Can Cavs Fans Expect More Come Playoffs?

click to enlarge Sometimes LeBron feels so alone...
Sometimes LeBron feels so alone...
My fortified bunker with its barbed wire perimeter, spring-loaded motion-sensor cages of rabid Dobermans (driven mad by Manilow and a steady diet of Kale), drone air force armed in poisoned darts and pepper spray and a roaming roomba equipped with a makeshift laser has “gone to pot,” as the 16th century idiom goes. (Wouldn’t want to send the wrong message.)

Back when it seemed like Cleveland might eternally wear Casey’s shame with the stick, the complex ran with clinical precision. My yard was thick with roadkill as the entrance to a National Park. My paranoia built a three-quarter acre empire.

Every Cavs setback, we ramped up security tighter. Golden State added the Wild Thing? Electrify the fence! LeBron’s not following the Cavaliers? Time to call the Land Mine/Scape Designer! Cavaliers lose to the Memphis Grizzlies missing four starters, then nearly lose to the Nets? Give a kook a rifle, put him in the parapet, and lock the door. But make sure my front door is one of his blind spots!

Unfortunately, when you climb that mountain, the view’s so nice, you just want to linger there a moment. There’s something about the way the waning setting sunlight hits the trophy, mounted over the silhouetted face of a certain Golden State player. A glimmer to the ring before it tarnishes with the passing year.

We sit and rewatch the playoffs, as well as old episodes of Lost, for reasons we still can’t determine. Perhaps I have to take the blame for the last part, because the dogs have no role in the decision process. I sprung them from their cages like Springsteen after the Championship. Why shouldn’t they share in the joy? There diet became my diet, replacing the kale with hamburgers and pizza.

Now they sleep all day on my legs and fart ceaselessly. While not chrome-wheeled or fuel-injected, though they have had drunk from my mug of malt liquor. Mostly they’ve grown fat, lazy, and even like Manilow now. Neighborhood kids have taken down most of the drones turning it into an ersatz version of XCOM2 with their bb rifles.

Don’t leave the house much. Part of that is that my Land Mine/Scape Designer’s contractor ignored the plans, making the edge of my stoop visible to the kook if he leans out a little. (I tip the surviving pizza guys generously.)

The Cavaliers have enjoyed a similarly decadent midseason indulgence. Some people call it January. We call it “vacation.” Defense became optional. Someone left the transition defense and paint unlocked, allowing vagrants like the Sacramento Kings and Dallas Mavericks to take up residence. Some of those vagrants turned out to be bench players, who had reverted to pumpkin status, leaving the team with little more than Jack-O-Lanterns to staff some positions.

To this we say, “So what?! It’s the regular season.” It’s like having gotten vasectomy when someone suggests using a rubber. We’ve got bigger things ahead of us. The Playoffs. After practically running the table against the East this year, it’s hard to take the conference competition too seriously. While it’s true that it’s really about who’s peaking come playoff time more than necessarily the talent on the teams, none of the Cavaliers Eastern foes are in the Cavaliers neighborhood when they play hard. (*Smirk*).

We also know they don’t try much in January. Or often in March. And sometimes on the back-end of back-to-backs. (Six of their fifteen losses were in back-to-backs, where they’ve lost six of eight times after winning the first of the season in October against the Magic.) That’s the great thing about the playoffs, no back-to-backs.

While it blows that the team can showcase such lackadaisical play and attitude just a year after LeBron was preaching about developing good habits, it’s hard not to sympathize. If this is co-dependency, then we’re the willing enablers, who don’t want to scrutinize the behavior too closely. They brought us a title (and I write about it here), and we don’t want to get all over their case after they did such a nice thing.

Indeed, there are ample reasons not to be worried.

STFU, We Got This

Undoubtedly the finest tale of Lue’s ascension was his silencing James during a timeout like a rowdy kid in the backseat. Ironically, Blatt once projected similar fierceness before that seemingly was neutered out of awe/respect/? upon arriving in the NBA.

Now with a similar (okay, worse) record than Blatt at the same time as last year without equal injury issues (though clearly a worse bench), Lue seems to be no better than his team’s willingness to compete, much like his predecessor. Part of that is clearly the team’s effort, especially given their league last transition defense, which seems to be more about focus and fight than talent and speed.

We already know that some of this, at least, is correctable. But how much? This is a big question. For the most part, complaints about the 
Cavs New Defensive Road Sign
Cavs New Defensive Road Sign
wretched Cavaliers’ defense are met like calls from Tara Reid’s agent. “Been There, Done That", with the implicit assumption the team’s defense will necessarily improve come the playoffs simply because the team will play harder. But is that a reasonable belief?

Little known fact – the Cavaliers defense was 1.2 points per 100 possessions (pCp) worse in the playoffs last year. The team’s success was entirely dictated by the fact that they were 4.4 pts (pCp) better offensively. Due in part to the early season injuries and the team’s Slow Gel (™ Dr. Scholl’s), there was ample room for offensive improvement last year, particularly thanks to the addition of Channing Frye, who helped further stretch the floor.
They shot better mostly, but also drew a few more fouls and grabbed a few more offensive boards. (Thanks LeBron!) When you look at the team this year, you can see that they are already pretty well ahead of last year’s offensive pace. They draw more fouls and shoot better, though the offensive rebounding is off significantly and the assists to turnovers ratio is down a little as well.

Those are two places to expect improvement but the team’s a point and a half better than last year, a third of last year’s playoff improvement. Can fans expect the same level of improvement, or are the Cavs rubbing up against their offensive ceiling?

Since 2000 just five teams have posted a higher playoff offensive efficiency than the Cavaliers posted last summer (112.5). That includes 2014 champs, the San Antonio Spurs (112.7), two Phoenix Suns teams (114.5 in 2010 and 115.5 during 2005 run) and the 2009 Nuggets (114.1). There simply isn’t a lot more room for offensive improvement.

So surely they can improve defensively. There’s certainly enough room to get better, unlike the offense.
As we noted, the Cavaliers actually lost ground defensively in last year’s playoffs. Not only was their defensive efficiency lower, but they surrendered higher shooting rates around the rim and from the arc (though comparable or better than they’d been since Lue took over, interestingly).

The big change is they cut down on opportunities around the rim and slashed the amount of transition offense they were allowing and opponent’s efficiency (from 1.11 per play to .98!). They surrendered a few less second chance points as well, even though they didn’t improve their offensive rebounding.

But in regards to defending specific troublesome plays they didn’t log improvement, but regressed, as in defending the ballhandler in the pick and roll. (Probably natural in that they’re facing a lot better caliber of ballhandler in the playoffs, since guard play separates the have from the have-nots in the NBA.)

Looking back even further, to Blatt’s first year, there are signs of dramatic improvement in the playoffs, almost across the board, but most noticeably in their defense of the rim, where Mozgov briefly gave the Cavs stout paint defense. The Cavs under Blatt were also fantastic defending the arc, holding opponents to 31%.

While there is room for improvement there’s also cause for concern, depending on your outlook. The defense is as bad as it has ever been on numerous levels not limited to the defensive efficiency and defending the pick-and-roll ballhandlers where they are at the bottom of the league. They’re allowing more fastbreak, paint and second chance points than they have at any point the past two years, and their one-time strength in defensive rebounding has regressed almost to where it was before Mozgov’s arrival.

While it’s certainly possible to imagine the team’s defense improving greatly, it’s also possible to imagine a rabbit in a suitcoat that’s running very late. That doesn’t make it so. While there’s certainly some improvement possible on the defensive end, we question whether it’s really possible with the current personnel.

We aren’t just saying that. We relate it to the issue of the bench and what happened in January.

What Happened in January??

There were a lot of things going on in January. The team was still figuring out how to get over the loss of J.R. Smith. It’s a bit confusing because for the first ten days after his loss the team played pretty well. Liggins was able to step in for a while, and then he couldn’t.

We don’t have time nor inclination to break down the video on a bench player to identify why he’s a bench player, but we suspect it’s that Liggins isn’t a terrific shooter and has more of an inclination to put it on the deck and create. Only he’s a worse creator than Shumpert.

At some point teams forced Liggins to create, which because he lacks those skills meant more shots. That meant a 20% jump in threes and a 30% jump in other shots (per 36 minutes), which was accompanied by a doubling of Liggins’ turnover rate. His usage surged from 9.2 the prior 6 games to 12.2 and the team’s offensive rating while he was on the floor dropped by almost 13 points.
He was actually creating a ridiculous enough number of steals to compensate for the increased turnovers, which as the chart shows, was essentially at his normal rate to then. His fine ballhandling during that initial six-game stretch was an exception. But the skunking of the offense (due in part by his inability to create) was too much to bear.

However we also suspect another factor was at play. Up until the J.R. injury Shumpert had been playing pretty well. When Smith went down and Liggins got the nod, his play went into the toilet and didn’t recover until he was named the starter. It may be merely a coincidence. Surely Shumpert wasn't so bummed to lose out (again) on the starting job that his play suffered. We’ll leave it to y’all to decide.
What happened in January could very easily be pinned on the loss of Kevin Love and J.R. Smith for significant portions of the month and the addition of a new player (Kyle Korver) who didn’t know the offense or defense putting stress on an already struggling unit. To some extent that appears to be true. The bench as a whole had held its own until January, when it was stretched to its breaking point.

But it’s interesting to note that it wasn’t that the defense got worse. The bench defense actually improved (which wasn’t hard). What happened is the offense fell off the shelf. The bench guys couldn’t hit shots and that hurt, as EFG% dropped by over four points form 54.1% to below even.
But what also was happening in January was part of a long-standing trend with the Cavaliers: Poor play in the second and fourth quarters. The team’s play has continued to regress all season long in those periods as Lue struggles to find a working combination of players and Griffin’s haphazard lineup construction is exposed to the light of day, where it withers like Grace Under Fire’s Brett Butler.

The second squad has been a crucible of troubles for a couple seasons now but has gotten by until now on its ability to at least give as good as it gets. They can’t play much defense but those guys can score. The fourth quarter is a tad more disturbing, though like the second quarter, is typically started with a skeleton crew, and they move like it.

In January they allowed almost 117 pCp while scoring a more pedestrian 109.8. They simply don’t have the energy left to win shootouts in the fourth quarter and it’s costing them games.

Final Analysis

While some of it is obviously the stretched bench is responsible for a good part of the issue, the subtext is that the team’s defense is bad enough it has to have its offense running and high efficiency to be a title contender. That hasn’t typically been a successful approach for title teams, and as recently as last year during the regular the team was far further along defensively than they are now.

The team’s play almost mirrors the complacency of the fans. It’s like everyone in town is expecting them to turn it on because they’ve done it before. Will there be a time where they reach down for more and it’s not there, due either to lack of talent, it’s age or sheer exhaustion? It appears to be an increasingly valid consideration, particularly given a shitshow in January that was far worse than anything Blatt authored.

We feel confident the team can get back on track. They need to get back to moving the ball from side to side, getting assists and finding open men as opposed to forcing the action. However some of that is because LeBron is forced to handle the ball so much and teams are forcing him to beat them rather than rotating over a guy from a three-shooter and opening up a pass for the King.
This is the way in which the loss of someone like J.R. can have repercussive effects down the line. His absence has forced other players to step up and do more. While Shumpert seems to have risen to that challenge (perhaps after asking Lue for the chance), much of the squad has not, and seems to be staggering a bit from the added weight.

It’s hard to say what the Cavaliers chances truly are against the West until the roster’s full, but they don’t look better than last year defensively, and may find it hard to improve on last season’s historic postseason offense.

As usual, the Cavaliers beg a lot of questions. Unfortunately we won’t receive much of an answer for another two months. Like Puxatawney Phil, it’s hard to take any Cavaliers movement as more than shadow games.

We’re just going to keep watching old highlights and attempting to figure out what the hell went on with Lost while the Cavaliers ready for their own metaphysical journey. Let’s hope it’s a better ending than Carlton Cuse etal had for us. Certainly GM David Griffin should be looking to book some new walk-ons with an eye to recurring characters. Lance Stephenson might be one place to start.

In the meantime, the best advice may be not to look too closely, because objects may be farther away than they appear.

You can catch my columns with increasing frequency until the playoff starts and we crank it up full-bore. You can hear me every Monday at 11 a.m. on the Defend Cleveland Show with Michael James on WRUW 91.1, and you can find my book on this summer’s historic championship run at most bookstores throughout the state.

In fact, we’ll be signing copies of King James Brings The Land a Crown on Super Bowl Sunday from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at Loganberry Books in Shaker Heights. We’ll be talking Cavaliers with all comers, and will catch a beer afterwards with anyone that’s game.

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