met when Blatt coached the Russian National Team. He’s a solid 74% career free throw shooter who’s averaging 1.3 blocks/game and eight boards, 2.7 of them offensive.
To compare, Tristan is averaging 3.4 ORBs, 7.1 boards, and .9 block in similar minutes. The biggest difference is that at 7’1”, 250 lbs., Mozgov is a legitimate space-eater who can body big guys. Mozgov’s defensive FG% around the rim is 47.6%, same as Toronto’s Jonas Valanciunas, New Orleans’ Omer Asik, and Portland’s Robin Lopez. His PER is a respectable 15.25, right around Roy Hibbert, Larry Sanders and a little worse than Nikola Pekovic and Robin Lopez.
If the Cavs had salary to send the other way, Denver would love to unload Darrel Arthur’s $3.4 million expiring contract or possibly Rany Foye’s 2-year $3 million contract. Either could be swapped for Dion Waiters’ $4.1 million, but I’m not convinced the Cavaliers are ready to pull the plug on Waiters. He seems to have responded to sitting out the second half of Mike Miller’s big game, by playing a lot better the last couple days.
The other big option to emerge in the last few days is the Celtics’ Brandan Wright, acquired from the Dallas Mavericks in the Rajon Rondo trade. Wright is the #8 player in the NBA in PER, just ahead of Lebron James (#9, 25.3) and Marc Gasol (#13, 23.25). PER attempts to measure contributions on the court, so it exaggerates somewhat the impact of Wright’s 18.3 minutes/game. Then again he was playing behind Dirk Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler, and still shot 75% from the field (lots of alley-oops) and managed .6 steals and 1.6 blocks per game. I repeat in 18 minutes/game.
Wright was the #8 pick in the 2007 draft out of North Carolina, and at 27 years old is entering his peak. For years he was considered a washout, spending three years mired on the Golden State Warriors bench. But the Mavs added him as a free agent three years ago and he’s progressed dramatically in that time, as the numbers show. He’s only 6’10 and 210 lbs., so he lacks the pure size of Mozgov, but is a much better shot-blocker. Wright has allowed 48.9% opponent FG% at the rim, a little worse than Mozgov, but still an improvement on Thompson (51.2%) or Varejao (54.4%).
The Celtics allegedly have a three-team trade lined up for the Cavs, as they are trying to unload some other big contracts which wouldn’t fit for the Cavs, but might bring back assets that they could send our way. Without knowing who might be involved, it’s hard to speculate, though active SF Jae Crowder (also acquired in the Mavericks trade) ability to shoot the 3 and play good defense for less than $1 million would be intriguing to the Cavs, particularly since he’s making less than $1 million and could be packaged for just about anybody, such as Lou Amundson or perhaps Joe Harris (whom the Cetlics would like as a strong young piece the Cavs could afford to let go).
Those are the two most likely scenarios. These next couple are dark horse candidates.
Nobody has mentioned it, but 26-year old former Dukie Miles Plumlee might be an answer. He started for Phoenix last year, but of late has been replaced by last year’s first round draft choice Alex Len, who was injured during much of the prior season. He’s averaging 5 pts, 5.8 rbds a block a game and .7 steals in 20 minutes/game. He’s shooting 54% from the field but only 48% from the line, so that’s a big issue. Last year he shot 56%. At 54.4% he’s as effective at the rim as Varejao.
So he’s not a huge upgrade, but Plumlee is on an inexpensive rookie contract ($1.2M/2 years) and could potential be packaged with Gerald Green, in the final year of a $3.5M contract and capable of the same athletic, instant offense as Dion, but at 6’8” he’s much more capable of guarding small forwards, even though he’s really a shooting guard.
Green is a very attractive player with a lot of NBA experience, who was once a lot like Dion, but has matured into a very nice complementary player. Their two salaries combined would fit nicely in a $4.8 injured player exception. (Earlier today, the Suns sent out Anthony Tolliver to the Pistons for Tony Mitchell, so they’re in a dealing way.)
It’s hard to tell what’s going on with Milwaukee Bucks’ 23-year old big man John Henson. He’s in his third-year of his four-year rookie contract and seems blocked in Milwaukee. At 6’11”, 230 lbs, Henson is a little beefier than Wright, and he’s shown a real proclivity for blocking shots averaging 1.7 last year in 26 mpg, and 1.1 this year in less than half the time (12.2). He seems a very talented player, but last year Bucks’ coach/current Cavs assistant Larry Drew would not start him, even on their terrible team, playing the more expensive, stretch 4 Ersan Ilyasova.
Last year he averaged 2.4 offensive rebounds and 7.1 total rebounds in 27 minutes, so he’s a good offensive rebounder, but not so good on the defensive boards, much like Tristan Thompson. But he’s a great rim protector where Tristan isn’t, allowing 47.1% at the rim last year, just a tad higher than Mozgov.
Henson also averaged 11 pts, 1.6 assists and even .6 steals last year, but hasn’t been able to get court-time this season, perhaps getting lost in the change to Coach Jason Kidd. If so, this might be the perfect time to grab him. He’s young, and he’s currently blocked by center Larry Sanders and power forward Jabari Parker.
Perhaps Milwuakee can be enticed to include 23-year old forward/sixth man Khris Middleton, who was a second round draft choice, and because of the NBA signing rules the Bucks are somewhat limited in what they can pay him. He’s strong sixth-man for them, averaging almost 10 pts, shooting 40% from 3, 44.3% overall and has 1.2 steals in just 23 minutes a game. He’s only 6-7 but a muscular 230 lbs that allows him to play inside more than you’d think. He’s making less than $1 million. They also have 6’7” 3pt shooting wing Jared Dudley ($4.2M), and PG/SG Jerryd Bayless ($3M) who may need to be included for salary purposes.
The thing is, Milwaukee will likely not be looking for Cavs draft picks like the Celtics are. (Cleveland has traded their 2016, so they can’t trade their 2016 by NBA rules, but they do have a protected pick from Memphis to entice.) That’s why a deal with Milwaukee seems destined to include Dion Waiters, especially since Cleveland would be getting back another player on a rookie contract, instead of an older pro on an expiring contract.
Does Cleveland want to do that? Coach Drew knows better than anyone what Henson is capable of. This is the deal that most intrigues me because unlike any of the aforementioned players, he’s a young player to develop that could be with our team for years to come at a position where we need more guys.
Other less likely scenarios include Charlotte’s offensively-retared Bismack Biyombo and the Knicks’ vet Samuel Dalembert, but if the choices get that slim, the team might just as soon give up. Look for a deal soon, because the team wants time to integrate new players and certainly don’t want to cede ground in the fight for home court advantage in the playoffs by playing short-handed for an extended time.
Have a happy holidays and look for my live tweets during the game tomorrow, which include video unlike any other Cavaliers beat reporter. Follow me @CRS_1ne.