Commentary

Inside the Cleveland Cavaliers' draft

Why Waiters? We were behind the scenes with the Cavs' front office on draft day

Updated: June 29, 2012, 10:21 PM ET
By Brian Windhorst | ESPN.com

Dion WaitersNathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesCleveland fans panned the pick, but the Cavs' brass got the player they wanted in Dion Waiters.
Editor's note: ESPN.com writer Brian Windhorst was embedded with the Cavaliers on draft day. With four picks in the top 34, the Cavs were in one of the most intriguing positions in the draft. They did not disappoint, making what many considered the surprise pick of the first round and then executing the biggest trade of the night. This is how it all happened behind the scenes.

INDEPENDENCE, Ohio -- It's 5½ hours before the NBA draft but Cleveland Cavaliers general manager Chris Grant doesn't know that. He has volumes of information -- too much, probably -- on the dozens of prospects who are nervously waiting for men in his position to decide their futures. But Grant doesn't seem to actually know when the draft actually begins.

"It's at 7:30, first pick about 7:35," said a Cavs staffer sitting across the room when Grant asks.

"So we should know by about 8," Grant said, referring to the Cavs' first pick, No. 4 overall.

Grant was drinking a San Pellegrino and wearing an open-collared shirt, khakis and loafers with no socks. His was making some light-hearted jokes but his eyes showed fatigue -- he hadn't slept much in the last few days. It'd been a while since he'd been home in time to put his three young sons to bed.

"Yesterday I felt pretty good about what we are going to do," Grant said. "Today, we'll see."

This is a huge day for Grant. It's the second year of a draft-centered rebuilding process he's undertaken. Since taking over as GM in 2010, Grant has followed this plan by trading for five extra first-round picks. He's devoted a huge portion of his year, as has his staff, to prepare for how to use the team's two first-round and two second-round picks.

"We're going for a wing at No. 4," Grant said in the afternoon. "We're probably not coming out of this with four players, you don't want to have four rookies. I'm thinking two, maybe three; I'd prefer two."

Grant meant he was planning on a trade, something he'd been working on for days, to parlay one or more of his picks to improve his position. And, perhaps most important, he was trying to find a perimeter player to pair with Rookie of the Year Kyrie Irving. That's something he'd been incrementally building toward for nine months, scouring the country during the college season and going through a detail-driven draft season filled with dinner meetings, private workouts and film study.

You've got to try to take the emotion out of it; it can be easy to act like a drunken sailor. It can be easy to lose patience. You have to trust your process.

-- Cavaliers GM Chris Grant

When the draft started, Grant and his team had to rely on all the work they had already done and have the discipline to keep to the decisions that that work had led them to. By their very nature, draft nights can quickly go from organized to chaos because of the pressure and time constraints. The Cavs had five minutes to make their pick once the Washington Wizards made their selection at No. 3. Simply, there's never time to wish you'd taken more time.

"You've got to try to take the emotion out of it; it can be easy to act like a drunken sailor," Grant said. "It can be easy to lose patience. You have to trust your process."

That process played out in a narrow boardroom down the hall from Grant's office. Considering it's within the team's palatial $25 million practice facility, the team's austere draft room actually seemed a bit out of place with its utilitarian setup. A simple long wooden table was surrounded by four white walls all made of dry-erase board. There were markings and magnets with information everywhere like some sort of executive kindergarten. The table was covered in color-coded charts and notes, the product of thousands of man hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars all to help the team, and specifically its head of basketball operations, make these tough yet vital decisions. Decisions, so the plan goes, to be executed without emotion.

Two months ago, when the team really started its draft process, there were about nine players who could've been its first pick. (Then several dozen or so more possibilities for the second pick, No. 24 overall.) By Thursday night, it was down to about four. There were numerous opinions and each scout and coach had slightly different lists. But it was pretty clear there were two names at the top once everything had been culled: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist of Kentucky and Dion Waiters of Syracuse.

The Cavs were also quite high on Bradley Beal of Florida and Harrison Barnes of North Carolina. They had done exhaustive research on all four players. There wasn't much separating them. That's the real edge of any draft: Even with so many trained eyes and objective measurement tools, there's always an uncomfortable uncertainty. This is generally accepted if not at all embraced.

The Cavs' rankings did not totally jibe with what many outside the room felt. Especially on Waiters, a prospect who was not highly regarded in many mock drafts because he came off the bench in his two seasons at Syracuse and, more likely, because he'd shut down pre-draft workouts a month ago. He did not come to Cleveland for a private workout and meeting, for example, even though the Cavs and other teams had wanted to host him.

Waiters had gotten a promise from a team that it'd pick him and he and his agent, Rob Pelinka, were content to skip the normal process. There's a belief this promise came from the Phoenix Suns with the No. 13 pick, though Waiters and the Suns have so far refused to talk about it.

As a result, Waiters was not ranked highly and many fans did not read or hear much about him in the days leading to the draft. There had been some buzz about the Cavs' interest but only if they traded back. But looking for an aggressive and tough scorer, the Cavs had done highly detailed work on Waiters and he kept impressing them.

"I just couldn't get him out of my mind," Grant said.

Trent Redden, the Cavs' director of college personnel, had been to Syracuse's campus several times to see and gather information on Waiters. Grant spent three days there watching Waiters practice and play and attended a couple of the Orange's NCAA tournament games. Several of the team's other decision-makers had watched Waiters extensively as well. In addition, the Cavs had talked at great length with Syracuse's coaching staff. Grant has known Syracuse assistant coach Mike Hopkins since they were both in high school.

[+] EnlargeDion Waiters
Mark Konezny/US PresswireDion Waiters averaged 12.6 points per game at Syracuse last season.

Waiters' basic statistics didn't seem all that impressive for a player under such consideration: 12.6 points a game off the bench, a couple rebounds and a couple assists. But the more advanced stats the Cavs looked at impressed them further. He shot a high percentage on the kinds of shots they felt he'd take in the pros and they liked his numbers scoring out of the pick-and-roll.

So even as Waiters' name stayed out of the mainstream news, as the days passed he was in the Cavs' internal headlines. Coach Byron Scott had fallen in love with Waiters' ability after watching plenty of film. As far as Scott was concerned, getting the 6-foot-4 shooting guard would be hitting a jackpot.

The draft started right on time. But while the viewers were focused on Anthony Davis becoming the No. 1 overall pick the Cavs were focused on something else. They were one of several teams that had talked to the Charlotte Bobcats about trading up for the No. 2 pick. They were waiting on a final indication of whether the Bobcats were interested in their offer.

This is a common dance every year, teams checking each other's temperature, and sometimes it progresses to offers. The Cavs were interested in liquidating some of their other picks. They would repeat this exercise throughout the evening. The phones were worked mostly by Redden, vice president of basketball operations David Griffin and director of player personnel Wes Wilcox. Grant would usually get involved if anything got serious. By the very nature of the event, most of it didn't.

As it turned out, that was the case with the Bobcats, who held on to their pick.

Wilcox and Redden believed that if Charlotte indeed kept the pick that it'd take Kidd-Gilchrist. Other people in the room weren't as sure, thinking the Bobcats were very interested in Kansas forward Thomas Robinson. This was the pick that would have the biggest effect on the Cavs' first decision. The team had gone equally as deep with the Kentucky small forward as it had gone with Waiters. In addition to being the kind of impact wing the Cavs were really looking for, Kidd-Gilchrist was a high school teammate of Irving's and had the same representation team as Tristan Thompson, the Cavs' other standout rookie from the 2011-12 season.

The Cavs also had real interest in shooting specialist Beal but were rather certain he would not get past the Wizards. So it came down to the Bobcats' call. The Cavs were either going to have their choice of Kidd-Gilchrist or Waiters, or have the choice made for them.

When it was Kidd-Gilchrist whose name was called by Charlotte, Waiters was aligned to be a Cav. Barnes was under consideration, yes, but Waiters was the consensus pick. This wasn't known outside the room, which was the point, and certainly not very expected at the Cavs' draft party in downtown Cleveland at Quicken Loans Arena. The fans there, unfamiliar with Waiters because of the limited discussion about him before the draft, booed when the pick was announced.

There was no false pretense; the executives and coaches were genuinely elated. They'd gotten a player they felt better about the more time they put into making the decision.

"I was very excited his name was still on the board at No. 4," Scott said. "I think we got a steal."

Instantly the outside reaction was that the Cavs had taken a risk, choosing a player who wasn't even a starter over more well-known and higher-rated players. The Cavs had done a similar thing last year with the No. 4 pick, taking Thompson when other players with more buzz were available.

The reaction in the Cavs' draft room couldn't have been more different. They had just taken the player they had rated highest who was still available. That included team owner Dan Gilbert, who fully supported the decision. Every pick has risk but the Cavs felt Waiters had emerged as their selection because of how their process worked, not because they wanted to pull a surprise.

"This was the right fit for our team," Grant said several times, including to the local media at a news conference after the draft.

By the time some of the response was playing out on local radio and on Twitter, and Waiters was expressing surprise on national television that he went fourth, the Cavs had moved on. With their first goal realized, their second was to move up and try to improve their lot with their second pick.

Moving around in the draft, however, was proving to be more of a challenge than in recent years. With new rules on spending, the value of cost-controlled first-round picks had clearly increased. It's a trend that has been developing over the past few years and really played in this draft. In fact, despite the usual amount of chatter, there was virtually no movement.

[+] EnlargeTyler Zeller
Jennifer Pottheiser/NBAE/Getty ImagesAfter some dealing by GM Chris Grant, Zeller became a Cav.

The Cavs had a handful of players they were looking at in the mid-teens, hoping to use their other three picks to move up. This is again where planning came into play. Before the draft started, they had agreed that moving into the teens was worth their No. 24 pick plus their two high second-round picks, Nos. 33 and 34. Three picks for one seemed like a lot but Grant had decided that he wanted a better player now much more than four rookies or the option of dumping a second-rounder this year for a second-rounder in the future. That was an issue that was put to bed long before David Stern took the podium Thursday night.

Wilcox, Redden and Griffin continuously worked the phones, checking several picks ahead and then circling back. Several players they had interest in came off the board and there was dwindling hope that they might be able to move up. After all, no one had moved up or down all night. But then, after trying for nearly an hour, the Cavs found some action.

The Mavericks, conscious of clearing cap space, were willing to give Cleveland the No. 17 pick for those three other picks. Still available was North Carolina center, legit 7-footer and four-year college player Tyler Zeller. The Cavs had him ranked just outside the top 10 on their board and he was a big man, certainly a position of need.

Over the previous two months the Cavs had brought nearly 60 players into Cleveland for workouts, but Waiters and Zeller, interestingly, were not among them. This is unusual but it did not give the team pause. Grant and his scouts had seen Zeller play for years. He was the ACC Player of the Year, but that didn't impress the Cavs as much as some of his advanced statistics, which showed he was one of the most efficient scorers in the draft. His shooting numbers were especially attractive.

The Mavericks wanted to add injury-plagued guard Kelenna Azubuike to the deal to get it done. The Cavs weren't totally sure of his health status -- he played in only four games last season -- but were so focused on upgrading in the draft that they agreed to take on the remaining year of his contract at just over $1 million.

When the trade was done the room burst into applause, a release of the adrenaline that had been building in the chase.

Nearly four hours later, Grant sat behind the desk in his office trying to decompress from it all. It was after 1 a.m. and Tad Carper, the team's senior vice president of communications, was going over Grant's media schedule for the next day. Radio appearances, a news conference with Waiters and Zeller after they'd been flown in with their families on a private jet from New York, and various other items. The Cavs had one of the most interesting nights of any team and people were going to want to talk about it. Meanwhile, Grant scrolled through the Internet, catching up on everything else that had happened.

For the second straight draft, the Cavs were able to get a guard and a big man. They got a backcourt mate for Irving and a frontcourt mate for Thompson. They hope they'd just gotten closer to being a contender. Of course, nothing like that could possibility be known now.

That's where the true suspense is.