Cavs' Bi-Polar Play Hits Depressing Cycle

In some cases, the promise of change seems more like a cruel tease or malevolent hoax. Examples include cheaters suddenly embracing monogamy, the Browns’ biennial changing of the coaches, either political parties’ job creation plans, and the Cavaliers’ willingness to play hard defensively all game long. 

From the beginning of the season, Coach David Blatt and LeBron James have preached “playing right,” which is shorthand for moving the ball, moving bodies and playing defense. The Warriors, LeBron James is fond of noting, play right. Both James and Blatt have discussed this team making defense their identity, like they did during last year’s playoff run.

However, in the wake of last year’s Finals with its almost barren offensive cupboard, GM David Griffin restocked the shelves with offensive talents, not defensive ones, and it appears doubly difficult to teach an old dog with a diminished number of tricks to defend a pick and roll. The loud collision you’re hearing has favored not playing defense to this point.

The team was perhaps coddled by the strength of the early schedule. Maybe playing the Knicks and Sixers isn’t proper preparation for professional basketball, but they’re supposed to be pros. After bounding out to an 8-1 start, the Cavaliers have thudded back to earth like Wile E. Coyote realizing that’s air beneath his feet.

They’ve lost five of their last six on the road, and with the loss to Washington at home, their last three games in a row, looking slow and flat in each case. None of this is fatal. Indeed, this seems to be the very malady that they suffered from last year around this time. Could a whole team suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder?

It’s probably closer to Comes-Too-Easily-We-Get-Bored syndrome. Like a drama queen, the Cavaliers just can’t stay focused when things are going well, only rising to the occasion when it all goes to hell. They did this admirably with their backs against the wall in the playoffs before falling short, but what they did last year doesn’t mean anything once the calendar turns.

Clearly the mental toughness the team built last year didn’t filter down to everyone on the team. Too often when things stop going well on offense, their defensive effort flags. When the team is doing well, everything comes easy, and the ball moves and open shots abound.

But when those shots don’t go down there’s a tendency to mope, complain to the referees, and not get back on defense. Sometimes rotations are late, and you can almost see the thought bubble above the help defender’s head, “More dribble penetration? Can’t you stay in front of anyone?”

Forced to cover for the perimeter defenders’ mistakes, backend and help defenders seem to hesitate like a husband pondering yet another request from his nagging wife. By the time they commit, the opponent’s already scored.

None of this is uncorrectable, but at the same time, there isn’t going to be a huge trade to unload undesirable Dions and bring in three new starters. It’s got to happen with the cast on hand.

While Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert returning will make a big difference, they’re no panacea. Irving was a below-average defender for the entire first half of the year, and then regressed the last six weeks of the regular season. Shumpert will improve the defense, but his offense is pot luck. Neither will be able to change anything if the team doesn’t approach their games with a certain sense of urgency.

We picture them rolling into arenas like Davy, Michael, Peter and Micky, singing, “Hey Hey we’re LeBronsters, people say we Monkee around, we’ve got the greatest player, and expect everyone to lay down.”

While it’s easy to write off last night’s debacle on the beach off as the absence of LeBron and the late night arrival, what does that say about the team’s ability to fight through adversity? This game was over nearly as quickly as the Wizards game which was at home and preceded by two days off. While the team undoubtedly struggle more on the road, their effort as a whole channel surfs like a sugar-addled six-year old.

If this feels strangely familiar, it should. The Cavaliers went through a similar vertiginous in-and-out phase last year at this time. It’s almost as if the entire team is a base but chemically volatile, capable of any moment of swinging it’s pH into an acid and becoming lethargic, selfish and unable to switch from offense back to defense.

It’s been apparent all season long like a low-grade cold. You hear sniffles, but then they’re gone. But it isn’t. All year you’ve heard LeBron comment to the effect that the team needs to focus for more than a quarter at a time. No sooner had they put up two of their three best second halves of defensive basketball, allowing 38 third/fourth quarter points to the Hornets and the Nets in consecutive games, than they come they arrive late to the Wizards game, spotting them the first ten points of the game.

They just don’t look real attentive or excited to be out there. Not like the Warriors who have the look of guys that either just left or are heading to a kegger. They sure look like they’re having a lot more fun than the Cavaliers.

Who Ordered the Chocolate Fountain?

After last night’s game, Blatt laid the turd at the feet of “the top 7 or 8.” He didn’t implicate the starters because that would let Mo Williams off the hook. The only thing MoGotti has accomplished defensively this year is lowering the bar for Kyrie Irving. Williams is decent off the ball, but initiate a pick and roll on his man and you’re practically playing 4-on-5.

It was instructive last night to watch Jared Cunningham play the pick and roll. Cunningham is a lot closer to Iman Shumpert than Mo Williams in that he plays defensive with intensity and intent, and also that his offensive game is pretty hit-or-miss. But having him on the team is looking more like a boon every day.

Cunningham anticipates picks and fights over them making switches unnecessary in most cases. Williams hits picks like a stuntman going into a wall, then afterwards wanders like a tourist in a foreign train station trying to find their platform. “Roll guy? Switch? I was just following the guy with the ball until he’s done with it.”

There are nights the Cavaliers can afford this, but in the midst of nightly defensive collapses that make Nero seem competent, an all-offense point guard is a luxury the team can ill-afford. That was reflected both in the fact that Mo played just six of the first thirty minutes and in Blatt’s quick amendment from “starters” to “top 7-8” players.

In the interest of baseless idle gossip we could speculate who those might be, it’s not difficult. What about Williams, Love, J.R. Smith and perhaps Richard Jefferson? Delly gets an automatic pass – he never plays at less than full throttle. Tristan typically gets that pass too, though he didn’t seem particularly active last night. It was the first game this year where he didn’t have double-digit rebound opportunities despite playing a healthy 23 minutes.

(It’s always difficult to judge Tristan’s effort because sometimes it’s not about will but low basketball IQ. That’s what leads him to miss rotations or switch too readily, sticking a point guard on a big. Note to Tristan: Just because you can guard little guys doesn’t mean your teammates want to be on the block guarding the Brow. You might want to consider that in light of your over-exuberance to switch out on jump shooters.)

Mozgov might on other nights be lumped in with those other slackers, but he played some of his best basketball of the year in the game’s first six minutes. He was the only guy with real moxie during the game’s opening minutes, including a sequence where he made a pretty spin move for a layup, altered/blocked a shot, ran down the floor and caught dump off pass from driving Kevin Love for a dunk.

Believe it or not, Timo made three baskets in a row without committing a turnover, some kind of season-best.

Meanwhile, the Cavaliers have finally gotten J.R. Smith going, but he sputters and coughs like a old generator with moisture in the tank. Against the Pelican he got hot for five first quarter threes. He scored once more.

When someone suggested to Smith that James needed more help, he passed the buck, saying essentially, “What do you want from me? I hit five threes.” That he disappeared, making one more shot all night didn’t apparently merit discussion.

He made some boneheaded moves last night, but none more personally upsetting than this baseline pick that he decided to get by at the free throw line, akin to driving to Toledo to get to Columbus. It yielded a wide open layup.

Smith is actually decent on ball but he’s a terrible off-the-ball defender. He loses his guys in screens or watches ball and yields backdoor plays. Between him and Mo Williams you have a lot of the Cavaliers trouble with dribble penetration this year. Help rotations have slowed.

While in theory you leap to pick up the open man however he came to be, assuming someone will get your back, Cavs big men seem to be increasingly eyeing loose ballhandlers the way conservative whites view the social safety net: “You really expect me to bail you out yet again?” Needless to say, this is the basketball equivalent of mutually assured destruction and brings us to our major issue with the Cavs:

What Happens When You Stop Playing Defense

Fundamental breakdowns are happening all over the place on defense. Screw Al Pacino and his Any Given Sunday inches, this team’s giving up feet by the yard. Here Kevin Love lays back on the ballhandler leaving an open window for Wade to hit the roll man for an easy drive.

Periodically the Cavaliers have been going into defensive funks where they fail to offer even token resistance. It’s not uncommon since the Knicks/Sixers part of the schedule ended to see teams go on sick 75%-80% shooting runs that extend for almost a quarter.

In the third quarter against the Pelicans it was a 27-10 run fueled on 10-13 shooting. The fact that they are missing seems to impact the defensive effort and it snowballs faster than you can say, Lindsay Lohan.

Last night, the Heat put together several such runs. Beginning with seven minutes left, Miami went on a six minute run where they made 8 of 9 shots, while the Cavaliers went 3 of 10. Before you knew it they’d outscored the Cavs 20-6 in half the first period putting them down 30-18.

The run began with this play, where the Cavaliers hedged the pick-and-roll hard, all but trapping the ball handler. Except they didn’t make it hard enough for Heat point guard Goran Dragic to pass to a wide open Bosh. After he picks up his dribble Love can transition from cutting off the dribble to either getting back to his man or defending the ball, but really doesn’t do much of either.

Mozgov is slow with help though overall it seems folly to trap the pick and roll so hard with Love, especially against a typically poor 3-point shooting team like Miami. Blatt perhaps tried to wring too much from Timofey in playing him 10+ minutes in the first period, but he was pretty good for much of the quarter. He had these two nice contests on Dragic and Wade that still went in, but was slow on some help situations with the Bosh/Wade pick and roll.

It wasn’t always his fault. Here Tristan Thompson’s man picks Mozgov and Thompson doesn’t seem to understand that he should try to find Timofey’s man. Guess he only likes to switch onto smaller guys.

That got the Heat going. Then Mo Williams came in, leaving Mozgov trying to defend Goran Dragic at the 3 line. Mo gave up a three to Tyler Johnson and Jared Cunningham let Green hit a pull-up corner jumper (rescinded from 3 to 2). Poof, suddenly it was 30-18.

Where the Wild Thing Was

Blatt ended the first with Anderson Varejao, helping spark a little 6-0 run. Though Varejao only played 14 minutes, he had 11 rebounding opportunities (measured as within 3.5’ of the carom), more than anyone else on the team including Thompson and Love who had 9 in about 23 minutes each. Blatt also began the second with Varejao and the team did well with on the floor.

Indeed, Varejao has the team’s third best on-court rating with the team performing 9.4 points better when he’s on the floor. Like Dellavedova last year, his insertion into the game seems to raise the entire team’s energy level.

Thompson/Varejao seems a particularly strong lineup with a plus/minus of +4.7 which is good enough for the sixth best two-man lineup. That’s probably just a function of time on the floor since their net rating per 100 possession is +30.9 the best on the team by 10 points over Cunningham/LeBron and Love/Dellavedova

As an interesting side note, LeBron James noted that in his postgame comments against the Pelicans that the team was going to need to find what combinations on the floor played well together. It’s interesting that certain combos work much better than others. Mo Williams is not nearly as bad with Delly on the floor with him (+13.9), and we’ve seen more of that lately.

It might be helpful to run a Varejao/Thompson/James/Cunningham/Williams lineup out there and let Delly team with Mozgov, Smith, Jefferson and Love sometimes. As Jefferson/Williams is the worst two-man lineup possible (and Jefferson has the bottom four) it’s probably best to keep those two apart as much as possible.

Love as Focal Point

There was some thought that Love might benefit from the absence of LeBron’s isolation game. The ball might move more and Love would get more post and elbow opportunities. That’s not how it worked out. (And shame on any of you who took that focal point stuff seriously.)

Love has one of the team’s worst tendencies to mope when he’s not got it going offensively. On a certain level you can understand inasmuch as he isn’t going to get a lot of positive attention for his defense.

Miami was paying him a lot of attention, fronting him in the post (where he’s the league’s most efficient post player) and bringing a guy from the backside anytime he received the ball. That surrenders a corner 3 to whoever wanted one but the Cavaliers failed to take advantage other than one in the second by Jared Cunningham.

Midway through the second period it was an eleven point game, 44-33. When Love wound up switched on Wade and Smith on Bosh, J.R. seemed to over-contemplate taking Bosh off the bounce to the detriment of an open Love under the basket. Get the ball to him and either he or Mozgov gets a dunk. Instead Smith dallied and by the time he passed Love was doubled and the pass knocked away.

But J.R. Smith seemed more intrigued by taking Bosh off the dribble than hitting an open Love under the basket. By the time Smith threw an entry pass Love was doubled and the ball got knocked away. It naturally resulted in a transition play that Miami scored on.

This was followed by Kevin Love going behind his back to avoid Hassan Whiteside, who in fact hasn’t jumped. It’s probably as much intimidation as anything else, because he apparently expected Whiteside to jump. It’s just Love was on him too quickly and the Miami center couldn’t react. Instead of taking the layup, Love wound up with a turnover.

It’s ironic that the team needed more ball movement and here Love was trying to provide it.

We point to these things to suggest that Love’s inability to take over isn’t simply that he’s not demanding the ball. It’s that the team doesn’t have a surplus of good passers on the floor and teams are scheming to take away Love.

It’s a lot like Mozgov’s alleged defensive troubles – which are mostly the responsibility of poor perimeter defense. He’s like a goalie that’s stopped 45 of 50 shots. Yeah you lost 5-4, but maybe if you didn’t subject him to 50 shots things would’ve gone better.

Of course for the Cavs the culprit has been inside scoring (beat Cleveland 44-36 in paint) – thanks to lots of penetration, producing lots of open shots. The last two games were the third and fourth times all season the Cavaliers have allowed more uncontested shots than contested ones. The prior two times (victories against the Knicks and Hawks at home) the opponent shot less than 40% on those open shots. The Pelicans shot 49% and the Heat hit 53%.

This is not a good trend line. The Cavaliers allowed the Heat to hit 63% of their shots at the rim. Part of that is physicality. The team is much too tentative inside, particularly Love and Mozgov. The same goes for offense where the team was 16-35 at the rim, just 46%.

Put a Bow on It

In the end it’s just two games. The team’s clearly not right and hasn’t been for a couple weeks. They play inspired basketball at one moment the next look as bad as the Browns scout team. (That’s just an assumption. For all we know the Browns scout team may be better than the corpse masquerading as the Browns.)

The offense is never going to be a big issue for this team, but the defense has been a longstanding concern almost since LeBron’s return with the exclusion of last year’s playoffs. They improved during the second half, but regressed at the end of the season. Focus is not their strong point.

The hope is that adding one more “activity” player like Shumpert to the mix will tip the overall scale. Getting Mo off the floor seemed like a solution, but it certainly didn’t make the difference against the Heat. Nor did the absence of LeBron’s hero ball theatrics seem to open the court up for anyone. But hopefully the intensity that Delly, Tristan and Shump bring to the mix will almost shame players into better play.

A lot of guys missed shots, but the real issue for most educated observers is that the team seem lethargic and to go through the motions at times. Sometimes guys get going and then can’t get the ball again for quarters at a time, as the frontcourt seems to come uncoupled from the backcourt for six minute stretches at a time.

All of it would be forgivable if this team competed like the Sixers do. But they just aren’t that hungry for victories. Every team that’s played them for the last two weeks has brought more energy and intensity. Sure, you can invoke Allen Iverson all you want: “Regular Season? Regular Season? Meh.” But there’s an obvious example of a team playing every game as if it’s practice for the final exam in the not-so-complacent champs, the Warriors.

The trophy’s not won in the regular season, but the habits you need to take your best shot often are. It’s not uncommon for great teams to want to turn it on and off. The season’s grueling and teams come at you hard. That of course was why the Cavs front office added depth. It wasn’t so the rest of the team could slack off more.

Let’s hope when Kyrie and Iman come back, this team turns more studious.

And finally….

Want to leave this for those who complain about the Cavaliers and Blatt not running offenses. This is a terrific breakdown of some of the Cavaliers sets out of what I called the figure-eight because of the presence of picks on each side of the floor and action that flowed to the middle.

They call it the Four Series here, and you can see how it evolved from a series of picks to open up Love down low into a flowing multi-option attack.

It’s a wonderfully put together presentation combining video and play sketches. (We found the link in the forums.) If you like the thought process of the game and seeing the gears, this is for you. But it’s also evidence that the team’s definitely progressed beyond last year’s vanilla pick-and-roll variations.

Like the defense, it all seems to come down to execution and focus. Maybe this comeuppance the last three games will raise the stakes enough for them to buckle down and give maximum effort all game long. More likely, we’ll be waiting another couple months to discover if this team is for real or just a tease.

You can follow us on Twitter @CRS_1ne and read us following most game on the Scene blog. We’ll be at the game on Tuesday tweeting video and comments on the action.

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