Cavs' Tepid Defense Leads to Hawks Blowout, And Now We Consider Trade Options

If you haven’t bothered to watch your DVR of last night’s 127-98 garroting at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks, trust me:  turn it off with five minutes left in the second quarter. That’s right around when the team did.

Not that they showed much defensive intensity at any point in the game, but from that point forward their passivity began to extend to both sides of the floor. At the time, they led 52-46, even though they were allowing the Hawks to make two out of every three shots – typically within a few feet of the basket. But the offense looked good.

Over the next 22 minutes they’d be outscored 64-29, as Atlanta treated the Cavs like the Buckeyes would an FCS team. You kept waiting for the Hakws to put it their athletically-challenged walk-ons, if only so the Cavs could have the team-building experience of making a couple consecutive defensive stops.

It was so bad, Coach Blatt was rendered nearly speechless. He apologized to a reporter from the Philippines after the game for choosing such a terrible game to see. The usually playful, loquacious former English Lit major had the grim implacable manner of someone about to deliver a fatal prognosis. He made San Antonio coach George Popovich seem like Robin Williams.

Blatt doesn’t like to lose — he hasn’t done much of it in his career, and he’s usually coached teams who won with effort and intelligence, not overwhelming talent and twelve minutes of defense. It was the type of game that brought to mind Tampa Bay Buccaneers Coach John McKay’s immortal quip about his team’s execution: “I’m in favor of it.”

Coach Blatt implied he’d rather not say anything. When I asked about the team’s offensive execution – only eight turnovers, a continued positive trend on offense – he had nothing for me. “I’m really having a hard time seeing the positives right now,” he said.

He opened the press conference with a little statement that he wouldn’t have too much to say and would rather just walk off if it wouldn’t be rude to all the people who work hard in their jobs – unlike what he’d witnessed.

“That was embarrassing how we played,” he said. “And I apologize to all the good fans that came out here, as they always do. Really just a poor, poor performance.” He’d go on later to say he’d seen no defensive fight or intensity all game – and that children, is how you allow a team to shoot 70% through three quarters in an NBA game.

I don’t want to get into it much more than Blatt does, because a total defensive breakdown of this sort can’t be indicative of anything except that you’re completely screwed if you don’t change the attitude that makes this acceptable. In some cases you might suggest that the game was an anomaly, but the team is what it is right now.

When Dion Waiters gets traded – and trust me, it’s inevitable at this point —  think about this play. Kyrie Irving is not a great defender. He tends to hit picks like a driver’s ed class hits red cones – repeatedly and as if he’s never held the wheel before – but at least he could get some help.

Instead of playing something resembling defense, Waiters lays off,  sticking to his man while Irving struggles through the pick. This gives Shelvin Mack a good six feet of space and a couple seconds for the generally mediocre shooting point guard to launch the first of six threes, en route to 24 points.

But truth be told, the bench played halfway decently, helped by Marion playing his more comfortable “4” spot in a 3-guard lineup with Delly, Dion, Irving and Tristan Thompson at center. The shitstorm really began when the starters started to come back, the team still leading by 12, 50-38.

This continues the troubling trend of the Cavs allowing bench three-point specialist/sixth men to carve them up – including the Pelicans Ryan Anderson twice, Nugget Randy Foye and Raptor Lou Williams. By allowing these guys to bouy the opponents’ second team only makes it tougher on the Cavs.

The other problem is that even the big guys like Horford and Milsap seemed to have no problem getting inside position or driving lanes. Here’s some video I live-tweeted during the game. And yes, I am the ONLY beat reporter live tweeting video during Cavs games. #NoDinosaur [/shameless self-promotion]

As I said earlier, the Cavs looked good on offense. Kyrie made a couple nice moves here.

But playing half a game isn’t going to get it done, especially when the team’s already dealing with a deficiency of defensive talent. GM David Griffin will be manning the phones from now until the All Star break looking for some succor, but it isn’t like Amazon. There are very limited options – which brings us back to Waiters.

He’s such an incredibly gifted scorer that the temptation is to keep him. He has the physical ability to be a good defender but he doesn’t appear to want it hard enough on the defensive end. He simply doesn’t compete on D consistently enough, losing his focus and forgetting his responsibilities like a wayward teen.

In a perfect world they’d wait, but he’s the Cavs' only real marketable asset. They might trade Thompson, who is a free agent next year, but he’s the team’s best defensive player, and the only other viable big outside Love and Anderson Varejao.

So you’re pretty much left with Waiters and the $5.3 million trade exception they got from briefly owning Keith Bogans this off-season. You can fit one player in a trade exception and not have to give anyone up, but it can’t be added to anything other than draft picks.

The suspects at the moment are on teams with no hope like the Nuggets, Knicks, Timberwolves, Pistons, Bucks, Celtics, 76ers, Lakers, Jazz and probably the Hornets, Nets and Heat. A lot of guys are simply too expensive to fit on the team (essentially anyone making more than $6-7 million).

What’s left includes big men Timofey Mozgov, Bismack Biyombo, John Henson, Zaza Puchulia, Andrei Kirilenko, JJ Hickson, Darrell Arthur, Miles Plumlee, Brandon Bass, Luis Scola; and wings Gary Neal, Gerald Henderson, Caron Butler, Jared Dudley, Alexey Shved, Randy Foye, Gerald Green, Chase Budinger, Corey Brewer.

If you take one into the trade exemption and hold onto Waiters, you are probably stuck with a wing like Brewer because nobody is just giving away big men. Even with Brewer, Minnesota is rumored to be holding out for a first round pick, though Houston’s allegedly angling to give up New York’s second round pick next year, which is bound to be pretty high.

That’s why it’s more likely that Waiters ($4M) is packaged in a deal that includes the trade exemption to maximize what can come back – basically two mid-range players from the above list.

The most intriguing pairings are the Nuggets (Mozgov or Arthur and combo guard/firestarter Randy Foye), the Bucks (Henson, Jared Dudley/Jerryd Bayless) or perhaps the Suns (Miles Plumlee & Gerald Green) who are rumored to be dealing. All have their appeal. Henson in particular seems buried in Milwaukee yet has great shotblocking ability, hindered mainly by his beanpole frame. His athleticism would fit in the uptempo game the Cavs play on offense.

There have been rumors about the Grizzlies’ Kosta Koufos and Tayshaun Prince, but I find it hard to believe Memphis will trade size when they’re making their own playoff run, though they do have issues with offensive production at the off-guard (Tony Allen/Courtney Lee). I also don’t see how Waiters fits with PG Mike Conley, or the post-up heavy game they play.

Expect a move sooner than later. I don’t think there is any question about the defensive need, and I don’t think they feel (or can feel) they have the answer in-house. Even the alternatives offer only modest improvement, but as bad as the defense was last night, any improvement to consistency of focus would be welcome.

Look for the Cavs to wreak their vengeance on the Brooklyn Nets on Friday. As always, I will be tweeting during the game @CRS_1ne
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