Who Are These Cavs and What Have They Done With My World Champs?

Some are pissed. Some are shellshocked...
Some are pissed. Some are shellshocked...
The truth, it’s said, is something that trickles out a little at first and then comes flooding forth all at once.

Fans’ acceptance of the Cavaliers’ flaws has followed a similar trajectory, through denial and anger at the product on the floor, and finally the past few weeks, bargaining: “They’ll turn it on when the playoffs come around.” Unfortunately that nostrum’s accurate as “an apple a day. (Consider the value of produce versus the cost of health care.) That faith’s looking shakier than a San Andreas, California townhome, as Cleveland fell yet again to the Chicago 99-93.

That was their ninth loss against six wins in March. To the shock of everyone, the Wine and Gold look like a candidate for Life Alert, on the growing awareness that they might not get up. The team’s as complacent as the fandom, simply expecting to win because they’re the world champions. They can’t be bothered most of the time with the hard work of defense, or even, oftentimes getting back in transition. Perhaps they feel if they don’t go back on D, maybe it will be time to play offense sooner, and they’re sorta right.

The month’s all the more shocking because many believed the problems that had bedeviled the team in January were resolved. Kyle Korver’s improved February play resolved a lot of issues, as happens sometimes when someone shoots 59% from three for the month, banking at least four triples in six of the eleven games he played.

But the improving offense (from 104.8 amidst the injuries in January to 119.1 during the white-hot February) helped disguise the fact that the team continued to backslide on defense. Indeed, if you’ve been reading our irregular posts regularly, you know we’ve been sounding the alarm since the end of December.

Look closely at the chart below. When Lue took over the team, it was allowing 99.7 points per game. Lue increased the pace but the net rating didn’t budge +5.8, same as Blatt. However the defense slid 5 points. The team improved by 1.3 points on defense during the playoffs over Lue’s stewardship to 103.5 (still higher than team’s seasonal defensive rating), but early this year was 106 (and change), and just kept getting worse and worse, like the last two seasons of Lost.
The major concerns remain the same: 1) indifferent transition defense, 2) lousy defense at the point of attack producing lots of penetration and rotating bigs collapsing the lane, opening up: 3) lots of wide open shots at the arc, and 4) lots of offensive rebounds.

It’s fairly obvious that absent a half-court size chastity belt, the Cavaliers are incapable of preventing penetration. After dawdling all year GM David Griffin half-solved the problem of his backup big. He probably needed to solve it earlier, but waited and snagged the best cruller in the bakery case, only for it to go stale before it reached home. That Griffin even proffered the idea that 38-year old Chris “Birdman” Anderson would be a useful piece is fanciful to the point of leprechauns.

Absent a shotblocker there are still things they could do (and still some hope that Larry Sanders could be a serviceable piece on defense), but they’re desperately limited by the ditch Griff dug them. It would appear Tristan Thompson’s knee tender like slow-cooked pork (he denies it, while his lackluster play the last two months affirms it), in part from overuse and his pursuit of ironman record for consecutive games. (Apparently nobody has conveyed to Tristan that injuring his knee could be catastrophic for his athleticism-based game.)

Back from knee surgery Love’s trying but his defensive timing/execution was last seen on a milk carton. What bigs aren’t slowed by injuries are physically unable to defend anything quicker than a court case. (If only Channing Frye were as agile afoot as he is with the quip.)

The last remaining big, Derrick Williams, has been exiled like a stray Q in a Scrabble tray. He may need to find a friendly U before Coach Lue will unshackle him. This is doubly frustrating because the team could appear to use his athleticism, and he was very effective before Deron Williams’ arrival in a tall-lineup with James, Frye, Richard Jefferson and Kyle Korver. Even with the latter two injured Lue couldn’t find time for him until the game was over. Somehow he’s not in the team’s postseason plans besides being the most athletic bench player on a team that by Lue’s own admission had looked a step slow (and athletic as Drew Carey).

The Cavs can theoretically try to turn it on and play harder, come playoffs, but there is that thing LeBron’s been preaching for what, three years? PROCESS. You build good habits so in times of pipe-bursting stress, you make the right decision.

The Cavs on the other hand have fucked off all year, ditching glasses and smoking in the parking lot, secure in the knowledge that they were talented enough to ace the test. It’s like the entire regular season has been their senior year. The habits the Cavaliers built this year only qualify them for idle wealth or the soapbox derby, where coasting’s expected.

All those bad habits have coalesced over a season of practice into a defense whose rotational efforts seem closer to cover-your-ass than close-out-the-shooter. While all over Twitter and on television much was made out of the Cavaliers first half effort versus the Bulls, we felt the plaudits were praise looking for a rationale.

People want to believe. We sided more with Bulls Coach Fred Hoiberg who said they missed a lot of open shots. Borderline(?) scrubs like Rajon Rondo, Paul Zipser, Michael Carter-Williams and rookie Denzel Valentine shot 2-18 in the first half while the rest of the team shot 14-29. Zipser also had four first half turnovers, including at least two on fastbreaks.

That quickly turned around when Rondo started breaking down the defense and trying to score at the rim. In the first half he was 0-4 with 6 assists, in the second he was 3-9 with 9 assists. The team tends to overreact to penetration leaving opponents wide open around the arc. The presently allow the third most wide-open threes/game (a few weeks ago they were seventh) at 14.1, and the second-highest FG% on those, 41.9%. They also allow the third most open threes and only allowed the seventh-highest FG% on those (37.3%).
In addition the Cavaliers are 19th in limiting opponent fastbreak points (13.7) and opponent points in the paint (44.4), the latter of which is trending badly. The Cavs have allowed 46.3 points in the paint since the all-star break, and the second-most second chance points (14.8) in the league over that time. That’s because the Cavaliers are 25th in defensive rebounding, something that’s been a problem all season, not just since Love went down. Part of it is that Thompson spends so much time on the perimeter on switches he doesn’t get as much chance to rebound.

So What Are You Saying?

This team hasn’t played defense all year long. Certainly not transition defense, and they’re also one of the worst in the league at the pick-and-roll. One hopes they can increase the intensity, but even that isn’t a salve-all.

Defense is about communication and trust as much as energy and effort. When mates are always out of position and not covering their own man, players will start hedging over anticipating failure and poor communication. It’s harder to play one’s own man while watching for another’s mistakes.

There is a serious structural problem in the team due to the inability of Kyrie Irving and whoever is beside him to keep opponent guards under control. Without a big to cover their mistakes everyone has to work harder. It can be done, but it pretty much requires positive effort, not CYA or possibly resentful effort. It requires humility.

This team has the talent but not the head or heart right now. Maybe it’s the crown, maybe not, but the idea that they deserve anything or have an open avenue to the finals seems part and parcel of the self-congratulatory attitude that’s seen them go 19-19 on the road, as well as over the last 38 games.

Hopefully the scales are falling from the Cavaliers eyes like the have the fans, who are suddenly contemplating for the first time the possibility the Cavaliers won’t make it out of the Eastern Conference.

That’s possible, but hardly likely. The defense isn’t good enough to win a championship right now, but we still have hope that the combination of 10 minutes of rim protection a night from Larry Sanders, several days of good practice if they can escape the first round unscathed, and fear of LeBron’s unhappy scowl will be enough to whip this team into mediocrity on defense.

If the offense can find its schwang, that should at least be enough to get to the Finals.

The Best Defense (We Got) Is a Good Offense

It’s grown to be more than an apocryphal comment. When assistant Mike Longabardi suggested last year that the best thing for the defense was better offense, he could’ve been writing the team’s epitaph. Since Lue took over, the PhoenixSuns-ization of the team has revitalized the offense while the defense began to look like East Cleveland. At this point, you kinda just have to go with it.

It’s true that when the Cavaliers are scoring other teams (generally) can’t fastbreak on them, taking away one of their biggest defensive weaknesses. Similarly, this team’s defensive effort seems to be unhealthily wed to their offensive success. So perhaps instead of leaning on the immovable object Lue needs to motivate indirectly by making offense more fun. (Note that part of his reasoning for upping the pace was that everybody got to touch the ball more, which reduced anxiety about touches and thus improved the overall product.)

He might do that by opening the cupboards the last couple weeks. Yeah, he’s made a habit of finding a useful set or play and then putting it on the shelf never to be seen again. Stuff like James picking for Deron Williams, Korver/Frye weakside screens, baseline double screens to free Kyrie and at least a dozen more. He’s saving them for the playoffs, but pulling some of this out might help jump start the offense.

As you can note in the aforementioned monthly scoring chart above, the Cavs struggles in February was related to the declining offense. Even though the defense has declined all year, it’s been the months when the offense failed that have sunk them. They only scored 104.8 in January and so far only 109.3 in March, two-and-a-half points worse than their worst other month. (Meanwhile the defense is a whopping four points worse than the month before, declining as precipitously as fax machine sales.)

The only thing the Cavs can really change is the offense. Last year that’s what keyed the team’s playoff run – a huge 4.4 point jump from 108.1 to 112.5 points per 100 possessions (pCp) on offense. The thing is they’re already averaging 110.7 pCp on offense for the season – how much uproom could there be?

Surprisingly, quite a lot. In February the Cavaliers scored an almost absurd 119.1 pCp. While it would be impossible to keep that up for an entire season, it’s not so inconceivable across a 20-something game postseason. They would still have to improved on March’s 113.7 pCp, but if they could get up to 114-116 pCp, any Eastern Conference team (outside maybe Washington and Toronto) would have trouble competing with that kind of efficiency.

The Final Analysis

We believe that’s what it’s going to take – one of the best offensive performances the playoffs has ever seen. They did that last year with their 3-shooting binge, and provided that Korver gets back healthy (not even to mention J.R. Smith rediscovering a stroke he’s been missing all season) this team could be even more dangerous from three. This team can play defense in spurts, and maybe for three games straight, but we lack confidence in them because their flaws are partially structural and we don’t believe Irving can turn over a new defensive leaf overnight.

Which leaves it up to the offense, which we know can be sublime. But can they be special enough to make up for the sour eggs defense?

We also need to hope that all the wear and tear on James doesn’t overly impact him. He’s only made one of his last 17 three-point attempts and his shooting percentages have been falling from a December peak. His shot charts suggest that all his outside shooting is feeling the decline. (While he’s actually become better at finishing of late – perhaps out of necessity and increased desire.)
This team’s Attention-Deficit Disorder and inability to focus unless pressed against the wall makes them very hard to evaluate. While you might say they will turn it on come playoffs, you’d kind of think they’d take steps in that direction, yet still no movement. Perhaps we can wait for Lue’s defensive wrinkles to save the day. You could also wait for Godot.

The one thing we’ll tell you without doubt or reserve? You will never get rich betting against the King. In the meantime, perhaps we'll have to wait until the playoff dust settles before we start making any conclusions.

We’ll be on WAKR-1590 tonight at 6:30pm with Sam and Brad before the game with the Philadelphia 76ers. Then tomorrow (Saturday, April 1) we’ll be at the Barnes & Noble in Westlake at Crocker Park, from 1pm to 3pm. On Sunday we’ll be at the Barnes & Noble in Upper Arlington (Columbus, Ohio) from noon to 2pm. Next we’ll be at campus bookstores at the University of Akron (Wednesday 2pm-4pm) and Case-Western Reserve (Thursday 1pm-3pm), and on Thursday night we’ll be at Last Exit Books in Kent from 6pm to 8pm. Also please listen to the Defend Cleveland show on WRUW 91.1, where we appear every Monday at 11am.

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