The Cavaliers have played well and the rumored addition of future Hall of Famer Ray Allen certainly won’t hurt the future prospects of the team. Vegas has installed the Cavs and Warriors as presumptive finals contestants, and who are we to argue?
The Cavs sit in fifth place in the East at this moment, but they’re only four games behind Toronto, who’ve played seven more home games than road games. They’ll have every opportunity to move ahead of the Bulls and Wizards, playing them three more times, beginning with Friday’s All Star break-ending matchup in Washington.
In anticipation, and to cap off the two-thirds mark in the regular season (though it’s only the midway point for those going to the Finals), we’ve done an evaluation of the team’s major strengths and weaknesses.
Scoring. This team scores quicker than vintage shirtless D’Angelo if he walked into your neighborhood bar. They’ve got the 6th most explosive offense for the season (107.2 points/100 possessions) and the best over the last 15 games (112.5). Though their defense allowed 101.6 (12th) the differential (10.9) trailed only the league’s winningest team, the Golden State Warriors, during that stretch. Similarly their effective FG% (which takes into account the value of 3s), or eFG%, is 51.1% for the season (6th) and 54.1% (2nd to Atlanta) during that time.
LeBron James. This maybe is the only category one needs. He’s been to the finals the last four years and he looks primed to return. That wasn’t so much the case early in the season, but since taking his physical/mental two-week breather, the results have been more in keeping with James’ high standards. His shooting’s been a little better (season best 55.3% eFG% in January before regressing in February to season-worst 48.2%, as his usage rate jumped to 37.0), his defense has been better (Opp. FG% -5.3% vs. -1.8 for season). He’s the leagues second leading scorer and ninth in assists/game (7.3).
Kyrie Irving. I hesitated to put him on here, but only 4 guys who make at least two 3-pointers a game are shooting a higher percentage (41.4) than Kyrie – Klay Thompson, Kyle Korver, JJ Redick and Kevin Martin – and all those guys do is score. Kyrie also runs the offense some of the time. While his Assist/Turnover ratio (2.3) isn’t great (16th among starting PGs) it’s a career-best, he’s still getting 5.3 assists a game while shooting near a career-high FG%, averaging 21.7 points, and playing more minutes than ever.
Offensive Rebounding. Since the trade, the Cavaliers have become an offensive rebounding force, among the top four in offensive rebounding rate, and better than every other contender in the league. Thompson (3.6/gm), Timofey Mozgov (3.0/gm) and Kevin Love (2.1/gm) offer a potent backboard-pounding trio that only the Bulls in the Eastern Conference can challenge. The problem is that only Love is a good defensive rebounder, something the Bulls exposed in the Cav’s last game before the break.
Defensively Energized Love & Irving. It doesn’t get much ink but these two players have gone from among the worst in the league to playing like the best these past four weeks. Love’s turnaround has been more gradual, while Irving’s coincides with the return of LeBron and the addition of T-Mo. Love is not a leaper, but he’s made good rotations and shown the ability to play defense with good positioning.
According to NBA.com Kevin Love’s D increased opponents FG% by 3.1%, he’s reduced that to +0.4% for the season and over the last 15 games that’s -5.3%, including -14.6% within 6 feet, which would be better than just about every power forward in the league should he maintain it. Such a shame nobody has noticed.
Nobody likes to say anything about it – though Austin Carr’s noted it on the broadcasts – but the team’s run was very much about Irving’s improved pressure at the point of attack. Last year, Kyrie Irving was very bad when he got broken down, allowing opponents a 9%-10% boost in their FG% inside 10’ and 6’. The lack of an enforcer obviously plays a role, but the eye test tells you it’s something more. This year those numbers are 7%/5% and over the last 15 games, they’re -0.3/-4.6%. That’s a 10% and15% turnaround from last year.
Bench. Though GM David Griffin is undoubtedly looking for a big man, it’s hard not to be excited about the small ball possibilities posed by Iman Shumpert, Ray Allen and JR Smith. Playing two of them with Kyrie Irving would push LeBron James to power forward– a position he’s manned 3% of the time this season after playing there at least 70% of his time in Miami. Coach David Blatt’s going to need to show some flexibility there, and will need to lengthen his rotations to accommodate all these players, including, we’ve been led to assume, a backup point guard and a more functional big guy than Brendan Haywood. If they do land another point guard, as is rumored, this would seem to spell doom for Dellavedova, given the logjam at wing. Between the aforementioned players and Thompson’s steady play, the bench is much much deeper than five weeks ago. They won’t necessarily score a lot, but they have defense and three-point threats for the drive-and-kick manner the Cavs often like to play.
Turnovers. The team has been in the bottom third of the league in % of baskets that feature an assist all season, and even worse since LeBron’s return. However they really don’t make that many turnovers. The team’s Assist/Turnover ratio is 1.54 right about where its been all season – middle of the pack, but nothing to concerned about in general. They don’t create many turnovers either, landing 21st in turnovers/created per 100 possessions. This limits their ability to run as much as they’d like, though Kevin Love’s help create a number of breaks single-handedly with great outlet passes off of defensive rebounds.
Defense. This is the real question for the Cavaliers. For the year, the Cavaliers are 20th in opponents’ eFG%. But when they’re focused in on D like they were during the streak, they’re as good as any team in the league – and that’s not hyperbole. During the last 15 games, opponents’ eFG% was 46.1%, second-best to Charlotte during that stretch and better than seasonal leaders – Golden State (46.4%), Portland (46.7%) and Chicago (47.6%). If they can maintain that intensity, they’ll make the finals. But they have shone a tendency to lose focus, which you just can’t do come playoff time because it will cost you games.
Kevin Love’s Road Offense. Somehow lost in Twittergate was the real culprit, in Kevin Love’s seasonal woes – putrid road shooting. He is just having a helluva time getting it going on the road. He’s not really taking any less shots (12.9 vs. 13.2) when you factor the increased free throws (5.6 vs 4.7). He’s shooting 29% from 3 and 39% overall on the road, 46% and 39% at home, 17.8 points/game at home, 16-even on the road. He’s also averaging an assist less (1.8/2.8).
3-point Shooting. This may surprise you but the Cavaliers are pretty mediocre 3-point shooters (35.3%, 14th), though they certainly shoot enough of them (26.9/100 possessions, 5th). However, they’ve shot 37.4% the last 15 games, and the addition of Ray Allen should only improve this facet.
Free Throw Shooting. Didn’t realize this was an issue because we haven’t had many games I can remember hinging on free throws, but this is sure to change in the playoffs. Right now the team is 18th in the league in FT% (75.3) and have been even worse (73.7) the last 15 games. For a team that shoots the sixth most free throws in the league, that’s an issue.
LeBron James. This is a bit of a joke, but there’s a kernel of truth, especially when James tries to do too much – as he did in February when his usage rate spiked and his shooting percentage went down. On the other hand, this is a guy that willingly shoulders the load. On the road he’s averaging five more points (28.9/23.8), shoots 2% better (50/48) and gets another free throw every night than at home. Balancing his offensive aggression and sharing tendencies is an ongoing process. The spike in turnovers is also worrisome. LeBron committed a very manageable 3.7 turnovers in November and December but spiked to 4.4 in January and 5.7 in the six February games.
Schedule. The Cavaliers remaining opponents have the highest win percentage of any Eastern Conference team according to playoffstatus.com. They’ve played five more home games than road games too, which will even out the next 4 weeks, during which they’ll play three homes games and 11 road games. These away contests include playoff teams Houston, Toronoto, Atlanta, Dallas, San Antonio, Miami, and the home games feature the Warriors and Suns. This will be an interesting yardstcick before a more leisurely home stretch (76ers, Celtics twice, Brooklyn, Detroit).
Tomorrow I’ll handicap the other Eastern Conference contenders and pose potential playoff matchups. You can follow me on twitter @CRS_1ne and read my columns on the Scene blog the day after every Cavaliers game.