Looking at Cavs' Midseason Report Card Following Friday Night Win Over Clippers

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Last night the Cavaliers won their second straight game in the Staples Center beating the Los Angeles Clippers 126-121 in one of the more exciting games of the season, behind 37 from Kyrie Irving and LeBron James’ third consecutive 30+ game sine his return.

It was a game primed for a Cavaliers let down. It was the final day of the five-game road trip, and their second game in as many nights while the Clippers rested. However the team came out with pretty good energy. They surrendered 30+ points in each of the first three quarters before bucking down for the fourth while producing their highest scoring quarter of the game.

While the high score might suggest that this was a typically lackluster Cavaliers showing, it was a much better night for their halfcourt defense. Irving continued to show the renewed defensive intensity he showed for much of the West Coast swing, hounding Chris Paul into 4-15 shooting and 5 turnovers, including a couple clean picks in the frontcourt for breakaway opportunities. Austin Carr noted after the game that it was a good defensive effort mostly – something we felt as well, but for one glaring deficiency – fast break and transition defense.

The Clippers like to get up and down the court and this happens to be one of the worst parts of the Cavaliers game. They don’t pick up their men on transition well and are slow in getting back. This allowed the Clippers to turn 20 turnovers (LeBron 9, Irving 4) into an absurd 33 points and remain in the game despite trailing in every other statistical category, including FG%, where the Cavs held them to a road-trip best 47.3%, while shooting 55% themselves, including 43.5% from three.

The game’s turning point came midway through the third period. After the Cavs fought back to take the lead 72-71 on a Kyrie Irving 3 with 9 minutes left, the Clippers went on an 11-2 run to take a four-point lead. Clippers center DeAndre Jordan was posing a problem in the lane, changing shots and Los Angeles’ pace was overwhelming the Cavaliers. They simply couldn’t slow them down.

So Blatt called for the team to start fouling Jordan with 5:30 left. He’d make 1 out of 2 the next four times down the court, and Doc Rivers pulled Jordan from the game. It didn’t have an immediate impact; the Clippers pushed the lead to 9 with three minutes left. But the slow down in the game upset the Clippers rhythm and played more to the Cavaliers slower, halfcourt manner. A 10-4 run to end the period closed the lead to 3, and the Cavs would take a four-point lead, 104-100, with 9-minutes left in the game on a LeBron lay-up and 1.

Despite some heart-palpitating moments the team closed it out, including Matthew Dellavedova who knocked down two free throws after missing a couple crucial ones in the embarrassing loss to the 76ers. The team looked a little shaky at times, but closed it out.

It was a good victory and enabled them to go into the season’s midway point with a winning record at 21-20. When LeBron has been around the team’s 20-12, which is perhaps not surprising, but also demonstrates how little continuity the team’s been able to generate this season.

Of course in the Eastern conference a winning record guarantees a playoff seed, so the key will be continuing to improve. They’re hardly a shoo-in for the Conference championship the way they’ve played up until now, but one also figures the injuries and sub-par bench are now in the rear view mirror allowing for a bit more downhill travel the rest of the way. A better road record (10-11) would be nice going forward as well as more defensive urgency.

At this midway point, it seemed appropriate to do a mid-season report card. We got REALLY into it, and dug into the stats to support it. So if we glaze some eyes, our apologies, we’re just trying to buttress what your eyes may already be telling you.

This also seems an appropriate time to thank everyone who has contributed to the blog or the twitter feed. (Find me on Twitter @CRS_1ne.) It’s been great interacting with all of you. We’re looking forward to the second half of the season and a long playoff run. (*Knock on wood*)

Without further ado, our mid-season report card:

The Squads

Offense: The offense is probably one of the team’s bright spots though it’s still something of a mess. It has these outbursts where it scores 15-20 points in just four minutes, but can’t seem to maintain its focus, straying from those things that typically made the lead possible, good ball movement, cutting and picks away from the ball, and good energy. How often do the Cavs slowly advance the ball and fail to initiate the offense before 10 seconds are gone from the clock? The team’s frequent reliance on pick-and-roll isn’t so debilitating given the personnel, but the iso’s tend to sap the other three players energy on defense as they stand there with little to do but wait for a pass. The movement multi-pick offense has popped up from time-to-time but perhaps needs more practice time to get working smoothly.
The Cavaliers are tied for seventh in offensive efficiency (pace adjusted points/hundred possessions). Their FG and 3pt FG percentages are 18th and 19th while their True Shooting is 14th. One trouble seems to be the in their shooting relatively close to the basket (but not lay-ins/dunks). They’re 25th in shooting on shots 3-16 feet from the basket (37%); they’re #5 in shooting percentage (42%) on mid-range jumpers from 16 feet to the 3 pt line. They’re the second best shooters of corner 3s (32%) but are 22nd in frequency.
The team could do better on turnovers where they’re tied for 10th (13.1), and they have the sixth slowest pace of any team in the league despite saying they want to play with pace. All these things point to an offense that is not exactly humming, leaving plenty of upside in what’s already the 4th best offense in the Eastern Conference and close to second. As they integrate these new pieces and move guys who had been playing the last month further on down the bench there should be room for the offense to improve from the outer edges of the top 10 into the top 5. Grade: B+. Better than it looked because of injuries, new players and flux.

Defense: If only the defensive prognosis were the good. Instead you’re looking at a bottom-five defense right just ahead of the Lakers and Jazz and just below the Kings, and interestingly, the Heat. Their half-court defense isn’t bad and can be quite good in spurts, when the team’s passion and intensity is stoked, but the commitment’s inconsistent. The transition defense is even worse. Guys don’t get back on defense, laying on the floor looking for a foul, linger admiring their shot, or just fail to locate open shooters on the perimeter enabling the deadly drive & dish for transition 3s. We get CLOBBERED by that, which seemingly is only a matter of effort.

A lot of it is personnel related. The Cavs’ haven’t had the kind of guys necessary to play good defense. Tristan has stepped up, but LeBron, perhaps slowed by injuries has regressed. Marion has done well, but he’s 36 and has too often been matched up on guards because of the backcourt’s trouble defending penetration. While J.R. Smith isn’t much of an upgrade over Dion Waiters or even Matthew Dellavedova, he’s at least looked more capable since arriving. Imam Shumpert is going to be expected to be a perimeter stopper and has the length and attitude to do it, though he’s not been the same defensively since a knee injury a couple years ago. Mozgov isn’t a shot-blocking rim presence, though he does have size to eat up space, something the Cavs have lacked. It’s hard NOT to see this as a work in progress, but there’s so much progress that needs to be made it’s a little mind-boggling.

The Cavaliers need to get more active with their hands on defense. They’re 20th in turnovers forced (per hundred possessions) and 27th in effective FG% (which accounts for the greater value of 3-pointers). They also have a strange, but huge home/away difference in their fastbreak defensive efficiency. At home they’re second in the league with 1.17 per fastbreak (and the team allows 12th fewest) but on the road they’re 24th. Letting the home team get fastbreaks is great way to get the crowd involved too, and has something to do with 10-11 road record, 7th best in the East. They’re second worst in the league in FG% at the rim and 10th worst in number of opportunities allowed as well. Grade: D+, only because of small signs of improvement that last few weeks, otherwise they deserve to fail.

Management

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Coach David Blatt. It’s hard to know the appropriate metric to judge him by. Least ruffles per kerfuffle? Rate him against the unrealistic early season expectations? As a rookie NBA Coach? Nobody stepped into a bigger media glare, but he came advertised as a guy who’d been through two decades of European basketball wars. He’s not a real fiery guy who will publicly question his players – nor could he be given his lack of NBA pedigree. He’s struggled with what to do offensively and how much isolation versus movement. He’s got two of the league’s best one-on-one players but he’s more of a team/movement guy and that balance has proved elusive. On defense, he’s shown a lot of experimentation, toying with zones and different ways to cover the pick and roll, showing plenty of adaptability. He’s handled his personnel pretty well, though his hot-hand orientation has meant starters sometimes sit (see, Kevin Love) when other guys have it going. Yet despite a pretty shallow bench and a team still feeling itself out, he had the team going pretty well before Anderson Varejao’s injury and then LeBron’s rehabilitation, seemingly sent the team back to square one. Indeed Love and James’ injuries could be a result of Blatt’s over-reliance on the starters early on in the season as he was feeling out his own situation. He’s certainly not wowed anybody, though the Hack-A-Jordan last night worked pretty well to slow down the Clippers momentum, and shows his resourcefulness. Grade: C+. He’s not done anything spectacular, but he’s in a tough situation that demands a certain amount of patience. He’s got a .500 team, even if there are excuses for it. He also needs to start really watching starters minutes once everyone gets back.

GM David Griffin. He could almost be the first half MVP by McGyver-ing together two starters and a sixth man out of a disgruntled volume scorer, a (probably) low-twenties first round draft choice and random roster flotsam. Given the salary cap restrictions it was damn-near Houdini-esque. With Mozgov and Smith potentially locked up next year as well, the core’s in solid shape despite the lack of draft picks. (They still retain next year’s 1st, but traded the year after to Celtics and a host of 2nd rounders for years down the road.) Add this to signing Shawn Marion, and grabbing Joe Harris with a second (and even his other second rounder, Dwight Powell, looks like he could be a contributor in Dallas, via the Rondo trade with the Celtics), and you have the makings of a pretty shrewd talent administrator. We also liked his “this is a dumb narrative” stand in support of Coach Blatt, but unfortunately in life, many people know what they know, and it won’t matter what you say to them. Grade: A. He inherited a tough situation, but has really added a lot of talent given the time (now!) and money constrictions.

The Players

PF Kevin Love 6’9 240, 26 yrs (36 mpg, 43% FG, 34% 3s, 82% FT, 10.3 rb/3.0 off., .5 blk, .8 stl, 17.7 pts)
Love has had the toughest adjustment to make in terms of how and how much (22.4 usage vs. 28.4) the Cavs use him compared to the Wolves. His defense comes as advertised, which is to say not good, and his difficulties have been multiplied by issues of continuity with guys in and out of the lineup
Offense: His three-point shooting is down – but not a lot – about 7 triples over the course of the year. Most of it appears to be his catch & shoot threes (40% last year vs. 35% this), and him freezing up on wide open shots (45% last year & 43.6% from 3, vs.38.9% and 34.1%). He’s actually shooting better with guys within 2-6 feet of him than no one around. That will probably change as his comfort grows. Last year he shot as a lot of pull-up 3s which depressed his percentages as well. Though hardly bad, his offense seems primed for a rebound. That part of his game seems fine. While his offensive rebounds are down (2.1 from 2.9 last year) that’s a product of his floor positioning and the having to compete with Tristan Thompson.
Defense: Love was generally regarded as one of the weakest defenders at his position last year. He’s simply a terrible low post player who’s lack of size and explosion forces him to rely on positioning defense. For this reason, Love yielded the third-highest FG% at the rim (57.4%) among those facing at least 5 attempts a game last year. Only Thaddeus Young and Tristan Thompson (58%) were worse. That’s just to set a baseline. (We’ll talk about Thompson’s improvement in a moment.)
He’s not improved at stopping plays at the rim per se (57.9%) but given the challenges of moving to a new team, treading water is good. NBA.com also keeps track of the difference between an opponent’s usual FG% and their FG% when defended by Love. He’s gone from adding 3% to opponent shooting to 2.5% and his defense inside 10 ft has improved dramatically (from adding 3.2% to only 1.9%). The improvement’s been steady as well, from 2.1% overall in December to only 1.6% so far in January, and he’s gone from 2.3% to .5%, inside of 6 feet. This is remarkable improvement and cause for hope. Grade: B-, based on overly high expectations, steady improvement, and his gritty, “good soldier” demeanor.

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PG Kyrie Irving 6’3, 193, 22 yrs (.46% FG, 37% 3s, 85% FT, 5.1 ast, 1.5 stl, 21.2 pts)
Entering his fourth season, Kyrie is one of the finest finishes in the league and able to get just about anywhere with his dribble, both qualities that have been over-exploited in the past. But he’s beyond a liability on defense, showing very little ability to keep his defender in front of him, creating pressure on the rest of the defense.
Offense: The fact that his shots are off less than a shot (.8) from last year, his FT/gm are the same and his points are up, suggest that Irving hasn’t felt the impact of adding two more stars very much, and that’s sort of been the problem. While a devastating iso- and pick-and-roll player, Irving’s kind of a ball-stop on offense. His one-one-one skills will be crucial in the playoffs, but for now he needs to adapt to shooting less and playing off the ball more. The former came easier but he’s definitely been picking his spots a bit more the last 4-5 weeks, and it showed the two games he’s played with Love and Irving.
Defense: Kyrie’s offensive skills are so glaring that his defensive deficiencies get brushed over. He’s a young guy, maybe he just hasn’t taken enough pride in it up until now. He doesn’t hustle up the court in transition, he doesn’t fight through picks (a big reason Tristan Thompson covered more guards than any big man in the league last year). But he plays the passing lanes and has quick hands so he gets steals.
Until NBA.com started doing player tracking it was hard to quantify how bad Kyrie’s D was. Last year he allowed an 8.8% higher FG pct than their average on shots inside 10 feet (he’s terrible about allowing easy drives), and allowed 3/game. This year he’s regressed to 10.1% and 4.1/gm.

A quick comparison (so far this year): Chris Paul -1.8%, 2.7/gm; Russell Westbrook -.7%, 2.0/g,m; Steph Curry .2%, 2.9/gm; Derrick Rose 0%, 3.5/gm; Kyle Lowry 3.5%, 3.9/gm; Teague 6.2%, 1.8/gm; Brandon Knight 10.8, 2.5/gm.

So yeah, Kyrie’s D is Brandon Knight bad and it’s gotten worse this season.

That said, the eye test says Kyrie’s defense has picked up during the road trip, at least intermittently. He’s actually fought through picks and tried harder I the halfcourt to avoid switching off his man or stay caught on a pick. It isn’t there in the stats, other than since LeBron’s return. Suddenly he’s down to 6.7% from less than 10 ft and 3.0/game. Grade: C+. His A+ offense is held back by his hesitancy to share and look for others, and ATROCIOUS defense that is in the bottom quartile in the league with little improvement until recently. That has to improve to at least below average (where it’s been the last three games). So far this season, he’s looked worse. It’s holding back the whole team back defensively.

SF LeBron James 6’8” 250, 30 yrs (49% FG, 37% 3s, 72% FT, 5.5 rb, 7.4 a, .7 blk, 1.4 stl, 3.9 TO, 26.0 pts)
What can you say about the best player in the world but why can’t you do more? Right? But that is the issue when you’re the leader, and on this LeBron has had some trouble. Absent his co-leader D-Wade, LeBron’s had to bear more on his shoulders, and he’s bourn it unevenly.
Offense: People make a lot about the fact that LeBron is shooting significantly worse than he did with the Heat (57% the last two years), when really what we should be comparing is to the old Cavs teams. He’s no longer a power forward as he was much of his last two years with the Heat, and he’s handling the ball because he’s a better facilitator than Kyrie, which has meant more turnovers (while Kyrie’s have gone down from last year), but less than a 10% increase over last year. The biggest thing this year has been his lack of finish, which we can now attributed to back and knee injuries that – if we’re to judge from how much better he’s looked since his R&R – sapped a great deal of his athleticism and inhibited his ability to finish at the rim. (Hence, his reduced dunk totals, off at least 60% over last year.) He’s also drawing fouls at a pace not seen since those Cavs teams.
Defense: It’s a little hard to evaluate the King’s defense fairly. He’s obviously was hurting and there are a lot of new pieces. He’s never had less than 1.6 steals/gm in his career (currently he’s at 1.4). Judging from DFG% his defense has slipped a smidge from last year, but the eyes tell us it’s more than that. At times he hasn’t made the effort at times to get back on defense, close out shooters and what-not. He’s turned his head and lost track of his guy A LOT for a player as savvy as James. It’s hard to know whether to place it on his injuries, frustrations with his teammates or intermittent loses of focus of which we’re unaccustomed to seeing from him. Regardless, it’s hard not to see his D as a disappointment, but we’re going to mark it down to injuries and the team’s accumulated troubles. We’ll expect more the second half. Grade: A-. Whatever his first half faults, and there are a few (notably occasional losses of effort, esp. on D), nobody is in this guy’s class.

PF/C Tristan Thompson 6’8½“ 238 23 yrs (54.5% FG, 64% FT, 8.1 rb/3.8 off., .4 stl, .9 blk, 9.9 pts )
Thompson is handled by LeBron’s agent Rich Paul, and reportedly turned down a $52 million contract for four years, which is more than anyone should be paying a backup big man. Hard to see how that will play out, but Thompson’s done his part by stepping up his game on both sides of the ball
Offense: Tristan is finally playing to his strengths on offense – not dribbling. Last year nearly 20% of his shots feature more than one dribble, this year it’s down to 13%. He’s also finishing much better in traffic. In cases with people tight or very tight on him he’s shooting 59% and 50% versus 39% and 49.5% last year. He’s also getting 70% of his shots in the restricted area of the lane versus just 48% last year showcasing his (and the team’s) ability to get better shots this year.
Defense: Tristan has made incredible strides in the past year. He’s much more physical in the block with big guys, showing his ability to body up with bigger but less physical centers like the Magic’s Nikola Vucevic or the Rapters Jonas Valanciunas. His overall defensive FG% difference has improved from +.4% to -.3%, and inside of 10 ft has seen special improvement to -5.0% from +1.8%. But his biggest improvement is in rim protection. Last year he was allowing 58% on shots at the rim, this year it’s down to 50.4% — Anthony Davis/DeAndre Jordan range – despite facing 30% more shots. Grade: A. Thompson has minimized his weaknesses and accented his strengths while improving dramatically at the defensive end to an extent once not thought possible.

UT Shawn Marion 6’7” 228 36 yrs (23mpg, 42% FG, 29% 3s, 80% FT, 4 rb, 1.1 ast, .6 blk, .6 stl, 5.7 pts)
Marion’s been a sort of swiss army knife playing just about anybody but centers on defense, and showing a knack for rolling to the basket for put backs and cutting floaters. He sometimes seems an after thought but his energy is unmatched for its consistency.
Offense: Marion’s offense has been a real disappointment. Last year he shot 37% on Catch & Shoot 3s, this year it’s 31%, and he’s shooting badly when open only 37% with a guy 4-6 ft away versus 57% last year. Some of it is probably still feeling out his place in the flow – he was with Dallas five years and got to know his place in the offense during that time.
Defense: If playing eight less minutes/game than he did last year has impacted his offense to the negative, it’s made a strong difference in the D, where he’s holding players 7% below their shooting percentage with his defense – almost three times better than last year. When the starters weren’t playing defense early in the season, Blatt moved Marion in the lineup and saw an immediate benefit. His energy really impacts the team and he’s the only guy who always seems to know where he should be. Grade: B. He deserves an A for his defense, but he’s missed A LOT of 3s that last two months (4-25, 16%).

C Timofey Mozgov 7’1”, 256 lbs, 28 yrs (25 mpg, 55% FG, 69% FT, 7.8 rb/3.0 off., .8 blk, 8.6 pts)
Five games into his Cavs campaign, Mozgov is sort of what-you-see-is-what-you-get. He plays with energy and can run the floor, but he’s a little stiff laterally and has yet to translate his obvious size and athleticism into strong post-up moves outside alley-oops.
Strengths: He’s not quite as fierce an offensive rebounder as Tristan Thompson, but an even better defensive rebounder, and he’s got the rudimentary makings of a mid-range pick-and-pop jumper (4-19 shots 15 ft. or long last 15 gms), and a decent left (off) handed hook he’ll use on the left block. He’s a low-usage guy who likes to set picks, grab boards and run the floor, making him a lot more useful to the Cavs who have scorers than other teams. Deficits: While super athletic guy who can run, he’s not a shot-blocker. He does seem to be a pretty good positional defender. He’ll get his hand up and stay vertical more than block the shot, which isn’t such a bad thing since block shots tend to put you out of rebounding position. He seems to get his shot blocked around the basket with surprisingly frequency given his size. Bogut did it to him in Golden State. But he grabbed the ball and went right back up. Grade: B so far, but incomplete.

The Bench

SG/SF Mike Miller. After a rough November, Miller’s recovered to shoot 39% from 3 the last two months, and nearly two assists a game during that time. Solid, makes good rotations and plays hard. Won’t wow you, but vet who does the right thing. Would be nice to see some offense outside Catch & Shoot 3s, tho’. Grade: B. Done what’s expected.

PG/SG Matthew Dellavedova. We all know how much moxie Delly has, and he’s shooting 42% from 3. He’s only shooting 64% from the line and leaves his feet too often on offense and defense, but for your 9th guy he’s pretty darn good. Grade: B+. Exceeds expectations despite marginal defense.

SG JR Smith. Too early to know what to expect from J.R. He looks revitalized in his first five games from his play in NYK where his defensive effort and shot selection was lacking. Those issues haven’t popped up, as J.R. has shown nice ability to create for others and himself, quick hands on defense, and terrific 3-point Catch & Shoot ability which is super-important in this offense. Grade: A, so far. Real steal if he keeps playing like this (the big question).

SG Imam Shumpert. In his four years Shumpert’s matched an inconsistent 3 with a decent handle and strong perimeter defense – just what the Cavs need. He’s been sidelined since the deal with a dislocated shoulder, but he’s penciled into the starting lineup, emblematic of the weird, on-the-run shape of the team the last five weeks. Grade: Incomplete

C Brendan Haywood. We had hopes for Haywood, who used to be a decent 7-foot shot-blocker. His foot injury took last year from him and so far this one he looks stiff as anything John Holmes starred in. Still a little chance he could some day give the Cavs a good six minutes defensive spurt, but when remains unanswered. Grade: D.

SF James Jones. He does what he does well (37% from 3) but nowhere well enough to justify the 11 minutes/game he’s averaged, propelled mainly by injuries. If he’s seeing even five minutes a game going forward we’re probably in trouble. He has long arms and plays defense for stretches then shows a Dion-esque ability to complete lose his man or miss his defensive rotation. Grade: C-.

SG Joe Harris. Harris is a smart kid with some size for a shooting guard and as a coach’s son, some high basketball IQ. But he’s not been very good defensively, looking very like a rookie, minimizing the value of his good 3pt shooting (38%). Grade: C.

We’ll be live tweeting from the Q as the Cavaliers kick off the season’s second half against the Bulls. Look for our recap in the Cleveland Scene blog on Tuesday.


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