For anyone who's been following the season, it might’ve seemed a re-run. The more talented – if short-handed – Cavaliers got out to a big early lead, up as much as 15 in the second quarter. Then they had some bad luck, got flustered and retreated faster than you can say “socially awkward Rob Lowe.”
It had all the great hallmarks of a truly disappointing Cavaliers effort.
The Pistons came in with 6 wins against 23 losses. (Playing down to competition. Check.) The Cavs came out with energy, moving and sharing the ball, jumping out to a 28-17 lead at the end of the first. (Front-running. Check.) Then Shawn Marion went to the locker room with what proved to be a rolled ankle. (Catch a cab at first sign of adversity. Check.)
From that point on the team’s defense was more accommodating then a spoiled tween’s recently-divorced parents. During the 22-minute stretch – from Marion’s departure midway through the second until garbage time began when the lead reached 27 with 8 minutes left in the 4th – the Cavaliers were outscored 60-22.
The team’s frequently lacked the scrap and fortitude to take another team’s punch. Not always. They’ve shown the ability to gut out wins by turning on their intensity for the last few minutes of the third and the fourth quarters. They put a hurting on Atlanta beating them by 33 at home, then were embarrassed by them a month later by 29. They’re as consistent as a teenage girl’s attentions, and the Jonas Brothers aren’t walking through that door.
The fact is that this is what we signed up for. After that game, LeBron stated bluntly, “We aren’t very good right now.” As if anyone needed further validation of this fact than the shit show on Sunday. Yes the Cavs are still without Kyrie Irving, and obviously still reeling from the season-ending injury to Anderson Varejao. But there’s no teacher to hand these excuses to.
The Cavaliers weren’t a good basketball team last year and a lot of that had to do with defense. While some of the personnel has changed, that fact remains the same. It’s not even surprising — defensive effort and focus is often a late arrival in young pro hoopsters’ arsenals. Despite the associated elder statesmen of James’ arrival (James Jones, Mike Miller, Shawn Marion), most of the heavy lifting is going to need to be done by the youth.
That has associate issues. Players like Irving and Waiters have scored at will until now, and never had to give much thought to defense. They couldn’t stop penetration and so far this season any improvement has been modest.
While Tristan Thompson has improved his post-play, he has never been nor will he be a person to block many shots off-the-ball like most big men who provide weakside help on drivers. This emboldens the Cavs' opponents, and make it that much more important to limit penetration. The Cavaliers are allowing the highest FG% in the league on plays at the rim (57.1%, median 51%). This is why the Cavaliers have hedged so hard on the pick & roll – if the ball gets into the lane, it doesn’t end well for the wine and gold.
That fact is largely responsible for the team’s 6th worst NBA opponent’s field goal percentage. (Oddly, the Clippers are only a smidge better.) It also may be responsible for allowing two fewer free throws a game than any other team. Some of that may be better defense and it helps take some of the pressure. They’re also eighth-worst in the league in points allowed in the paint.
This is why there’s so much talk about grabbing a shot-blocker. One move could potentially solve both of these problems. Alas, that’s why “rim protectors” are in such demand, along with the great prevalence of pick-and-roll offense that makes its money on penetration (particularly penetrate and dish to three point shooters).
A lot of the defensive issues are endemic. Kevin Love will never have the leaping ability or size to be a very good interior defender. Despite their physical skills, neither Waiters nor Irving seem to have the inner drive to compete as hard on defense as they do on offense. Perhaps this can be taught – jury’s out.
Matthew Dellevadova hustles but he’s slow afoot and quick point guards take advantage. Tristan is a fine on-ball defender that covers more points guards on switches (because he can) than anyone in the league, but he’s not much help off the ball because he’s not the type to get a lot of blocks from off the ball or helping to defend the basket on drives.
Last night their transition D was particularly bad and allowed the Pistons free-range on transition threes. The Piston wound up shooting 55% on threes, making 17 overall, many of them on quick switches from offense to defense where the typically lackadaisical Cavs didn't pick their men up very quickly, or get back down the floor fast enough. This is a long-standing issue that requires a focus the team’s lacked
This lineup will never be a very good defensive team. You don’t start the season in the cellar and rise to the balcony, but if the Cavs can just get their defense to the mezzanine, their offensive firepower is enough to get them through the door.
That’s what’s important to remember. For many intents and purposes, the NBA regular season is just a prelude, like a second preseason. While it’s necessary in the West where there are more good teams than playoff spots, there’s very very very little chance the Cavaliers don’t make it in the East.
This makes the regular season an extended dress rehearsal. They have MONTHS to learn their parts. The production literally relies on it. People obviously haven’t learned their lines and aren’t even off book yet, so it’s too early to worry about recasting. This is the main issue with those advocating a LeBron James takeover.
LeBron is in “chill mode” as he explained after the Magic came on Friday. His 15-point fourth quarter outburst led them to victory. Which is fine, but what happens on those nights like last night when he doesn’t have it going? James was 5-19 from the field with as many turnovers as assists (7), and far too many jump shots (he shot only 5 free throws).
For my part, I’m fine with LeBron standing back a foot or two and letting his mates fish for themselves. When it comes playoff time, he’s going to need them to bait their own hooks, and wearing him out single-handedly beating teams like the Magic during the regular season isn’t doing the team a lot of good. This is something James presumably learned during his last tour of Cleveland – you’re only as good as your supporting cast.
As James has noted before in Miami, he played with guys who had been to the playoffs and knew what winning basketball felt like. Losing teams sink into a torpor of selfish me-first, because if the team’s going nowhere, players tend to start looking out for themselves. These “bad habits” as he described them will take time to break.
That’s part of the culture that James is trying to change, and why teams with long-standing pieces like the Spurs or the Thunder tend to do better. There’s a kind of unity of purpose and knowledge of their responsibilities in doing that, which most of the players on this team never experienced in Cleveland or Minnesota.
It’s about running to the open man on defense, even though you’re doing your job covering your man, and assuming someone will cover for you. It’s about forgetting what you did on offense and getting back on defense, not admiring your shot, complaining to the ref, or pouting. (Yes, LeBron, we’re looking at you.) It’s about sharing the ball and knowing you’ll get your chance, not freaking out about missing any little opportunity.
Like a friendship, this only really occurs with time and trust. The good thing is we’ve got plenty of time. It’d be better if the Cavs got home court advantage, but none of their East challengers (Washington, Atlanta, Toronto, Chicago) are so good that playing an additional road game against them should cause much pause.
The season is likely to have more than a few more nights like Sunday where it looks like Drew Carey’s out there instead of Uncle Drew. It’s all part of the process. Remember it’s necessary to fail to succeed. Only failure humbles enough to teach. So long as they take games like last night’s bed-wetter against the Pistons for the dispiriting reflection it is, and continue to improve, we should support them. The talent’s there to win the Eastern Conference. (The West is better by far, but let’s get to the dance, then worry about that.)
Up to now it hasn’t always been pretty and it often won’t be. Change is difficult and the kind of change necessary to outlast the very best basketball players in the world will necessarily require painful sacrifice. For us that means watching a team who’s vacillating moods suggests a Wes Andersen remake of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – a mildly amusing, conceptually intriguing and ultimately disappointing waste of talent – rather than Coach Blatt’s Opus.
What choice do we have but to hope for the best even as we witness the worst. Hey, we’re well-practiced thanks to the Browns. In the immortal words of Exene Cervenka and John Doe – “The facts we hate: We’ll never meet walking down the road, everyone yelling ‘hurry up, hurry up’, but I’m waiting for you, and I must go slow, and I must not think bad thoughts, What is this world coming to?”
It’s coming to another Cleveland championship, fifty years or so later. What’s another few months of disappointment on that? The key is I must not think bad thoughts.
Follow along with me on Twitter during games at @CRS_1ne.