Tuesday, June 24

Baby Steps

The NBA Draft is this Thursday, and the Cavaliers hold the 19th overall pick. Naturally, there has been a fair amount of speculation as to who the Cavs should choose with said selection. Should Danny Ferry draft a center like Roy Hibbert, a wing player like Brandon Rush, or look for that elusive point guard in a player like Mario Chalmers or Ty Lawson? Then again, the Cavs could just draft the best player available, if a player they hold in high regard really starts to slide.

As the owners of an aging front court and a club still faced with the absence of a second scorer, the Cavs obviously won't be able to plug every hole with that 19th pick. That said, they want to do their best to plug one of them. To get a relative feel for the kind of talent that may be available when the Cavaliers are on the clock, let's take a look at picks 18-20 in the last 5 drafts.

2003: David West (18), Sasha Pavlovic (19), Dahntay Jones (20)

2004: JR Smith, Dorell Wright, Jameer Nelson

2005: Gerald Green, Hakim Warrick, Julius Hodge

2006: Oleksiy Pecherov, Quincy Douby, Renaldo Balkman

2007: Marco Belinelli, Javaris Crittenton, Jason Smith

That's an awfully mixed bag. The standout of the bunch is clearly David West, who along with Chris Paul fueled the New Orleans Hornets' return to prominence this season, but there aren't any stars outside of West. Jameer Nelson is a solid starter, JR Smith and Hakim Warrick have been productive, and Cleveland's Sasha Pavlovic hasn't proven to be more than a depth player.

While we need to acknowledge that all of these players are still young enough for their figurative lights to turn on, it's also clear that the recent success rate of players in the vicinity of where the Cavs are drafting (middle-late first round) has hardly been overwhelming. Then again, that's the nature of the NBA draft: it's often very hit-or-miss. The teams who are able to strike gold with late picks tend to compete for a long time (e.g. Spurs). As LeBron James' contract year inches ever closer, the stakes are heightened; win now, or risk the gut-wrenching exodus of King James.

The Cavaliers' draft problems are well-documented, and with the exceptions of a no-brainer first overall pick (the aforementioned LBJ) and a couple of second round gems (Daniel Gibson, Utah's He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named), the Cavs have been magnificently impotent in recent drafts. Granted, Danny Ferry has had only one first round pick (former Cavalier Shannon Brown) in spite of overseeing three drafts -- thank you, Jim Paxson. As we've established, the draft alone can't alleviate all of the Cavaliers' deficiences, which is where the club's roughly eleventy billion dollars in expiring contracts come into play. In a way, the Cavaliers' expected yield from that expiring cash may dictate their draft strategy.

As TCF writer Benjamin Cox expertly outlined back in April, the possibility of a trade to lasso LeBron a legitimate running mate is very real. With so much expiring money, the Cavs can try to follow the Lakers' example by acquiring something (in this case, Pau Gasol) for nothing (Kwame Brown's expiring contract).

The possibility of an off-season trade could affect Danny Ferry's draft strategy. These playoffs made one thing clear: above all else, the Cavaliers need an infusion of talent. Although they fought valiantly and, quite frankly, overachieved, anyone who thought the Cavs really had the horses to beat a team like Boston was kidding themselves. Danny Ferry's goal should be to wrangle the most talented player available, not make a need-based selection. When Cleveland goes on the clock, Ferry should aim to draft the best player available if there is one player the Cavs consider clearly superior to the available alternatives. However, if no player is unmistakably above the rest, Ferry's decision becomes more taxing.

A summer trade of some capacity appears imminent, and the Cavs need to decide whether a trade for a low post presence or a guard/wing player appears more likely. If Ferry and company believe it to be most likely that they can land a scoring guard like Michael Redd, then they should spend their draft pick on a big man like Roy Hibbert or Kosta Koufos. If it seems more likely that a big man like Elton Brand or Jermaine O'Neal will end up in Wine & Gold, then the Cavs should go the guard/wing player route on draft day. Stated bluntly, if there is no clear "best player available," then the Cavs should attempt to plug as many holes as possible.

As someone who doesn't watch oodles of college hoops (sure, I try to catch the Buckeyes when they're nationally broadcast, but beyond that, wake me up for the tournament), I try to be wary of too much armchair general managing (is there such a thing?) on draft day. With that in mind, I am still a bit wary of the center/power forward options that may be available with that number 19 pick. Rookie big men tend to be very raw, and even a singular talent like Dwight Howard took time to develop his offensive game. With such a low pick, the Cavs would not be drafting a polished post player, and it's likely that they would be drafting a project. With the task of "win now to keep LeBron" so evident, the Cavs may hesitate to commit the time that will be necessary to properly develop a young center or power forward.

Then again, the majority of the Cleveland front court will be eligible for AARP membership in the not-so-distant future. Zydrunas Ilgauskas has a player option for the '09-'10 season and may soon retire, and Joe Smith is in the last year of his deal and makes enough money that his expiring contract may be traded. Ben Wallace will be 34 when the season begins, has chronic back problems, and will likely be dealt before or during the '09-'10 season when he will account for $14 million worth of expiring money. Sure, Anderson Varejao is young, but he essentially has an expiring contract worth nearly $6 million, and I'm willing to bet an appendage (my left leg, so I can get a peg leg if I lose the wager) he will decline his '09-'10 player option. A/V is a non-factor on offense, and is not on the best terms with the front office, making it entirely plausible that Varejao could be traded this off-season. If he isn't traded this summer, it would be shocking to see A/V wear Wine & Gold past next February's trade deadline. Sooner or later, the Cavs will have to get younger up front.

This off-season and the next two seasons leading into LeBron James' option year will be a crucial journey. Regardless of the choice he makes, Danny Ferry won't be able to cure what ails the Cavaliers through this draft alone. But even if the 19th pick isn't a magic potion, nabbing a solid contributor would make Ferry's job much easier down the road, and it would be a solid first step in what the Cavs surely hope will be a defining off-season. While such a low pick is less likely to yield a quality player than it is a fizzle -- NBA drafts are always chock full of them -- the teams that stay competitive for the long-term tend to find solid contributors outside of the lottery picks. If the Cavs are to succeed in their goals of staying consistently competitive, retaining LeBron James, and ultimately bringing home the Larry O'Brien Trophy, a quality draft pick would be a great first step.

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