Trouble in The Land for the Cavs?

Adrian Dy on Nov 02, 2017 08:15 PM
Trouble in The Land for the Cavs?
CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 24: Dwyane Wade #9 of the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers high five during the game against the Chicago Bulls on October 24, 2017 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: The Cleveland Cavaliers look to be in trouble.

*sounds of crickets*

*yawns of indifference*

*someone in the back of the room shouts, “Get back to me in April!”*

Seriously though, these are some rough times over in The Land. After opening the season with back-to-back wins, the reigning Eastern Conference champs proceeded to go 1-5, their sole win in that span coming against the Chicago Bulls. The five losses? At home versus the (on-the-upswing) Orlando Magic, on the road against the Brooklyn Nets and the New Orleans Pelicans, and then at home anew versus the New York Knicks and the Indiana Pacers.

Versus the Magic and the Knicks, the Cavs failed to crack 100 points. In all six of those games, they gave up at least 112.

More worryingly, it’s the way they’ve been losing that has alarm bells sounding.

Last season, the Cavaliers had a distinct identity: with LeBron James or Kyrie Irving collapsing defenses when they drove into the paint, they’d then work the ball to the outside where a horde of deadly marksmen stood waiting to hit wide-open jumpers. Cleveland took 33.9 three-pointers per game (#2 in the NBA) last season, and converted 38.4 percent (also #2). They had the #3 offense in the NBA (110.9 offensive rating), which they used to overcome a sub-par defense (109.0 defensive rating).

The Cavs and their fans knew some of those numbers would take a hit entering the 2017-18 campaign. They traded away Irving to the Boston Celtics, getting back Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder as headliners in that deal. But Thomas’ hip woes meant he would miss a significant chunk of time, and he remains projected to be out until December at the earliest. Prior to the trade, the team signed Derrick Rose and Jose Calderon, then added Dwyane Wade early in training camp. Despite those moves though, the team has struggled, and some might say mightily.

After eight games this season, the Cavaliers have an offensive rating of 104.3 points per 100 possessions, good for #16 in the NBA. With Wade and Rose, two prominent non-shooters, getting plenty of minutes, the team is down to 30.3 triples an outing (#12), and they’re converting a mere 33.1 percent (#24). The team as a whole hasn’t been able to pick up the slack on the defensive end either. The Cavaliers are just one spot shy of the cellar, 29th overall, in terms of defensive rating, at 111.3, ahead of just the Dallas Mavericks. Add those two ratings together, and they’re at -7.0, 27th in the NBA.

In what particular aspects is the Cavs defense worse than it was a year ago? Three-point shooting and turnover points. Opponents are hitting 41.8 percent of their triple tries against Cleveland, the worst mark in the league, and are scoring 18.6 points off Cavs miscues, 22nd in the NBA. For comparison’s sake, the Cavs were #18 in three-point defense last year (36.1 percent) and #19 in turnover points defense (16.6 a game).

*sound of a door crashing and someone in Cavs jersey storming in* “But wait! Last time I checked it’s just October!” Why are we panicking about a team’s standing in OCTOBER???”

It’s tempting to pin the Cavaliers’ woes on early-season disinterest or the effect of a shortened, condensed preseason, and such an argument can be made. But at 3-5, the team is in an unfamiliar place. Since James announced that he was coming home, the last time Cleveland was this below .500 was when they were 5-7 back in 2014. Yes, they have had stretches in the past where injuries, or fatigue due to the 82-game regular season, saw them falter, but never this early, and never to the point where they’ve had to have a players-only meeting, in, as one might put it, OCTOBER.

And again, it’s not as if the Cavaliers are not trying. They are. They certainly were this morning going up against the Indiana Pacers, but the game was a good microcosm of their troubles.

Indiana managed an early eight-point lead, and were up by as much as nine in the first half, before the Cavs rallied to take a three-point buffer, 61-58 with 1:44 left in the second quarter. That turned out to be their biggest lead of the game though. Entering the fourth down seven, 92-85, Jeff Green opened things up with a layup, to get Cleveland’s deficit down to five. LeBron James proceeded to score his side’s next 12 points, but the lead was still seven, 106-99, 5:24 to go. Darren Collison and Victor Oladipo then took over for Indiana, building a double-digit lead, 116-105, and never looking back again.

In all, the Pacers outscored the Cavaliers 32-22 in the fourth, the former hitting 68.4 percent from the field in the last period, including 6-of-9 on three’s. James had 14 of his side’s fourth quarter points, with the rest of his teammates managing just two field goals.

Even more disturbing? James is averaging 37 minutes an outing, behind only three other players, DeMarcus Cousins, Jimmy Butler, and Jrue Holiday. Kevin Love is the only Cavalier to crack 30, at 30.3 minutes. Toss in injuries to Thomas, and more recently, Iman Shumpert and Tristan Thompson, and yes, bad times are brewing for Cleveland.

Is the team doomed? Unlikely. When Thomas returns, their offense should improve, and if GM Koby Altman is anything like his predecessor, he should be able to swing a midseason deal to augment his squad (disgruntled Phoenix Sun Eric Bledsoe is an oft-linked-to name). The Cavaliers have also shown that they don’t see the number one seed in the East as a necessity. The reason for much of the scoffing is that Playoffs Cavaliers look like a juggernaut, no matter how they seemed in the regular season.

The issue of course, is one of sustainability. By adding in older players, playing less shooters, and risking burning James out earlier, it might be possible that the Cavs won’t be able to flip the switch this time in April. Could this finally be the season for the Toronto Raptors? Will the Boston Celtics overcome the odds and rep the East? Will the Washington Wizards cast a spell on their foes? Maybe Joel Embiid and the 76ers will give fans a ton more reasons to “trust the process”?

Yes, it’s hard to bet against LeBron James, and there’s plenty more games to play before we can start drawing stronger conclusions. But the Cavs, currently, as in this very moment, look to be in trouble. Whether or not it’s just another temporary blip on the chart, or the start of a larger unraveling, still remains to be seen.

AND A FEW OTHER THINGS

- Let’s just say the Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors arrange a Finals four-peat, how would the series play out? Well, the Warriors are currently #2 in three-point percentage (40.1 percent) and while they’re averaging just 16.5 turnover points a game, both those numbers could easily sky-rocket if Cleveland doesn’t tighten up on D.

- I’m one of those that panned the OKC-IND trade involving Paul George, which saw the Pacers get back *just* Domantas Sabonis and Victor Oladipo. But the Pacers improved to 5-3 with their thrashing of the Cavs, good for a share of third place in the East. Remarkably, they’ve done it with Myles Turner, the guy who was supposed to be the team’s centerpiece, playing just one game, due to being under the league’s concussion protocol.

- Both Oladipo and Sabonis have been tremendous for Indiana, leading the team in points and rebounds, respectively. Oladipo, who went to Indiana for college, is shooting 50 percent on three’s, while Sabonis is shooting 61.8 percent from the field, and handing out 3.0 assists a game. The Thunder would still give both up for Paul George any day of the week, but the deal is looking less and less lopsided.

- The Phoenix Suns started out 0-3, but have improved to 4-1 under interim head coach Jay Triano.

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