The Cavaliers are not tough guys. Jostled by some rude fracker, they turn the other cheek.
Someone snakes their parking space, they think they’ll just look a little longer. Someone continually beats them for inside position and easy pick and roll baskets, there’s always tomorrow. Turn down for what? “Oh yes, sorry to bother you.”
This much was evident in last night’s 103-84 loss to the Sacramento Kings, as it has been all season – the Cavaliers are frontrunners, particularly without LeBron James in the lineup to carry them through the rough spots. When things are going well, they’re fine, but when the opponent makes a run or gets physical, the Cavaliers get down rather than manning up.
This team has great talent, but its personality is weak, like the guy/gal that suddenly blossomed physically in high school, but still carried themselves as a schnook. As Forrest Gump says, “gutless is as gutless does.” They need to find some attitude, some pride and start behaving like they really want it
Let’s be clear. There are still plenty of individual issues from transition defense to bad turnovers to rebounding to the omnipresent pick & roll issues to focus and intensity. But every team faces similar issues, just read any sports page.
In the end it comes down to how they confront these issues. Our Cavs are very polished at talking the talk, but so far as a team, they look like a bunch of weak characters. There’s no easier way to put it.
This too is familiar territory, even for Coach David Blatt. His team in Israel that won the Euroleague team played way over their talent level, because Maccabi Tel Aviv’s players had character. It was the culmination in a way of his old Princeton coach Pete Carril's talk about the ‘smart takes from the strong.’ The real question is, can he make the strong smart enough to win?
Right now, the Cavaliers play below their talent level mostly because they aren’t used to expending the energy necessary to succeed – mostly on defense. While it’s hardly definitive, NBA.com uses cameras in every movement to track players and convert it to interesting stats.
The Cavaliers have the 4th lowest in distance traveled/game, the Spurs and Warriors are #1 and #3 respectively. The Raptors, Heat, Thunder and Clippers are right around Cleveland, and a lot of it has to do with pace, but it’s a subtle indicator of what our eyes tell us – this team doesn’t hustle enough to earn the hard wins, and their lack of consistent effort leads to big runs that turn into blowouts, because they’re not tough enough to fight back yet.
It’s important to remember history is not destiny. Despite being great players on bad teams, there’s no reason Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and this Cavaliers squad can’t turn this around. Like any inconsistent, floundering team, the good news comes in spurts (a Richard Hell & the Voidoids reference).
On Friday, the news was that Kyrie had begun the road trip by playing pretty inspired D on Warriors superstar (and let’s be honest, a better all-around player) Steph Curry. So we know he’s capable – we just don’t know if there are very many people he believes are enough to inspire that kind of effort.
There’s a wonderful Flannery O’Connor short story called A Good Man Is Hard to Find, in which this ruthless escaped felon called the Misfit took advantage of a family who pulled over to help, and after killing her kin and holding a gun to the mean old grandma’s head, squeezed the kind of kindness out of her that she’d withheld from her family all story long, as she rhapsodized about how he was really a good man and she could see it now.
Afterwards, when the deed is done, one of his co-conspirators comments what a hoot that old lady was. The Misfit replies she would’ve been a good woman if there had been someone with a gun next to her head all her life. That’s this Cavs team in a nutshell. Man, when they’re inspired, playing defense and passing the ball, you wonder if this is the best team you’ve ever seen. But they can’t ever keep it up for very long. Is there some kind of Viagra for the soul? Would Provigil work?
Irving and Love have finally begun to work together, which I suspect was sort of the point of the LeBron convalescence. After winning one of the last eight games without him, we began to see more pick and rolls and passes finding Kevin Love throughout the whole game. Kyrie hasn’t found Kevin Love in a lot of pick and roll situations. Part of that is on Blatt for not running them enough that Irving begins to develop the same level of comfort he has with Thompson.
There has been some comment about how well the team plays in the first quarter. Could that have something to do with the fact this is the only time they actively look for Kevin Love? We’re not sure why nobody has done this yet, but the usage rates (percentage of offensive possessions in which they shot while on floor) for Kevin Love are very interesting, and again, bear out what our eyes tell us – the he’s a first quarter focus and disappears thereafter. We split them out for November, December and January.
November usage, Total 21.2%, 1st Quarter 22%, 2nd half 20.3%, 4th Q 18.1%
December usage, Total 21.4%, 1stQ 28.2%, 2nd half, 19.5%, 4th Q 14.9% (!!!)
January Usage, Total 28.3%, 1st Q 34.9%, 2nd half 26%, 4th Q 20.3%
As you can see, during December, Love got more shots, but they were even more concentrated in the first half. By January, with LeBron gone, Love was getting a substantially greater number of shots, though he still doesn’t get much attention in the fourth, only a 10% improvement on November. Yup. The Cavs are slow learners. Now maybe this is David Blatt’s fault. He’s a former point guard. Surely he can make Kyrie Irving pass the ball? For fun, we pulled Kyrie’s usage rates as comparison.
November usage, Total 22.9%, 1st Quarter 14.1%, 2nd half 26.3%, 4th Q 31.7%
December usage, Total 25%, 1stQ 21.5%, 2nd half, 27%, 4th Q 28.8%
January Usage, Total 30.6%, 1st Q 29.3%, 2nd half 31.6%, 4th Q 33.1%
From the looks of things, there’s plenty of room for more Love offense if Kyrie’s just willing to share. While that can also be the plays called, I think if you watch specifically the pick and roll plays they run together, only in the last few games has Irving found Love on anything like a consistent basis rather than looking for his own shot. (Early in the year, Blatt allegedly told Irving that LeBron and Love eat first on offense, a sentiment he’s yet to embrace.)
The question remains if Kyrie is going to be willing to sacrifice touches and offense when LeBron comes back because Love needs to keep his usage at least this high, meaning Irving will need to take substantially less shots than he has all year.
But the main issue is defensive and while there are stats like opponent field goal percentage (tied w/the Lakers for 29th) that showcase the team’s inept D, they aren’t so terrible at defending the 3 (18th, 35.4%), and they don’t commit a lot of fouls. (Maybe they don’t play tough enough to commit fouls).
But what I like looking at is opponent assists/per possession, where the Cavaliers, at .265, are as far from the 29th team (the Clippers at .25) as they are from the 21st team (Minnesota at .235). What that means is we allow more passes that result in baskets and probably more easy baskets than anyone, which is undoubtedly a result of our wretched pick and roll defense and slow rotations.
Adding new faces including two new starters doesn’t help. Having two starters (James and presumably Shumpert) as well as the team’s 2nd best defensive player, Shawn Marion, on the bench doesn’t help either.
Still, it seems a rush to judgment to place all of the lackadaisical defensive energy and transition defense on Blatt. You’ll remember defensive guru Mike Brown didn’t have a lot more success getting Kyrie to play defense. He’s been among the worst in the league for a long time.
Adding another bad defensive player in Kevin Love was BOUND to cause complications. The other three guys basically have to cover for those two. We just added one of the pieces tasked with that (center Timofey Mozgov) and the other (wing defender Imam Shumpert) is on the shelf for another two weeks.
People can certainly get upset about the state of the team, but to these ears it’s a little shrill given the number of injuries and trades the team has endured the last three weeks. Shouldn’t we give a coach with twenty years experience enough rope to see his new additions and injured players back on the floor before handing the keys to someone (presumably Tyronn Lue, who has never coached a professional basketball game?)
You think Coach David Blatt is overmatched based on three months and you want to give a totally untested guy the reigns. And you think that this guy can keep Kyrie and James in line, or are you suggesting it because you want to let James and Kyrie steer the ship? Because firing Blatt would do just that – hand the keys to the inmates, which doesn’t (to me) put Lue in any better position to get compliance out of his stars, and, let’s be honest, probably means sacrificing a LOT on the X/O side of the ball. But hey, it sure eats up good newsprint and justifies more TV face time doesn’t it?
We dispensed with so much X/O talk to discuss the team a bit today. (The game quickly grew frustrating, and the analysis would’ve featured many of the same failings we reiterate here ad infinitum so far.)
Curious if you miss the video and screengrabs, want more of this, or perhaps more of the interviews, which we tend to avoid inasmuch as it quickly becomes the same sentiments expressed to the same questions night after night. We’d like to get your thoughts. Please leave them in the column’s comments, and we (the royal we) will be checking.
The Cavaliers take on the Phoenix Suns tomorrow. This won’t be an easy game because the Suns have three fine point guards in Goran Dragic, Isaiah Thomas and Eric Bledsoe, running pick and rolls with their new big man, former Maverick/Celtic Brandan Wright. The fondue continues then and we’ll hope for a better mix. You can follow my live tweets with video from the game @CRS_1ne
, and read my column on Wednesday in the Scene blog.