When talking about the Cavaliers’ journey back to contention, the OKC model is the one often cited and recited (and for good reason, mind you). But, one thing I wanted to take a look at was how bad the Cavs were when they drafted LeBron James in 2003 versus Kyrie Irving in 2011. In the second season of James’s time here, the team missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker, and Kyrie’s squad looks highly unlikely to measure up anywhere close to that. However, what I do hope happens is that Kyrie’s Cavaliers in year three makes some progress on the level with LeBron’s Cavs in year two.
In LeBron’s rookie season, the team finished 35-47 as a 28-year-old Ilgauskas, a second-year Carlos Boozer, and holdovers Ricky Davis and Darius Miles were traded in two separate trades for Jeff McInnis, Eric Williams, and others. It made the team a middling one. When you look at LeBron’s year two squad, they finished 42-40, in a tie with the New Jersey Nets for the last spot, on the short end due to a 1-3 season series against the Nets. That race was so close, however, that the Cavs were only three games out of the fifth spot and five games from hosting a playoff series. That team had not just James in his first All-Star year and second season, it had Zydrunas Ilgauskas in his second of two All-Star seasons. Other key contributors were Drew Gooden, Jeff McInnis, and fifth starter Ira Newble alongside a bench of Eric Snow, Anderson Varejao, Sasha Pavlovic, Lucious Harris, and Robert “Tractor” Traylor.
The first thing that sticks out with this team is how REMARKABLY healthy they were. Just a quick glance at the games played proves this: Gooden (82), Snow (81), James (80), Ilgauskas (78), McInnis (76), Newble (74), Traylor (74), and Harris (73). The only key contributor that missed significant time was in fact Anderson Varejao, who played just 54 games. Compare to this year’s Cavaliers, who have the games missed count through just over half the season (47 games) as follows: Varejao (23 games, will be 57 by season’s end), Daniel Gibson (16), Irving (11), Luke Walton (missed last 4, hard to discern the DNP-CDs and missed games due to injury), Miles (10), Waiters (8), and Zeller (4). That doesn’t even include having three of the team’s young core in Irving, Zeller, and Thompson masked up for nearly half of their season thus far.
That ’04-’05 Cavalier team was an elite rebounding team and much better defensively than Kyrie’s current squad. It was a team ranked 12th in both offensive (106.6) and defensive rating (105.7). That ’04-’05 squad led the NBA with a 32.5% offensive rebounding rate and had the eighth best turnover rate at 13.0% on the offensive end. Defensively, they were just 17th in eFG% defense (48.5%), but that’s far better than the current Cavs’ rank at… that’s right, dead last at 52.2%. And these were the pre-Mike Brown days, folks.
You’ll also recall that ’04-’05 team saw the firing of Paul Silas with 18 games remaining in the season as interim coach Brendan Malone brought the team into the finish with just a 8-10 record. The Cavs actually would have made the playoffs despite that if not for the wildly hot finishes by the Nets (15-4) and the 7th-seeded 76ers (8-2).
Let’s go to the PERs for at a look for the claim for a better supporting cast for LeBron:
Drew Gooden – 19.7
Zydrunas Ilgauskas – 19.5
Anderson Varejao – 17.0
Jeff McInnis – 12.4
Robert Traylor – 12.0
And this year’s Cavs.. (Excluding Varejao and his 21.9 PER due to season-ending injury)
Marreese Speights – 17.5 1
Tristan Thompson – 15.7
Shaun Livingston – 13.1 2
C.J. Miles – 12.7
Dion Waiters 12.2
As you can see, Z and Gooden were well outperforming anyone else on the current Cavaliers supporting cast. Ilgauksas averaged 16.9 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks that year while shooting 47%. For The Drizzle, it was 14.4 points, 9.2 boards, and a 49% shooting clip. McInnis added a fourth scoring threat with 12.8 points and 5.1 assists while shooting 34.5% from three point range to give the team a second three point threat in addition to LeBron.
As strong as Tristan Thompson’s come along and as much of a lightning rod that Speights has been, since Andy went down, the battle to get a consistent threat to go along with Kyrie has been a battle. Dion’s PER is pretty low as he struggles to get fouls called for him, which is such a big part of what he wants to do. I fully expect that to improve in subsequent years as refs stop giving him this stupid rookie hazing. Point being, could the Cavs have added some more help the likes of which McInnis, Traylor, and Snow provided James in those formative years to add some wins. Sure, but that would be counterproductive toward getting another solid draft pick to add to this young core.
It was clear in the third year of LeBron’s era, with a new head coach in Mike Brown, that team figured out how it wanted to play. They made the free agent acquisitions of Larry Hughes, Donyell Marshall, and Damon Jones along with mid-season addition Ronald “Flip” Murray. Their strategy was simple: defend above all, lean heavily on LeBron offensively, surround him with three point shooters and bigs who can finish and run pick and rolls, and rebound well (especially offensively). That team won 50 games, advanced into the second round of the playoffs, and nearly took out the Detroit Pistons if not for a missed defensive rebound by Flip Murray.
Looking at the usage rates, PERs, and true shooting percentages of LeBron and Kyrie year two yields some intriguing results.
Kyrie Irving (2012-2013) – 30.3 USG%, 22.7 PER, 57.3 TS%, 24.0 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 5.4 APG, 3.5 TO
LeBron James (2004-2005) – 29.7 USG%, 25.7 PER, 55.4 TS%, 27.2 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 7.2 APG, 3.3 TO
Two players being asked to do a lot of the same things on the offensive end. Create for others who have a hard time doing it for themselves and score at a high and efficient level.
This isn’t a credo or anything, more of just a trip down memory lane and a reminder of the starkly different philosophies taking place here between the Gilbert/Ferry/Brown group when compared to the Gilbert/Grant/Scott trio.
What will the Kyrie era strategy be? It’s highly unlikely that this team will ever be the defensive dynamo that those Mike Brown teams were. But, they may be capable of forcing more turnovers than those teams, as Brown’s teams were much more get stops and grab the rebound instead of forcing turnovers. Currently, the Cavs rank fourth in defensive turnover rate at 14.8%. They also hit the offensive boards incredibly hard, ranking eighth in OR% and third in total offensive rebounds on the season. The current Cavaliers are starting to find certain things that they do well with players that will be here when they make their playoff push. They need to build on that as they continue to acquire talent and start to see it correlate to wins on the scoreboard.
So, in conclusion, I think the progress is clear, but it may be next year (Kyrie’s third year) where we look to see the team hover around .500 and start thinking about playoff contention, one year behind those LeBron teams of years past. They’re two completely different strategies of building around a star on display 3 , but let’s hope we see similar results (with perhaps a little happier ending).