CLEVELAND, Ohio — It’s the latest edition of Hey, Chris!
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Hey, Chris: Between the top three wings in the draft — Isaac Okoro, Deni Avdija, and Devin Vassell — who do the Cavs seem to like the most? Who do you think they would take?
Everyone wants this answer. And I don’t think the three wings will be the only players in consideration at No. 5. What if someone from the first tier — LaMelo Ball, James Wiseman or Anthony Edwards — happens to fall further than expected? What would the Cavs do about Obi Toppin, who doesn’t fill a need but could be considered the best available player at that time? Could they consider another guard — Tyrese Haliburton or Killian Hayes? Where does USC’s Onyeka Okongwu belong in their rankings?
It’s so early into this process and it’s a tough class to gauge. Just sorting out the top three wings will be a challenge. But given the roster makeup and Cleveland’s desperate need for a two-way wing, starting the draft conversation with Okoro, Avdija and Vassell is most logical. One of those three will be the best combination of talent and fit.
“All three of them are really close,” a source said recently. “They’re all winners and intangibles guys.”
Ask one member of the Cavaliers’ front office and they will have a ranking that begins with Avdija, the 19-year-old point-forward who started answering questions about his iffy outside shot following the restart. Ask another and the wing list will start with Okoro, the relentless, rugged defender who is also a terrific finisher at the rim. There are also Vassell backers, the late bloomer and analytical darling who was underutilized at Florida State.
The Cavs have done extensive work on this draft class. They’ve seen these three prospects in person. They’ve spent time on campus (or overseas in Avdija’s case). My early favorite in this scenario, if the Cavs are picking with all three wings available, is Okoro. He’s a ready-made player on the defensive end and the Cavs believe shooting, in many cases, is a correctable flaw. But the pre-draft process will be important, just as it was with Collin Sexton in 2018 and Darius Garland last year.
Hey, Chris: Can you envision the Cavs using the mid-level exception in free agency?
All signs point to the Cavs using it — if there’s a player worth signing. This offseason will be wild. But after finishing with the league’s second-worst record, the Cavs want to take a step forward and push for a playoff spot. There are two ways of that happening: Internally, with continued growth of the young players, better coaching and strong chemistry. And externally, through the draft, free agency and trades.
The Cavs believe they are positioned well in any trade scenario, possessing a combination of high-salary pieces and assets, including a top 5 pick in 2020, a bevy of former first-rounders and Milwaukee’s future first. In a vitally important offseason, with plenty of decisions ahead, that gives the Cavs — and here’s this word again — optionality.
Now, free agency as a whole will be a bit more tricky. No one knows what the salary cap will be. There’s chatter about it dropping from initial projections and teams will need to adjust accordingly. Some may even be forced into cost-cutting maneuvers. Agents continue to speak about the possibility of both sign-and-trades and one-year deals being prevalent.
The Cavs’ main decision this summer is out of their hands. Andre Drummond controls their financial situation. With Drummond most likely to opt in, the Cavs will only have the mid-level exception, worth around $8-9 million. Chairman Dan Gilbert has always given general manager Koby Altman the green light. Free agency. Trades. Paying for draft picks. Even in this climate, spending won’t be limited. If there’s a player worth using the full MLE on and he fits the Cavs’ style and culture, then the Cavs will explore that.
Miami swingman Derrick Jones Jr. is on the radar. Memphis swingman Josh Jackson makes sense as a reclamation project. If the Cavs don’t draft a big and Tristan Thompson leaves in free agency then taking a risk on former first-round pick Harry Giles would make sense. The Cavs could also split up the mid-level and use a large chunk on one player and the leftovers on another. With Matthew Dellavedova and Thompson both unrestricted free agents and Ante Zizic already signing overseas, the Cavs have a few roster spots to fill before the 2020-21 season.
Hey, Chris: Are the Cavs possibly looking at trade down scenarios in the draft?
It depends what happens in the first four picks and who is on the board at the time. Trading down means some team moving up. So, who is the target for a team outside the top 5?
If Ball has an unforeseen tumble then teams will be calling. Detroit and New York, sitting at seventh and eighth, would be a match, depending on what the Cavs could get back in return. Wiseman dropping could lead to trade-back opportunities. But the Cavs would turn the card in themselves quickly rather than taking a deal. Either way, both scenarios seem unlikely. Perhaps the Phoenix Suns get antsy, believing they are just outside wing range, and want to move up. But dropping down to No. 10 isn’t ideal for the wing-needy Cavs.
Another reality working against the Cavs: The perceived drop-off is after No. 3, not No. 4. So, the Cavs are one spot away from that marker.
Sure, trading down makes plenty of sense for the Cavs. Their second tier of prospects is about six or seven deep. The top three wings are similar and not having to agonize over that decision would be nice. Drop down, accumulate another asset or two and still end up with one of those wings? That’s ideal. But this is considered a weak draft. It’s tough to see some team from outside the top 5 desperate to move up into the Cavs’ spot.
Hey, Chris: What do the Cavs need to challenge for a playoff spot next year?
Ask anyone in the organization and they will answer the same way. It starts on defense. The Cavs finished last in defensive rating, allowing a whopping 114.8 points per 100 possessions. Of the 16 playoff teams, only Portland ranked in the bottom third of the league in this category. The Blazers, who dealt with countless injuries, also had one of the league’s best offenses, allowing them to overcome and barely sneak into the postseason on the heels of a bubble surge.
Translation: Bad defensive teams aren’t typically successful.
One year after finishing dead last on that end of the floor, the Cavs entered the 2019-20 season hoping to improve. Embattled former coach John Beilein often tried using the dreadful stat and the team’s overall record as a motivational tool when chastising players. But little changed. The diminutive backcourt couldn’t keep guards out of the paint. The Cavs were tied for last with the Atlanta Hawks, allowing 53.6 points per game in the paint. Having Drummond for a full season should help. He can finish possessions with rebounds, provide some resistance at the rim and use his length and athleticism to get into the passing lanes while deterring drivers. But the best form of rim protection comes on the perimeter. The Sexton-Garland pairing has obvious limitations. Cedi Osman is a liability. Slow-footed Kevin Love needs a rim protector next to him.
Defensive Player Impact Plus-Minus (D-PIPM for short) is a metric that combines luck-adjusted plus-minus data with the value of the box score and a bunch of other interaction terms to estimate a player’s value on defense. Only one player ranked worse than Sexton in this metric: Atlanta’s Trae Young. Garland wasn’t much better, sitting alongside Damian Lillard with a -1.93. For perspective, the league’s best defender was Giannis Antetokounmpo, boasting a 4.46 D-PIPM.
This is just one metric of course, but it aligns with the eye test. The Cavs don’t have many plus-defenders. They could lose two of them in free agency — Dellavedova and Thompson. J.B. Bickerstaff is known for his defensive chops. But the limitations of this roster will continue to be problematic. The best remedy isn’t a new defensive coordinator or a different scheme. It’s better individual defenders. That should be the offseason focus.
Even then, making the postseason won’t be easy. Other Eastern Conference teams have more talent.
The Nets will be reloaded, with a healthy Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant along with a new head coach. The eighth-seeded Orlando Magic aren’t going anywhere. The Chicago Bulls, a chic playoff pick going into the season, made some important changes. The Washington Wizards will have John Wall back.
Going from last to eighth is a steep climb.
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