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Optimism Ranks – Part 2

If you missed the full criteria primer, please check it out here. There are many elements you could argue are important to a team’s future, but I believe the seven I have chosen encompass the essentials for believing in a team’s outlook. Some of these certainly matter more than others, so additional weight (3 tiers of importance) has been given to the more important categories. Without further ado, let’s see how bright the Eradicated Eight’s futures look under a microscope, continuing today with team #5 and #6: Minnesota and Cleveland.

6) Cleveland Cavaliers 

Prospects (5)

The Cavs have a mixed bag of prospects in my opinion. They have taken two swings at landing a point guard with their two top 10 picks the past two years (5th and 7th respectively), and it is still fair to wonder if they have their PG of the future. I have come around quite a bit on Collin Sexton this year, as he showed great improvement in his scoring, his efficiency, and specifically, his three-point shooting. It is concerning that he pretty much struggles at every other aspect of the game though, namely passing/playmaking for others and defense. Being just two years into his career, he can still round out his game, but concern is growing whether he can be a main contributor on a good team.

Darius Garland on the other hand, had a season to forget. He shot poorly, turned the ball over a lot, and rated out negatively in basically every impact stat. In fact, PIPM and RPM both had him as one of the worst players in all of basketball. He was just 19 for most of the year, and I like him way more than the numbers suggest, but year one did not inspire.

Kevin Porter Jr. may even be the more coveted of the Cavs’ two selections from the 2019 draft. Porter flashed some athleticism and scoring punch himself in his first season, as well as a dash of creating for others, as his assist rate was solid for a wing. He also excelled at scoring at the rim, an important skill that his other backcourt mates did not display. Overall, they have guards you can squint at and project to be above average starters, but none are exactly surefire locks to become great.

Recent Performance (7)

The Cavs presented a unique issue for me in this series, as they have the LeBron footprint that is still recent enough to impact a few categories, but likely has a 0% impact going forward (unless there is another superduperstar that was born in Akron approaching the NBA?). As laid out in the criteria, this category has the lowest weight in the overall score, but the Cavs have to score high here, going to four straight finals, the last of which in 2018.

Star Power (3)

Kevin Love may be overpaid and his impact is probably greater on a lower-rung team than a title contender, but he still has some name power and can be a quality stretch big with solid rebounding and outlet-passing skills. Andre Drummond probably doesn’t register here, but he did lead the league in rebounds (rate and per game) and is sort of a household name? They certainly rate out slightly stronger here than a few other teams left out of the bubble.

Free Agent (2)

Cleveland is not a place that attracts stars, except for the one time that they did. I will ask again, does Akron have any future icons in their youth system right now? 

Overall Organizational Competence (3)

Again, it is hard to say this team doesn’t have its act together after going to four straight Finals, but between John Beilein’s tenure abruptly ending, Dan Gilbert’s infamous letter in 2010, and having five coaches since 2015, they definitely don’t have a perfect recent past either. Losing David Griffin also seems like a strike against them, as he is widely thought to be an excellent GM and seems to be doing well in New Orleans, albeit early on. However, Gilbert is willing to pay when he has a chance to win, and they have to be doing a few things right to at least have things patched up well enough for LeBron to come back and propel their winning ways in that four-year run.

Roster Flexibility (3)

Kevin Love’s contract is really the one big thing standing in their way from being flexible, but having 90M+ still committed to an aging Love on a poor team is certainly not ideal. They probably have to attach a solid asset to get rid of him, or at least take on a smaller bad contract as part of the return should they trade him. Drummond also makes a haul, but he will expire after next season, so he doesn’t hinder them much going forward (after this offseason). The free agent class is nothing special this fall anyway, but having no cap space at least will prevent them from being an offloading zone for other team’s bloated contracts.

Draft Assets (6)

The Cavs have the rights to the Bucks 2022 lightly-protected 1st rounder, as well as all of their own firsts going forward. They have a pile of seconds both incoming and outgoing that mostly even out, possibly a slight downgrade since their own picks look to be higher in the draft than some of the incoming ones. They have a great chance this coming draft to land an elite pick, as they are sitting at #2 in the lottery odds.

Overall Indexed Score – 37.9

To be a Cavalier fan right now, you probably wouldn’t categorize yourself as overly optimistic. There is a case for your team to be even lower, as there are some residual points that may be unwarranted stemming from the LeBron era. You have a few young guards that look exciting on certain nights, as well as a slew of leftover big men from the Finals runs (plus Drummond). You constantly are facing instability in the coaching role as nobody has finished a fourth season since Mike Fratello (in 1999).

The one strong thing going for you is that you can cycle through endless 2016 highlights, but living in the past probably doesn’t impress you forever. Cleveland really needs their young guards to pan out, and to hit on an impact wing in the next year or so to vault back into relevancy. It’s looking a bit grim at the moment, but you can hang your hat on “defeating” two other teams in the Optimism ranks, as well as being in the East, where you are always just a smooth move away from playoff contention. 

5) Minnesota Timberwolves

Prospects (5)

The Timberwolves have a lot of young players (just two over 25) on the roster, with varying levels of potential. Their best two players came in just slightly older than the “loose” line of 24 years old I drew for this category, but may have leaked into their rating just a bit. The players that certainly fit include Malik Beasley, Naz Reid, Jarrett Culver, and Josh Okogie – none of which are going to give you All-Star vibes.

I do think they are all solid role players though, with Beasley potentially being more than that. He averaged over 20ppg on 43% from 3 in his brief stint after the trade from Denver, and he seemed to relish finally being included in the lineup and gameplan for more than 20 minutes a night, unlike his Denver days. Culver had a pretty brutal rookie season, but he had some flashes in the final 15 games or so. 

Reid and Okogie probably top out as role players, but both can be rotation players who won’t damage the team. D’Angelo Russell will still be 24 when next season begins so he probably gained Minnesota an extra point here, as he has been an All-Star and 20+ point per game scorer for back-to-back seasons now. He also has been on four teams in five seasons, so maybe he has some extra room to grow if he can gain some continuity with one coaching staff and one group of teammates.

Recent Performance (2)

The Wolves have had two playoff round victories in franchise history and one playoff appearance in the past 16 seasons, and even that one season was an 8th seed first round exit. That is painful to think about. The West has been tough sledding for a few decades now, but that still seems like it should be hard to do. 

Star Power (7)

As far as bad teams go, this is probably the biggest selling point for Wolves optimism. Karl Anthony-Towns  is by some measures the best shooting big man ever through five years of his career. He has an All-NBA selection under his belt, and is widely considered a top-4 center in the league. He hasn’t shown the ability to quite carry subpar teams to the playoffs as of yet, but his ability to drive a great offense can’t be disputed.

Recently acquired best friend D’Angelo Russell adds a second star to the mix, albeit not quite at the same level as KAT. Russell has become a good 3-point bomber, and excels in the isolation game. He does however have some of the same limitations as Towns, namely on defense, which provides healthy skepticism about Minnesota if those two are the anchors. Still, for a bottom eight team, the Wolves are sitting pretty in the star department.

Free Agent (1)

Minnesota free agent headline catches for the past decade have been Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson, and a reclamation project in Derrick Rose. Two of these guys were past their peak veterans that Thibs could pull over to Minnesota with him. Outside of that, they have never been one to make any noise in free agency, and the rumor mill isn’t quite flooded with stars dreaming of hitting up the Twin Cities for their basketball professional lives.

Overall Organizational Competence (2)

The Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor has a fairly public ongoing feud with Kevin Garnett, the most iconic player in franchise history (that they are maybe trying to mend now that KG is interested in buying the team). Jimmy Butler berated the entire team and effectively burned down the only successful squad they have had in 15 years just a few seasons ago. They tried the coach/GM combo platter that I mostly despise, which did not end well. Thibodeau was allowed to make the Jimmy Butler trade even though his days were clearly numbered, and he lasted just a few months longer than Butler.

They infamously gave Wiggins a max contract after sitting down with him and hearing that he was going to play hard. They have a bit of a long history of whiffing on draft picks (Jonny Flynn, Wes Johnson, Justin Patton, Derrick Williams, Culver?) though they have only had one draft with Rosas calling the shots. This franchise is not the Taj Mahal of organizational competence.

Roster Flexibility (4)

The Timberwolves shed themselves of their two worst contracts last season, in Gorgui Dieng and Andrew Wiggins. The only guy left who is severely overpaid is James Johnson, and his deal expires after next season. Their flexibility is still rather limited by the two star max contracts of Russell and Towns. They also have Malik Beasley’s restricted rights this fall which could give them another seven-figure long term salary on the books, but I don’t see any of those three as obviously negative values. Should they desire, trading those players shouldn’t require tacking on additional value. In all likelihood, they don’t have an easy path to clearing much, if any cap space, especially given that the cap is no longer projected to escalate in the near future.

Draft Assets (4)

Minnesota’s draft assets were a bit tricky to evaluate. In this upcoming draft, they have what Tankathon rates as the #1 combined draft value, with the projected #3, #16 (if Brooklyn falls out of the playoffs this pick rolls to 2021), and #33 draft slots. Three top-33 picks, including potentially a top-four pick, is usually something to salivate over. However, this draft is rumored to be fairly weak (at least at the top), and they also owe next season’s first round pick to the Warriors if it falls between 4-30. Protection that light is very scary, considering that even if they were the worst team in the league next year they would not be guaranteed to keep it.

Furthermore, the fact that it is protected (and thus may roll over to 2022) just hinders their ability to trade future picks (teams are not allowed to be without first round picks in consecutive future drafts), so it sort of cripples future trades to only be able to give up a 2024 first as their next guaranteed pick. They also owe their second rounder in 2021 to the Warriors. Basically, they have the best draft capital this season, but maybe the worst next season, and their future trading rights are encumbered.

Overall Indexed Score: 39.4

Minnesota fans might argue that they belong a spot or two higher, depending on how bullish they are about D’Angelo Russell. They have a loaded chest of draft picks this year, but there appears to be a lack of firepower in this rookie class. Gersson Rosas has pulled off some shrewd moves in his brief tenure, but people are dubious about his biggest one – the Russell trade.

Outside of that, there is really not much to lean on for the Wolves. They have a terrible history of losing, they haven’t pilfered a single star free agent in their history, and their young players project to be just solid role players, not game-changers. Their draft history is below average at best. They lack dynamic wings and two-way stars that are prevalent on the most successful teams in the league. They are also one of just two teams in the Eradicated Eight that reside in the Western Conference, making playoff contention even more of an uphill battle.

Ultimately, having a star like Towns is exciting, and Russell brings an offensive arsenal that Minnesota hasn’t seen in ages from a point guard. Even if they aren’t winning 45+ games, their offense should light up the scoreboard and provide some excitement, if not high-level winning basketball for the Minneapolis faithful.

For more detailed analysis of these teams upside check out the Assistant to the General Manager podcast for Minnesota and Cleveland 

Part 1 – New York & Charlotte

Sam Johnson

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