What's Wrong with the Cleveland Cavaliers + Thoughts on the rest of their Season
So far this season, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been the best Jekyll and Hyde team in the NBA. They started off the season pretty slowly, and had a 5-7 record through the first 12 games. They were working to integrate their new pieces and they struggled to gel at first. After those first 12 games though, they took off, and had a stretch of winning 17 of 18 games, and looked like they were going to wreck havoc on the East for the fourth straight year. Their record was looking incredible at 23-8, LeBron was looking like he could win his fifth MVP award, but then something took a turn, and in this piece, we are going to look at what is going wrong with the Cavaliers.
To me, the real struggles started on Christmas Day, when the Cleveland Cavaliers lost to the Golden State Warriors without Stephen Curry. The score was 99-92, and the Warriors took them out of their game plan, and outside of Kevin Love, it looked like age caught up to the Cavs. LeBron went 7-18, and only had 20 points, and the pieces around him simply could not pick up the slack. Kevin Love had 31 points, and while he did only go 9-25 from the field, he went 6-11 from three, and was the only player who could do damage from deep against consistently. Only one player on the entire Cavaliers’ roster had a positive +/-, and it was Jose Calderon at +1. Regardless of how poorly the team performed as a unit against the Warriors, there was still hope on the horizon, as Isaiah Thomas, one of the NBA’s top scorers last season, was about to make his season debut.
Isaiah made his return against the Portland Trail Blazers on January 2, and the team won, 127-110. He had a pretty good game, and was obviously rusty, but finished with 17 points on 6-12 shooting. This game was pretty revealing to how the Cavaliers would have to adjust to be able to perform at their best with their new point guard. He was going to need to shoot, a lot. So far this season, he has only played in four games, so obviously this is going to be a small sample size, and in those four games he is 18-51, which is 35.3%. That is not very good, and he is even worse from deep, where he is only shooting 26.1%. This would not be an issue if he was not taking as many shots as he is, and taking opportunities away from his teammates.
In the four games he has played, he has taken 51 shots. In those same games, LeBron is the only Cavalier who has taken more, with 56, and Kevin Love has taken a back seat with only 39 shots. Without Isaiah Thomas, Kevin Love was having his best season as a Cavalier, and this was because he was the clear-cut second option. Now that Thomas is back, he has to take a back seat, and as we saw when Kyrie was on the team, and he is much less effective in that role. This season, he is averaging 19.2 points on 46.2% shooting, and is also shooting the three at 40.6%, his best percentage since 2010-11. In games that Isaiah has played in, he is 16-39, so his field-goal percentage has dipped 5%, to 41%. Another thing with Isaiah is that he does not look nearly as explosive as he did last year, and is not finishing as well around the rim, and if that continues, than I don’t see how the team will be better with him in the lineup.
Now, Isaiah has not been the only problem, and I suspect that he’ll get his shooting ironed out as he gets more time and puts up more in-game shots. I don’t think his explosiveness will come back, because when you have hip issues, they tend to linger and slow down even the greatest players. This is an unbiased take, regardless of how much I hate the Cavs, I have seen hip injuries destroy the careers of some of my favorite athletes. Bo Jackson and Tim Lincecum both saw their careers shortened/end because of hip issues. Now, as I was saying, I do not believe that Isaiah is the only problem with the team. However he does contribute to the team’s biggest problem, defense.
The Cavaliers’ defense is absolutely atrocious, and there is no way around it. They are allowing the fifth-most points per game at 108.5 ppg, and have the second-worst defensive rating at 109.3. Their defensive rating is second worst, behind the Sacramento Kings, who are easily the worst team in the Western Conference. They embarrass themselves on defense several times each game, and in their last several games, LeBron has started yelling at teammates about their incredibly poor defense and their lack of effort. One of the biggest culprits of the poor defense has been Jae Crowder, who has been looking awful for the team as of late. He came from Boston, where he was a very high level defensive player and decent shooter, and his numbers have just plummeted this year. He is posting is worst defensive numbers in the last four years, all while his offensive percentages plummet. For some comparison, the six teams in the league with more wins than the Cavs (Warriors, Rockets, Celtics, Spurs, Raptors, Timberwolves) have an average defensive rating of 102.9, and the Cavaliers currently sit at 109.3. Now, normally they can overcome their bad defense with stellar offense, as we saw last year, but now, the other top contenders (outside of the Celtics) have incredible offenses that can score at will, and when the playoffs roll around, with the way that this Cavaliers team is constructed, they won’t be able to keep up with teams like the Warriors or Rockets. I still think that they could beat any team in the East in a series, but by the time they reach the finals, there will be a lot of miles on the legs of the Cavs, who are a very old team. They will end up getting blown off the floor by whoever comes out of the West.
In all honesty, I think that the competition at the top of the East is as good as it has been in years, and this may be the year that LeBron gets dethroned, and this is because of how they will finish the regular season. I think that when it is all said and done, the Cavs will end up in the third or fourth seed. I think that the Raptors are legit, and will overtake the Celtics for the top spot, but the Celtics will still manage to stay close behind in the second spot. The problem with the Cavs getting a lower seed is that they will face better competition throughout the entire postseason, which means they will not be able to sweep through each round, and then as they advance farther, the top seeds in the conference will have an advantage.
All in all, I think that the Cavaliers will continue to struggle down the stretch, mostly because many of their players were playing well above their career averages to open the season, and that is usually unsustainable. I think that their defense will continue to just absolutely suck, and as rumors swirl about frustrations building between players and as the trade deadline approaches, I expect the Cavs to make a couple small moves to attempt to revitalize their team. I don’t expect them to trade for a superstar like Paul George or Boogie Cousins, simply because I think it’s a bad business decision to get rid of the Brooklyn pick, which does not have as much value as they thought it would. I think that any moves they make have to be made with a defensive mindset, because adding to the offense won’t change anything, as they are unable to hold onto a lead and stop opponents from scoring at this point in the year. I think that tensions between teammates will boil over, and a key piece is going to have to be traded. My guess for that would be Kevin Love, as he is going to have to sacrifice a lot with the return of Isaiah, and you can tell by his body language that he is frustrated and unhappy with relinquishing his shots.
I do not think that this version of the Cleveland Cavaliers has what it takes to win the NBA championship this year, and to be honest, I think that as the year progresses it is going to become even more clear that Danny Ainge completely swindled Kyrie Irving away from them, and that this was a terrible trade for the Cavs. That would be absolutely hilarious to me, especially if LeBron leaves this year and the team is left with all those absurd contracts that they gave aging veterans after their title