LeBron Turns Taskmaster in Pointing Way Toward Trophy

LeBron’s got plenty of reasons to be angry. His fairytale return story was foiled by a Gonzaga hippy and some baby-faced Warriors. He watched them celebrate on his home floor. He watched the Finals MVP go to a guy a reserve over arguably the greatest one-man show in Finals history. Along the way he watched his ability to get a call at the end of the game go the way of actress’ looks when they turn 30.

So how is it last year’s champs seem hungrier than the runners-up? That’s what LeBron wants to know. It’s the reason for the emergence of the “angry” LeBron, a holdover from the Decision-era. (It’s basically how Chris Paul is all the time.) He’s turned Great Santini in an effort to energize the troops.

He’s found a willing “good cop” in Coach David Blatt, who definitely feels the team could play harder. Almost always. Perhaps feeling the King at his shoulder more frequently this year Blatt has felt the free to push his players a bit in public. Blatt mentioned how Mo Williams appeared to struggle to stay interested in preseason games, you know, because he’s a veteran, and implied that’s why he sat.

That’s not a typical thing, but it’s emblematic of how Blatt’s been more forceful in his criticisms of the team this year. He’s not a guy that usually calls people out, but he’s questioned how the team’s played after wins and losses alike. Like James he uses the term “right way to play." Clearly, there’s a concerted effort under way to square this team away now.

Of course, part of the issue is that they got off to a slow start with half the team injured or rehabbing through most of training camp. A pair of home-and-aways with the Sixers and the Knicks became a kind of ad-hoc training camp until the season started in earnest with the road losses to the Bucks and Pistons a couple weeks ago.

Since then, it’s been a steady stream of player meetings, leaving-the-court petulance, and a hard-driving overall conception that until the Cavaliers get over their sense of entitlement and start to play right with consistency, they ain’t shit.

It’s hard to blame him. The Cavaliers don’t always get out of the gate strong and/or play in fits and starts throughout the first half. They give other teams air and confidence, but it begins in the first half.

They’ve posted a sub-100 offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) in 8 of 17 first quarters, but hadn’t posted them in back to back games until they posted a season-low 17 points against the Nets on Saturday.

Over the last ten games they’ve allowed an average of over 26 points in the second quarter as teams either carry the momentum of the first quarter into the second or close any gaps against the second (third when healthy) team.

Of course anyone that’s watched closely has noted that part of the issue is that where last year Love would finish out the first, and LeBron would start the second, as a way of buoying the backups, and providing scoring.

Love & LeBron Sitting in a Tree

We asked Blatt about the preference to mostly sit Love and James together leaving the remaining players on Survivor Island to rough it. Experience should tell you that a frontcourt Richard Jefferson, James Jones and Anderson Varejao might have trouble covering their car, let alone the lane.

Blatt seems to have figured that for the moment, his best at their best is a better bet they trying to work up the team’s straggling end of the first-/beginning of the second-quarter lineups.

“We’ve tried to be conscious of how we can play them together as much as possible, and at the same time allow them rest in the game so as to not fatigue them per game or overall,” Blatt said. “I think the synergy of the two for the team is very good.”

In a follow-up after the presser, he confessed that he felt the team was deeper than last year’s team and he had more confidence in them. “I think rightfully so,” he said, glossing over some poor performances.

Looking at some of the team’s best and worst two-man lineups, you’ll find that Love/James is the team’s eighth-best lineup behind just about anybody and Matthew Dellavedova, and James/Thompson. Thompson is also very good in concert with Kevin Love and this undoubtedly is either because or why you see the three playing together at the end of the game when LeBron finds “11.”

It obviously makes sense for Blatt to hone the “synergy” of Love/James at this moment before Kyrie Irving comes back and someone (we’ll let you guess) becomes the third wheel (again).

We also feel this is sort of why angry LeBron has surfaced. He’s trying to pump the team up and get them to understand fighting adversity, before much of it dissipates with the return of their whole squad, probably by Christmas.

There are two big road trips, including the year’s longest West Coast swing, and so there will be some trouble putting the returning pieces together on the fly on the road, but beyond that, it’s hard to imagine this team struggling too much after that. We’re forecasting a run much like last year’s 30-3 mark during the second half when the Big 3 were intact.

So it becomes: Build that mental toughness now, while it’s at least a little tough. It should be getting significantly easier in the next three weeks.

LeBron for Defensive Player of the Year?

Nobody is probably going to nominate LeBron James for DPOY; we’re trolling you. He has the lowest steal rate of his career and the second lowest block rate (ahead of the .3 his final year in Miami). Yet he’s maybe playing his best on-ball defense since his youth.

Indeed, James is pretty much lapping the field. He’s holding players more than 15% points below their usual field goal rate when he guards them. The next best is, believe it or not, Carmelo Anthony at -10%. Derrick Favors and Kawhi Leonard occupy third and fourth, while James doubles the rate of anyone lower.

The fact that James isn’t getting counting stats like steals and blocks will obviously hold him back and we’re undoubtedly still a few years from advanced tracking stats like these are used to buttress awards campaigns. They’re just too new.

He’s being hurt in that by the choices that the Cavaliers have made defensively. Even last year the team was low in creating turnovers at the 24th highest rate in the league. This year they’re 26th. They’re giving away 1.7 more possessions (15 turnovers/game on offense), and that’s a trade-off Blatt’s willing to make if he can play better position defense.

At least that seems to be the goal. Like many of the things the Cavs did badly last year, defensively, they’ve improved greatly this year. They were #21 in defensive field goal percentage (+0.7%) for the year, but over the last half of the season they were 10th (-0.6%). (The Bulls and Jazz were #1 & #2 at -2.1% over that stretch). This year they’re currently 13th (-0.2%). The jury is out on whether that’s working.

But it does LeBron no favors. According to player tracking stats, he’s in 98th percentile in defending pick-and-roll ballhandlers, 97th percentile defending spot-up, 99th percentile in post-up. His only blemishes are in isolation (69th) and guarding guys off screens (71st). It’s confirmed by the eye-test which shows him to be much more engaged from the get-go this season.

Last year LeBron’s started the season holding players 0.9% below their FG% and over the last half nearly doubled that to -1.7%. Clearly at -15.5%, he’s taken it to another level. Sadly, it’s not the type of thing that people notice.

They have noted the difference between his on-court (+13.2 net pts/100 possessions) and his off-court numbers (-14.8), a spread as large as anyone in the league, if we’re not mistaken. Of course, as we alluded to a moment ago, some of that has to do with fact that Love isn’t there to bolster backups but usually with LeBron only amplifying those numbers which see the team’s offense go from 110.5 to 93.3, and the defense go from 97.3 to 108.1 worse than anyone elses off-court defensive rating.

However you cut it, the Cavs just aren’t the same without him. That explains – but doesn’t excuse – the fact that James is currently sixth in the league in minutes played.

Where Miami gambled more for steals and fastbreaks, this team is good enough in the halfcourt they can run when given the opportunity and not force the issue. Even that’s not really happening even if the team’s clearly better when they shoot earlier in the clock (and that means pushing the ball).

Their effective FG (eFG normalizes for the extra value of the 3-pointer) rate is 64% between 22 and 15 seconds left. It drops to 51% from 15-7 seconds (30% of time) and 44% from 7 to 4 second left (9%). About 5% of the time they get it off with less then 4 second and have a 50% eFG, probably due primarily to LeBron and his great passing.

Over the last five games shots in from 22-15 became more infrequent (16.7% to 12.2%), while late (11.8%) and very late (6.5%) have grown. They aren’t getting open/wide-open shots (14% of all shots last 5 games versus 21.3% for the season), and their wide open 3s are falling less frequently the just open ones (38% vs 43%).

With the passing, not creating open shots, and the team not getting into the offense quicker, the team’s getting more bogged down. It wouldn’t hurt to get a few more fastbreaks, but those just haven’t been happening much. They’ve had 37 fastbreak points the last six games, after getting 37 during the three-game road trip (Knicks/Bucks/Pistons) just before that.

Playing with more tempo and getting into the offense quicker would help. Obviously ball movement and movement off the ball would help as well. The Cavs have been utilizing more plays, but teams seem to scout those pretty quickly and they seem more effective on a week-by-week than game-by-game basis, outside the bread and butter stuff.

Kevin Love’s Shooting

When you mention Kevin Love, most people think of the three-ball. Over the last ten games Love is shooting 48% from three while taking over seven/game. Last year he averaged just over five. But he’s undergone a renaissance within the arc as well.

Just over two weeks ago Love was shooting 44% at the rim. He brought up Yogi Berra when we mentioned it, and Blatt suggested it could just be timing and rust from being out for so long. The game was maybe moving fast for him in those situations and it was clear to the eye he wasn’t finishing well. This was accompanied by a ridiculous 60% shooting percentage from 3’-10’, more than 20 points higher than his career rate in Minnesota.

Well, Love’s improved on that close-in percentage raising it over 100 points to 56% (still below his lifetime 60% make) while maintaining a 59% shooting percentage in close. That’s just sick. And it’s just like he said, "Get me going inside and I’ll get it going outside." That’s just what has happened.

Moving the Ball, Defense

When James lauds the Warriors, as he is apt to do both by choice and because of frequent beat reporter questions, he speaks about moving the ball and playing defense. That’s what he means by playing right.

Unfortunately, when the going gets tough, the Cavaliers turn to isolation drives and pick-and-roll with LeBron. No matter how well Kevin Love has performed in the prior quarters, he’s almost never invited to these parties, his shots coming more as an afterthought.

For all his tremendous qualities – and he’s without doubt one of the three greatest physical/mental talents the game has ever seen – James falls prey to the same losses of attentiveness on defense and ball-hogsmanship that he complains about. How the hell are they supposed to move the ball if you won’t pass it LeBron?

That part of the Cavs game seems to be regressing. They’ve played three straight games averaging less than 20 assists, and shooting below 44%. Before that they’d only had four games all season with less than 22 assists or 44% shooting. They’ve had 49 or 50 contested shots each of the last three games. They’ve only had that many twice before and those were in the first three games. Two of the last three games set season lows for number of uncontested shots.

Anyway you slice it, the team’s offense has gone downhill, in large part through lazy (lots of turnovers) or infrequent passes (fewer assists and secondary assists).

On the other hand, they’ve played their best back-to-back second halves of defense the last two games. In both games they’ve held the opponent to 38 points in the half. Only the Knicks’ 31-point second half at MSG has been more miserly.

In the last game Blatt used J.R. Smith on Joe Johnson the last couple possessions and it worked. While he can get lost off the ball, J.R.’s a decent on-ball defender, and the gambit paid off. Similary he switched LeBron onto Brook Lopez which mostly worked too, allowing the team to switch all the picks on those last couple plays.

It feels like Blatt’s really getting a feel for what works. Somehow in the winning second half against the Hornets (in which Love sat almost the whole fourth) he strung together a winning combination utilizing arguably the team’s most challenged defender, Richard Jefferson.

So all this bullshit fury and high-intensity moping by the team with the Eastern Conference’s best record maybe serves a pretty good purpose. The Warriors are loose and dangerous, while the Cavaliers appear uptight and bored.

But as they begin to embrace the identity they’ve flashed at times of scrappy physical defenders who can move the ball with the best of them and feature one of the league’s toughest one-on-one covers, they’ll presumably move closer to the Warriors or even past them when Irving and Shumpert return. In the meantime, building mental toughness is never a bad strategy, even if sometimes the grandstanding seems somewhat melodramatic.

You can follow us on Twitter at @CRS_1ne, and read our columns after most games here on the Scene Blog.

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