The Year of Dion Waiters.

October 14, 2013

I’m all in on this Cleveland Cavaliers team. One big reason: Dion Waiters.

Aside from Andrew Bynum’s health, Dion’s physique appears to be the story of training camp. A guy whose weight drew the ire of Byron Scott during last year’s Summer League, the Syracuse product has apparently slimmed down for his sophomore campaign. Waiters did yoga over the summer — in addition to these workout videos posted to YouTube.

So far this preseason — of course an extremely small sample size of two games against likely lottery teams in Milwaukee and Orlando — Dion leads the Cavs at 16.5 points per game in 24.5 minutes. (That’s a per-36-minute scoring average of 24.2, about a 6-point improvement over the 2012-13 season.) He’s shooting 50% from the field, 67% from 3-point territory and 88% from the foul line. He’s attempted as many free throws, 8, as Kyrie Irving. (Last season, he shot 41.2% from the field, 31.1% from deep and 74.6% from the FT line.)

Of course this is all with the preseason caveat. Dion’s not only had the benefit of weak opponents, but also of playing teams wary of showing too much scheme in meaningless games.

That said, you can’t help but marvel at the year-over-year progress. Dion — and the rest of the Cavs — appear to have completely bought into MB’s defensive intensity. Two more reasons to be optimistic:

* Dion’s got a year under his belt playing with Kyrie Irving. As Waiters told the media, per Bob Finnan: “[The coaching staff] put us in a position where we can feed off one another. They want me to play strict the ‘2.’ We never really established that much of a connection [last year]. This year, he knows where I like the ball, and I know where he likes the ball. We can work off one another and make each other better.”

* Also, the addition of Jarrett Jack as a backup PG and secondary playmaker allows Waiters to focus on one thing on offense: scoring. Barring an injury to Irving or Jack, Dion should never have to dribble the ball up.

To be a playoff team, Cleveland needs Dion to be a 16-20 points guy. Earl Clark and Alonzo Gee are defensive-minded players, Anderson Varejao’s points usually come off pick and rolls and offensive rebounds, Tristan Thompson’s still developing as an interior scorer, and Andrew Bynum (health) and Anthony Bennett (development, conditioning) remain big question marks. Aside from Irving and Jack, Waiters is the only player on this roster who can consistently create his own shot.

Dion had games last season of 25 in Chicago, 26 in Miami, 20 vs. San Antonio and 28 at the Clippers. This year, he just needs to fill the bucket on a more consistent basis. If he does, chances are this is a playoff team.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


Cavs top (really bad) Bucks in preseason opener

October 9, 2013

This is Mike Brown’s basketball team. That’s the most important takeaway from Cleveland’s 99-87 win over Milwaukee tonight at The Q, a game that was even more lopsided than the score suggests. Cleveland displayed a defensive intensity from the jump I don’t think we’ve seen since MB 1.0 ended in 2010.

The Cavs forced 23 turnovers — but had 26 of their own — and held Milwaukee to 37.7% from the field and 22.2% from distance. MB’s defense closed well on shooters across the floor, protected the rim and won the rebounding battle 50-38 minus two rotation bigs in Andrew Bynum and Tyler Zeller.  The Bucks managed just 38 points in the first half, and their starters combined for 27 points in 90 minutes, led by O.J. Mayo’s 7 on 3-10 from the field.

Let’s compare this to Cleveland’s 2012-13 D under Byron Scott:

  1. The Cavs allowed opponents 101.2 points per game (No. 25 in NBA).
  2. Cleveland opponents shot 47.6% from the field (No. 30).
  3. Cleveland opponents shot 37.2% from 3 (No. 25).

I’m not saying it’s all peaches and roses, or that the Cavs’ D is suddenly good again. Keep in mind this is a Bucks team without a real offensive threat, outside shooter, except for Caron Butler in the corner, or offensive identity. I’m just saying I like the progress and MB’s attention to detail — he must have called five timeouts tonight after missed assignments handed Milwaukee open shots.

All right, on to five quick observations:

* Dion Waiters impressed on both ends. He abused O.J. Mayo head-to-head. Waiters finished with 12 points on 4-11 shooting in 24 minutes and a game-high +/- of +23; Mayo’s +/- was a game-worst -24 in only 19 minutes. Dion’s shooting form looks much improved, and I loved his willingness to attack the cup. Twice he was rejected by LARRY SANDERS! only for Tristan Thompson to clean up the mess.

** The second unit is in good hands with Jarrett Jack and C.J. Miles. I tweeted during the game the closest thing the reserves had to glue last year was Luke Walton, perhaps the reason why Cleveland lost so many games in the second quarter. Jack’s a superb facilitator — he dished out a game-high 5 assists in 16 minutes — and can score in bunches, as he proved for Golden State in last year’s playoffs.

And C.J. is arguably the team’s fourth-best wing scorer, behind the obvious Kyrie Irving, Waiters and Jack. He drilled two from distance tonight and tallied an efficient 12 points on 4-7 in 19 minutes. Of the three vying for that starting SF spot — Alonzo Gee, Earl Clark and Miles — I think C.J. has the slimmest chance but may be most important to this year’s success. Gee and Clark bring athleticism and length, but C.J.’s the far superior scorer of the three, and this team needs his instant offense when Kyrie and Dion sit.

*** Like Saturday’s Wine & Gold scrimmage, No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett started slow. Bennett’s still struggling with his jumper, especially from deep, where he finished 0-3 tonight. Bennett air-balled two 3-point attempts Saturday, air-balled a third tonight and hit nothing but backboard on a fourth. Similar to Saturday, Austin Carr commented he’s fading rather than jumping straight up, much like Dion in his rookie campaign. This guy shot 53% from the field and 38% from 3 last year at UNLV, so I trust he’ll figure it out.

Despite his 2-12 showing, Bennett impressed me inside. He was blocked on his first few interior attempts, but then started attacking his defender. He attempted eight foul shots in 23 minutes; unfortunately, he missed five of them — another issue he’ll need to correct with the coaching staff. Bennett also tied Anderson Varejao with a game-high 10 rebounds, four of which came on the offensive end. The aggressiveness is clearly there; the confidence just has to follow.

**** Of the mop-up guys, Kenny Kadji looked the most NBA-ready … and may very well be playing himself onto this roster. Henry Sims was inserted before Kadji in the first quarter, but Kadji ultimately tallied more minutes, 12; more points, 15; and more rebounds, 5. Kadji almost had a nice chase-down block, too, but was whistled for a first-half foul.

Kadji has a nice inside-out game, can move up and down the floor, is a strong interior presence and possesses a nice frame — 6’10”, 242 pounds. If he doesn’t make it in Cleveland, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s on a 15-man roster in another city by the end of November. (And if that doesn’t work out, he can always go to work for his family at Kadji Beer, the Budweiser of Cameroon!)

***** The Bucks are bad. Like really bad. I put out a Twitter message asking Bucks fans to chime in on their team’s offensive identity and/or who’s their primary option. One response read: “Hopefully [Andrew] Wiggins.”

LARRY SANDERS! is LARRY SANDERS! Milwaukee probably has something in Greece’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, who finished with 14 points, but the Kevin Durant comparisons need to stop. O.J. Mayo’s an overpaid volume shooter at $8 million per year on a team where he’s probably the No. 1 late-game option. And Brandon Knight’s done nothing to prove he’s a starting-caliber PG at this level.

MVP OF THE GAME

This award goes to Tristan Thompson, who finished with 17 points and 8 rebounds, 5 offensive, in 25 minutes. Thompson was a vacuum around the hoop; between he, Varejao and Clark, I see no reason why Cleveland can’t lead the league in both offensive rebounds and second-chance points. Thompson’s right-handed foul shot also looked good; he finished 3-4 from the line.

ON TO THE NEXT ONE

Cleveland’s in Orlando at 7 p.m. EST on Friday night. The game’s on NBA TV. A good chance to see Orlando’s young wing talent, particularly Victor Oladipo, who had some, um, not-so-nice words for Cleveland a month ago, and Tobias Harris. I’ll be at a hockey game, but try to catch a replay and blog some observations over the weekend.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.

RELATED: KYRIE IRVING SHINES IN CAVS’ WINE & GOLD SCRIMMAGE


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