Breaking Down How the Cavs Aren't Playing Up to Their Ability

LeBron James repeated it time and again during the Cavaliers recent three-game road trip to New York, Milwaukee and Detroit: “We expect that we’re a great basketball team, and we’re not.”

The comment speaks both to the team’s expectations and the sense of entitlement they’re battling. It was the issue of a preseason meeting and at least two locker room diatribes to date, so we’re going to assume it’s a serious issue. That’s a way of acknowledging that James could just be using the press’ love for aggressive, deprecatory quotes calling out teammates. It could just be his manner of motivation.

Of course, it’s not inaccurate. The Cavaliers had the same issue early last season, where they failed to really focus and played down to their competition on many nights. Like then, this team seems to have taken to heart the adage that an NBA basketball game doesn’t get serious until the fourth quarter.

But by skipping all that foreplay, the Wine & Gold have wound up screwed on a couple occasions, and James, at least, is aware this can’t be an issue going forward. Whether potentially calling his teammates motherfrackers, questioning their will and showing them up on the floor with his visible bouts of frustration is an effective leadership strategy we don’t know, and we’d guess neither do any of our peers, but it’s not hard to question it.

James for one, has his eyes on his counterparts, and seems to regard them with a similar reverence as he held for the Celtics.

“We have too many down periods during the game mentally,” James said after the Pistons. “You can’t play down to the competition because we’re not better than nobody in the league. We got so much work to do at this point. We shouldn’t feel entitled.

“We’re not entitled to a win we’re not entitled to being Eastern conference champions that was last year,” he continued. “Until we figure that out we’re going to be put ourselves in positions to lose basketball games.”


Coach Blatt was cagey about his rotations last night, but they were a far greater issue than who and when he fouled somebody. Like that, this rotation had its merits and demerits. With the Cavaliers ahead 80-71, Blatt pulled Thompson and James. Love had left for James Jones about a minute earlier.

The team of Mo Williams, Matthew Dellavedova, Richard Jefferson, James Jones and Tristan Thompson only allowed a single Detroit basket and a couple free throws the rest of the quarter, but they also only managed one point over that same period. (James Jones converted one of three free throws.)

This was an ugly stretch of basketball to put it mildly. Detroit has do little going that a minimally competent effort by the bench would’ve carried the day. (Together the two teams were 1-14 with 3 turnovers.) During this stretch the Cavaliers were outrebounded 9-3.

It would’ve made sense to send Love back out there late in the third to buoy the second team, and give Mo something to work with. Instead James and Love were expected to play out the fourth with the thought, probably that they would win going away and get them rest at the end of the quarter.

Right before things went South the Cavaliers ran a nice play for Love in which he put the ball on the deck like he needs to. He beat his man off the dribble and dropped the short hook over backup big Aron Baynes.

This is the advantage of playing Love/James to start the fourth – most teams have their bench in, so it gave the Cavaliers a chance to boost their lead, which they did to ten points on this shot.

Pistons Run

The game lost in a six-minute stretch of the game from nine minutes left until three minutes left, during which Cleveland was outscored 18-10.

The Pistons run began right after this, starting with a (traveling) drive by rookie Stanley Johnson. The blow assignments come quick, so follow close. Here Tristan Thompson switches onto Anthony Tolliver too easily, leaving Love exposed and posted up by the 6-10, 260 lb Baynes.

Richard Jefferson’s left side drive was forced under the basket and for some unfathomable reason THAT is when he decided to leave his feet, throwing an easily intercepted pass toward LeBron, resulting in a fastbreak the other way. (Delly fouled on the floor avoiding a shooting foul.)

For some reason JR Smith tried to come over the outside of Marcus Morris who took the clear path to the basket and drew a foul on Smith.

Then on this pick and roll Delly and Mozgov try to corral Reggie Jackson while help man Kevin Love leaves Drummond after checking him for a minute passing him along like a ticket checker and letting him slam home an alley-oop.

Which was followed by Marcus fake out Kevin Love while JR Smith (and Love, let’s be honest) concede transition elbow jumper which Morris of course sank.

It might have seemed defense couldn’t get lacksadaisical. Then Ersan Illyasova had time to organize his records and call his mom before taking a wide open 3, as JR Smith and LeBron James sprint to cover the Morris cutting to basket, then don’t even bother racing back to Ilyasova.

It wasn’t just toughness or even intelligence. It came down to effort. When you’re playing defense like this, you don’t need a coach, you need a heart doctor.

Free Throws

LeBron James, amazing philanthropist, genius basketball player, husband/father, and Cavaliers leader has a King’s ransom of fine qualities. However it can be difficult to listen to him call out his mates on their bad free throw shooting on a night they shot 60% from the line (12/20). That’s just a smidge below his own percentage (61.6%).

Last night Timofey Mozgov, JR Smith and James Jones all missed two free throws. James and Mo Williams missed one apiece. The Cavaliers are the 29th team in free throw percentage (12th in attempts), and it’s now cost them a game.

“We’ve got to practice it a little bit more," said James after last’s game. “We're just out of rhythm as a team as far as shooting free throws and it’s key. Tonight we didn’t shoot well again. I think we missed eight possibly or even more than that. At one point when we had a lead in the third we missed five in a row. We can't put ourselves in that position.”

The problem is that most of these guys have great free throw percentages, including the second (Kevin Love 87%), third (Timofey Mozgov 78%) and fourth (Mo Williams 89%) more frequent foul shooters. Tristan Thompson has the fifth most free throw attempts, missing 12 of his 25. To put that in perspective, James has missed 33.

James Jones is an 85% lifetime foul shooter. The two shots he missed were his first two misses of the year. JR Smith is a problem. He shot 82% in Cleveland last year, his best year since his second in the league but so far this season he’s missed six of eight. He’s only 73.5% for his career, so Smith could maybe spend some extra time at the charity stripe after practice instead of shooting halfcourt shots,.

James on the other hand is shooting at a rate 13 rate points lower than his career and nearly 10 points lower than last year which was his worst free throw shooting year in seven years. He’s really not the guy to call out his mates on free throw shooting.

Then again, maybe he was using the royal “we,” including himself among those that must do better. Blatt has repeatedly noted that LeBron is as hard on himself as any of his teammates.


On the subject of free throws, the game may have come down to a tactical decision made by Coach David Blatt. He played the percentages and lost, fouling Andre Drummond, who had up until that point shot both 40% for the year at the line, and for his career.

Drummond hit three out of four, and afterwards Pistons Coach Stan Van Gundy suggested “That probably ended up helping us a lot.”

Whether that’s actually true is at least debatable. Two beat reporters noted that Detroit was 7-17 before the Hack-a-Drummond sequence, but as always, it’s important to consider your sample. In fact, over the prior six minutes the Pistons had gone 7-11, closing an 85-75 lead to 97-93 (after a pair of Love free throws at the other end.)

This made Blatt liable for today’s post-mortems questioning whether it was an appropriate strategy when they were up. It’s hardly cut-and-dried either way. Typically teams don’t want to their opponent a free chance to score. It also stops the clock.

On the other hand, he has success in January using it on DeAndre Jordan at an odd time – during the third quarter. Everybody thought it was weird, but it totally messed with the Clippers momentum. The Cavaliers came back and won the game 126-121.

Blatt perhaps felt it could mess with the team’s momentum, maybe get into Drummond’s head a little if they missed. It didn’t work out, but that was hardly as much of an issue as the team’s four turnovers or seven missed three-pointers over the game’s final nine minutes when they were outscored 29-14.

The Cavs were 7-10 inside the three-point line in the fourth, echoing a long-running complaint; The team was 11-24 from 3 going into the final stanza (20-37 inside the line) and fell in love with the shot to the exclusion of something that was working even better.

Tristan Thompson

Over the past nine months a lot of time’s been spent discussing the relative merits of the $82 million man, Thompson versus the affable, afternoon-drinking Russian. This has accelerated this year with Thompson presenting his more or less typical (but increasingly scrutinized) returns, and Mozgov struggling to return to the form he showed in last year’s playoffs.

By standard returns, we mean to say that Tristan isn’t dramatically better than he was last season by most measures.

He’s defensive rebounding a lot better, but his offensive rebounding is down. He’s making the same number of baskets with .7 less shots per game, and he’s maintained the drop in turnover rate from last year’s playoffs. Offensively he’s essentially the same limited player. (He does have 14 alley-oop buckets, exactly double the pace of last year’s 52. DeAndre Jordan finished with 120 last year.)

As we’ll see in a moment when we get to Mozgov’s stats, Thompson has definitely improved his rim protection this year without really improving his shot-blocking ability. (Thompson actually hasn’t taken a charge since LeBron’s arrival. Love led team last year with 10 and Mozgov has already taken two.)

What’s striking is that his vaunted ability to defend out to the 3 point line is gone. Mozgov does a better job. Now obviously this is a small sample, but it’s striking. Perhaps Thompson is just out of shape, or defensive rotational mistakes, but this was according to some, his shining differentiating skill. Now, not so much so.

As you can see Thompson has become a much better defender in the paint. This is a good thing. However it’s come at the cost of his defense of his defense outside 15’ the reason, we were told he was signed.

Now perhaps positionally, Tristan is playing differently than last year and between the increased defensive rebounding and great focus on protecting the rim, he’s neglecting his role outside of 15’. (He’s seeing 6% more shots within 6’, most of that coming from midrange – as he’s seeing same % of 3s.)

Timofey Mozgov

Mozgov has been subject to a lot of second-guessing of late in part due to his diminished shape after knee surgery in the off-season. In explaining the surgery, Mozgov said the season that his knee had been hurting at the end of the season the last few years. After a long playoff run it was probably barking rather loud.

That he performed so well in the playoffs even with his knee hurting is part of the reason we’re willing to discount his early season struggles. While it’s probably more apparent in some people’s minds than reality, there’s no doubt that Mozgov’s been robbed of some of his lateral quickness and jumping ability.

Coach Blatt has attributed it to conditioning, something that can only return with reps, however Mozgov suggested in training camp he wasn’t 100%. (Since then he’s dismissed any excuses and says he’s fine, just struggling.)

Now how much of that struggle is just sour sports, Thompson lovers and T-Mo haters is something we’re trying to tease out. For one thing, Mozgov’s work around the rim is even better than it was during last season.

Overall Mozgov’s defense is only a smidgen worse than it was in the playoffs. (Since it doesn’t separate Mozgov’s stats with Denver before the trade we declined to include his less impressive 2014-2015 regular season stats.)

What’s even mor striking is that he’s seeing far fewer threes (maybe he’s not making it out to challenge?), just 23% after facing nearly 42% of his shots from the line. While he’s not been as tough within 6’, he’s been even better in that middle-inside range from 6’ – 10’ where the % of his shots faced has grown from 16.9% to 25.2% almost 50% greater frequency.

This is something you can see in the numbers as well, the Cavaliers have allowed the 8th most shots within 8’ (5th best DFG% of 51.7%) and the third-most within 16’ (17th DFG%, 40.1%). This is probably partly by design as they’ve allowed the 5th fewest 3-point attempts (only 14th in defending it by FG%).

The Cavaliers would rather chase people off the three and take a chance on stopping people at the rim, which they’ve done pretty well. If you look the entire team’s rim protection has improved over last year. Thompson has improved his defensive FG% at the rim by five points while Mozgov has improved his by more than 7 points over last regular season.

Of course, Mozgov hasn’t quit played as well as he did in the playoffs last year, but it’s close enough to feel that people might be judging Timo’s defense too harshly.

Some blame must fall to Mo Williams who’s allowing .85 pts guarding the ballhandler in the pick and roll, in 34th percentile. J.R. Smith has allowed opponents in the pick and roll to make 60% of their shots and score on 56% of their possessions, three and a half times a game. (As a team they’re 11th defending the Pick and Roll ballhandler; it’s not a strong suit.)

As for T-Mo’s offense, some of the problem is not seeing the ball quite as often. He’s taking 13.2 shots per 100 possessions versus about 15 during the season and playoffs. He is getting to the line at a rate almost equal to that of the playoffs and he’s blocking more shots than last year during the regular season, though not as frequently as the playoffs.

His offensive rebounding is down dramatically, and might be the biggest deficiency offensively from his still improving health/timing

Overall, Mozgov is still fighting back from injury but nowhere near as hampered as the Cavaliers defensive help rotations. When we hear people slagging Mozgov, we often think of plays like this where Mo surrenders to the pick like college-age males to bachelorhood, leaving Mozgov to shut down Jackson while LeBron James enjoys his seat until it’s time to complain.

Kevin Love’s Offense

Everybody’s talking about Kevin Love’s defense but that doesn’t feel as worrisome, honestly as his offensive decline. Then again decline is less appropriate than mis-allocation. Last year, Kevin Love make 48% of his two pointers, second highest rater of his career while one-third less twos than his career average in Minnesota.

This year he’s shooting even better inside the 3-line, while demonstrating a puzzling ability to finish at the basket. Love’s shooting 44% within 3’, enough to make us wonder if his lack of upper-body work in the off-season has hampered his ability to finish around the basket. A quarter of his shots are coming there, the same rate as his final Minnesota season, and a fifth more than last year’s 21%.

If he’s not finishing at the rim, he’s been remarkable from 3’-10’, hitting 64% of his shots in that zone, which only accounts for about an eighth of his shots, with another seventh of his shots coming from midrange. (He’s shooting over 42% on those nearly as well as he did last year, well-above his career averages.)

The big issue is that 46% of Love’s shots are 3s. Last year it was 41%. He’s getting to the line a full free-throw attempt/game less than last year, half his rate in Minnesota. Some of that is his inability to finish through contact and get the official to give him a call.

He’s averaging more than a block allowed/game (12) which is extraordinary when you consider almost half his shots are at the 3 line. The percentage of Love’s 2-pointers that are blocked is 13.5%. (His career rate is 7.4%) Meanwhile he’s shooting 32% from 3, below last year’s (37%) and his career (36%) rate.

While Love’s rebounding a little bit better, he’s still not defensive rebounding with the ferocity he did with Minnesota. He is attack the offensive boards harder but even that isn’t at a rate that matched his first four season in the league. While Love’s usage is higher (24.3 v. 21.7 last year), he’s also making more turnovers - the second highest rate in the league.

As you can see from the heatmap his offensive areas have shrunk. Even the elbow which was once a sweet spot is now sweet death. He’s getting 3.7 elbow touches/game (well below the 11+ he was getting in Minnesota), but he’s only scoring 0.098 per touch.

Even back then in Minnesota he only scored 0.21 pts/touch compared with .82 pts for a post-touch and .94 for a paint touch. Last year he averaged 0.056 per elbow touch, .88 in post and .86 in the paint. This year he’s getting .69 in the post and .77 in the paint. James, Mozgov and Thompson all average more than a point for every post touch, which further calls into question the efficiency of feeding Love in the post.

Of course, the presumption is that with heavier usage his skills will rebalance closer to his averages in Minnesota. But it’s worth wondering when and if that’s going to happen. Love’s been lifting after home games, and it’s worth wondering how much that shoulder injury has hampered his physicality, inside abilities and confidence.

How long might the Cavaliers have to wait to see them return?
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