Monday, July 02, 2012

The guessing game

Mock drafts, like NCAA Tournament brackets, have been swept up in the fantasy sports culture. If your team is picking high in the draft, no matter the sport, you probably spent the weeks and months leading up to the draft reading reports and analyzing mock drafts until your bloodshot eyes scream for Visine.

As a result, you know exactly who the experts say should be selected at each pick. You've identified the best and the best of the rest, and you will become very testy if your team reaches outside of that consensus-designated boundary.

For the 2012 NBA Draft, the national basketball pundits had identified Kentucky forward Anthony Davis as the single biggest prize, a deadbolt-lock to go first overall. After Davis, they had identified a group of five other prospects as suitable selections for the teams that followed -- including the Cavaliers, picking at No. 4.

So we in Cleveland set our sights on a small selection of prospects and made up our minds that we'd be happy -- in varying degrees, depending on who you're talking to -- with any member of that group. If the Cavs took Kentucky forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Florida guard Bradley Beal, North Carolina forward Harrison Barnes, Connecticut center Andre Drummond or Kansas forward Thomas Robinson, some of us would have been less thrilled than others depending on the specific selection, but we could at least convince ourselves that the Cavs got one of the best players in the draft, and had secured a major building block for the future.

Then came draft night. And we found out that Cavs GM Chris Grant wipes his nose on mock drafts.

A year after causing a stir by reaching to select Tristan Thompson with the No. 4 pick, Grant did it again by reaching to select sophomore Syracuse guard Dion Waiters.

A report by writer and former Cavs beat reporter Brian Windhorst said the Cavs had whittled the No. 4 pick down to two players -- Kidd-Gilchrist and Waiters. When the Bobcats selected Kidd-Gilchrist with the second pick, the Cavs' decision was made for them.

The Cavs' front office is apparently very high on Waiters -- a prospect who granted no workouts to individual teams, possibly because he already had a promise from a lottery team. Whatever information the Cavs were able to amass on Waiters came from game film and the NBA draft combine in Chicago last month.

Whatever the Cavs saw sold them on Waiters' NBA potential, not just as a competent starter, but a first-option scorer on a winning team -- in other words, a legitimate star player. A player who was worthy of the fourth overall pick.

But convincing a fan based that was primed for names such as Barnes, Kidd-Gilchrist and Beal is going to take a bit more work. The Cavs are asking the fan base to take a leap of faith and see the star guard waiting to emerge from the shell of a backup combo guard, which was Waiters' role at Syracuse. A backup combo guard who, at 6'-4" and 215 pounds, is shorter and thinner than the prototypical NBA shooting guard.

As a fan, you flash back to Jim Paxson referring to Dajuan Wagner as "Allen Iverson with muscles," then try to swat that memory away. Do the likes of Iverson and Dwyane Wade prove that shorter combo guards can succeed in the NBA, or are they supremely-talented exceptions, thereby proving that shorter guards are indeed fighting an uphill battle against bigger, stronger competition?

Waiters may not have started, but at 24 minutes per game as a sophomore, he did play starter's minutes. He averaged 12.6 points per game, which projects to about 19 PPG in 36 minutes -- a more-than-respectable output for a realistic NBA workload. So he can score. And, heck, Wagner would likely have become a productive offensive force in the NBA had his career not been derailed by a severe intestinal disorder. Talent is talent.

But there's that nagging issue of Waiters' lack of size, and the fact that he very nearly brought Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim to his wit's end as a freshman with his utter refusal to play defense. Waiters' attitude reportedly improved as a sophomore, but his effort and competency at the defensive end bears watching.

It could be that the Cavs drafted a super-sub. Waiters might find himself hopelessly overmatched at the defensive end by bigger, stronger NBA two-guards. His NBA calling might be the exact same job he held in college -- coming off the bench for a quick-burst shot of offense against the other team's backups.

It's a necessary role on a winning team. If the offense stagnates, you need a player who can come into the game, take the ball and put it in the basket. It can force the other team to pull their backups and reinsert the starters sooner rather than later, which can work to your advantage later in games, and especially later in hard-fought playoff series.

If Waiters pans out as a new-generation Vinnie Johnson, the Cavs certainly could have done worse. But if a top-five pick yields a non-starter in any way, shape or form, it's a questionable use of resources.

After the Waiters pick, the news feeds were still churning with rumors that the Cavs were feverishly trying to make some kind of move. At first, we heard reports that they were still in hot pursuit of Harrison Barnes, selected at No. 7 by Golden State. Those rumors died off fairly quickly. But the Cavs did make a move.

At No. 17, they traded their three remaining picks -- Nos. 24, 33 and 34 -- to Dallas for the rights to North Carolina center Tyler Zeller. The pick was met with less criticism than the Waiters pick, but it still generated some controversy for those who thought three picks was too steep of a price to pay.

The Cavs, like most teams with fours pick, don't want to sign that many rookies at one time. Each NBA team can only carry 15 players, and teams as a general rule don't want almost a third of the roster occupied by rookies -- not even rebuilding teams like the Cavs.

It makes sense, then, to take your remaining picks and trade them for one player who you believe can make a real difference to your team. Zeller is a 7-footer who lacks girth, and might have a limited ability to pack on more muscle, but he is a polished four-year senior with a reputation for good post moves, a solid midrange jumper and a high basketball IQ.

Most of us probably would have been satisfied if the Cavs came out of last week's draft with one safe pick and one calculated-risk pick. The trouble is, most of us wanted the safe pick at 4 and the risky pick at 24. Instead, we got a roll of the dice at 4 and a trade-up for a safer pick at 17.

Myself, I really don't care if Chris Grant, Byron Scott and the rest of the Cavs' decision-makers walk to their own beat when it comes to building a roster. But the beat better lead to sweet music in May and June sometime in the foreseeable future.

Right now, all we have is a front office with a hard-to-decipher philosophy on drafting, and a fan base that can only scratch their heads, shrug their shoulders and do their best to try and trust that Grant and his cohorts know what they're doing.

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