Oasis in the Sh**storm: Undefeated Cavs Hunt Hawks Tonight

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Like everything else in life, there’s hardly enough time to enjoy the victories before you’re being rushed off to battle again. Can’t a man sit and eat a McGriddle in peace? Whether it’s supper, lunch or breakfast, on some frequency we’re Dazed & Confused’s David Wooderson (a 24-year old Matthew McConaughey), wondering how it is we keep getting older while the meals never change.

We’re ceaselessly borne backwards on airport people movers more aware of the receding vistas than where we’ll be stumbling off. Sports is even more merciless than life in that way thanks to shorter, more variable product cycles.

When we’re all dying flames from birth, how can you not marvel at a supernova, as you struggle to penlight your way through life? We imagine someone familiar with bending time and space only rages that much harder against the dying of the light. But we know the feeling.

So as the tsunami that crushed upon a befuddled 73-win Warrior team – the towering wave’s shadow crossing their face quickly and forcefully with baleful recognition (“Weren’t we up 3-1?”) – breaks upon the Larry O’Brien’s shore and retreats into another NBA season, let’s stand on the shore once more and look out at Golden State’s puffy, moldering corpses and marvel at the devastation nature wrought upon those smug bastards. (Too far?)

Or, put more simply, “take a picture, it will last longer.”

The moment’s up. While the Cleveland Cavaliers will be Champions for another eight months, a title defense ain’t nothing to fool with. (Mike Tyson, introducing Buster Douglas.) Certainly not with the Warriors hungry to even the score and the NBA probably wondering what kind of ratings they could draw on an epic trifecta.

Call it: “Man’s World II: Warriors Throw Down Their Rattle.” (Submit your silly marketing tagline to Adam Silver! Note: All entries become the property of the NBA.)

And so it begins again. Not just the 2016-2017 season, but our coverage of the season. Those of you who read our last column on June 20, written in the hours after the climactic victory, may remember we signed off and said we wouldn’t be back. We were writing a book. Well, we did.

Our summer vacation was spent penning a chronicle of the historic season we just witnessed. We wrote every day for 10 weeks to finish a 100,000+ word, 300-page book about the season entitled, King James Brings The Land a Crown.

We maybe half-expected to get a book deal, but what we thought was woodwork proved to be guys ready to cash in on a story we spent two years chasing. They own far bigger profiles (if not vocabularies) than us. What little interest we found ultimately swiped left.

So we did the same thing we did in covering the Cavs. We emptied our soul into it and brought as much verve and cleverness as our pen could contain. We explored how to self-publish it, hired people to help and in a couple weeks the first hardcover copies will be shipped.

(The e-books are already available, but don’t include the 16 pages of color photos. Order either from the book's website, and tell your friends the easy-to-remember satellite site name: cavschampions.com.)

Absent a publishing house marketing budget, the best way to publicize the book seemed to be to go right back to what we’ve been doing the last couple years, and return to covering the Cavaliers beat (e.g., Godfather III’s Michael Corleone).

There’s no paycheck in this beyond book sales, so it’s harder to justify the ridiculous hours we’ve poured into this since James’ return. Certainly not for the 82-game exhibition season. Our plan is to write a couple columns a week, with broader focus. There’s less urgency for game-by-game dissections now that the curse’s weight has lifted – at least until the playoffs start.

That merely means less episodic in-season focus and hopefully more time to look at what’s going on with the team statistically and on the floor. We do love diagramming action and posting video. And as always we’ll be active in-game on Twitter with live video and analysis.

First Semester Pop Quiz

The Cavaliers are undefeated through the first six games without necessarily establishing how good they are. There have been sublime moments – such as a ridiculous 27 first-half fastbreak points against the Sixers – yet they only won on a Channing Frye 3-pointer with 65 seconds left, the final score in a 102-101 win. That's emblematic. There are palpable losses of focus that recall some of the team’s less attentive regular season moments last year.

Over the next two weeks the Cavaliers will play several upper shelf Eastern Conference teams including last year’s playoff foes, the Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks and Toronto Raptors, all at home. They’ll also face the underrated Charlotte Hornets at home, and play road games against probably final playoff spot competitors the Washington Wizards and the Indiana Pacers on the road.

Both the Wizards and Pacers are substantially less talented, but nonetheless gave the Cavaliers trouble at times last season. The Pacers game a week from Wednesday is the backend of a back-to-back with the Raptors on the frontend that could tax the team. It’s also the third game in four nights. They host Detroit two nights later, though with Ish Smith filling in until Reggie Jackson recovers from knee surgery the Pistons boast much less horsepower.

After that four-games-in-six-nights suite, the Cavs get five days off before the Portland Trailblazers come to town on Thanksgiving eve. Quick guards give the Cavaliers trouble and there’s hardly a quicker backcourt out there. The Trailblazers own the sixth-best effective FG% (eFG, which adjusts for three-pointer’s better value) behind the Rockets, Celtics, Warriors, Cavaliers and Hawks, in that order.

Charlotte never receives much credit but they play very well and don’t commit many fouls. Only the Bulls allow few free throw attempts per FG attempt. (The Cavaliers commit fifth fewest so far this season.) The Hornets also draw the fifth most fouls. That disparity combines with their league-low TO rate for a nearly four-possessions/game advantage. That compensates for the fact that they’re pretty middle of the pack shooting-wise.

The Pacers are a mess, as they seem to suddenly have discovered that PF Thad Young has never been on a team that played defense. The Wizards and Pacers allow the highest eFG (53.5%) in the league. That’s even higher than the Cavs fourth-place, 53% eFG.

Toronto is always a challenge, but Jared Sullinger’s injury (Surprise? Have you watched his career?) has frustrated their forever ongoing search for a power forward. They are 19th in EFG, just behind Sacramento and their foul-drawing –usually a calling card—hasn’t been in force yet this year.

Watchout for the Hawks?

The surprise team could be the Atlanta Hawks, who the Cavaliers face tonight. Just as the Cavaliers have made moves that seem built to address their competition, the Warriors, the Hawks acquisition of Dwight Howard seems in some ways a counter-move on the Cavaliers, who must seem like Royce Bolton to them by now, they way they’ve crushed the life out of them 8-0 in the playoffs the past two years.

However, by essentially trading Al Horford for Dwight Howard the Hawks get more physical and paint-ready. Two of the Cavaliers three biggest issues this year (we’ll get into them in a few moments) have been defensive rebounds/second chance points and a propensity to surrender points in the paint.

The Hawks are currently the fifth-best offensive rebounding team (Toronto’s fourth) and seventh in second-chance points. (Toronto are 20th, which says just about all you need to know about their power forward struggles.) Atlanta’s also fifth in points in the paint. Last year they were 17th.

Just moving away from the numbers, consider this. Tristan Thompson has PWNED Paul Millsap. But how can you put him on Millsap when Howard is in the game? Maybe Love can cover Howard. He doesn’t have much of an offensive repertoire left, but it would seem like he could just overpower (not so) Big Kev.

And let it be known that designated-LBJ defender Thabo Sefolosha has been playing great. He’s averaging 7.5 points on 57% shooting and 2.8 steals in 22.5 minutes/game while posting a +12.7 in +/-, five points better than his next highest teammate. They have the second best defensive efficiency in the league and the third-best net efficiency (10.9) a smidge behind the Hornets, and 1.2 points ahead of the Wine and Gold.

We don’t expect the Cavaliers to lose to the Hawks, but the conditions are prime for an upset and for everyone to overreact.

Where the Wild Things Roam

For several years there’s been a Cavalier talking point about how chemistry doesn’t happen overnight with a steady repetition of the p-word. (“Process” to the uninitiated.) You might say the process ended when they won the crown.

The offense’s play the first few weeks of the season has confirmed that as they’ve put up the best offensive efficiency in the league. They’re averaging 111.9 points/per 100 possessions, almost four points better than last year’s fourth-place rate. The Warriors, incidentally, are fifth, 3.5 points behind, sitting in the motorcycle’s ‘bitch’ seat.

The Cavaliers continue to push the pace, and it’s a thing to behold for a variety of reasons beyond Love’s full-court bombs and LeBron’s aerial violence. That’s to say it’s something of an oddity statistically. When they scored 27 points fastbeaking in the first half against the Sixers, they only forced four turnovers. They did have a 31-21 rebounding advantage though, and pretty much ran at will of their defensive boards.

While the Cavaliers are forcing slightly more turnovers than they did the year before (14.7 to 13.9 TO per 100 poss.), that hardly accounts for an almost six point jump in fastbreak points (17.5 from 11.8). The immediate factor of course, is pace. While they’re only 12th in possession per 48 minutes with 100.77, they’ve jumped from 95.48, then 28th in the NBA.

When Tyronn Lue came in he preached pace, picking up a thread Blatt had failed to draw out despite making the same pleas. The idea was two-fold. They were the second best team in the league in transition offense efficiency scoring 1.20 points for every transition opportunity. Alas, last year they were middle-of-the-pack in frequency. This year they’re 7th.

(The other reason was because when you fastbreak, the ball moves to open guys and if you don’t get a fastbreak or early/transition offense, the ball is already moving and the team moves quickly into its set, alleviating the early season struggles with slow-starting offensive sets that rarely went beyond the first option.)
If you look deep enough at the above offensive and defensive numbers, you could be struck by how many of them are just about the same as they were last year. That’s speaks both to the team’s consistency, and the fact that they’ve picked right up from last year already in the early going.

A few things jump out, starting on the offensive side. They’ve never been a particularly efficient pick-and-roll offense team, so they’ve cut the frequency way down, and dramatically improved their isolation offense. (Please note that the way Synergy codes isolation plays tends to capture a lot of what others might call post-up, particularly as we understand it plays from the foul line extended.)

The defensive side of the ball has probably seemed much worse than it is, compared to how crisply the offense is playing. Part of the issue, as several observers have noted is an issue with the second team. They’ve not had a lot of time together, the rotations are a work in progress, and there are some guys lacking in lateral quickness on the squad. Indeed the bench is allowing 104 pCp, good enough for 19th in the league, just ahead of Golden State, laughably. (The starters are 10th with 101.5 pCp.)

As you’ll notice, many of the defensive metrics are spot-on last year’s numbers. That makes the things that aren’t like the others more troubling. Chief among these is the team’s defensive rebounding. Anyone who’s watched the team very closely knows that Tristan Thompson’s always been a much better rebounding on the offensive end than the defensive one (in part because he spends an outsized amount of time guarding perimeter players).

Mozgov’s absence is felt a little here (as well as in the offense’s reduced turnover rate!), but the problem is that as many points as the team’s gained on fastbreaks… they’ve given it right back with second chance points, surrendering a startling 6.5 more points than last year. In a deeply related note, the number of points allowed in the paint has spiked as well.

One more thing merits mentioning about the defense. Look at the different plays, the team’s very close to what they were last year. However they’re allowing more fastbreak opportunities than ever before jumping from 18th to 4th – and they weren’t that great at stopping them to begin with. (That hasn’t changed.)

They’re also failing even more miserably handling the ballhandler in the pick-and-roll. This is something you’ll hear the Kyrie-haters foam on about, and there’s some merit in their fury. It’s very early for DFG%, but what there validates the complaints about Irving’s defense so far this season. (It also raises some serious doubts about Channing Frye’s ability to defend bigs, a sort of double-edged sword given the adjustments he forces on others.)

It’s very early in the season so we don’t want to over-emphasize those points too much. The team is undefeated and the World Champions, so any Bobby McFerrins out there can Don’t Worry all they like, they’ll hear no complaints from me. But shameless worriers (and obviously not Warriors) are always vigilant for storms on the horizon. This weatherman’s just pointing to his Doppler radar.

A Few Last Things….

We didn’t say anything about FTA rates because we find them a bit tricky to circumnavigate. On one hand, not fouling is a very good thing, particularly if you can draw a lot of them, like the Bulls and Hornets due, creating a huge nightly disparity at the line. To some extent the Cavs do this, though the disparity is half as large as the Bulls.

The issue is that not fouling could be a sign that a team isn’t playing very physical defense. That’s what our eye-test is telling us about the team. They’re not tagging cutters with a shoulder or a shove. They’re not aggressively working the defensive boards, instead releasing upcourt a bit too quickly.

Also, when the offense gets going and everything comes so easily, it’s occasionally accompanied by a defensive letdown or loss of focus that lets the other team back into the game. Nobody who watched the team last year is the least bit surprised by this, but hopefully Lue can put it in check.

They’re 27th in the league in deflections, another indicator of lacking defensive aggression. They’re also 24th in shots contested. It’s not clear if that’s adjusted in some way for pace or the number of attempts per 48 minutes, but it doesn’t appear to be.

"Overall we need to make sure we have boxes and elbows and are sticking with the fundamentals, and then getting out and doing the extra effort," said Channing Frye after the Boston win. "At the end of the day we have ot make sure we're sticking with our defensive principles and schemes and doing the right things to keep them out of the paint and keep them in front of us."

We’ll just have to see where that goes. It’s still very early and the defense simply is where the offense is yet. But that defensive rebounding bears close watching – that’s the same issue the Warriors had last year.

Finally, we’ve been sometimes quick to express displeasure with Iman Shumpert’s handle/shooting/ability to finish. Last offseason he got himself in great shape than injured his wrist dunking the ball and missed the first three months of the season. Career worst numbers followed.

So the motivation was there and again he came into camp in great shape, but this year he’s healthy and finally has emerges as promised. His defense has at times seemed overrated, but not this year. He’s averaging 1.7 steals/game while playing just 21.7 minutes. That’s not Thabo Sefolosha numbers but they’re damn good.

At times Shumpert has failed to contest shots and allowed too many clean looks going for steals (for my taste) like a guy who plays the passing lanes, which resulted in pedestrian DFG% numbers. He seems to have tempered that impulse this year and is posting his best DFG% since his arrival (-3.6% off players FG%, just .5% off LeBron James’ defense).

Not only that but his jumper looks significantly less wonky particularly off catch-and-shoot situations where he has an extraordinary 75% eFG, thanks to a 55% 3-point FG%.

His dribble pull-ups remain troublesome (37.5 FG%, 43.8 eFG%) and still accounts for a third of his shots, up 3% from last year when he was even worse (30.4% FG, 33.2 eFG%). But last year where he only made half his shots inside 10’, now he’s hitting 80%. Shump only needs to address his turnover ratio (15.9 compared to 12.0 last year, and the highest of his career).

Buy My Book

If this were a concert, this is where we’d be remind about the merch booth. You can find it at the book’s title, kingjamesbringsthelandacrown.com, or by a couple linked satellite sites with memorable names, kingjamescrown.com and cavschampions.com. Both bounce you to the main site where you can buy an e-book or pre-order an autographed copy of the hardcover (or not signed if you like), which ships beginning Thanksgiving weekend.

We’ve never been much of a salesman – how many creative types are? – but this is the only support we get for providing this coverage. If you like it, maybe get this great keepsake for Christmas. It’s written deeply enough to be able to pick it up, and hopefully a decade hence reignite all those thoughts and passions remembering how the season and then playoffs wound to that glorious finish.

We didn’t get a summer vacation so you’ll have to forgive us our somewhat lackadaisical start (letting six games pass). But what has there really been to write about - until there's a little sample? And hey, we brought you something different to think about on a day when you might need it.

We’ll be at Quickens tonight for the Cavaliers game against the Atlanta Hawks. We’ll be working social media on Twitter @CRS_1ne (an homage to hip-hop namesake Kris Parker, aka KRS-ONE). We’ll be posting live game video and analysis, and then will be back soon with another column.

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