What can I tell you that you don’t already know? The Cavs are a mediocre team right now. Last night they struggled on the road against the cream of the Eastern Conference, the Washington Wizards, losing 91-78, in a game that wasn’t even that close.
If you've been following for the last week – as the Cavs’ prior four-game win streak turned into a three-game losing streak – you’ve heard a lot about “the process.” For those not keyed into sports-speak that means, “We suck, but before long we’re going to be good.” (See also, Democratic Party.)
In the NBA, that’s what November (and maybe part of December) are for — finding the right rotations, feeling out your teammates, etc. Teams that have been together for a while start further ahead while those like the Cavs, which have overhauled 80% of the team, have farther to go. This is all common sense. As everyone notes, the Heat started 9-9 during the first year of their Big 3, and the Celtics too, had their troubles uniting Pierce, Garnett and Allen during their initial title run.
The problem with basketball, even more than life, is that the problems you’re having can’t be compartmentalized. It’s easy to say, “It’s just part of the process,” but that doesn’t make it any easier not to get frustrated. When teams go through your defense like a fifth grader through See Spot Run, it’s easy to have that bleed into the offense. Players turn hero instead of sharing the ball and the burden. This becomes doubly difficult beneath the media glare.
LeBron was singled out after the game for twice lingering under the basket on a failed drive while the Wizards advanced the ball up the court. LeBron conceded it was “never a good example.” Elsewhere you’re seeing Cavs wind up on the floor more and more as they amplify the melodrama looking for calls rather than counting on hustle and hard play.
They seem to almost be pouting sometimes, and their lack of emotional balance amplifies the team’s present lack of cohesion. When things are going well, the team looks great, but when the tide turns they don’t always show the maturity and focus to weather it.
We could dissect another game where the Cavs couldn’t cover the opposing point guard on the pick-and-roll (the Wizards’ John Wall scored 17 pts in the 3rd quarter alone), and where Kevin Love was repeatedly abused down low. (“Coach directly called for me and Nene and we just keep going at him,” said Wizard power forward Kevin Seraphim after a 12-point 2nd quarter.)
Instead we’ll use the Wizards game as a microcosm of the team’s main issues.
1) Pick and Roll defense. There’s a fine article at Fear the Sword discussing the team’s difficulties in the pick and roll. It’d be difficult to overstate how badly the Cavaliers did handling John Wall last night. Wall had something to do with that en route to 28 points, 7 assists and four steals.
The first pick of the NBA draft a year after Irving, Wall is so good at penetrating you typically go under the pick, but because he started hitting they had to go over the top of the pick (not Irving’s strong suit to say the least), leaving him trailing Wall badly. Thompson retreated into the lane leaving him an open mid-range pull-up jumper. Is it any wonder the Cavaliers are third to last in Defensive FG percentage (48.4%) and last in assists per game allowed (26.2).
2) Transition Defense. The Cavaliers are a relatively young team, but they don’t get back on defense like that should. Part of it is that Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao are hitting the offensive boards; some of it is that the Cavs drive the ball to the basket a lot (10th in the league). But mostly it’s that they don’t find their men or stop the ball, as NBA TV pointed out in their post-game segment.
They’re fifth to last in fastbreak points allowed per game (13.6), while only 11th in turnovers/game. That’s because they’re giving up transition buckets on rebounds and made baskets, not just turnovers.
3) Rebounding. If you’re going to get out on the fastbreak, you need to get the rebound. As good as the team is in the open floor, they need to create as many transition opportunities as they can. Love and LeBron have shown themselves to be adept at outlet passes, and obviously Waiters and Irving have shown their ability to score in transition. But the Cavs are 23rd in grabbing available rebounds – this despite being one of the best (#7) at snaring contested rebounds. They simply aren’t hitting the boards at other positions like the should, an example of their poor hustle.
4) Team Energy. As mentioned above, when things are going well the Cavs play well. They get out in their lanes, hit their outlet passes and make plays in transition. When things are bad, they dribble too much, mope, don’t get back and play listless defense. Using cameras that track every movement, they can tell you the speed and distance traveled by the Cavs so far this season. It’s a rough approximation of team energy and the Cavs are third to last.
5) Isolation Basketball. The Cavaliers start two of the best penetrators in the league. Irving and James are #10 and #11 in drives/per game. However, as a team, they don’t finish that well (#18 in the league at 45.2%), and that tendency takes everyone else out of the offense. Coach David Blatt has installed his Motion offense – which typically features a series of dribble hand-offs around the 3-point line – and has used it more in recent games, but even that is essentially a series of chained pick and roll plays, though at least it gets the team moving. Too often the pick and roll leaves everyone off the ball standing around at the three-line. For Kevin Love, who’s used to being a focal point of the offense, this is especially frustrating, and yet the team didn’t run any pick and rolls with LeBron and Love as they have in past games.
The Cavs are middle of the pack in passes/game (#15) and points/game from assists (#18) which includes shots that resulted in FTs, but near the bottom (#26) in assist opportunities, which suggests that while the Cavs convert passes into points at a relatively high rate, there aren’t that many shots coming off passes. LeBron is 14th in passes/game and 23rd in points created by assists, the second highest non-guards after Nicholas Batum. Irving is significantly lower at #31 alongside Kobe Bryant, Josh Smith and Joe Johnson – none of them point guards.
The biggest casualty of this is Love, who just isn’t getting very many touches. Don’t be fooled, he is only getting about 15% less touches than LeBron or Irving, comparable to the number of touches a big man like Joakim Noah, Chris Bosh or Marc Gasol receives. But since he’s such a willing passer (3rd on team in assists with 2.5/game), he isn’t converting that into as much offense.
Overall, this is probably the least of their problems. But inasmuch as they’re taking too many jump shots for such a good offensive team, it’s limiting them, producing more rebounds and less overall continuity, as many players stand around both on offense and defense.
6) Bench. This has looked like a problem lately as they managed only 9 bench points to the Wizards’ 40, but this is really a side-effect more than primary issue. The lack of offensive continuity has led to Blatt sticking with his starting five a lot. James, Irving and Love are third, fourth and tenth in the league in minutes per game. This is also a product of Blatt’s unfamiliarity with his bench, and, finally, the lack of the one thing he needs: defensive depth, something GM David Griffin apparently acknowledged, according to an ESPN pregame report.
That said, Joe Harris and Tristan Thompson (arguably the team’s best defensive player) have shown themselves capable bench players, and injured backup point guard Matthew Dellavedova has appeared to be a spark plug when out there. Backup seven-footer Brendan Haywood is coming back from an injured lost season and Mike Miller was very good last year, so as bad as he’s looked (they could call him “Caboose” because he’s always trailing on defense), one can’t help but feel that at least his 3 pt shooting should come around (career 40.9%, currently 21.4%). So the bench could very well sort itself out when the other things do, though don’t be surprised if they add another wing defender or a starting shooting guard, so Waiters can stay on the bench and Marion can be a super-sub.
The offensive stuff, while perhaps the most glaring, is the stuff that is most likely to solve itself. There is so much talent with so many skills that offense isn't likely to pose the same issue that the defense, pick and roll, rebounding and intensity issues will, but they all feed on each other. If this team can play passionate defense – which given their lack of a defensive bulwark inside means the big men press the pick and roll hard and everyone scrambles manically to cover each other’s man like the Miami Heat in past years – everything else should fall into place.
But like a new kid in school, the Cavs for the moment aren’t sure how they fit. Tonight they face the Toronto Raptors, a team that makes the most of their talent, and managed to win the Eastern Division last year. They have the best record in the Eastern Conference so far this year and do so by playing the best offense and second best defense (points scored, points allowed) in the Eastern Conference. Expect an energized Cavs team – they play harder after poor showings – to face a real challenge. Of course, they rose to the Spurs. Can they show that same level of intensity at home against the Raptors? We’ll see.