Bulls School Cavs and Their New Coach

click to enlarge Cavs' own Batman & Robin
Cavs' own Batman & Robin
The season started anew last night for the Cleveland Cavaliers with new Coach Tyronn Lue taking over the reigns exactly at the midseason point, 41 games in. But while the captain may have changed, the team’s issues haven’t.

The Cavaliers got off to another slow start, lost another first quarter, ultimately stopped moving the ball, and had trouble playing consistent defense, in a 96-83 loss to the Chicago Bulls that never felt close after the first half. Or put more colloquially: Different Channel, Same Shit.

To be sure, the Cavaliers are still a fine team, but now that GM David Griffin has put it out there that ‘pretty good isn’t good enough,’ let’s not pull punches. The Bulls are the type of team Cleveland will need to beat to get to the Finals, yet they didn’t look capable of it. This even despite playing at home, while the Bulls faced their second road game in two nights, having lost to the Celtics on Friday night.

We’re not going to lie to you, it doesn’t look good right now, and to our eyes, the Cavs chances of winning the championship this year took a step back. We have a lot of faith in David Griffin’s acumen, and a lot of concern about some players escaping accountability on the court (with the ensuing impact that has), but we’re not sure drinking poison was the best way to kill the disease.

Rookie Coach

We question how easy it will be for a 38-year old rookie coach to win on the biggest stage against teams that – up until now – look significantly better than the Cavaliers.

We aren’t saying they have better talent, but they’ve played better as a team all year long than the Cavs have at all but their finest moments. Beyond just the tactical stuff, are the relationships with the players different, now that he's no longer the confidant but the decision-maker. And how comfortable is he with rotations?

We heard David Griffin say that Tyronn Lue is going to be a dynamite coach. We don’t doubt him. But will he be a dynamite coach this year? Before James' prime years have drained away?

These concerns are amplified by what we saw last night. When things got bad, the same thing we’ve seen happened, LeBron did his thing – initiating the offense every time down, usually to get himself a shot.

He drove relentlessly to the basket and scored 18 second half points on 7-15 shooting, 11-27 for the game. J.R. Smith and Kyrie Irving finished 12-33, while Kevin Love finished with only 12 shots, just four of them during the LeBron-athon second half. Both Lue and James expressed satisfaction with the ball movement when the stats tell a different story.

Only 68.7% of their touches were accompanied by passes. The lowest rate during the first 25 games was 69.2% which was the Cavs home loss December 1 to Washington. (We haven’t coded the last 15 games, sorry!) So, we’re not sure, but this may have had the season's worst touches/passing ratio, yet the main figures on the team were comfortable with it?

“I thought the guys tried to play for each other and tried to move the ball,” Lue said after the game. “We’re just not used to playing to the second side yet. Once we [swung the ball] to the second side it gets stuck and we get lost.”

Maybe it wasn’t as bad as it looked, but the stats certainly suggest it wasn’t a pass-fest (17 assists on 35 buckets), certainly not after the first half, and isn’t that really the point? Isn’t the reason we got rid of Blatt to create a more communal offense? Or was it really so that LeBron could take the shots he wants and not have to worry about stepping on anyone’s toes?

More Spin Than Real

“We just couldn’t make shots,” said Lue. “Defensively it was great and offensively we just couldn’t make shots.”

In the first half the team was indeed tough defensively. They held the Bulls to 38% shooting in the first half, but only forced 3 turnovers and eight for the game.

The last few games they had ratcheted up their ball defense and had been forcing turnovers at a good rate. The Cavs had 8 or more steals in 7 of the 10 games leading up to the Golden State matchup.

But last night that intensity wasn’t there, particularly in the second half. After getting 3 steals and 5 blocks in the first half, they got but one steal the rest of the way and let the Bulls make 19-37 (51.4%) from the field. The Bulls also made 7 of 17 3s (41%) for the game.

Yet, LeBron felt this was more than adequate defense. “Defensively we were really in tune,” James said. “We had a few miscues defensively but for the most part the defense wasn’t our problem tonight.”

That’s a little disconcerting. It’s also upsetting to think how Gasol torched the Cavaliers for 17 second half points and yet Timofey Mozgov only played six second half minutes. Nikola Mirotic also ate up the Cavaliers in the second half with 12 points.

They combined for 20 of the Bulls 28 third quarter points, and Lue had no answer. Those two were 7-9 while the rest of the team was 4-11. The pair scored all 13 points in a 13-5 run with the score 57-50, putting the game out of reach. Gasol also contributed 10 boards and six assists. Taj Gibson (15 pts, 8 reb) was also effective. Meanwhile the Cavaliers got the ball downhill, but most of their shots in the second half came from dribbling not passing.

None of this was at all out of character, and obviously it’s unfair to ask Lue to change the team’s character overnight. However for a guy that was brought in for accountability he seemed pretty satisfied that his losing performance was just his team missing shots (35-94, 37%) and free throws (9-22, 41%).

We feel that’s a bit too macroscopic and find it troubling that good ball movement was at all equated with one of their worst passing games of the year or that allowing the opponent to shoot over 50% in the second half and score over 50 points could ever be equated with acceptable defense. Especially from a fellow brought in here to stoke accountability.

That said, we know this will take time. We’ve even heard it will get worse before it gets better. We have some bad basketball habits, and one of them involves the ball dominance of the world’s finest basketball player.

Peeling Back Second Quarter Pullaway

When we heard both LeBron and Lue complement the defense we were shocked. It wasn’t as awful as against the Warriors but there were plays all night that merited greater effort, yet Lue said he liked the effort.

We shook our head and went to the tape to see if our eyes had deceived us. We turned to the second quarter when the Bulls pushed a 23-22 lead back out to five by halftime. (It was 21-14 at the end of one.)

One of the first things we saw was this play. It’s a transition defense play, long one of those things that’s dogged the Cavaliers, but it really just comes down to effort and getting back. Here we see why.
It’s crazy only two Bulls are past halfcourt, and all five Cavs are by the line, but when Rose misses the shot, the other Cavs don’t pound the boards. They slowly walk toward the paint like the referees are handing out supermarket sausage samples on the endline. LeBron and Shumpert could try and grab the ball or knock away the rebound from Taj Gibson, but they never went into the lane or made an effort until it was too late.

Surely we weren’t the only one seeing stuff like this.

For a stretch, Lue tried Love at center and he got used more than strip club hand sanitizer. The one-point lead grew to six (28-22) before it was corrected and Mozgov brought back into the game. Then with just over three minutes left and the lead cut to 37-34, Love returned and the Bulls immediately got to work.

They ran a backdoor play for Jimmy Butler (20 pts, 9 reb). It took advantage of the fact that Love was the rim protector, and LeBron James helped by turning his head away from the ball for too long, leaving his teammates without help. Love is left there and rather than be posterized, enjoys the view. Should he have put his hands up?
The Bulls shot 41% from three because the Cavaliers didn’t do a good job of contesting. They’re usually better, but as we noted earlier, there was plenty of regression on the floor. You can see here how Delly gets pushed under a screen and nobody helps on Rose. It looks like there’s a wide-open guy on the other side of the court as well.
On another play we watched LeBron’s man screen Mozzy and LeBron do nothing to help on his man, yielding a wide open jumper to Gasol who led Chicago with 25.
For a team that is supposed to be playing for each other, it doesn't show in the help rotations.

Last Shot, Shat Lots

But perhaps the most infuriating (and let’s hope it’s not telling) moment came at the end of the first half. LeBron brought the ball up with around 40 seconds left on the clock. There’s a double screen which he hardly uses, dribbles around and then takes a dribble jab three (he finished 0-5) with 26 seconds on the clock.
Why didn’t he shoot it earlier and create a 2-for-1 situation if all he was going to do was take a 3? Isn’t this something that the coach would normally communicate to/with the player about? Is Lue’s failure to do this a reflection of “LeBron does LeBron” or just the overall workload as a newly elevated head coach?

As if that weren’t bad enough, after the Bulls run down the clock and miss, Mozzy grabs the rebound and hands it to LeBron, who….. just kind of drops the ball and they walk off the court.
We’re wondering, can’t you get a shot with 1.7 seconds left? What, it’s not worth calling a timeout? You’re down five and you don’t want to get one more chance to score? Baffling.

Faster Pussycats

The big revelation of Lue’s first postgame presser was that he intends to increase the pace. This should be no big revelation because the Cavs were talking about picking up the pace. As I explained in the column after beating the Nets on Wednesday, this was as much about getting shots earlier in the shot clock as creating more fastbreak opportunities.

At the time we quoted LeBron saying, “Coach has been pressuring us about pushing the tempo pushing out pace and getting up the floor and I think we did that tonight.”

In his very first postgame answer, Lue confessed that the team was too gassed to play the way he wants them to, so not only is there going to be a learning curve for him, there’s a conditioning curve for the team. Oh Joy.

“The vision I have for this team is that we have to play faster and utilize Kyrie and LeBron’s 1-on-1 ability in transition and the open-floor more,” said Lue. “They’re not in the shape to play at the level we need to play at. It could take a few weeks.”

Of course LeBron is on board, but recognizes it will take time. Especially since it’s such a change from what they were doing. Lue wants them to push the pace.

“That’s a transition from walking the ball up,” he said.

Don’t be confused. LeBron seemed to be suggesting that Lue was asking him to do something Blatt never did. He behaved as though nobody had ever suggested they should pick up the pace, despite his comments to that effect just four days earlier. It seemed strange, but just goes to show you can say whatever you like about someone, once they’ve passed.

We aren’t super enthused about the idea of the team pushing the pace given their general defensive deficiencies. Having LeBron typically means an advantage in one or two bucket games because of his efficiency and the threat he poses in those end-of-game kinds of situations. Hence the plan to play slower.

Playing faster and giving the opponents more possessions can backfire if the defense isn’t up to the task. Given the struggles of the past few weeks, and the team’s ever-present issues with transition defense, do the Cavaliers really want to encourage more of an up-and-down game? How does this help us against Golden State, who is a master of that style?

Our hope is that Lue simply wants to play a little faster and get the ball upcourt quicker (something Blatt also wanted). However the fact that he thinks his team isn’t in good enough shape to play how he likes suggests to us the speed he’d like to play at would be more than a tweak.

Let’s hope they can control their turnovers, because playing quicker and making turnovers for a team that yields a lot of points per turnover can be a troubling combination.

Elbow Love

We were enthused however to hear Lue talk about his plans for Kevin Love. He mentioned that the team had gotten him about a dozen elbow touches and that he plans to focus on Love playing the elbow with the second team, then running pick and rolls with LeBron and Kyrie.

This is great news for a couple reasons. One, it staggers the time Love is on the court so that he carries much of the second squad’s scoring and the offense can run through him at that time.

Plus it gives Irving and James more time on the court together without having to worry about keeping Love engaged. Or at least that’s what they’re supposed to be doing. 
It offers an interesting opportunity for the big three to work together, with Love at the elbow, James in the post and Kyrie in the corner. In the above play Kyrie curls around Love getting the pass while moving toward the hole making it difficult for the defense to cut him off.

“I like what we did and I like what we saw with the elbow stuff with Kevin,” said Lue. “I couldn’t call it on the fly… because we don’t know it.” It’s a tad troubling that Blatt had no such sets in the playbook, despite the constant calls for just such plays from Love and the vox populi.

Final Analysis

If this is what we’re to base the rest of the season on, we’re not optimistic. While we believe Tyronn Lue might develop into a fine coach, we aren’t even confident this team will make it out of the Eastern Conference.

Perhaps it’s the post-Blatt sacking hangover, but we don’t have the same faith in the rookie coach and the stubborn star. It seems nobody has said no in James’ professional life, and it’s why Blatt allegedly walked on eggshells and why despite what his coaches tell him, it’s what James decides to do that authors his team’s fate.

Faith is a fickle thing, but can be earned. Again. But it seems through the comments and the team’s efforts last night that this is very much a process, more so then even they seem to realize.

GM David Griffin believes there’s time to recover and right the ship, but we wonder if he’s underestimating all the little crucial lessons of coaching that Lue hasn't even experienced yet alone digested.

If it was foolish to put the fate of a championship in a revered overseas coach with two decades of experience and an Olympic medal, how brilliant is it to hand the controls to someone who’s never coached at any level and expect them to benefit an underachieving team?

One can never guess what life might hold, but we feel Griffin’s move reeked of panic, trading minimal upside benefit (win in Finals versus lose in Finals, a trip to which under Blatt seemed virtually assured) for immense downside risk. (Can you say second round exit? It could happen.)

If we felt that lucky, we’d rather have gone to Vegas (in a blond wig, natch).

We’ll be at the Q on Monday for the game against the Timberwolves. It ought to be a feel good time for everyone given how bad that team is. Follow us on Twitter @CRS_1ne and read our postgame analysis in the Scene blog on Tuesday morning.
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