Dion Waiters Is Shipped Out of Town and the Cavs Surrender to the Lowly 76ers

The Cavaliers let one slip away they’ll wish they could get back come April, losing to a historically bad 76ers team 95-92. As we’ve noted here many times, the Cavaliers have showed a tremendous ability to play down to the level of their competition and to lose focus defensively for stretches of an otherwise well-played game. Both were in evidence last night.

The Cavs controlled the game for 30 minutes. They needed to play for at least 6 more minutes after Matthew Dellavedova hit a three-pointer with 6:48 left in the third to give the Cavs a 62-45 lead. No one scored for the next two minutes – a frequent feature of these two struggling offenses – and the Cavs would not make another basket in the quarter. They subsisted on free throws as the 76ers rang up a 15-5 run.

This is where we talk about missing focus. During the first 30 minutes the 76ers scored 45 points. During the next 18 minutes they’d scored 50 to Cavs' 30. This is a team that is literally the worst team in the NBA in nearly every offensive category from shooting percentage to turnovers.

Teams that want to make the playoffs can’t let the worst team in the league light them up like the Celtics and outscore them by 20 in a quarter and a half. But truth be told, as bad as the Cavs played, they held a double-digit lead during the early part of the quarter and had an 8 point lead going into the final 5 minutes, during which the Cavs would muster but two baskets, make two turnovers, miss two free throws, and miss four shots at the rim.

The charming Australian Dellavedova was the culprit down the stretch, missing three of those four shots at the rim and both free throws, aside from his role in the team's inability to stop Tony Wroten down the stretch. Wroten scored nine of the team’s final 15 points and showcased again the team’s poor defense against penetration.

Now Blatt was playing his second and third-string point guards because of the trade, which we’ll discuss in a moment. However, it was hard not to feel that not only did the Cavs blow the game but Blatt blew the game. He put Price in around the same time Wroten started the comeback, and indeed Price missed a couple wide open jumpers. (He did hit one.)

Also the play calls down the stretch were a little questionable, including apparently a post-up for Tristan Thompson (??) who can’t be trusted to make more than one dribble. True to form, he traveled. Further, one wonders given how much attention the 76ers were paying Kevin Love if the team might not have been better off running a motion set that would’ve forced them to play everyone. Particularly with perhaps Joe Harris (first career start, 16 points) and James Jones on the wings.

Finally, despite having three timeouts with a minute left, the team was left without a timeout to advance the ball for a final catch & shoot at the end of the game, in part because of a particularly lame out of bounds play at the end of the game, forcing Dellavedova to call a timeout. That said, the final play looked pretty good, and Delly had a good passing lane to Love that he should’ve taken. You’re not going to get a foul call on a final shot and Dellavedova is not what you’d call a finisher. (He’s shooting 23.5% within 10 feet, while a solid 39% from 3.)

But the team will put the 76ers in their rear view mirror out of necessity. They’ve got the Houston Rockets at the Q on Wednesday, then embark on a five-game West Coast road trip that includes the league’s best team (record-wise), Golden State, as well as playoff teams the Phoenix Sun and Los Angeles Clippers. The Cava are greeted on their homecoming by the Chicago Bulls.

It will be a fun test that may or may not feature the return of LeBron James. It will certainly feature a new cast though, as the Cavaliers sent out Dion Waiters, Lou Amundson and Alex Kirk in exchange for the Knicks’ Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith, and a protected first round pick from the Oklahoma Thunder.

This is a fine trade for the Cavs. Fox Sports writer Sam Amico said this morning that some in the Cavaliers organization doubted that Dion would play ANY defense were it not for LeBron. The King almost walked off the court earlier this season over Dion’s shot selection. His inattentiveness on defense is legendary, but since his lapses don’t ever show up in the boxscore most fans don’t recognize when he allows four consecutive threes…

… plays turnstile defense.

…or trails his man around the court like a mopey younger brother.

Watching Dion play what he called defense was easily the second-most infuriating thing about catching a game. (Their piss-poor transition defense effort is the most.) What he brought was the ability to score in bunches and drive effectively. He couldn’t share the ball enough to start, where he would’ve needed to be a catch-and-shoot guy more like Joe Harris.

On the second team his talent was a little wasted, though his scoring was better appreciated. The problem is his defense sunk the squad whenever you are in, because a defense is only as strong as its weakest link, and Dion only intermittently felt the compunction to be better. He might well develop into a great player, but the Cavs don’t have the time to waste. James is rolling up miles on his odometer, and a mature head-case is apparently preferable to a young one.

That’s presumably the logic behind replacing Dion Waiters with J.R. Smith. Both are streaky hot long-range gunners with questionable shot selection and an at times selfish demeanor. One has lots of upside, the other lots of baggage. But given the team’s championship dreams, Smith, who has played on the big stage and knows a bit more about deferring to teammates, appears a much better fit.

Performing for the media circus that is the New York Knicks may have overstated Smith’s iconoclasm, and age might have mellowed him. There’s also the fact that that he’s friends with LeBron.

They have a relationship the goes back to when LeBron was in high school and Smith used to train with James in the summer. (Many don’t remember, but J.R. Smith also went from high school to the pros.) Indeed despite 10 years in the league, he’s only 28.

Beyond that, Smith is a FAR more willing passer than Waiters, and will be MUCH MUCH better for the offense because of that. And Smith’s done it consistently enough to win Sixth Man of the Year just two years ago. Here’s a breakdown for so far this year:

Waiters 24 40 26 78 1.8 2.2 1.7 1.5 1.3 .3 10.5
Smith 26 40 36 69 1.6 3.4 2.4 1.9 .8 .2 10.9

As you can see they’re pretty similar. Waiters gets more steals (by leaving his man, often) and shoots worse from 3. Advanced stats from NBA.com show that Waiters allows a 47.7% FG to his man compared to 42.7% by Smith.

Further, Waiters is poor at shooting pull-up (34.1%) or catch-and-shoot (27.2%) jumpers, but finishes at a 41% rate inside 10 feet. Smith is just the opposite, doing most of his damage on a very dangerous catch-and-shoot skill (35%, incl. 37% from 3) and pullups (37.9%). As much as Irving and LeBron drive, Smith provides a much better fit than Waiters.

So present-day talent-wise, it’s something of a wash. But the Cavs add a protected first from Oklahoma, which they will use with their protected Memphis first and the $5.3 million trade exemption to add a big man. They’re looking at Timofey Mozgov, who has become more available because of the emergence in the last week of Denver’s first round pick Jusuf Nurkic who’s averaged 12.8 points, 8.5 boards, 1.5 steals and 3.5 blocks ove the last four games.

We’re not particularly sold on Mozgov, but Blatt once coached him as the head coach of the Russian Olympic Team and he’s a legitimate 7-footer with girth and relatively quick feet. In about 26 minutes he’s averaging 8.5 pts, 7.8 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks. He reduces his opponent’s FG% by 4% within 6 feet and 3.3% within 10 feet, which is okay, but not great. The other guy they want (but most likely will never get) is the Memphis Grizzlies’ Kosta Koufos who reduces opponents’ accuracy by 8.4% and 6.6% respectively. Thompson’s rates, by comparison, are 2.1% and 2.7% respectively.

The other add is Iman Shumpert. Though only 6’5”, Shumpert has the long arms and quickness to cover small forwards as well as guards, offering the kind of perimeter defender the Cavaliers have been looking for.

He’s only a 35% three-point shooter this year, and 41% overall, but his calling card is defense. He’s averaging 1.3 steals/game in 26 mpg, and 3.3 assists versus 1.8 turnovers, which isn’t bad for an off-guard. He’s also hit 39% of his catch-and-shoot 3s which should help the Cavaliers in their offense. Plus he’s only 24, so he’s still young, and a restricted free agent after this year. His $2.6 million salary fit in the injured player exception created by Varejao’s injury.

It’s a good trade, and whether you believe it or not, an addition by subtraction move that will improve the Cavs’ defense. They need it. The next couple weeks will be difficult as they try to integrated others into the offense. The Cavs are still shopping for a big man and maybe a backup point guard.

In the meantime they face the Houston Rockets next. The Rockets are 23-11 and have lost four of their last six, though those losses included top ballclubs like the Bulls, Wizards and Spurs. They’re still trying to integrate Josh Smith into the team after he was waived by Detroit with more than $26 million remaining on his contract after this season. They’ve got a great squad with lots of depth, including their other recent addition, perimeter defender and former Kevin Love running mate, Corey Brewer.

I will be at Wednesday’s game tweeting live with video from the game. Check me out on twitter @CRS_1ne, and read my column on Thursday in the Scene blog.

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