Back-to-the-basket centers are a dying breed, but Cleveland's 7'3" big man can still be an incredibly valuable player.
Photo by Ken Blaze - USA TODAY Sports
In a sport that's filled with hundreds of gigantic humans, with hands that can stow away multiple grapefruits at the same time and legs longer than ironing boards, Cleveland Cavaliers center Edy Tavares really stands out.
At a monstrous 7'3" with a wingspan four inches longer than Joel Embiid's, few people in the history of mankind—never mind basketball—have shared his dimensions. But Tavares is more than a physical oddity. Last year, playing for the Toronto 905, the 25-year-old was named Defensive Player of the Year and made the All-NBA G-League First Team.
According to ESPN's Kevin Pelton, Tavares led the league in WARP. He rebounded well and tallied a 61.8 True Shooting percentage, and the 905 allowed only 97.4 points per 100 possessions with him on the court.
"He was a foundation piece for who we were all season long," Toronto 905 head coach Jerry Stackhouse told VICE Sports. "He's a great guy, great teammate. He's a gentle giant. Working everyday, he never was a guy to take it easy because he was tired. His goal was to be in the NBA."
Tavares was called up by the Cavaliers on April 12, and in his lone appearance before he broke his hand about a month later, he blocked six shots in 24 minutes. That defensive impact has carried over to the Las Vegas summer league, where Cleveland is allowing just 79.7 points per 100 possessions when he plays. Tavares is the sort of immovable rim protector you'd expect from someone with his frame, but thanks to his improvement in other areas during his time in Toronto, it's now easier to envision him having a consistent role in the NBA.
"He was a guy stuck at the basket his whole life," Stackhouse said. "But I think through our player development we made him more comfortable staying level guarding pick and rolls. We saw his growth."
Defending in space is a must in today's NBA, and stationary bigs are rapidly becoming dusty relics due to an annual uptick in three-point attempts by just about every team in the league. Tavares isn't fast enough to switch out on a guard 25 feet from the rim, but he also isn't a Dead Defender Walking every time he steps out of the paint.
For what he lacks in lateral quickness, Tavares makes up for with arms literally long enough to Windex a smudge off the backboard. Many of his blocks last year were from behind, erasing would-be layups from guards who thought they had an open runway to the basket. No matter how popular the three-point line becomes, rim protection will always matter, and a big man who can cover the amount of space Tavares can through wingspan alone will have a place in the league.
But for him to get serious NBA minutes against players who are faster, stronger, and more skilled than in the G-League, Tavares will have to contribute in other ways. He knows this better than anyone, and regularly works on his game with Cavaliers big man coach Vitaly Potapenko.
"Sometimes I get too tight, sometimes I want to go fast. Sometimes I [can't finish] at the hoop," Tavares told VICE Sports. "I've got to get more comfortable and get more confidence and think I'm going to make it every time."
Back-to-the-basket bigs aren't exactly the most coveted assets in a league that asks most of its centers to get out of the way, and Tavares' offensive skillset is varied. He's an excellent free-throw shooter who also made 51.1 percent of his mid-range jump shots last season. Seven-footers who don't have outside feel are a liability, but Tavares ultimately may be able to space the floor in the same way someone like Brook Lopez or Marc Gasol did last season.
"Edy has the type of touch where it's not beyond him being able to step out there," Stackhouse said. "He's capable of making threes. I've seen him make them before. I can see him be able to stretch it from 18 feet to the three-point line, especially from the corner."
Tavares is also a willing and able passer, which is particularly critical for a modern big who may be able to draw double teams in the post. Toronto took advantage of Tavares' ability to facilitate from the block. But the G-League is so different from his current situation, playing for a team that just went to three straight NBA Finals and is currently favored to reach a fourth.
The Cavaliers have almost no salary cap flexibility. They have no tradable assets, and every personnel-related decision they make has to be viewed through the prism of whether it increases or decreases their ability to defeat the Golden State Warriors. Against that particular opponent, it's nearly impossible to imagine a scenario where Tavares is a plus. The Warriors feast in transition, and force twitchy athletes to defend them in the half-court.
There could be a sliver of opportunity for Tavares against Warriors lineups that feature a traditional center like Zaza Pachulia. But matching up against smallball units that feature Draymond Green or Kevin Durant at center are a no-go. And even though he's capable of knocking down an outside shot, Tavares' gravity does not come close to comparing to that of someone like Kyle Korver.
Tavares' contract is non-guaranteed until January 10, and even though he provides qualities otherwise unseen on Cleveland's roster, it's entirely possible that the franchise will let him walk before then. That doesn't mean he can't be a useful NBA player on a pretty good team, though.
"He has the potential for the right team that wants to play inside out," Stackhouse said. "I know everybody wants to play pace and space with the three-point line right now, but we were able to find a good mix of shooting the three and using his strengths this year … [Memphis coach] David Fizdale found a good balance with it this year.
"In the right situation, on a team that wants to utilize their bigs for more than setting screens, making guys tag from the weakside, he's a guy they can actually play through."
So long as LeBron James is around, that team probably won't be the Cavaliers. But Tavares is still young, rapidly improving, and possesses physical attributes that can't be taught. Like so many G-League and Summer League standouts, he simply needs the right opportunity in the right environment. His play with Toronto shows that there's still plenty of undiscovered skill hiding in his impossibly long body.
"Coach Stackhouse gave me a lot of confidence in the game," Tavares said. "They told me when I get the ball, 'Take my time, look for somebody if it's open. If it's not open then go to work.' He helped me a lot with my confidence. Before, I had no confidence because I was with the Atlanta Hawks. They didn't give me much attention. When I get with Stackhouse, they [said] 'You've got to do this, you've got to do that, [we] trust in you, you've got to do everything you can because we trust in you. Keep working. You're gonna get better everyday.'"