Cavs Margin For Error Too Thin To Survive Non-Call on Durant

click to enlarge Ref Ed Malloy blows call on what would've been Kevin Durant's third foul, 10 minutes left in the second, Cavs up by 8. Thus enabled, Golden State went on a 28-4 run the next 7 minutes.
Ref Ed Malloy blows call on what would've been Kevin Durant's third foul, 10 minutes left in the second, Cavs up by 8. Thus enabled, Golden State went on a 28-4 run the next 7 minutes.
It wasn’t their night. On their night, the Cavaliers could have taken apart the Warriors like Legos. On their night the Cavs are even more explosive than Golden State (as Cleveland’s record-breaking Game 4 performance demonstrated). They might be Warriors, but the King’s forays to the hoops left them as befuddled as Monty Python’s watchtower guards.

But like we said, it wasn’t their night, as Cleveland fell to Golden State 129-120 in Game 5 in Oakland.

Instead of Brian’s Song, Clevelanders were treated to Thank You For Smoking. And maybe that’s for the best. It’s a little discussed fact of life – one of those unsavory secrets like the smell of asparagus leaving your body or that children aren’t necessarily a perennial joy and treasure – that wholesome Midwesterners sometimes have to cede their seat to smug coastal elites who believe they fart CK-1 and are as taken with mirrors as Insane Clown Posse are with magnets.

We’re going to tell you something you won’t hear from the deeply embedded nostrils of ESPN: The Cavaliers have as much talent as the Warriors. Hey, you! Yeah, you stat-head. Back away from that keyboard very slowly and let me finish. The Warriors spend the entire year playing close to peak efficiency. That’s part of what makes them dangerous. They never let up, and one slip puts you in their gun sights. (See the last two minutes of Game 3.)

In that sense that Warriors are better than the Cavaliers because the Cavaliers only play at peak efficiency for long enough to win the game. That accomplished, it’s freelance time. This lack of discipline is the Cavaliers biggest weakness. They were a better defensive team the year they won the title, but slipped this season both in the halfcourt and transition. Last year the Cavs were a top 10 team defensively at the end of the season, this season they were much worse and the second-worse in transition.

Sure, they turned it around come the playoffs, but those bad habits came back to haunt them against a team like the Warriors that keep you under the hydraulic press for 48 minutes. Blown assignments, stretches of half-hearted effort, poor rebounding. We saw it all season, but the Cavaliers were still one shart-show of an awful game against the Hawks second-stringers from seizing the top seed in the East, and even without it almost ran the table in the Eastern Conference.

So, perhaps the Cavaliers have learned that being good enough to smoke the Eastern Conference won’t do them a lot of good and will concentrate on playing defense all the time. If you remember, this is what they said they’d do at the beginning of the season. “Defense is our calling card,” LeBron told us when the season started. (That calling card quickly proved a wrong number.) But it takes five to play defense, and for much of the year, they had a quorum but no majority.

That seems to be what James was alluding to in the postgame: “Yes, we were able to hit the switch, but those games in January. Those games in November. Games that people think that's not important, they're important to me, and they would have been important to our ball club.”

The Cavaliers play hard enough to win, and sometimes blow that calculation, particularly on the back of back-to-backs. (This also suggests some of the issue is the age of the Cavs' bench players and/or the late arrival of reinforcements.) Of course, playing your hardest with discipline and focus comes in handy during the postseason. The Warriors peak isn't as maybe high as the Cavs (depending on how capable - versus willing - you believe the Cavaliers are of playing defense), but they play close to it more often and for longer stretches.

Role Players & Benches

The big thing I talked to Michael Reghi about in our podcast before the series was how the Cavaliers bench would acquit itself. As it turned out they pretty much chose to represent themselves and carved a swastika on their forehead. Then again, death may be too good for this bunch. They were outscored by 10+ points/night by the bench, in a series in which they were outscored by 34.
As many people (more murmured than proclaimed), the Cavaliers have a lot of one-dimensional offenses players. This is very in keeping with how the Phoenix Suns thought when GM David Griffin was working with that franchise. We worry that he might be too blinded by offense to fully appreciate the defensive needs. Remember, this guy signed Mo Williams to a two-year contract, one of the worst defensive players in the league. In the end, the one-dimensionality of the bench hurt them deeply.

We have a small theory about this. The Cavaliers have a lot of shooters surrounding James and Irving. That makes sense. However it’s a well-known fact that role-players struggle to score on the road. It’s also pretty well established that the three-ball is a highly variable effort. Perhaps having role players who can’t get their own shots may increase the chances that your role players will miss a lot of open threes, or worse, will have to do something like put the ball on the floor as the Warriors – the best three-point defending team – chase them off the line.

It’s not that you don’t want three-shooters around LeBron, but it was quite clear that as good as Korver is at shooting threes, that talent is kinda wasted when he’s only going to get maybe 3-4 shots most nights. Meanwhile, defensive players are needed every possession and don’t suffer from as much game-to-game variability (given that defense is mostly effort which is offered by good defensive players every play, hence the Cavaliers' problem).

It’s a tough balance because anyone that can’t score will become someone the opponent helps off of, but it’s equally clear that if your bench is a bunch of one-dimensional shooters, you better hope that their one-dimension pays off in spades (like in Game 4) and not in wooden nickels (Game 3).

Will Cavs Star in a Michael Bay Film?

A lot of people are suggesting the Cavs should blow it up despite the fact (demonstrated above) that the Cavaliers starters actually outscored the Warriors starters. It’s not really an issue of frontline guys. It’s the issue of a bench that was weak to start with as Griffin spent half the season carrying D-League fodder like Jordan McRae, waiting for buyouts that proved worse than useless.

Bogut and Williams were a huge deficit if you think about idea that their presence led Griffin to forestall other moves. That’s not even considering that the Derrick Williams lineups looked far better than the Deron Williams ones most of the year. We admit – they looked like good deals, but both signings were essentially disasters.

As we pointed out, Shump almost singlehandedly gave the Warriors 8 points in Game 3, and then gave them four last night on a couple of stupid fouls – three in under four minutes – and Lue rightfully buried him. More decisive action like that in Games 1 & 2 and the Cavaliers would’ve been in better shape. However Lue is still learning to balance loyalty and solid decision-making, which in several Cavaliers cases often come into conflict.

Our feeling is that there are guys out there who would make decent bench players. James Johnson and Mo Harkless are examples of two guys who are known to play good defense, athleticism and three-point range. Johnson fought his way into the Heat’s starting lineup from the bench over course of season, but that simple fact demonstrates how little commitment he received until last half of season. The Blazers are over the cap and waist deep in mediocrity, looking to unload contracts.

Even if you don’t add those players, there are probably guys like that who will be available this season, though the premium on athletic long guys is high. Derrick Williams could be a guy like that but Lue never showed enough interest in him after Deron showed for us to feel he’d resign.

(If James relaxes his long-standing opposition to playing the "4" during regular season, some other options open up, but James has been pretty adamant, and playing in the post certainly isn't going to add years to his career, given the physical beating he'd endure.)

The Cavs also need a legitimate center who can protect the rim. A backup big like Kosta Koufos would really fill the bill. Teams need that flexibility defensively and the Cavaliers haven’t had it since before Timofey Mozgov had his knee scoped.

And the Cavs really need that guy who can create his own shot. A Lou Williams-type of player who can get microwave hot. Lou-Dub isn’t known for his defense, but is the kind of guy who might could fill in for Kyrie in a pinch. If Tyreke Evans can prove he’s healthy and his three-stroke looks solid (it’s been weak at times) he might be another guy you look at, though he’s coming off injury.

The Cavaliers are going to be a little conscribed. We don’t think you are going to be able to play Cedi Osman in the Finals next year because it is going to be a step too far for a young player, which makes us think he will be an asset that will be dealt. While he’s a good stash for the future when he matures into a real player in 2-3 years, but we don’t think the Cavaliers have the time to wait. And what if he doesn’t hold up defensively? Too much risk with the window such as it is.

Similarly we feel that Love and Thompson are safe as well, in that order. We also don’t think you trade Kyrie. He would bring the biggest haul back and perhaps if you could convince someone to give you a Ricky Williams-type deal you do it, but we find it hard to believe you could get the value you need to make that work. Similarly, Love’s rebounding is just too important for a team that has such trouble on the defensive boards.

Further, Love’s already negotiated that perilous path to being comfortable as a third cog that is frequently ignored. Not sure Cavs are ready for a similar curve with Butler or PG13. Wade would be interesting, and would be the perfect guy to lead the second squad since he could handle the ball, but we’re not sure Wade is that interested in ring-chasing. He’d also need to make sure that 3-point shot is seaworthy.

The main issues with adding a Butler/PG13/Carmelo type, is one, the cost. The Cavaliers don't have a lot of assets and the players would pretty much need to hold their team hostage (except Melo, who should be available for a song, though there may be other suitors at that price). If the bench is the big issue, making your team more top-heavy isn't necessarily going to help. This is aside from the difficulty fitting another ball-dominant scorer with Irving and James. Remember how long it took Love to get comfortable? Almost three years. Who has that time?

Finally, one wonders if you really want to compete with the Warriors on offense. Especially since offensive skills aren't as multiplicative as defense. (Thought experiment: Better to have 5 great one-on-one scorers with no great defenders or two great one-on-one scorers and three great one-on-one defenders?) You certainly aren't going to be more efficient than Durant and Curry - it seems like a better idea to work at making them more inefficient. Indeed, it looked to us like the issue generally wasn't scoring but getting stops.

The only thing we’ll say for sure is that if Iman Shumpert is on this roster next season, the summer was a complete failure. Repeat this to yourself all summer: Whatever Iman Shumpert’s athletic gifts, a cactus has a higher basketball IQ. He hits screens like a crash test dummy and refuses to contest shots, instead slapping and frequently drawing stupid fouls at inopportune times. (see, Game 5) His stats don’t look great and he’s worse if you watch the film. If they traded him for a sack of grapefruits at least it would open a spot for someone potentially aware enough not to make same points-producing mistakes over and over, offering more tease than sustenance.

Final Analysis

We don’t want to talk much about the game. We’ll say the officiating in the second quarter was sub-high school level, and apologize to middle school refs. Let’s leave it at that. The Cavaliers had two fine refs on hand for Game 3 and futzed away the win after barely registering in the first two games. They made this bed for themselves, hopefully they’ve learned something from it.

Hopefully Tyronn Lue has learned as well. The Warriors are explosive and it seemed to take until Game 4 before Lue started calling his timeouts aggressively to buoy his team through the Warriors runs. Then that disappeared in that awful second quarter. His rotations got out of control more than once, and Kerr really schooled him on getting his guys rest. Even if it was just for thirty seconds, Lue did not repeat the Game 3 mistake of not getting his guys a blow in the fourth.

It took until the fourth game as well before Lue started sprinkling a few James post possessions, which help slow the pace. (The pace slowed the entire series from one game to the next with the second halves significantly slower than the first, and last night's second half — 90 possessions/game — was the slowest of the series.) The fact that they used the same offense in Game 1 as in Game 7 last year seems silly; you think they didn't study and figure out how to beat it? Yeah, lots of lost opportunities when there wasn't much room for error.

We didn’t feel the Cavaliers could afford to lose a game at home to the Warriors. Indeed we felt that Cleveland couldn’t count on more than one road win, which meant while we felt they could force a Game 7, we weren’t sure they could win it if they had to steal Game 5 as well. In the end they couldn’t get Game 5 and that was that.

We’re envious of the young guys the Warriors are developing – McAdoo, Clark, McCaw – but those guys barely make it into the game. Shawn Livingston, Iggy and David West were their big reserves and that doesn’t seem such a high bar to meet. Sadly, Williams, Korver and Shumpert couldn’t even meet that not-especially-high bar. When someone tells you about the Warriors' athleticism remember that the biggest difference in the series was the bench, and it ain’t like those guys are so athletic. But they hit their shots, consistently, which is more than we can say about Cleveland’s reserves.

The Warriors are much better than the Cavaliers because the media’s been telling you that and they don’t recognize that this series was very close to being 3-2 with the Cavaliers coming home, nobody having stolen shit. Please keep this in mind for the next few months while we are inundated with Carmelo and PG13 trade scenarios. They’re unlikely and unnecessary.

Let’s remember all summer what a joy it was the past year as champions for the first time in more than a half century. Remember also how hard this team fought in the third quarter last night after pissing away the game in the second. Sure the ball and people movement comes and goes like Tara Reid’s dates, but when they set their mind to it, nobody is as explosive as the Cavaliers.

With that we big adieu to the season. We don’t think we’ll be back writing about the Cavaliers next season. We continued this season to promote the book we wrote, King James Brings the Land a Crown: The Definitive Tale of the Cavaliers’ 2016 Title Run. (You can read the reviews and backjacked quotes and find some of the pictures in it at

Now it's time to try new things, including work on a play about our fast-food culture, (The Rise & Fall of) Gilligan's Island, as well as arts and policy journalism for weeklies and magazines across the country.You can follow us on Twitter @CRS_1ne, and you can hear us one last time this year on the Defend Cleveland Show on WRUW-91.1 on Monday at 11 a.m.

Thanks LeBron & the Cavaliers for another shot at the ring and for a wonderful year as the Champs. It was unforgettable.
Like this story?
SCENE Supporters make it possible to tell the Cleveland stories you won’t find elsewhere.
Become a supporter today.
Scroll to read more Cleveland News articles


Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.