#CrystalBasketball: Ranking the Cleveland Cavaliers for 2017-18

How does every NBA player stack up heading into 2017-18, based solely on the level at which we expect them to play during the upcoming season?

That’s the question 16 NBA Math staff members and contributors sought to answer, ranking each and every player in the sport’s premier league on a 1-to-12 scale and then seeing who emerged with the highest averages. The distant past was irrelevant. Long-term potential doesn’t matter. Only what could come to pass in 2017-18 is factored in, assuming health for those currently healthy and full recoveries from those presently injured. For example, Brandon Knight will still be included in this analysis; we just assumed he’d already completed his rehab for the torn ACL and now has that as a prior portion of his overall injury history.

All players were graded on the following scale by each evaluator, and ties between players with identical averages were broken by sorting the 16 scores from best to worst and propping up the men who had the highest mark at any point in the top-down progression:

  1. Shouldn’t Get Minutes
  2. End-of-Bench Pieces
  3. Depth Pieces
  4. High-End Backups
  5. Low-End Starters
  6. Solid Starters
  7. High-End Starters, Non-All-Stars
  8. All-Star Candidates
  9. All-NBA Candidates, Non-MVP Candidates
  10. Lesser MVP Candidates
  11. MVP Frontrunners
  12. Best Player in the League (only one player could earn this grade on each ballot)

Journey with us team by team as we unveil the entirety of these rankings, culminating in a look at every player set to suit up for the 2017-18 campaign.

Today’s featured squad? The Cleveland Cavaliers, whose blockbuster swap of Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas forces the upper half of these rankings to look different than we ever could’ve imagined at the start of the 2017 offseason.

17. Edy Tavares: 1.69

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 25
  • Position: C
  • 2016-17 Stats: 4.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, 0.5 assists, 3.0 blocks, 2.2 TPA (for Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers)
  • Highest Grade: 2 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 1 (multiple voters)

If wingspan is your thing, you might still be a believer in Walter “Edy” Tavares. But the 25-year-old big man has yet to earn much of an opportunity during his NBA career, and that’s not likely to change as he transitions into his first full season with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Even that comes with a caveat, since his unguaranteed salary could easily be wiped from the books before the start of the 2017-18 campaign.

Tavares’ upside is easy to see, though. He moves fairly well for a 7’3″ center with long arms, allowing him to finish plays around the rim and beat opponents down the floor to establish early positioning on the interior. He’s also blocked 4.3 shots per 36 minutes while recording 11.4 boards during the same average stretch. Defensively, he looks like he has a future as a depth piece, so long as he gets an opportunity to shine.

But opportunities are tough to come by in the Association, particularly when players are this raw.

16. Kay Felder: 1.75

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 22
  • Position: PG
  • 2016-17 Stats: 4.0 points, 1.0 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.2 blocks, minus-47.19 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 3 (Eric Spyropoulos)
  • Lowest Grade: 1 (multiple voters)

Don’t be fooled by the 5’9″ Kay Felder’s tiny frame.

He hasn’t yet elevated for a dunk in the NBA, but he’s thrown down plenty of slams throughout his basketball career. With spring-loaded legs and tremendous timing on his leaps, he put together quite the highlight reel of throw-downs during his collegiate days at Oakland. This man just plays big, even if he’s rather small. That also manifests itself in surprisingly decent defense, though he’ll always be overmatched against the bigger guards who litter the Association’s backcourts.

Felder was never a great shooter, though. It didn’t hold him back while he was playing NCAA ball, but failing to develop a capable three-point stroke will ensure he struggles to get off the pine for a while longer. And it’s impossible to dunk from the bench.

15. Cedi Osman: 2.00

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 22
  • Position: SF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 10.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.2 blocks (for Anadolu Efes)
  • Highest Grade: 3 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 1 (multiple voters)

Apparently, Cedi Osman has some LeBron James in him.

Don’t expect to see too many chase-down blocks during his rookie season, but the Turkish small forward has some legitimate game. He can contribute in plenty of different areas and will likely do so without recording too many statistical contributions.

“Osman is a role player, and he’s one that does all the little things that Cavs fans have come to expect from [Tristan] Thompson or Matthew Dellavedova over the past few years,” Trevor Magnotti wrote for Fear the Sword while previewing the playing style and potential impact of the 2015 NBA draft’s No. 31 pick. “He’s an energy guy, and his strongest attribute is his motor. This particularly comes into play defensively, where he was frequently tasked with defending through multiple actions on the perimeter.”

14. Jose Calderon: 2.06

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 36
  • Position: PG
  • 2016-17 Stats: 3.4 points, 1.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.3 steals, minus-51.72 TPA (for Los Angeles Lakers and Atlanta Hawks)
  • Highest Grade: 3 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 1 (multiple voters)

Jose Calderon isn’t coming with any late-career surprises.

He’s not going to become a defensive menace after spending so many years as a glaring liability on the preventing end. He’s not going to start thriving on the glass. He won’t suddenly begin scoring off the bounce with aplomb. Pigs wouldn’t just fly before those things happened; they’d construct rocket ships so they didn’t have to bother growing wings.

However, he’ll still be able to shoot the rock. Calderon made only 31.3 percent of his triples while bouncing from the Los Angeles Lakers to the Atlanta Hawks last year, but that was the first time in five seasons he’d failed to break past the magical 40 percent threshold. Chances are good he’ll resume his deep efficiency when playing for a Cleveland offense that gets its role players so many clean looks.

13. Ante Zizic: 2.63

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 20
  • Position: PF/C
  • 2016-17 Stats: 12.3 points, 6.2 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.9 blocks (for Darussafaka Dogus Istanbul and KK Cibona)
  • Highest Grade: 4 (Tony East)
  • Lowest Grade: 1 (Brian Sampson)

The Isaiah Thomas-Kyrie Irving trade contained multiple prizes for the Cavaliers. Thomas is obviously one when he’s healthy, and the Brooklyn Nets’ top pick in the 2018 NBA draft is the crown jewel. But don’t make the mistake of overlooking Ante Zizic’s upside. One of our voters saw so much of it that he voted the 20-year-old big man as a top-end backup heading into his rookie season, while another nine viewed him as a convincing depth piece.

The NBA game will inevitably be fast for Zizic. He already struggled with the speed during summer league, and he fits more of a traditional mold than the modern-day one that has frontcourt players zooming up and down the floor when they’re not spacing it with jumpers. But once the Cavaliers learn how to work the ball into him with on-target entry feeds and display a willingness to slow down the tempo for him on the occasional possession, he could explode.

Plus, the young man who still can’t legally consume alcoholic beverages has the frame necessary to pack on quite a bit more strength as he grows into his body.

12. Jeff Green: 2.88

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 31
  • Position: SF/PF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 9.2 points, 3.1 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.2 blocks, minus-142.3 TPA (for Orlando Magic)
  • Highest Grade: 4 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 2 (multiple voters)

Jeff Green’s career didn’t follow the anticipated trajectory. Despite the likable personality, tremendous athleticism and versatile set of skills, he’s failed to become a valuable player while bouncing from one team to another. In 2016-17, he made the Orlando Magic worse on both ends whenever he was granted some run by a coaching staff that often seemed reticent to play him, dropping the net rating by 3.7 points per 100 possessions while on the floor.

But maybe the Cavs will help him regain his former—unfortunately, largely hypothetical—glory.

Green won’t be tasked with a major role on this squad. He won’t have the ball in his hands frequently enough to tank the offensive schemes, and he could thrive as an off-ball cutter who makes use of the many talented passers on the roster. If he buys into the defensive stratagems, he could even make the three voters who called him a top-end backup look a lot smarter than the baker’s dozen who viewed him in a lesser light.

11. Richard Jefferson: 3.00

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 37
  • Position: SF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 5.7 points, 2.6 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.3 steals, 0.1 blocks, minus-74.4 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 5 (Ryan Jarvis)
  • Lowest Grade: 2 (multiple voters)

Does Richard Jefferson age? Maybe it’s the shiny scalp that’s been on display throughout his career, preventing us from seeing any physical proof that Father Time is sucking away some of his athleticism. But the veteran small forward still manages to turn back the clocks every once in a while, reminding the world of just how good he used to be.

But a problem still exists: Jefferson can’t log too many minutes off the Cleveland bench, or else he actually will show signs of fatigue. The put-back slams, athletic cuts and timely jumpers only come when he’s well-rested and raring to go, which is why head coach Tyronn Lue played him for just 20.4 minutes per game during the 2016-17 campaign. Preservation isn’t just preferred; it’s necessary.

10. Channing Frye: 3.31

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 34
  • Position: C
  • 2016-17 Stats: 9.1 points, 3.9 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.5 blocks, minus-16.82 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 4 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 2 (Andrew Bailey)

During the 2017 NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Channing Frye suited up for a grand total of 11 minutes and 11 seconds. He recorded more DNP-CDs (four) than points (two), rebounds (three) or assists (one), watching the action from the bench for the vast majority of the series.

The 34-year-old big man is simply too much of a liability against some matchups, as he can’t capably switch on screens and is far too easy to target on the defensive end. But when he’s able to play, he fills one role masterfully. Few players have been better spot-up shooters, since Frye’s quick release and accuracy mesh perfectly with the on-target passing of his teammates in the drive-and-kick game.

According to NBA Math’s Play-Type Profiles, Otto Porter Jr., C.J. Miles, Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Curry were the only players who added more value in spot-up situations last year.

9. Iman Shumpert: 3.63

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 27
  • Position: SG/SF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 7.5 points, 2.9 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.4 blocks, minus-50.47 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 5 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 3 (multiple voters)

Iman Shumpert’s contract makes him look worse than he actually is.

With two years remaining on his four-year deal for $40 million, the swingman is an overpaid commodity—the primary reason Cleveland is attempting to get him off the books. But if he were making less money, we’d likely be looking at him as a valuable bench piece who can adequately live up to both halves of the three-and-D descriptor. Not well. Not poorly. But adequately.

Shumpert isn’t a knockdown shooter, but rather one who connected on 36 percent of his triples during the 2016-17 campaign. He’s not a defensive stud, but he graded out exactly average in NBA Math’s defensive points saved and slightly below average in ESPN.com’s defensive real plus/minus (minus-0.16).

8. Derrick Rose: 3.88

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 29
  • Position: PG
  • 2016-17 Stats: 18.0 points, 3.8 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.3 blocks, minus-83.28 TPA (for New York Knicks)
  • Highest Grade: 6 (Arjun Baradwaj)
  • Lowest Grade: 2 (Dan Favale)

Opinions varied widely on Derrick Rose, viewing him anywhere from a solid starter to an end-of-bench piece. However, all but four voters saw him as either a depth piece or top-end backup, which is why his overall score ended up where it did. And honestly, the Cavs thinking of him in the same light may be the best possible scenario for Rose regaining some of his former glory.

After a disappointing season with the New York Knicks in which he constantly functioned as a defensive turnstile, shot the ball inefficiently from outside the painted area and often looked off his teammates in favor of contested finishes around the rim, Rose needs a change of scenery. He might be best served as a scoring guard off the bench, used in short spurts so he can stay healthier and assert himself as a more capable defender.

The 29-year-old floor general isn’t completely washed up. He’s also not an All-Star or MVP candidate at this stage of his career. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, and accepting a smaller role may be his best chance to push further toward the latter.

7. Kyle Korver: 4.00

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 36
  • Position: SG/SF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 10.1 points, 2.8 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.3 blocks, minus-10.61 TPA (for Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers)
  • Highest Grade: 6 (Arjun Baradwaj)
  • Lowest Grade: 3 (multiple voters)

Forget everything you know about basketball. At this point in Kyle Korver’s career, most of the game simply doesn’t matter.

He’s always been an underrated distributor, rebounder and defender, but those roles aren’t very important while he fits in with the Cavaliers. The Eastern Conference juggernaut boasts so many players who can pick up the slack in those areas. Instead, Korver just gets to focus on his speciality while spacing the floor for everyone else. He gets to shoot the orange sphere.

During his 35 games with Cleveland after the Atlanta Hawks dealt him away, the swingman launched 5.7 triples per game and connected at a 48.5 percent clip—a set of numbers only one player in NBA history has ever matched during a qualified campaign: Kyle Korver in 2014-15. Lest you think those post-trade numbers were a small-sample-size fluke, this was the third consecutive season in which he paced the league in three-point percentage. He’s just getting better looks than ever now.

6. J.R. Smith: 4.63

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 32
  • Position: SG/SF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 8.6 points, 2.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.3 blocks, minus-28.54 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 6 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 4 (multiple voters)

If J.R. Smith can’t shoot any better in 2017-18 than he did last season, his score will likely plunge. Justifying him as a top-tier backup or starting-caliber player is impossible when he slashes only 34.6/35.1/66.7.

Fortunately, there’s reason to believe he can improve.

The 32-year-old still has plenty of athleticism left in the tank, as well as the desire to keep winning basketball games alongside the stars on the Cavaliers. When motivated, he’s a solid defender who can use his physicality to lock down players at multiple positions. But more so than anything else, he’s a jump-shooter who thrives with a hand in his face, constantly displaying a penchant for making ridiculously difficult looks with defenders up in his jersey or when the shot clock is winding down toward triple zeroes.

5. Tristan Thompson: 5.75

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 26
  • Position: PF/C
  • 2016-17 Stats: 8.1 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.5 steals, 1.1 blocks, 65.54 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 7 (Louis Vicchiollo)
  • Lowest Grade: 4 (Brian Sampson)

Tristan Thompson serves as a tremendous example of a player who can provide substantial gravitational pull even without a convincing jumper.

The Texas product rarely lets fly from outside the painted area. Just 5 percent of his attempts came from beyond 10 feet during the 2016-17 season, since he preferred crashing to the basket for offensive-rebounding opportunities. But that has value in and of itself. Thompson proved himself so adept at creating second-chance opportunities and cleaning up around the basket that he forced defenders to stick a body on him well outside the paint, thus dragging them away from the basket and boosting the Cavaliers with a different brand of spacing.

Thompson is growing into a quality interior defender who can capably serve as the last line of defense (see: above block compilation). His offensive arsenal is (slowly) expanding. But especially while he plays with so many scoring stars and doesn’t get many chances to serve as a featured option, his main source of value undoubtedly stems from his glass-eating habits.

4. Jae Crowder: 5.94

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 27
  • Position: SF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 13.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.3 blocks, 70.63 TPA (for Boston Celtics)
  • Highest Grade: 7 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 4 (Nick Birdsong)

According to ESPN.com’s real plus/minus, Jae Crowder was one of the NBA’s most valuable players, no matter what his box-score numbers might indicate. Only 19 players finished with a higher score, as the small forward who formerly suited up for the Boston Celtics and was part of the haul sent to Cleveland in exchange for Kyrie Irving managed to post a decisively positive score on both ends of the floor.

That shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who watches him.

Crowder doesn’t post gaudy numbers, and he rarely explodes in any singular category. He instead contributes across the board and is willing to do all the little things in a big way. He can defend at a high level against multiple positions, involve his teammates, score from all over the half-court set or in transition, rebound through traffic and inspire his troops with indefatigable effort levels. With him on the floor looking like the NBA’s best middle linebacker, Boston’s net rating improved by 11.5 points per 100 possessions.

Imagine if he has that same impact in Northeast Ohio.

3. Kevin Love: 7.69

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 29
  • Position: PF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 19.0 points, 11.1 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.4 blocks, 26.44 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 8 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 7 (multiple voters)

Kevin Love is by no means a perfect basketball player and will never replicate his efforts as a one-man show with the Minnesota Timberwolves. But he’s settled in nicely as the third member of the Cavaliers’ Big Three, thriving as he works in spot-up situations, rebounds and gradually learns ideal defensive positioning within the Cleveland schemes. He’s not a rim-protector, of course, but that doesn’t mean he’s a total liability on defense, either.

Love, though, is still at his best on offense.

The power forward shot 37.3 percent from downtown on 6.5 attempts per game during the 2016-17 season, and his efficiency might skyrocket if he becomes more comfortable working in the post once more. Cleveland has made a concerted effort to involve him more as a featured option who doesn’t just wait for catch-and-shoot tries on the perimeter, which has led to an inevitable adjustment period.

But when he adjusts…

2. Isaiah Thomas: 8.69

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 28
  • Position: PG
  • 2016-17 Stats: 28.9 points, 2.7 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.2 blocks, 274.58 TPA (for Boston Celtics)
  • Highest Grade: 10 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 8 (multiple voters)

To be clear, we’re operating under the assumption that Isaiah Thomas is now healthy. His hip may keep him out for a substantial portion of the 2017-18 campaign, but he will eventually recover. And it’s at that point—cleared to play with his rehab completed, but with the hip malady still in the back of our minds—that we’re evaluating his level of play, hence voters’ widespread unwillingness to call him anything less than an All-Star candidate.

When Thomas is back in action, he should thrive in his new location. He remains a tremendous scorer who somehow gets better as games progress, and opponents still haven’t figured out how to stop his pick-and-roll excellence. According to NBA Math’s Play-Type Profiles, only James Harden and Damian Lillard added more scoring value last year as a ball-handler in those PnR scenarios.

Thomas, whether because of his own effort levels or his diminutive frame, may well be the league’s least valuable defender. He just manages to overcome those limitations by simultaneously serving as one of the NBA’s most dangerous offensive threats—something that won’t change once he learns how to suit up with some new All-Star teammates.

1. LeBron James: 11.81

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 32
  • Position: SF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 26.4 points, 8.6 rebounds, 8.7 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.6 blocks, 470.37 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 12 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 11 (multiple voters)

Where to begin?

LeBron James somehow keeps getting better. He developed into a dangerous three-point sniper during the 2016-17 campaign, and those gains didn’t come while he sacrificed elsewhere. Though he may need a few rest days here and there and can’t consistently exert himself on the defensive end—not frequently enough to earn Defensive Player of the Year consideration, at least—he’s the league’s most dominant force whenever he wants to be. Just take the 2017 NBA Finals as an example.

Though the Cavs were ultimately unsuccessful in their repeat quest, James often looked like the best player on the floor while averaging 33.6 points, 12.0 rebounds, 10.0 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks. He even shot 56.4 percent from the floor, 38.7 percent from deep and 64.9 percent at the line, playing lockdown defense all the while.

Those numbers will decline in the regular season. They have to. James has so little to play for until games truly count, after all. But voters, all of whom recognize that he doesn’t have to flip the switch for months, still pegged him as what he is: the NBA’s best player. Nine of 12 gave him their one and only top score, while the remaining three dropped him by nothing more than a single grade, identifying him as a persistent MVP frontrunner.

 

Who’s rated too high? Who are we selling short? Join the conversation using #CrystalBasketball on Twitter.

Follow NBA Math on Twitter @NBA_Math and on Facebook.

Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from NBA Math or NBA.com.

Many thanks to our entire panel of voters: Andrew BaileyArjun BaradwajNick BirdsongMichael BrockTony EastDan FavaleAdam FromalRyan JarvisJordan McGillisTom RendeBrian SampsonAdam SpinellaEric SpyropolousTim StubbsFrank UrbinaLouis Vicchiollo

One thought on “#CrystalBasketball: Ranking the Cleveland Cavaliers for 2017-18”

  1. Ilija says:

    You guys legit sold everyone on the Cavs too short.

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