It’s been anticipated for weeks by all, and for months by many, but now it’s official…the Cleveland Cavaliers will once again fall short of the playoffs. Despite a convincing 125-114 victory over the Detroit Pistons Wednesday night, the Cavaliers needed the Atlanta Hawks to lose to the Boston Celtics to stay alive in the playoff race…which didn’t happen.
For a season that began with such high optimism in Cleveland, the fans and front office are left disappointed and questioning the best path as they begin to look at next season and beyond. Will Mike Brown be brought back? Does David Griffin get a chance to be the full time general manager? Does the dream of LeBron James returning turn into reality or another disappointment? Are Luol Deng and Spencer Hawes returning to the city that just acquired them, or will they use their free agency to bolt as soon as they can? And will the draft lottery once again smile on the team (currently a 6.1% chance of picking top three)?
With everyone already looking toward next season, the remaining three games are simply an added opportunity to evaluate what the current roster players can bring to the team. Three games is not enough of a sample size in and of itself, but it does allow players such as Anthony Bennett and Sergey Karasev to potentially see additional time on the floor.
Another player in that category is Tyler Zeller. The Cavaliers are still trying to determine what they have in the 7’0″, second-year center. Could the former second round pick be a long term starter for Cleveland, or is his ceiling that of a backup?
Many were expecting an improved year from Zeller after an encouraging rookie season. Despite this hope, Zeller has seen far fewer minutes of action than he did to start his career. His rookie season saw him play a total of 2032 minutes, yet this number has dropped to a mere 978 minutes this season. Having your minutes cut in half does the same to your other statistics as well. Fewer shots, points, rebounds, assists and blocks have been the story of Zeller’s season.
Despite this decrease in minutes, and therefore a decrease in basic stats, there is reason to be encouraged by growth in Zeller’s game. Per 100 possessions, the Cavaliers were -3.9 in net differential, but they were a -1.7 net differential with Zeller on the floor. Although this is still a negative number, it gives Zeller the fourth best net differential on the team, behind only Matthew Dellavedova, C.J. Miles, and Anderson Varejao.
Zeller also made a good sized jump in his rebounding percentages, and his true shooting percentage jumped from just 48.6 percent in 2012-2013, to a solid 57.1 percent in 2013-2014 (the same as offensively minded Marcin Gortat). Although his ability to finish near the rim has not improved drastically (only a 2.9 percent increase), his midrange game has exploded and is particularly improved on the right side of the basket. Comparing his 2012-13 shot chart to that of 2013-2014, it’s tough not to see an offensively improved player:
The decline in minutes could simply be due to the Andrew Bynum experiment, or the trade for Spencer Hawes…or these attempts at finding another center could be signs that Cleveland already has little hope for Zeller as a long-term option. One has to wonder whether Zeller might be finding a new basketball home in the not too distant future.