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The Sunday Drive with Luol Deng, Greg Roman and the brilliance of Aaron Craft

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Deng Debut (Russell Isabella / USA Today Sports photo)

Deng Debut (Russell Isabella / USA Today Sports photo)

With the NFL playoffs plodding along with the Cleveland Browns once again not a part of them, it’s time to look around and find an NFL team that’s just tolerable to watch. I’ve been trying, but so far, to no avail.

I can never back the New England Patriots for any reason. I so loathe the greatness of Tom Brady, and I’d like to tell you there is sense in what I just said, but it begins and ends with one word: Michigan.

Ugh.

I tried to support Seattle yesterday, and their fanbase is interesting to me for many reasons. Every time they showed Pete Carroll yesterday though, I wanted to punch him in the mouth. Why? He’s such a low-level individual, and if you put him up side-by-side with Jim Tressel, they wouldn’t be in the same moralistic neighborhood. Of course, success is rarely measured by morals, but following a team for me is in this instance. I just can’t stand Carroll.

The 49ers have a head coach named Jim Harbaugh (Michigan), and I don’t like him. They also have Colin Kaepernick, who I do like, and a team overall that I do like. But it’s San Francisco, and they have a head coach who played for Michigan. Ugh.

They are playing the Carolina Panthers, and I truly have nothing to say about them…and I could keep analyzing…but I realized one thing.

I could care a less about any of these teams. I hope you enjoy the games better than I do.

Let’s get driving.

The Luol Deng deal really does seem to walk along that fine line of “Great Deal” and “What the heck are they doing?” In many, many ways, trading for Deng makes sense, and you can’t simply toss this away with the take that, “It doesn’t make them legitimately better, so why do it?” It’s just more complicated than that on many levels.

Just in a pure basketball sense, the deal makes sense since the Cavs have a massive hole at the small forward position. Many assumed that the hole was left there so that the Cavs could make a run at LeBron James. That may or may not be true, and that may or may not still be true, but not the real point here. The point is that the Cavs have run through several really weak swing men this year, and likely kept that Cavs from winning a couple of games along the way.

Deng also clearly brings a high level of play on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball, and he has that infamous “body of work” that we talk a lot about here at CSI. Is he the best pure scorer on the team? Certainly not, but you’d be hardpressed to make a case that any other player should have the ball down the stretch because of what he’s done in his career.

What Deng can do offensively is really something to behold. Is Deng a guy that can score with the ball in his hands? He sure is. Is Deng a guy that can score without the ball? Yes. Is Deng a guy that can post up and score. You bet he can. Is Deng a guy that can score in the half-court? Beyond a doubt. Is Deng a guy that can score in transition? Affirmative.

Deng is a neat weapon to have in any offense, because his true strength is that he can do just about anything with the ball or without it. He’s not elite in many areas, but he’s the guy that when you look at the whole offensively, find that his malleability makes him elite. When you compare what he adds to the team compared to Earl Clark and Alonzo Gee, it’s downright scary how much this team improves by just him stepping on the court, and them stepping off.

Defensively, there’s not even an argument as to how valuable he is, as he immediately is their best defender on the perimeter and in the paint.

My point here is simply that the Cavs used Andrew Bynum, two useless second round picks and a questionable first round pick to acquire one of the top ten small forwards in the NBA. Obviously, LeBron James and Kevin Durant are the cream of the crop, and you can likely throw Carmelo Anthony into the mix because of his elite ability to score (although I think that’s arguable). Past those three players (or two), you have a mix of Paul George, Deng and Paul Pierce, who are all at that next level at varying points in their career.

On paper, it’s a phenomenal deal for the Cavs. Of course, it’s always more complicated than that.

The Cavs aren’t a good basketball team. The whys of that at this point aren’t really important, although I’ll get into that in a minute. The biggest strike against acquiring Deng is that the Cavaliers used assets to make a really bad team into a bad team. How many games would the Cavs have won without Bynum? Would they have won 25 games or less? Or would they have won 26 games or more? I think that’s a very interesting over/under.

I think 25 is an interesting number, and it certainly would have put them in the running for the #1 pick, and for certain, a top four pick in a draft in which that gets you a game-changing youngster. Adding Den will improve your team, but by how much? Will they now win 30 games? Could they win 35 games?

Either way, they make a run at the playoffs in the East, and then lose in the first round. The Cavs are then out of the lottery, and the chances of their team improving dramatically next year with a draft pick of the quality as at the top-end of next year’s draft are over. Sure, some have dreams of cap space and signing two max players, but give me a break.

There just won’t be players jumping at the chance to come to Cleveland for a variety of reasons. People who DON’T see that are kidding themselves. That includes Luol Deng (although he’s more signable than others) and LeBron James.

Yes, they will have the room.

No, they won’t get the best free agents.

Here’s what a can tell you from my perspective: a win-now mentality this season just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The team isn’t good, and while Deng makes it a better team, they aren’t going to be competitive with the tops in the East, and they are arguably going to be competitive with the mid-to-low tier teams in the East. They aren’t going to be competitive with any teams in the West.

That’s not arguable.

A win-later mentality could give you Jabari Parker or Andrew Wiggins or Joel Embiid or Julius Randle, who would all immediately become arguably the most talented player on the Cavaliers team. A couple of those guys would immediately become some of the most talented players in the NBA.

That IS arguable, but less so than the outcome of the Cavs season during the rest of this season.

What I can’t gauge is how the Cavaliers front office is looking at this season. It’s really easy to point to what the Cavs should do, and throw out the terms “tank” and “lose-again” as just another phrase in the every-day life of a Cavs’ fan. What’s not easy to discern is what the front office expectations are job-wise. People talk Chris Grant as though his job is meaningless to him, and that he should look at the team above all else. He has a job, and also has expectations from an owner that hired him. What those expectations are certainly tend to be more important than our expectations…

…even if they are wrong.

While many are jack-hammering Chris Grant for the Cavs struggling chemistry and roster, it’s really hard to point at the GM with any true merit. I’ve talked about it before, but it’s worth taking a look at again.

If you redraft that 2011 draft, Kyrie Irving is still far and away the #1 pick, and it’s not even close. You can legitimately critique Grant for taking Tristan Thompson at #4 that year, but there isn’t a long list of sure things ahead of him.  You could make a case that Klay Thompson would have been a better pick here, or a guy like Kawhi Leonard or Nikola Vucevic, but at the end of the day, I’m not sure any of those guys are heads and shoulders above Thompson at the four pick, and all would have been reaches at the time.

If you redraft the 2014 draft, you of course would point to Lillard, but he would have been just as big a gamble for the Cavs as Waiters was, and not a position fit. I personally wanted Harrison Barnes, but again, he’s not a giant lift as compared to Waiters. My point here is that the Cavaliers and Grant likely got the best player available there, and if they didn’t, there was a small margin of difference between what they got, and what they could have gotten.

Of course, you can debate chemistry until the cows come home, but there’s just no way to prove it.

If you redraft this past year’s draft, I don’t think anyone takes Anthony Bennett now. I honestly don’t think anyone takes Anthony Bennett then. That’s a problem. Do you hold Chris Grant accountable for that?

Sure you can.

Can you hold Chris Grant accountable for taking a flier on Andrew Bynum, and watching it go south when everyone in the league said it would go south?

Sure you can.

Can you hold Chris Grant accountable for building a team outside the draft that doesn’t seem to have much cohesion at times?

Sure you can.

I’ve often said this about the Indians, and it fits for the Cavs as well. Just because the market here is more difficult, that doesn’t mean that you aren’t accountable for figuring out a strategy that becomes effective. Some will say that the Cavs are along their “rebuilding map,” and that certainly is true. Of course, the owner gave a coach three years to build, and then fired him when they didn’t improve.

How long will Chris Grant have?

After this Luol Deng trade, I think we have our answer. My only question here is that if the Cavs trade for Deng for a half-year and he leaves, will the team be better off even if they improve their win total?

Well, they’ll have lost three-draft picks of arguable value, the player they traded and the player they traded for, and certainly several slots in the draft.

Ugh…

I’m sick of talking about the Browns’ ownership and the front office, so I’m just going to leave my Browns’ discussion on what they should do. If I’m the Browns, I’m focusing all of my attention on coaches that are still involved in the playoffs.

The Seahawks have two really nice candidates in offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. Bevell’s offense has rejuvenated Marshawn Lynch and allowed Russell Wilson to excel. The players get a ton of credit, and they should, but Bevell shouldn’t be overlooked.  Dan Quinn has been on an upwards trajectory for years, heading to the University of Florida for two season, before returning to Seattle where he had coached prior to Florida to be the defensive coordinator this season. Either would be good candidates, but my focus wouldn’t be on Quinn, but on Bevell.

The Denver Broncos have two interesting candidates in defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio and offensive coordinator Adam Gase. I’m not a big proponent for Del Rio, but I’d actually prefer him to Gase, who many think is the top candidate for the Browns. That’s not saying I want either. Del Rio has had past success in the NFL, but didn’t really do a whole lot in Jacksonvill, a similar market to Cleveland, when it was all said and done. Gase is a promising youngster, and has been Manning’s QB coach and then offensive coordinator.

I preface all of that with “Manning.” Josh McDaniels took a ton of hits leaving Brady for Denver’s head post, and I could see similar issues for Gase. How much of Denver’s offense is Gase, and how much is Manning?

Where my focus on though is the San Francisco 49ers, and in particular, their offensive coordinator Greg Roman. What he has done in San Francisco with their quarterbacks and offense has been spectacular. Entering the 2011 season, Alex Smith‘s QB rating had never risen above 83%, but that all changed in Roman’s first season as OC. The offense became efficient (ten turnovers all season), and Smith became an extremely dependable player who led the team to a 13-3 season. Colin Kaepernick debuted that year as a rookie.

Smith was a similar player in 2012, but suffered a concussion in November. Enter a completely different player in Colin Kaepernick, and that’s when things really took off.

I could get into the semantics, but I like watching a coach develop an offense that works around two different players. Roman did that, and at a high level. I like that better than Gase, who has Manning, and McDaniels, who had Brady. Roman maneuvered around two different players and allowed them to become great. That interests me a lot.

Are any better than Rob Chudzinski? That’s certainly up for debate. Let me ask you this though. Is Carolina’s offense better or worse since Chud left? That’s not a tell-all, and I still don’t think the firing was handled appropriately, but cases can be made that a change was needed. Of course, you still have to question the guys that made the hiring to begin with.

It truly pains me watching people talk Indians’ prospect-rankings, and for several reasons. There is so much flaw to how it’s done on several different levels. The national pundits obviously have to cover all the teams, and it makes their job extremely difficult. Of course, a good writer who covers all these organizations can surely begin to see trends, but also tend to weigh the knowns higher than the unknowns. It’s why you see #1 picks and “talked about” players move up these generic lists.

There’s also flaw to local flavor discussions. The eye-test, which I weigh highly, rarely gives you true upside to what the players can do at each level, and often doesn’t tell you what a club truly feels about a player. Front office and scouting discussions often are highly flawed, because they tend to show upside, say positives and hide their cards.

The best evaluation of talent is always watching the players, listening to what’s being said and watching how a team handles that product. It’s really not rocket science. Look at Tyler Naquin, a player that is interesting to me in many ways and for many reasons. Many hate him for being a reach in the first round. Many are apologists, because he can play some defense, has an arm, and has a nice swing.

I’ve seen him for nearly an entire season, and while his defense is good, he’s not the best defensive outfielder in the system. I watched Tyler Holt for two years, and while Naquin’s arm is “wonderful,” he can’t touch Holt in the field. I’ll be honest. I think Naquin’s defense isn’t noticeable. You don’t notice it much because he’s very dependable. I personally don’t think he’s special, as some describe.

Offensively, he was solid, but unspectacular. He hit .277 with nine homers and 42 RBI, but he struck out 112 times in 108 games. That’s concerning, no matter how you look at it. Sorry, fall and winter league numbers don’t fix his career struggles with selection.

Then you look at his splits, and they make me laugh because of other players that get knocked for splits. Joe Wendle hit .320 against righties, and .224 against lefties. That’s a concern, but one that’s moderately acceptable because 2/3 of his at bats going forward will be against righties. Naquin hit .297 against righties, and .200 against lefties.

But, you know, the Indians didn’t KNOW that Wendle was a good player, so….

That’s all my opinion, of course, and realize there’s flaw to it, and trust me, I didn’t go into Naquin enough in this piece to get my point fully across. Many will disagree and throw minor league defensive numbers at me, and other stats as well. That’s all fair, but not really much point to the greater thought to this piece.

What you have to do is combine all the pieces. Where was he drafted…where was he positions…which levels did he skip…what does the front office say about him, and what have they done with him?

Well, they bumped him up to Akron last year, before other guys and for a variety of different reasons.

That speaks to me. Do they want him to prove himself, or are they throwing him up to Akron and saying, “we need to see if you have anything, or are a bust.” You also have to ponder who is ahead of him.

What picture is painted? Naquin is probably considered a top ten guy to the Indians right now. He’s not a top ten guy for me, but the Indians look at him differently. For how much longer?

Not much.

The bigger point here though is that to truly evaluate talent in the minor league system, you often have to vary your tact, and often, don’t trust what you hear. Use all of your senses, and follow that up with good common sense.

How good is Aaron Craft? There isn’t a day that’s gone by during the Ohio State Buckeyes basketball season over the past four years in which I haven’t wanted to give Bruce Pearl a call and say thank you for having that barbecue all those years ago. I’ll come back to that in a second.

The Buckeyes played Michigan State on Tuesday night in East Lansing, and it wasn’t Aaron Craft’s best performance by a long-shot. He didn’t score in the first half, and had some key turnovers that led to a Sparty run that eventually gave them a 17-point lead.

Anyone who thought this game was over at this point though had to have their head examined, and I’m of course referencing Ohio State’s miraculous comeback against Notre Dame just before Christmas. In that game, the Bucks scored 14 points in 50 seconds to beat the Irish 64-61. They were down eight in that game with less than a minute, when Craft and Shannon Scott‘s defense fueled Lenzelle Smith Jr.‘s offense, and the Buckeyes got the victory. On a sidenote, Smith Jr. had zero points with 50 second left. He finished with nine.

Back to Tuesday night. The Buckeyes stormed back, of course, but the brilliance in what the Buckeyes and Craft did in the final two minutes really showcased just what this team is all about. With just over two minutes left, and the Buckeyes down only six points, Craft was fouled on a layup that he made, and hit the foul shot. His partner-in-crime, Shannon Scott, then drew a charge on Keith Appling. What happened next is what makes Aaron Craft so fun to watch.

Craft missed a driving lay-up, but fought, got the ball back, and shot and missed a base-line three-pointer. The Buckeyes and Spartys were battling for the ball when Craft hurled himself into the mix, covered the ball, and quickly called a timeout before Sparty could tie him up for a jump ball.

Brilliance.

Craft then brought the ball in, and pulled the backyard “off-the-butt” play to self pass it for a lay-up, bringing the Buckeyes to within a point. After Sparty made a one-of-two foul shots, Craft would drive to the hoop again, miss the lay-up again, but Amir Williams followed with a MONSTER jam to tie the ballgame, in what looked a lot like a staged play. Shannon Scott then stole the ball, and nearly won the game at the buzzer with a layup that didn’t fall in.

The Buckeyes would end up losing, but it’s hard to not see that the heart of this team is one Aaron Craft. They should have beaten Michigan St. in their home court last night, and came three inches short of doing it. This Ohio State team may have the best chance to win a national title than its predecessors. While they may not be as talented as the teams they’ve had over the past two seasons, they just may have the best defense in the country, and surely have the best…well…most important player. We’ll argue best at another time.

Now, back to Bruce Pearl, or in this case, his son Stephen Pearl. Stephen is Bruce’s son, a former player for his Dad at Tennessee, and now is the host of a popular radio talk show in Knoxville. I came across this little nugget on youtube, and it’s utterly brilliant. In this radio commercial, Stephen Pearl is pushing a local restaurant, Calhoun’s barbecue, and the finish to this commercial can only be described as perfect. Make sure you listen to the last ten seconds…and I mean all the way to the end. Trust me, it’s good stuff.

In the rearviewmirror:

  • The Cleveland Cavaliers traded Andrew Bynum to the Chicago Bulls, who promptly released him. I’m interested in his story. Why did he leave. What really happened? Will he play again and with who? What makes him tick? Not many people would buy his autobiography, but I certainly would. Andrew Bynum was nothing if not interesting, and I truly hope that as a person, he has peace in his life. I often think of what superstardom does to people, and Bynum fits in that category. I think of players like Bison Dele, and hope that his eccentricities don’t take him down a similar path. Dele had equal eccentricities, and was considered a player that didn’t really love basketball because of other loves. That story ended the way eccentric stories tend to. I’m hoping Bynum doesn’t follow a similar path.

2 thoughts on “The Sunday Drive with Luol Deng, Greg Roman and the brilliance of Aaron Craft

  1. Signing Deng was completely idiotic. None of it makes sense. Fire Grant and Brown, and make sure this team gets a top five pick next year. Can they trade Deng?

  2. Is there a better college player than Aaron Craft? Unfortunately, this Ohio State team isn’t all that talented. I’m not sold on Ross, and Smith Jr. and Thompson just aren’t consistent enough support to be the answer. If Shannon Scott were an actual two guard and not the same player as Craft, I’d buy in. Nice get on the youtube video

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