The Cavs Used to Be an Elite Shot-Blocking Team. Now They Might as Well Have No Arms

It is the height of irony that the most famous play in Cleveland Cavaliers history is a blocked shot.

The play has been exalted, as infamous individual plays in Cleveland often are, with capital letters and a definite article. We now refer to it as "The Block."

You know of which I speak. LeBron James' archangelic swat of the Andre Iguodala layup in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals was instantly categorized as one of the greatest blocks of all time. ESPN basketball insider Brian Windhorst called it “one of the single most dominant defensive plays in league history.” James himself identified it later in 2016 as the best play of his career. 

And why not? Not only was the block an impossible physical feat, it had a profound impact on the game. In its wake, the Golden State Warriors wilted, failing to score for the short remainder of Game 7, and ultimately blowing their 3-1 series lead, falling victim to the greatest comeback in the history of the NBA.

It was a glorious cap to LeBron's superhuman individual performance in the series, which happened to include 16 blocked shots, (three in each of the series' final four games).

But that was an aberration. The Cavs, in recent years, have become notorious for their failure to protect the rim. Even during the Finals era (LeBron's second tour of duty, 2014-2018), the Cavs were among the five worst NBA teams in blocks per game.

This season, in addition to owning the league's worst win-loss record and countless other indignities, the Cavs are setting a new low bar in blocks. Their badness is such a fringe statistical outlier that one has to assume they'll course-correct to traditional levels of all-time badness. 

It goes without saying that they are dead last in the league. The team's leader is Larry Nance, Jr., a wily, active defender who leads the team in steals as well. Per game, the Cavs next best shot blocker — I would've given $40 to anyone who called it — is Jazz castoff Alec Burks. 

Then comes Tristan, ho hum, who, after blocking 1.1 shots per game in 2016-2017 (his career high), has returned to historic lows, failing to block even half a shot per game. He's putting together a heroic season otherwise, though. His specialty is and always has been the offensive glass. Ante Zizic and David Nwaba are good for 0.3 blocks each, and the rest of the Cavs are lucky to get a single block in a 10-game span.

As a team, the Cavs are blocking fewer shots per game (2.5) than Indiana's Myles Turner (2.8), New Orleans' Anthony Davis (2.7), Miami's Hassan Whiteside (2.6), and the Los Angeles Lakers' JaVale McGee (2.6). They are so far behind every other team that it seems like a mistake. Since 2011, the lowest blocks-per-game average by a team has been 3.5, by the Chicago Bulls last year. This year, the second-worst shot-blocking team, the Brooklyn Nets, manage to block 3.9 shots per game.

How are they this bad at blocking shots? It boggles the mind! Zizic ought to be accidentally blocking a shot every game or two. Jesus. 

The scary thing is that the team's two injured big men, Thompson and Kevin Love, are not shot blockers in the slightest, so even when they return, opposing teams will continue to slash to the rim with zero fear of reprisal. Everyone knows by now that the Cavs just cannot defend the paint.

The team's lowliness in blocks is a recurring, though not permanent, phenomenon. From 2006-2010, the Cavs were actually a top-10 shot-blocking team. This era corresponded with Head Coach Mike Brown's defense-first approach, and included the shot-blocking prowess of not only LeBron, but Zydrunas Ilgauskas (the franchise all-time leader), Anderson Varejao and, fleetingly, Ben Wallace and Shaquille O'Neal. 

It sure would be nice for someone to assert himself as a legitimate rim protector now. Nance? A resurgent Zizic, with his long-ass, straight-ass arms? Maybe even a wildcat like two-way player Jaron Blossomgame, sprinting to swipe at layups from the weak side?

Alas. The Cavs' have plenty of other shit to worry about. The most glaring weakness sure looks like the offense. No one is comfortable or particularly good at shooting threes. (They make the fewest per game in the NBA.)  Collin Sexton has not yet learned how to run an offense, or for that matter how to pass. Everyone seems to prefer dribbling in place and then sort of handing the ball off way beyond the three-point line instead of executing old-fashioned chest passes around the perimeter or bounce passes into the key. (I verified, though didn't have to, that the Cavs are also are the league's worst passing team, with the fewest assists per game.) They never seem to get a shot off before the final two or three seconds of the shot clock, when Jordan Clarkson is often obliged to take matters into his own hands.

It's been rough lately. Despite one or two well-executed plays per night — a Delly pass, a Cedi slash, a Larry dunkaroo — Cleveland fans have returned, indubitably, to an era of what former GM David Griffin once called "just horseshit basketball." 

About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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