Are the Cleveland Cavaliers Spending Too Much Money in Free Agency?
How does a team that just lost in the NBA Finals assure themselves of the best chances to make it back the very next year? Bringing back some of the main cogs in the wheel from the previous season certainly helps.
The Cleveland Cavaliers were one of just a few teams to make sure they got a few of their own free agents before the first day of free agency was officially over. Kevin Love came back for as big a contract as he could get, and that was a big piece of the offseason puzzle for Cleveland. After bringing talent to the team last summer, this offseason is more a matter of which of their own free agents they can retain.
In addition to bringing back Love, the team agreed to terms with Iman Shumpert for four years and $40 million. And it appeared like the Cavs would retain Tristan Thompson for five years and $80 million, but talks have stalled.
Still, this means that in the neighborhood of $45 million could be tied up between three players already for next season. The Cavaliers are willing to spend to keep a talented team together; that much is clear.
However, did they spend on the right guys?
Shumpert was not brought back for his scoring. With the Cavs, Shumpert averaged 10.6 points per 36 minutes when playing for the Cavaliers during the regular season. He was actually scoring 2.3 more points when he was in New York. Thankfully, there's more to Shumpert's game that was desired by the Cavaliers.
Shumpert was the best guard defensively on the team last year based on Defensive Rating. Kyrie Irving finished the regular season with a 107 Defensive Rating and J.R. Smith achieved a 106 Defensive Rating. Shumpert came in at a 104 Defensive Rating. Being the best guard on the team is one thing, but being compared to all guards in the league is another.
If we take Shumpert's time just in Cleveland, we see a much different player. According to Basketball-Reference, there were 16 guards who played 900 minutes over the course of the season and notched a 104 or lower Defensive Rating. Shumpert hit 900 minutes while in Cleveland and finished pretty well among these 16 other players.
Here are those 16 and their per-100 possession numbers, sorted by total Win Shares.
Shumpert didn't contribute too much in the Win Share column (1.2 with Cleveland, 1.5 overall), putting him near the bottom of the table. However, his other contributions defensively for the Cavaliers are something worth noting.
His 8.1 rebounds per 100 possessions while in Cleveland place him in the middle of the group above, pulling down about as many as James Harden and Michael Carter-Williams did. Shumpert also only turned the ball over 2.8 times per 100 possessions, the fifth best mark of the above guards.
Shumpert's 2.9 steals per 100 possession rank fifth as well, falling in behind Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Teague. The Cavaliers hope Shumpert can be a game-changer in other categories beyond putting up points; if he does, his $10 million a year may look like a steal for the team.
Beefing Up the Inside
The two biggest contracts the Cavaliers have handed out so far belong to Kevin Love and, potentially, Tristan Thompson. Some may wonder why they would bring back both guys, as Thompson filled in well for Love when he was out with injuries, but they both merit their contracts based on their personal and team contributions.
Let's start with Thompson -- a starter in a backup's clothing. Despite starting every game in the previous two seasons, Thompson started only 15 games in 2014-15 and averaged five fewer minutes per game as well. However, that may have actually helped Thompson in the long run. We see that Thompson improved upon his Offensive Rating by 11 points (110 to 121) this past season and dropped his Defensive Rating by 2 points (108 to 106).
There were 20 players who had played 65 games and notched at least a 115 Offensive Rating and a 108 or lower Defensive Rating. Thompson's Offensive Rating is the 14th best of the group. And with 6.8 Win Shares, Thompson provided the value that Jonas Valanciunas did for the Raptors as their starting center.
Thompson's biggest strength may come in the form of his rebounding prowess. Michael Jordan had Dennis Rodman for his second three-peat -- Thompson may be able to provide the same role for LeBron James. Thompson pulled down 274 offensive rebounds this past season, the fifth-highest total in the NBA. His offensive rebounding percentage was high too, as his 14.5% mark was fourth in the NBA.
Considering the fact that DeAndre Jordan is set to get a max contract from the Dallas Mavericks, $16 million a year could turn out to be a good price with the market for big men this year. However, the Cavs didn't stop with Thompson -- they made enough of an impression on Kevin Love to make him come back too, though he commanded a max contract.
But as important as Thompson was on the boards for Cleveland last season, Love may have been even more valuable. His Offensive Rating wasn't quite as high as Thompson's (115 to 121), but he did contribute 1.9 more Win Shares than Thompson, and his Defensive Rating was slightly better as well.
But does it make sense to invest $35 million into two very similar players? Yes, actually -- having both in the lineup together could pay a lot of dividends for Cavaliers.
Worth the Price
When Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson were both on the court with LeBron James, they were one of the better three-man combinations for the Cavaliers. There was a 5.1% differential between their Total Rebound percentage and their opponent's percentage. And they were also the third-best scoring trio for the team, outscoring their opponent by 16.7 points per 100 possessions.
Love and Thompson also provided nice value as a trio with Kyrie Irving. They outscored their opponents by 10.4 points per 100 possessions, and they had the best steal and turnover rates as a trio on the team. Per every 100 possession, the Irving-Love-Thompson combo swiped 1.4 more steals and turned the ball over 3.0 fewer times than their opponents.
It got even better for the Cavaliers if we look at different four-man combinations. When James, Love, Thompson and Irving were on the court, they were outscoring opponents by 23.1 points per 100 possessions, the second best mark for a quartet of Cavaliers. These four also had the third highest block rate and the second best turnover rate on the team.
To top off the lineup combinations, the Cavaliers were very smart to make sure Shumpert was brought back right away as well. A lineup of Irving, James, Love, Shumpert and Thompson was little used but effective for the Cavaliers. Per 100 possessions, this lineup outscored their opponents by 32.8 points.
So the price tags may have been hefty for the Cavaliers for three of last year's pieces but they are a calculated risk -- and they still have to sign LeBron James! J.R. Smith and Matthew Dellavedova are still unsigned to the team, but as of now, there are no clear indications of what might happen with them.
Nonetheless, the Cavaliers are spending money to keep last year's team together. They still have Brendan Haywood's contract that they could unload, but this team will assuredly hit the luxury tax threshold before it's all said and done. It's a lot of money, but the Cavaliers need to do everything they can to keep James and bring a championship to Cleveland.