The Cavs drafted fourth overall in the last two drafts, but many believe they over-reached on their selections. Can Thompson and Waiters prove the critics wrong, or does the team need to reassess its rebuild?
In both 2011 and 2012, the poor play of the Cavs and the loyalty of their fans manifested itself in the fourth pick in both drafts. In the 2011 draft, the fourth selection was an afterthought because the Mo Williams-for-Baron Davis trade also netted the team the pick that would later become franchise point guard and reigning Rookie of the Year Kyrie Irving. That's not to say, however, that the fourth pick in 2011 was not vital to the rebuilding future of the team.
With that fourth pick in 2011, the Cavs drafted Tristan Thompson from the University of Texas. With the team needing to fill pretty much every position on the roster (except point guard, which it had filled three slots prior), there were many directions Cleveland could have taken with this pick, but most assumed Jonas Valanciunas would be selected (and probably drafted-and-stashed like he was in Toronto); ESPN NBA Draft Analyst Chad Ford projected that Thompson would go 6th to the Washington Wizards. With the selection of Thompson, Cleveland's strategy was viewed in one of two ways: he could either be an athletic frontcourt-mate for the quick-footed Anderson Varejao, or he was drafted to fill the void in the roster should the team ever decide to part with the aforementioned Brazilian. Thompson definitely was not the immediate offensive or defensive force the Cavaliers required, but his raw athleticism could not be ignored. After a successful stint in summer league--his first, since the lockout caused its cancellation last year--and promising preseason, Thompson's potential has become more and more evident, and he's already locked up the starting power forward position this season.
Cleveland's luck seemed to repeat itself (both good and bad luck) when they landed they fourth overall pick again for the 2012 draft. With Anthony Davis assuredly going to the Hornets at number 1, the next several selections were quite hazy. Each team needed someone who, frankly, could score some damn points. Naturally, Charlotte took Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (noted defender and glue guy--not a particularly voluminous scorer) at number 2, though for much of the lead-up to the draft, most assumed the Bobcats would draft Kansas's Thomas Robinson. The worst kept secret in the league was that Bradley Beal was pretty much a lock to go to Washington at number 3. So who was Cleveland going to pick? They had their sights set on Harrison Barnes last year--before he decided not to declare for the draft. Terrence Ross, Austin Rivers, Jeremy Lamb? The Cavs needed a wing player (they didn't have enough room for a big on the roster, and frankly if they drafted another one, it would send the signal that they had already given up on Thompson). Instead the Cavs picked Dion Waiters from Syracuse. Unbeknownst to most, the Cavs apparently had Waiters very high on their draft board, but the assumption was that they were going to draft a shooter on the wing to complement Irving and their bigs--someone like Barnes. As we all know now, Waiters was an undersized slasher 6th-man with a history of cockiness who refused workouts with every team (though somehow still managed to generate a mystique that had him ranked 6th overall by Chad Ford) and showed up to summer league with poor conditioning--hardly the impression on the surface Cleveland wanted to make at the 4th spot again.
In both 2011 and 2012 from the draft lottery through draft night, rumors circulated across the internet (and presumably into a few team offices) that the Cavs would be willing to trade these number 4 picks up or down to ease the burden of their draft selection. In each of these past two seasons, the 4th pick in the draft has been really difficult to make. Not just because Cleveland is a rebuilding team that needs to make the right selections to that it doesn't waste the prime of its franchise start. But it's because there are types of players Cleveland has needed, but these players haven't been available at the 4th spot. There have been plenty of players available, mind you, but the proper (talented) players to complement Kyrie Irving, while also making sure that the team wasn't overpaying talent even if it was drafting for need (instead of best available player), were difficult to spot. In back-to-back seasons, this Cavs front office has been tested: do you overpay a guy that you like but doesn't fit perfectly, trade down to get the guy you want but not get a good deal for him because you reek of desperation, or trade up and pay out your nose because you reek of desperation? In both years, Cleveland chose to stand pat and take the person they thought best fit (and presumably the person that was also best available) at number 4.
While the jury's still out on Thompson and Waiters, both players have a pretty high ceiling on this team. After all, in a conference with strong and athletic frontcourts, Thompson could prove to be invaluable. And really, the Cavs just don't have anyone (guard or otherwise) who can get to the basket and draw contact like Waiters.
It's hard to know just yet if the Cavs nailed both of these picks, but we do know that Cleveland's fans and management have shown patience in the past three seasons. It's also comforting to know that Cleveland's roster and salary cap are both flexible enough now that if they have made any mistakes, it's early enough in the process that no permanent damage has been done. With both of those facts in mind, it still does not change the fact that Thompson and Waiters are the litmus test of success for GM Chris Grant's rebuild of this roster in the post-LeBron years. The fans are itching for some winning basketball again, and these two number 4 picks are integral to that.