The Cleveland Cavaliers have been the league’s most newsworthy team in the first two weeks of the season, sputtering to a 1-3 start before their offense regrouped to lead the team to back-to-back wins against the Denver Nuggets and New Orleans Pelicans. Nevertheless, the first two weeks have removed any hope that this team would play passable defense out of the gate, and cast doubt on their ability to do so even in the long-term with a roster that that is missing a shot-blocker and adequate defenders in the backcourt.
With this backdrop, we turn to four key transactions the Cavaliers have made since the acquisition of Kevin Love.
• Acquired the fully non-guaranteed $5.3 million contract of Keith Bogans from the Boston Celtics for non-guaranteed players and second-round pick swaps.
• Traded Bogans and a 2018 second-rounder to the Philadelphia 76ers, acquiring a $5.3 million trade exception.
• Agreed on a three-year, $30 million extension with Anderson Varejao that locks him up through the 2017-18 season. The second year is almost entirely guaranteed, while the third year is non-guaranteed.
• Did not reach an agreement with Tristan Thompson on an extension. Thompson was believed to be seeking at least eight figures per year beginning in 2015-16. He’ll be a restricted free agent in July.
The Cavaliers currently sit at about $72.8 million in salary, $4 million below the projected luxury tax line. The reasons for the Bogans transactions are clear. The Cavs were able to acquire more salary for subsequent trades by aggregating the non-guarantees, but then were able to avoid the tax and still maintain some flexibility by exchanging Bogans for a trade exception equal to his salary. It should be noted that Dan Gilbert, reputed by some to be an owner immune to such pressures, did green light a trade that provided less future flexibility in exchange for savings.* With the trade exception, the Cavs are limited to acquiring $5.4 million in salary (the trade exception plus $100,000), whereas Bogans’ contract could have allowed them to acquire up to $6.6 million if over the tax, or $7.9 million if under the tax. Moreover, Bogans could be aggregated with other players, such as Brendan Haywood’s non-guaranteed $10.5 million contract next summer, to acquire salary up to 125 percent of their combined $15.8 million salaries.
The Varejao extension was curious in timing, even though he was set to reach free agency this summer. While he has been a Cleveland stalwart as the city’s longest-tenured pro athlete, at age 32 his best years are behind him. He has also struggled to stay healthy in his career, playing over 31 games once in the last four years. What’s more, Varejao probably isn’t even worth $10 million per season this year, as Tristan Thompson has been closing games at center for the Cavs. The cap will be going up in 2016-17, but $10 million a year is still close to quality starter money even under a $90 million projected cap (assuming, as appears increasingly likely, there will not be smoothing of the money from the new television deal and it will hit all at once in 2016-17). As a borderline starter now, the chances of him being worth that kind of money at age 34 are slim.
By contrast, there would have been almost no risk to Cleveland by letting him play out the year and become a free agent. Even if he stays healthy all year, it is difficult to believe Varejao would command a two-year deal for $10 million a season on the open market next summer. Even if he were to receive such an offer, it is difficult to believe that a Cleveland fixture playing on a stacked team with LeBron James wouldn’t at least give the Cavs a chance to match or exceed an offer in free agency. And by signing Varejao now, they take on all the risk of age- or injury-related performance decline, in exchange for almost no chance of locking Varejao up at a below-market deal.
The Varejao extension should not be evaluated solely in a vacuum though. The opportunity cost for next season and beyond is the key consideration. LeBron James and Kevin Love have player options for 2015-16, which they will almost certainly decline so they can sign new maximum contracts. Kyrie Irving’s maximum extension kicks in, and Tristan Thompson will likely be re-signed for something into eight figures. That alone will put the Cavaliers around $90 million in payroll, about $9 million above the projected luxury tax line.
The Cavaliers also have Haywood’s non-guaranteed final season of his contract, which rises to $10.5 million on their books after only $2.2 million this year for the Cavs.* The Cavaliers can use Haywood’s contract to match salaries, and use their protected first-rounder from Memphis** and/or Dion Waiters as a sweetener to pick up another big man. Players with 2016 expiring contracts like Roy Hibbert, David West, Al Horford, Timofey Mozgov or Nene might all conceivably be available for such a package if their teams fear losing them as free agents.
If the Cavaliers were to acquire one of the previously mentioned players, their salary structure might look something like this.
That is a payroll over $102 million, without accounting for more salary potentially obtained via the Bogans trade exception, or a signing by the taxpayer mid-level exception of $3.4 million. A $102 million payroll would mean a luxury tax payment of $46 million, and it would rise at a rate of $3.75 per $1 in salary from there, with an additional 50 cents per $1.00 for every $5 million increment over $106 million in payroll.* Paying $9.6 million to Varejao in 2015-16 could cost Dan Gilbert more than double that in luxury tax payments. That will be quite a bitter pill if Varejao declines or is injured.
As a tax team, the Cavs’ transactions will be limited. They will not be able to engage in sign-and-trades since they have a team salary above the apron (a figure $4 million above the tax line), eliminating perhaps the most useful potential application of Haywood’s contract—obtaining a free agent rim protector such as Marc Gasol, Robin Lopez, Hibbert (if he opted out) or Omer Asik. And they can only acquire players up to 125 percent of the traded salary, instead of for Haywood’s $10.5 million salary plus $5 million were they not in the tax. Other players could also be added to the trade to increase the amount received, of course.
The options to improve are somewhat limited for the Cavs aside from that Haywood trade. Would it be otherwise if the Cavs had not extended Varejao? Possibly, although it would also require moving on from Tristan Thompson and renouncing his rights next summer. There are off-court considerations here, as Thompson is a client of Klutch Sports, an agency with which James is heavily involved. Thompson has his strengths and can be a dominant offensive rebounder, but his lack of shooting range and ball skills make him a center offensively despite his power forward size. It is hard to imagine him holding up at the rim or on the block the way a center needs to defensively, even with the improvement most young players experience. The Cavs also have Kevin Love already at power forward. Moving on from Thompson would be reasonable if the Cavs could replace him with a better option at center or shooting guard. That is a decision that did not have been made until they knew another option were available at the onset of free agency. Waiting to extend Thompson made sense, especially if he was not going to come at a discount. But it would have made more sense in conjunction with foregoing an extension for Varejao as well.
If the Cavs would have parted ways with Thompson and Varejao, the payroll looks like this during free agency, accounting for cap holds to James and Love once they have opted out. (Those cap holds are what they likely would eventually sign for anyway.)
With a payroll of about $78 million, Cleveland could deal Haywood in a sign-and-trade, so long as the team salary did not exceed the $85 million apron at the conclusion of the trade. The Cavs would then be hard-capped during the year at the apron. Depending on the amount of salary acquired (or whether they just make a trade rather than a sign-and-trade), they might also have been able to use some combination (though likely not each) of the Bogans trade exception, the full mid-level exception or the bi-annual exception. The Cavs could also have opened up maximum cap room in the unlikely but terrifying scenario that Kevin Love leaves as a free agent.
It may well be that Varejao and Thompson play well and the Cavs want to bring this whole band back together next season. But as some of the early struggles have shown, success is by no means assured. It probably made more sense for the Cavs to wait to extend Varejao and keep their options open for next summer, especially considering they are not sure how this new team is going to play as a unit. But now that Varejao’s extension has assured the Cavs of a high payroll, it probably makes sense to re-sign Thompson as well since they will have no way to replace him so far over the cap. They will also need him as insurance for Varejao’s potential health issues.
The Cavs’ lack of flexibility remains an issue as we look further ahead. Return to the 2016-17 projection:
While the rest of the league will be flush with cash, assuming the cap explodes to $90 million in 2016, the Cavaliers will likely be looking at another big tax bill. Given the amount the cap is projected to rise in 2016, Love and James may both sign similar contracts to LeBron’s most recent deal, two years with a second-year player option. This will allow them to become free agents again in 2016, when their individual maximums should be about $30 million and $25 million respectively if the cap rises to $90 million with no smoothing. Between James, Love, Irving, Varejao, Thompson’s new contract, the potential Haywood trade booty, a new contract for Waiters* and various smaller contracts, the Cavaliers are looking at about $118 million in payroll for 2016 and a huge tax bill even with the exploding cap. Now there are various permutations by which they could avoid being a tax team in 2016, but the chances of adding a player using cap room (which would require a team salary well below $90 million in the summer of 2016) are low indeed with this salary structure.
The coming years are going to be fascinating for the Cavaliers. They are not without avenues for improvement, as Waiters, the Haywood contract and the Memphis pick could net some juicy pieces in a trade. But to make that happen, it seems almost certain that Gilbert will be paying massive luxury tax bills. The early extension for Varejao may greatly complicate the Cavs’ task going forward.
Miami’s Youth Supporting HEAT’s Early Season Success
While much Miami’s early success can be attributed to the team’s system and the play of superstar Jimmy Butler, much of the credit also goes to three of the HEAT’s younger players. Drew Maresca recently caught up with them to speak about how its youth has helped drive the team’s success.
Expectations for the Miami HEAT have varied a lot since LeBron James left for the greener pastures of Cleveland in 2012. Many felt that the HEAT had finally climbed out of the basement when they swung a deal for Jimmy Butler this past off-season, but doubts about their depth and their lack of a true second option remained.
Well, the doubters obviously failed to factor in the HEAT’s rookies performing as they have.
While they do not boast one of the league’s youngest rosters (25th overall), the HEAT have succeeded through the first 20-or-so games by playing young, inexperienced players. In fact, three of the HEAT’s top seven minute-getters are essentially rookies – Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn. Herro is a true rookie, Nunn went un-drafted in 2018 and played all of last season with the Santa Cruz Warriors (Golden State’s G-league affiliate) and Robison played most of 2018-19 with the Siox Falls Skyforce (the HEAT’s G-league affiliate) — but also appeared in 15 games with Miami.
Now, it’s not terribly unusual for rookies and young players to crack a team’s rotation. But when most people consider rookies playing major roles, they typically think of teams that are somewhere in the process of a rebuild – not a team in third place in the Eastern Conference. As of Dec. 9, the HEAT are the only team in the league with a .700 winning percentage or better to feature more than one rookie and/or second-year player as top-seven minute getters.
While this is a pretty impressive feat, it speaks to the HEAT’s organization and its culture. After all, the Miami system is notorious for its player development. Looking back at its past successes and reclamation projects, the HEAT’s system was responsible for reinvigorating a number of players including Dion Waiters and Chris Anderson.
And more importantly, the HEAT are lauded for providing one of the very best cultures in the entire league. The best example is head coach Erik Spoelstra himself, who has now been with the organization for 23 years, famously beginning as a video coordinator in 1995. At the top, Spoelstra preaches defense and ball movement, which leads to success for all.
The team’s youngsters have already taken note of the special vibe around the HEAT locker room. Robinson recently told Basketball Insiders that the Miami coaching staff and veterans deserve most of the credit for their early successes.
“It shows leadership,” Robinson said. “We have some guys, obviously UD (Haslem), Jimmy (Butler) and other guys that are good secondary leaders, and taking us younger guys under their wing…guys like Justise (Winslow) and Bam (Adebayo).”
Robinson elaborated on the importance of absorbing as much as possible from the team’s coaching staff and veterans prior to training camp. “Us three (rookies) were around all summer,” Robinson said. “It’s only my second year as part of this program, but I feel like I’ve learned so much and come so far in that time.”
But while team leadership deserves some of the credit, it’s also due to the rookies themselves – who have taken on whatever role they’ve been assigned. Tyler Herro spoke with Basketball Insiders recently about coming off the bench for the HEAT, which represents a very different – and some might say, reduced – role compared to the one he owned last year at Kentucky. But that’s not how Herro sees it.
“I look at it as I’m still seeing starter minutes,” Herro said. “I’m not concerned with coming off the bench. I try to come in and give no empty minutes and play my absolute best.”
It’s hard to say if the HEAT select players with strong personalities and positive attitudes, or if that’s learned from Spoelstra and the team’s veterans. But either way, players like Herro enter their rookie seasons and make the team look incredibly savvy.
“I think (coming from Kentucky) helped a lot,” Herro continued, while – again – complimenting his new team and coaching staff. “My teammates at Kentucky and Coach Cal and his staff prepared me for this. But I also think that the (HEAT) staff and my teammates here pushed me to where I’m at now, too.”
Herro and Robinson have flourished in the HEAT’s system so far. Robinson is averaging 10.9 points on 42.5 percent three-point shooting in 26 minutes per game. Herro is averaging 14.5 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists over 29 minutes per game.
And then there’s Kendrick Nunn. Nunn is a pleasant surprise for the HEAT, scooped up immediately following last season. Despite slumping of late, Nunn is averaging 15.3 points, 3.4 assists and 2.5 rebounds in 30.0 minutes per game — good for third in scoring and second in assists, making him a major (surprise) Rookie of the Year candidate.
In addition to how well the three HEAT youngsters are playing, they are all incredibly close – especially so considering the short amount of time they’ve been teammates. And that stands to benefit Miami both this season and beyond.
“We’re best friends,” Herro said of his relationship with Nunn while sitting immediately next to Robinson in the Brooklyn Nets’ visiting locker room. “We like to see each other have good games. We don’t pay attention to the media or try to out-do one another.”
“Generally, we got a great group of guys who like each other and we enjoy each other’s success,” Herro continued. “So that makes it easier for everyone to perform at the highest level.”
But friendships aside, they play well when sharing the court.
“I feel like, as a team, we are at our best when Tyler and I are out there and aggressive,” Robinson said. “So we just want to continue to do that and translate that into wins.”
There are still improvements that need to be made in Miami, though.
For example, the HEAT are only 4-6 against teams above .500. Further, they’re lost all four games they’ve played on the tail end of back-to-backs. While you can point to fatigue as a culprit, you can also blame it on a lack of experience and stamina – and the latter two will improve over time. But the scary part is, while there is room for growth, they are already so far ahead of the curve.
Just imagine what they might look like in a year.
But let’s remain focused on this season: And in 2019-20, the HEAT are in the favorable position of having young talent supporting established stars like Butler and Dragic. While they are well-positioned for the future with Winslow, Adebayo, Herro, Robinson and Nunn, they are also built to compete now. Just don’t bother asking them about the team’s goals.
“We talk about goals, of course,” Robinson said. “But that stuff stays between us in this locker room. At the same time, we understand that the day-to-day is far more important. You want to keep the big picture in mind, but you’ve got to take care of what’s on your plate first.”
So we’ll have to wait and see how much they develop and what they ultimately do in 2019-20. But one thing’s for sure – the HEAT are on track to greatly exceed expectations.
And they just might do so in a big way.
NBA Daily: Davis Bertans Joins Ranks Of NBA’s Elite Marksmen
Not even his most ardent supporters knew what the San Antonio Spurs were losing and Washington Wizards were gaining with Davis Bertans. Nearing two months into the season, he’s suddenly among the best shooters in basketball. Jack Winters writes.
Not even the best shooter in the world can inform his team’s effectiveness from beyond the arc alone.
The assumption otherwise was put to the test in last year’s NBA Finals, when the Golden State Warriors — with Kevin Durant watching sidelined — proved hapless offensively without both Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson on the floor. If one of the Splash Brothers can’t turn a lineup of non-shooters into a threatening attack from deep, no one can.
But watching Davis Bertans this season, it’s tempting to think just how much better the San Antonio Spurs would be if he still played in the Alamo City. It’s not a complete hypothetical, either. Gregg Popovich is on record confirming the Spurs never would have traded Bertans to free up cap space if Marcus Morris had no interest in coming aboard. Less than a week after he agreed to terms with San Antonio, though, Morris reneged on his commitment to take a one-year deal with the New York Knicks.
It’s remiss to suggest retaining Bertans would make a season-altering difference for the Spurs. But what’s absolutely clear is that San Antonio’s loss has been a bigger gain for the Washington Wizards than anyone could have realistically anticipated.
The best suggest Bertans’ value in a league-wide vacuum this summer is what Washington gave up to get him. Aaron White was the team’s second-round pick in 2015 and played the last four seasons overseas. He might have a chance of finding his way to the league going forward, but it’s telling that White has expressed interest in transitioning to the NBA on multiple occasions only to head back to Europe toward the end of each offseason.
For all intents and purposes, it seems, the only thing of value Washington used to acquire Bertans was a trade exception. Take a bow, Tommy Sheppard. But it’s safe to say that not even the Wizards general manager saw this long-range onslaught coming.
Bertans cashed five more threes on Friday night in his team’s loss to the Miami Heat, bringing his season-long total to 78 on just over eight attempts per game. Only James Harden and Devonté Graham have connected on more triples than Bertans, and neither of them sniffs his 44.8 percent shooting from beyond arc. There are 35 players with at least 50 made threes this season; just four of them are have been more accurate than Bertans, per NBA.com.
Maybe some Spurs fans aren’t shocked by Bertans’ prowess from deep. He made a mini leap as a shooter in 2018-19, adding a bit of versatility to his long ball while upping his accuracy more than five points to 42.9 percent. Bertans isn’t some seasoned veteran, either. He was drafted in 2011 but only entered the league in 2016-17, and just turned 27. Some growth was to be expected from Bertans, basically, especially as the game’s emphasis on three-point shooting continues reaching new zeniths.
But the jump Bertans has made to join the exclusive shooting club reserved for the likes of J.J. Redick and Joe Harris is stunning nonetheless. After mostly serving as a weak-side floor-spacer and pet play shooter, Bertans is hunting threes this season while exuding the confidence and conviction of a true marksman with every step he takes on the floor.
Wonder why Bertans leads the NBA in points per possession in transition? He routinely sprints to open spots when the floor changes sides, and Washington ball-handlers know to look for him.
It’s hard enough for most guards to stop on a dime and launch catch-and-shoot triples in transition, which makes Bertans’ ability to do so all the more impressive. He stands 6-foot-10, but you’d never know it by the speed and footwork he often utilizes to create enough space for himself to launch.
All players Bertans’ size not named Durant are supposed to need an extra blip before letting fly. It’s hard enough for them to set their feet and square their shoulders to the rim on the move without worrying about getting a shot off in time to avoid an effective contest. But Bertans gets to his shooting form with remarkable ease, sometimes even hopping on the catch when his air space is closing fast, and owns one of the quickest releases in basketball.
Coming into 2019-20, Bertans had connected on just 20 off-dribble triples over three full seasons. He’s over halfway to that total through 21 games, regularly using a bounce or two to find some extra breathing room between he and the defense.
Is this Durant or Bertans?
Of course, Bertans would be the talk of the league even more than he is already if the skill he exhibits as a shooter fully translated to the rest of his game.
He can drive hard close-outs or turn the corner after a dribble hand-off with two or three dribbles to get to the rim, but has little workable wiggle in his handle. More problematic is his tendency to finish like a guard, too. Bertans is far better described as a fluid athlete than an explosive one, but that doesn’t mean he should regularly opt for floaters and scoops when challenged by rim-protectors in the paint.
His ceiling is also limited by his lack of positional versatility. Bertans is surprisingly light on his feet and fights hard defensively, but is way overstretched checking smalls. He possesses natural timing as a shot-blocker, but has short arms and vertical oomph needed to compensate. Bertans is a four-man, and that’s pretty much the extent of his positional scalability.
That’s why he’s probably best suited coming off the bench for the remainder of his career, perhaps closing games not just for Washington, but a title contender. Bertans is already proving himself as a high-impact offensive player, leading the Wizards – who boast a top-five offense, remember – in offensive rating and ranking behind only Bradley Beal in terms of net offensive efficiency. Lineups featuring that tandem are scoring 120.1 points per 100 possessions, almost 16 more than when Beal is on the floor without Bertans, per NBA.com.
The bad news for Washington? Bertans is an unrestricted free agent at season’s end, and an uninspiring list of marquee free agents assures he’ll be getting major upgrade on his $7 million salary. The Wizards should have enough flexibility to bring him back, but there’s no guarantee he’ll want to remain in the nation’s capital. It bears mentioning that Bertans has made clear he still considers San Antonio home.
But his future is a concern to be addressed another time.
For now, Bertans is a problem for Washington’s opponents to deal with, and unfortunately for them, there’s no workable answer to limiting his influence – just like that of every other shooter his increasingly rarified caliber.
NBA Daily: Horton-Tucker Making Most Of Time With South Bay Lakers
David Yapkowitz has a chat with Los Angeles Lakers rookie guard Talen Horton-Tucker about getting reps in the G League with South Bay and what he sees his role being in the NBA when that time comes.
When the Los Angeles Lakers drafted Talen Horton-Tucker this summer, the expectation was that he probably wouldn’t receive much playing time. On a veteran-laden team with championship expectations, there wasn’t going to be much of a role for a rookie.
That was further accentuated when Horton-Tucker suffered a stress reaction in his right foot, causing him to miss all of Summer League, which kept him limited during training camp. When he was finally cleared to return to the court, the Lakers assigned him to their G League affiliate, the South Bay Lakers.
He has suited up in only one game for the Lakers this season, but he’s played in every game with South Bay so far. In 11 games in the G League, he’s shown flashes of why the Lakers still drafted him despite suffering the foot injury during the draft combine.
His time in the G League was his first meaningful court action since leading Iowa State to the NCAA Tournament last spring.
“It feels great to be out here finally. I’m just trying to catch a rhythm with South Bay,” Horton-Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just taking it a day at a time. I feel like it’s been pretty good for my overall growth, that’s what’s important.”
Horton-Tucker has fit in well with the South Bay roster. He’s shown an ability to shoot from the perimeter at times, and he’s looked comfortable in putting the ball on the floor and making plays off the dribble.
His shot hasn’t always been on point, though. He’s shooting only 32.4 percent from the field and 24.2 percent from the three-point line, but he’s gotten good looks from the perimeter within the flow of the offense. And despite that, he’s made himself valuable on the court by contributing in other ways. He’s attacked the glass well, and he keeps the ball moving while looking to set teammates up for easy shots.
He’s managed to average double-digits in scoring with 11.8 points per game, and he’s put up 5.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists as well. Being able to be a positive on the court when his offense isn’t quite there yet is something he believes will help his career moving forward.
“I feel like if you play basketball, you’ve got to learn how to do everything. It’s just something I got to do,” Horton-Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “Whenever my shot is not falling, I know I can stay involved and rebound. I’ll still be able to contribute to a winning environment. I feel like I’ve been doing that the last few games that my shot hasn’t been falling.”
A few years ago, Horton-Tucker wouldn’t have had this opportunity to work on his game. The G League was much smaller than it is now, and most teams didn’t have affiliate they could send young players down to for development. NBA teams didn’t use the league as much, and many players viewed being sent down as punishment rather than a positive.
Without the G League, Horton-Tucker would likely have spent the majority season gathering splinters on the Lakers bench. With the growing expansion and usage of the G League, he’s able to get actual game reps in against legitimate competition to stay fresh.
He knew coming into this season that he wasn’t going to play much for the Lakers, if at all, so he’s grateful for being able to play with South Bay.
“It’s good to get your run in when you need to. I understand that I’m probably not going to get minutes with the Lakers right now,” Horton-Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just taking it one day at a time. I feel like the G League has been great. It helps us get our reps in and it helps our careers get started.”
While Horton-Tucker is still very young — he was one of the youngest players in the draft and just recently turned 19 years old last month — he has a skill set that should be able to eventually translate to regular NBA minutes. He’s a big guard who can generate his own offense, and he’s strong enough and skilled enough to be able to match up defensively against multiple positions.
He was recalled to the Lakers this weekend for their game against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He only played in two minutes of garbage time and missed his only shot, a three-pointer. He’ll likely return to South Bay sometime soon, and when he does get brought back to the Lakers, garbage time minutes will be his role. But the NBA can be unpredictable at times, and injuries and whatnot can strike at a moment’s notice forcing players into immediate action.
In the event that he is called upon for regular minutes at some point this season, Horton-Tucker is confident in what he can bring to the team.
“I feel like I can bring the same things I bring to this team right now,” Horton-Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “It’s my versatility, being able to do things like rebounding, passing, just doing whatever they need me to do, I can do that.”
The Lakers are clearly going to be in win-now mode for the duration of LeBron James’ contract, but if Horton-Tucker continues with his development, it’s going to be hard to keep him off the court. He’s going to use this year to continue to learn, with the hopes of being able to play a meaningful role next season.
“I just want to get better all around. I want to play on the Lakers next year, that’s just my goal,” Horton-Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “Not being cocky or anything, but that’s just my goal, to play with the Lakers next season. That’s something that I’m going to work hard towards.”