INDEPENDENCE: When the Cavaliers’ coaching staff huddled together during the summer to discuss ways to improve the offense, one of the solutions Byron Scott and assistant coach Joe Prunty devised was to put the ball in the hands of the big men.
Scott still isn’t ready to implement the full Princeton offense on this roster, but he is slowly injecting fragments of it. Part of it was evident during Tuesday’s opener, when Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao combined for 14 assists. Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Donald Sloan had just four.
The Cavs’ big men aren’t traditional big men with strong post moves. They’re not going to back down opposing centers and forwards near the rim, so the best way to make them effective is to take advantage of their court vision and passing ability coming out of pick-and-rolls. As a result, both Varejao and Thompson set career highs in assists against the Wizards.
“We feel we have some big men who can really pass the ball, so why not run the offense through those guys?” Scott said, referring to Varejao, Thompson, Tyler Zeller and Luke Walton. “The best way to get our guys involved is for them to be screen setters and facilitators. All of those guys are that. I think they’ve all bought into it, which is great.”
Given his numbers last year, Thompson’s assist total was truly remarkable. It took him 23 games last season to reach five assists. He matched it in 31 minutes Tuesday night.
Scott loves to use the terms “hole” and “hub” when describing the big men in his offense. Varejao has always been a terrific hub — he typically makes the correct passes to find the open man. The worst of the holes was Samardo Samuels his rookie year, when every time he touched the ball he tried muscling his way to the basket.
Scott joked Wednesday that Thompson was a bit of a hole last season “because he didn’t know any better.” Now, however, he’s learning to play the game.
Thompson said sitting and watching Varejao and Antawn Jamison last season helped him to see the court better. A full training camp has also allowed him to develop some chemistry with Varejao. Thompson set a screen late in the second quarter for Irving, took the pass and drove to the basket. When his shot was contested, Thompson flipped it to Varejao at the last second for the easy layup.
The Cavs’ big men, particularly Thompson and Varejao, did an excellent job Tuesday of making the extra pass — typically to one another — for easy baskets.
“It goes from a good shot to a great shot,” Thompson said. “There were a lot of good shots that a lot of us passed up, but we got great shots out of it.”
That type of passing ability is a big reason why Walton was a surprise late addition to the Cavs’ second unit. He certainly isn’t going to help the Cavs’ lack of scoring punch off the bench, but Scott loves the way he moves without the ball and can command that second unit. He even thought Walton played well defensively.
Scott was torn between playing Walton and Samuels and wasn’t sure which one he was going to play until he looked down the bench 8½ minutes into the game. Scott chose Walton and plans to stick with him for the foreseeable future.
Walton was an afterthought last season in the trade that brought the Cavs a first-round pick from the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for Ramon Sessions. The trade was ripped nationally because the Cavs were absorbing so much money — Walton will make $6 million this season and was considered washed up following four years of back problems.
But Walton, who turns 33 in March, dedicated himself to an offseason of new workouts that included intensive stretching and exercises that strengthened his core and his glutes in an effort to erase the back trouble.
Walton appeared at training camp feeling better than he has in years. As a result, a somewhat shocked Scott tagged him early on as the most pleasant surprise of camp. It’s a remarkable turnaround for a guy who was contemplating retirement after the season.
“I had already told myself if my back continues to feel this season like it has the last 3-4 years, this would be it for me,” Walton said. “It got to the point where being in pain every single day and having to take anti-inflammatories to try and play wasn’t working anymore. Luckily, for whatever reason, it’s feeling better.”
He isn’t sure which aspect of the training was the key, so he is continuing to do all of it. Despite the time constraints of the regular season, Walton is still dedicated to doing the exercises when he returns home from practice.
“When I’m sitting around and I’m tired, I have to remind myself of how much better I feel and that there’s a reason for that,” Walton said. “So I have to get my butt off the couch and torture myself a little bit for the greater good.”
How long Walton remains in the rotation is to be determined. Scott said Samuels, and presumably Jon Leuer, will eventually get their opportunities. But for now, he’s sticking with Walton because of his ability to be effective without the basketball.
“We still want Kyrie to make plays and find the open guy and we know he’s going to do that and the same thing with Dion,” Scott said. “But it’s a luxury to have bigs who are willing to pass the ball as well.”
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at https://ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.