A Season Of Questions: A Cleveland Cavaliers ’19-’20 Preview: Part 2- Those That Return

In our first segment we looked at the fresh faces that will be donning the wine and gold this year, but today, we will look at the contributors to this year’s Cavalier team that will be returning from last season.

We will start with the most prominent. Namely, the Cavs bring back a lot of front court talent between Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson and Larry Nance Jr.

Nance might be the low-key best player on this team. I believe he was last year, at least. He’s an athletic big that can finish around the rim as well as be a surprisingly adept passer. His creativity with the ball should lend itself well to Beilein’s offense. He was also the Cavs’ best defender last year and was in the top 20 in steals, a stat he claims he wants to be among the league leaders in this year. He will start the year likely in a bench role, but should be more than poised to step in if there are any injuries.

Thompson was having a great season last year until he got injured, although I think some of his offensive output came at the benefit of Love’s own absence. He did show an improved ability to score around the rim though and shot nearly 53% from the field. Both he and Nance want to open up their offensive games this year and try to stretch the floor with deep shots, including 3s. Exemplified by making 33 threes last year, Nance has shown an ability to do this in the past. Thompson on the other hand, is a player that has struggled with knowing which hand to shoot free throws with, let alone perfecting jump shots from the field in game action. Color me skeptical. Alternatively, Beilein has come out and said anyone who proves to make shots in practice will not be scolded for taking them in games.

Love could very well could make his 6th All-Star team this year as he has had a year to become re-acclimated to being the number 1 option in an offense. He, along with Nance and Thompson compose a very strong rebounding front-court that could prove helpful if the team can pick up their defensive efforts. The question becomes though, how many possessions will the Cavs really want to waste on the 31 year old Love? He’s proven a great locker-room leader, but would the team not be better served to allow reps to guys like Darius Garland, Cedi Osman and Colin Sexton (more on them to come)? Will the Cavs trade Love? Will he be healthy at the appropriate time for him to be traded in the first place?

Love isn’t the only trade question on the team either. This squad is a mix of young potential players and veterans. 6 vets on this team are on the last year of their contracts: Thompson, Osman, Brandon Knight, Jordan Clarkson, John Henson and Matthew Dellavedova. How many of these guys are not going to be interested in being a part of a tank job, particularly when so many will be coming off the bench in lieu of younger talent? I think a number will welcome a trade, and their behavior in the locker room will have a lot to do with how smooth of a transition lies ahead for this Cavaliers team. With the exception of Osman and maybe Dellavedova I would not expect any of the above to return after this season.

With Osman in mind, this is a huge year for him. The man that replaced LeBron at starting small forward has a lot to prove, and a lot to gain coming into a contract year. He could be poised for a breakout as his improved scoring ability and creativity with the ball should aid him well in Beilein’s offense. He shot well down the stretch last year but looked super inconsistent in his time playing for Turkey at the FIBA World Cup this summer, costing them in dearly in the final minutes of a couple games. He will have to cut out the major gaffe’s he’s been susceptible too, but if he can he has real talent as a rotation player in the NBA.

Its odd, but Dellavedova was a bit of a godsend last year when he was brought back to the Cavaliers in a mid-season trade. I am not fooling myself, I’m sure his acquisition had a lot to do with instilling good will with Cleveland fans in a bleak season by having a fan favorite player return. Further, Milwaukee was more than willing to off-load his $9.6 million per year, but he was a cool head who was able to handle the ball and initiate offense, something the Cavaliers desperately needed last year and used until his season ended with concussion issues. Delly had the best assist rate on the team by far, at 31.3% and with there still being questions about Garland as a facilitator, he very well may continue to have a significant role on this squad.

Another big part of the team’s ball-handling woes last year comes from the performance of Collin Sexton. Sexton was the 8th pick in the draft for the Cavs last year, and to be fair, was absolutely brutal at times. Labeled a point guard, he average just 3 Assists Per Game, in just under 32 Minutes a Game, coupled with 2.3 Turnovers Per Game. He proved much more of a scorer, averaging 16.7 Points Per Game with an ability to get to the rim and more shooting range than expected. Personally, I think he needs to cut out some of the long 2 point shots he takes. They made up 21% of his repertoire last year and made him a less efficient scorer than he could have been. He was also a bit of a turn-stile on defense, accumulating negative Defensive Win Shares, but to his credit, improved throughout the season and received All-Rookie Second team honors.

Sexton however was not the only guard on the team who needed the ball in his hands. Jordan Clarkson was one of the bright spots on a bad team last year, but it came mostly in a scoring role off the bench. He led the league in 10+ point games off the bench and scored 16.2 Points Per Game. He absolutely benefited from an injury-stricken second unit that didn’t have a ton of scoring talent around him, but he has proven to be a young player with quality scoring potential. Expect Clarkson to get a lot of run again early this year, but to not be part of the future plans of the team. I really believe a play-off bound group would love to snatch him up for bench scoring down the stretch. The Cavs should showcase him early, and he deserves the minutes.

But really this brings us to the crux of what this team is. One on hand, you have a number of front-court vets that are accomplished and bring quality basketball to the floor. On the other, you have 2 young point guards, both of whom so far show more of a penchant for scoring than passing, are undersized and of questionable defensive ability. I fear 2 things. For one, we have seen this rodeo before. Dion Waiters and Kyrie Irving did not get along, despite what they might have said back in the day (see linked video for a laugh). I truly believe those Cavalier teams earlier this decade were on a train to nowhere before LeBron rescued them. You had 2 ball-dominant guards, both of whom wanted to handle and were not great defensively, and the team struggled for 4 long years. This might be where the Cavs are headed. My second fear is a lesser one, and it is just that ultimately, Sexton and Garland can be cordial members of the same team, but the floor just isn’t big enough for both of them at one time. I ultimately think this will be a benefit, as I personally think Sexton is eventually better suited as a spark plug off the bench for a playoff team, similar to former Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams. However, can the team stick it out with both players long enough to build a team where its suitable to run Sexton off the bench? To conclude my thought, I will say that I do not blame the Cavaliers for what they have done. They believe they have taken the best players available in the draft. The 76ers took center Joel Embiid even though they had a young center in Jahlil Okafor in their starting lineup and that decision has worked out for everyone in the long run (except Okafor). You can’t pass up on talent when its there, not when you so desperately need it in order to compete.

Unfortunately for now though, this team is a bit of a mess. Its a conglomeration of talent that I just don’t think really has a sense of direction yet. I think if the Cavs wanted to roll out their 5 best players on the floor at the same time they would not be able to as three of them are Love, Thompson and Nance to go along with Clarkson and Garland (I THINK, who knows! He only played 5 college games!). Love, Thompson and Nance would never work together, not unless Love played a weird version of small forward since he can stretch the floor, but can’t guard the other teams’ 3 position. Not even mentioned above is Ante Zizic, another 7 foot center that looked like a really promising player for the Cavs in spurts last year., was 4th on the team in Win Shares Per 48 Minutes and 4th in Offensive Rating.

This is a big year in the transition of the team though as they will need to figure out if Sexton and Garland fit together, and if not, how bad the damage is. They also need to figure out if Cedi Osman is in their long term plans, see what they can get for Jordan Clarkson and if they could really bring in a bomb’s worth of talent for Kevin Love. There will be a lot of dead money coming off their cap this off-season, which they will want to hold on to. Either Garland is a real piece and a franchise player in a league where you need at least 2 of those pieces to really compete, or the Cavs are still at least 2 seasons away from finding both of their cornerstones and starting to really build something.

The discovery begins on Wednesday in Orlando. In my last preview entry we will be looking at the schedule and I will be making a prediction on a season record for the Cavaliers.

A Season Of Questions: A Cleveland Cavaliers ’19-’20 Preview: Part 1- New Additions

For my next few posts I will be previewing the 2019-2020 season for the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team mired in questions as they try to rebuild themselves. This is part one, where I will look at the team’s background, as well as new additions.

To begin this preview, we must first look back. Last year’s Cavaliers went into the season knowing that the best player in the world would no longer suit up for them. Still, they decided to hold onto All-Star forward Kevin Love with hopes he could propel the remnants of a four-time Eastern Conference Championship squad to a playoff spot. Those aspirations though were clearly not in the cards, as expectations were likely too optimistic, and injuries played a large role in keeping most of the team’s talent off the floor. Love was certainly not an exception in this as he only played in 22 games last season.

Ultimately, the Cavs went 19-61 and the team statistics were just as ugly as the record. They were 29th in Points Scored Per game and 29th in Pace. Unfortunately, this was not the product of a slow, methodical, defensive-minded style prompted by Coach Larry Drew. To that point, Cleveland was also dead-last in the NBA in Defensive Rating. In fact, the analytics dictate that Love, once panned as the defensive weak link on a number of teams with championship aspirations, was the 3rd best defender on the team in both Defensive Win Shares and Defensive Rating. To be fair, Love was good defensively in limited action, but still, the juxtaposition is staggering.

However, that was then and this is now. For their pitiful and perhaps understandable effort, the Cavaliers were not able to come to terms with Drew on what his future should look like. He departed the organization and John Beilein has been hired away from the University of Michigan to lead this year’s club. Beilein is expected to nurture a young pool of talent this year and into the future, which should be an easier transition to the pros than he would receive on a star-studded team with high expectations. He is a long-time college coach, used to teaching young prospects, and should be better equipped for this type of crew. He also runs a motion offense that lends itself to creativity and empowering the players, it should be fun to watch, assuming the players can master it.

I do have questions though. Beilein is 66 years old, just 4 years younger than the league’s oldest coach. That elder statesman just so happens to be Gregg Popovich, a 23 year veteran head coach with 5 championship rings. Is Beilein really long for this job? I do not expect this Cavaliers’ rebuild to be a quick turn-around into contention. Brett Brown was 52 when he took over the Philadelphia 76ers rebuild and was given miles and miles of job security. It took 4 years for those Philadelphia teams to get over .500 with Brown. Beilein has just 4 years until his seventh decade on this Earth and a front office with a history of finding coaches to be disposable. Even if the ultimate move is to hand the reigns over eventually to the much younger Associate Head Coach JB Bickerstaff, who is to say the front office can stick to that plan? Do they want to? How much of Bickerstaff being hired is based off of his father being a Senior Basketball Adviser to the team? He’s a coach that’s already had 2 head coaching jobs, albeit both were interim efforts, but neither lasted longer than 2 years. For the moment, Beilein will be tasked with teaching, and I do feel good about his ability to bring talent up to speed. He coached NBAers Tim Hardaway Jr, Caris Levert and Glenn Robinson among others while at Michigan, had a .650 winning percentage there and made it to the Final Four twice.

On the court itself, the biggest additions for the Cavs this year have been their draft picks. Despite having the 2nd worst record in the league in the 2018-2019 season, Cleveland had to settle for the 5th pick in the draft due to the new lottery rules. They used this selection on Vanderbilt guard Darius Garland. I believe the Cavaliers drafted Garland on the premise of best player available, and I applaud them for that. However, I have serious questions about the player they deemed the best at that moment. Garland led Vanderbilt in Points Per Game and shot nearly 48% from the 3 point line as a freshman last year… in a grand total of 5 games played. Yes, he played 5 non-conference college games, and then called it a career as he had injured his meniscus in the 5th game of the season, requiring surgery. This would not be the first time the Cavaliers would take a freshman guard who didn’t even play a full season of college basketball due to injury (Kyrie Irving), but I still find it troubling. Irving was close to a unanimous first pick in the draft and you cannot say the same about Garland. Scouts still sing his praises. They love his footwork, quick release and general scoring ability, and I feel this was a pick taken likely on potential, but the relative unknown is quite concerning.

The Cavaliers made 2 other picks in the first round of the draft as well. Dylan Windler is a 4-year guard out of Belmont taken 26th overall. He’s actually my favorite pick for the Cavs in this draft and while not being flashy, I think he can be a rotation player in this league for a long time. He was a markedly improved shooter from range at Belmont and should be able to transition into the Association as a wing who can both shoot and rebound. He averaged 10.8 Rebounds Per Game as a senior at 6 foot 8. This league is now built on players that can shoot while having at least the partial skills sets of big men. Windler can definitely play a role in that regard in the future.

Lastly comes the very last pick of the first round of the draft. The Cavaliers traded up to take a player, who was named the biggest steal of the draft in the annual rookie survey. Kevin Porter Jr. is a bit of a developmental project, but he could be a very good one. He’s a great athlete and could project into a defensive stalwart if he applies himself to that end of the floor. However, he is another guy that did not play much in college due to both a quad injury and being suspended by USC for an undisclosed conduct issue, which could be a gigantic red flag. For a player that might not even get that much action this year, will it be worth it to keep around someone that might not be the best teammate? I appreciate the Cavs going the extra mile to find talent where others might have passed, perhaps this is an overreaction on my part, but I certainly have questions.

A group of fresh faces both young and old will try to re-invigorate this Cavaliers team as they are still in the beginning stages of a rebuild. In my next entry we will focus on the players that will be returning to the floor for Cleveland next year to aid this young talent in their transition to professional basketball. Expect more content fast, as the season approaches this coming week.

The Yankees are Concerned About Astros Sign Stealing. Should They Be?

In case the intro post didn’t make this clear, I love sports. I love them enough that if there is nothing better to do on a weekend afternoon, sometimes I will just turn the television on and watch whatever random game that I can find at my leisure. A few months back, I was having one of those afternoons and ended up settling into a game of regular season women’s college softball.

There was nothing particularly special about this game, I don’t even remember what schools were involved any more, but there was one specific peculiarity that I do remember. ESPN U’s budget for this game must have not been especially large, because the center field camera wasn’t in the traditional spot. Instead, any runner on second base, standing in the ready position on base was in full view of the camera, as was their right hand, down by their bent forward knee, using their digits to pantomime the number of fingers the catcher was showing to the pitcher. They were stealing signs. Blatantly, rudimentarily and, in clear view of regional television.

This is nothing new. For as long as there have been signs for bat and ball games, teams have been trying to steal them. We used to even try to steal them in high school. The last time the Indians won the World Series, back all the way in 1948, there were allegations of signal theft using some suspicious scoreboard work. For the most part, if it happens on the field with uniformed personnel and no special technology, I am okay with it. If your opponent’s signs are not sophisticated enough to not be deciphered, then have at it. This seems to be pretty popular opinion in baseball thought.

But like most things, this lives on a spectrum, and while players on the field seem to be free to steal signs, it sure seems the Houston Astros like to push the envelope.

The allegations against them are significant. Last year, after being swept in three straight games during the ALDS, the Indians warned the Red Sox about Kyle McLaughlin. McLaughlin wasn’t Houston’s lead off hitter or lefty specialist out of the bullpen. He was an unlisted employee of the team, caught taking photos of the Indians dugout. MLB went on to investigate McLaughlin and the official ruling was that he had broken MLB rules, but supposedly was not stealing signs himself. Instead, he was taking photos to ensure the Indians weren’t stealing signs. Essentially, he was doing a suspicious looking thing that looked like stealing signs, but was really making sure their opponent was actually not stealing signs. Or that’s how the story goes at least. MLB sent a memo to the remaining playoff teams at that point last year warning them about funny business, and that was the end of the story for 2018.

No further punishment was unveiled besides Boston dismissing Houston in 5 games, and that brings us to now. For both games of this year’s ALCS thus far, Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez has done his best mime impression, cycling through finger signs and body touches while delivering orders to the Yankees pitching staff. Its has worked, as the Astros have only scored 4 runs total in both games, splitting the match-ups at Minute Maid Park. New York to this point, has said nothing, but it sure seems clear that they are a little concerned with the safety of their signals.

And it seems that they should be. This appears to be a home ballpark phenomenon for the Astros. I don’t know if the photographer is afraid of flying or what, but it appears teams get paranoid about going to Minute Maid Park. Andre Knott, who used to work in the media for the Cleveland Browns and now works as a dugout reporter for Indians’ games has said as much on a 2018 podcast, claiming that how the Indians staff has treated going to Houston reminds him of when the Browns would visit Foxboro (around the 6 minute mark).

But what do the Astros get for their efforts? Like I said before, this appears to be a Minute Maid Park phenomenon. Since 2017 and the beginning of their rise to the top of the American League, the Astros have hit .270 at home, good for 4th best in baseball over that time. Their on base percentage of .343 is also 4th best and their strikeout rate of 18.1% is the best in baseball over that span of 3 years while playing at home. However, over the same time period the Astros hit exactly .270 on the road as well. Not only is that the exact same batting average as at Minute Maid, it’s the best road average over that span of time. By 11 points! An OBP of .342 and a K rate of 18.5 % are lesser than at home by a minuscule margin, but are also better than any other team since 2017. They are easily the best road hitting team in baseball since 2017. Either Houston has been stealing signs on the road as well, or they should flat out stop doing it because its clearly not worth the risk.

Further, everyone wants to point to Houston’s home record this year as being suspicious. They were indeed the only team to win 60 games at home over the 2019 season. What is not being mentioned though is that since 2017, the Astros have won more games on the road (157) than any other team. Boston has the second most victories, with a 15 game valley coming between the two American League foes. Houston came down to Earth a bit this year as they were tied for 3rd most road wins at 47, but that’s still really good, and these cheating allegations go back multiple years. You would think that would bare through in the numbers, but Houston has easily been just as good on the road as they have been at home since rising to power in ’17.

Then again, maybe Jose Altuve, George Springer and company are just really good hitters. Maybe the Indians were just displaying sour grapes about another playoff disappointment when they gave the Red Sox the heads up. Maybe all the data is insignificant; the numbers are a matter of random variation.

I can’t tell you what the real answer is, but for better for worse I can guarantee college athletes will continue to show one finger for rise ball while standing on second base, and Astros employees will need to remember to turn their flash setting off. They need to do whatever it takes to get an advantage.

Or maybe they don’t?

Intro: Welcome to the Game

Hello and welcome everybody. I am proud to announce the first ever post for this new website I have created. 

This. Is. Pick-Up Sports: Cleveland! (Vince McMahon voice).

On this website I will be providing commentary on sports topics I feel passionate about. Based out of Cleveland, OH, there will be a lot of Indians and Cavaliers talk here, but I also fully intend to talk about their leagues as large. If I am passionate about it, you will read it. We will probably even get into Blue Jackets and hockey content!

You might notice though, the Browns are conspicuously absent from the conversation. Yes, there will be a lot more baseball and basketball talk on this site than football. The Browns and really NFL are just not a major interest for me at this moment. I intend to get into why at a later date, but for now just know I would be doing you a disservice by dwelling on the sport. It would be similar to the two times a year that ESPN forces Stephen A. Smith to talk about baseball. Not pretty! Further, football coverage is saturated anyway. Turn on ESPN in the afternoon in June. NFL Live will be on. Turn on sports talk radio in Cleveland any day of the year, chances are you will get Browns talk (or probably even more likely, a commercial). I want to use this site to give some shine to the Indians, Cavs and their respective leagues, along with even a sprinkling of hockey talk.

While we are on the topic of me, you will probably want to know why you should read this site anyway. I do have a background in baseball as a player and coach, even up to the college level. For the most part though, I am just a passionate, but intelligent fan. This is not a day job. I am writing merely for joy. Because I want to. If one other person enjoys reading, its all worth it.

In this day and age of talking heads in sports, I have found a real value in the perspective of the outsider. Journalists and former players are great and an imperative part of the media. However, some of my favorite platforms for consuming sports information come from shows, writers and podcasts that feel familiar. The content is dressed as though its coming from the surprisingly knowledgeable guy you are sitting next to at the bar, or from the casual phone conversation that you are having with your dad. That is what we are aiming for here, and I hope we can foster some conversation. Comments are always welcome.
And that is why this is called Pick-Up Sports Talk. This is not professional. Its not for money. I am here because I enjoy it and I hope you will join in. Right now, I am shooting around in my driveway, hoping for some readers so we can run a game. Comments are always welcome. I will even take on other writers, if you want to send me your ideas, at pickupsportstalkcle@yahoo.com.

Lastly, I want to apologize for the formatting of this site. This is my first foray into my own site, and I absolutely do not know what I am doing with design. If anyone is reading this, and wants to make a little cash sprucing up my set-up, I am all ears. Use the same email address from above in order to contact me.

Next time you hear from me, there will be real content. I am already loading up ideas for posts. They will be coming, but for now, Game 1 of the ALCS has just started up. I am going to set aside the keyboard and enjoy.

Until then.