Slow Your Roll: Are the Cavaliers Title Favorites Now?
After a sub-par first half of the season, the Cleveland Cavaliers completely revamped their roster at the trade deadline. They shipped away six of their players, and got four in return. They trade away many of their veteran pieces, who were underperforming, in exchange for some youth. They shipped out Iman Shumpert, Derrick Rose, Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye, Dwyane Wade, and Jae Crowder. They also gave up their 2018 first-round pick. The players they got back were Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood, and Grant Hill. The trades were absolutely necessary, as the Cleveland Cavaliers had become one of the worst teams in the NBA since Christmas.
Now, I thought that these were decent trades. They got rid of many players who just clearly did not fit the real needs of the 2018 Cleveland Cavaliers. Isaiah Thomas was a clubhouse cancer during his time in cleveland, so shipping him out was a no-brainer, as I stated in the podcast. Trading him away made sense, and in return, they got a nice bench scorer in Jordan Clarkson, who is essentially a better version of Isaiah Thomas and Derrick Rose at this point in their careers. They had to send Channing Frye and their first-round pick to sweeten the deal, because that is how bad of an impression Isaiah Thomas left in Cleveland. They also got Larry Nance Jr. from the Lakers, who is an explosive dunker, but that is really all he does on offense. They then gave up a lot of veterans who weren’t playing well for Rodney Hood and Grant Hill. Hood was traded away from a Jazz team that is currently thriving, and Hill was saved from the NBA’s version of the witness protection program, the Sacramento Kings.
While the Cavaliers brought in a lot of talent, and got younger, there were still questions about how they would fit in with the team, and how long it would take for them to develop chemistry. They all played in their first game on Sunday, February 11 in Boston against the Celtics. The Celtics were sitting atop the Eastern Conference heading into the game, while the Cavaliers were third. The two faced off and the Cavaliers ran away with it. The new additions were incredible, and combined for 49 points on 17/35 shooting. They looked like they fit in perfectly, and not just on the offensive end, they also looked competent on defense, holding the celtics to just 40.4% shooting from the field, and 26.3% shooting from three. The Cavaliers won the game 121-99, so it was clear that they just outplayed the Celtics. This was the first game in a Cavaliers jersey for all the new additions, so it would be easy to jump to a conclusion about how this team will perform for the rest of the year.
While it is easy to say that the Cavaliers are now the clear-cut favorites in the Eastern Conference, it is not that simple. Their new additions played really well, which is great, but this is a very small sample-size to work with in determining how the team will fare for the rest of the year. So, small sample-sizes be damned, I’m going to break down the individual numbers and explain why I don’t think the Cavaliers should be the heavy-favorites that everyone makes them out to be.
For starters, Jordan Clarkson was incredible tonight, scoring 17 points on 7/11 shooting, which included going 3/4 from three. Throughout his career, which is only about four years long at this point, he has been very consistent. He has shot between 43.3% and 44.8% each year, and is much more of a slasher than a shooter. He also is not great from beyond the arc, shooting 33.2% in his career. Over his career, he has made one three per game, so his 3/4 performance tonight, is much better than what he will do on a game-to-game basis. All of his numbers from the Celtics game were well above his career averages, so, it will not continue, he will return to the mean. He had the best game of any of the three additions, while the other three players had games that basically lined up with their career averages. Rodney Hood had 15 points on 6/11 shooting, which is almost exactly in line with his career average. Larry Nance Jr. had 5 points on 2/5 shooting, which, like Rodney Hood, was basically in line with his career average. With George Hill, it was more of the same, as he finished with 12 points on 3/8 shooting.
Now, I know what you are thinking, “So, if 3/4 new additions played in line with their career averages, and the other one not being the difference in the game, what does any of that have to do with the argument here? They are still a better team then they were on Wednesday.” That is absolutely correct, they are a better team than they were before the deadline, the thing is with the Cavaliers though, is that when a new player joins the team, their individual numbers decline. That is for a myriad of reasons, but the most important one, is that the Cleveland Cavaliers do not run an actual offense. The Cleveland Cavaliers’ offense runs through LeBron James, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. James is one of the best passers/decision makers that the NBA has ever seen, so he is able to set the offense in motion thanks to his ability to drive to the hole and create open shots on the perimeter because of all the attention he requires when near the basket. The numbers that all the new additions put up today will likely be higher than they will average during their time on the Cavs this year. LeBron James suffers from the same flaw that players like Russell Westbrook have, where they turn good all-around players, into spot-up shooters. The issue with the new additions to the Cavaliers, is that they are not all great spot-up shooters. Clarkson is a slasher, meaning that he scores most of his points at the rim, and he only shoots 33% from deep. Hood is a career 37% shooter from deep, but most of his scoring is done from inside the three-point line, so his fit is much better with the second unit than the starting lineup, meaning he will get less minutes, and therefore, less shots. George Hill is having his best year while shooting the ball from long range at 45%, while his career average is 38.4%. His numbers this year are pretty inflated because he was on the Sacramento Kings, and someone on that team had to be a competent shooter, so he stepped up, but he is bound to regress to the mean, which is still 38%. All of those players have also been playing on teams with an actual offensive system throughout the majority of their careers, so that also will inflate their numbers, whereas in Cleveland, where they run all of their “plays” through LeBron, and rely on isoball, their numbers will deflate.
Now, because the Cavaliers will make the postseason, the other key thing to look at here will be their playoff numbers as well as dealing with the reintegration of Kevin Love, who will take more shots away from the new additions. George Hill has played 83 games in the postseason throughout his career, so that is a fairly large sample size, as it is just over a full season. He has averaged 13.1 ppg on 44% shooting overall and 37.3% from three. His numbers are basically the same as in the regular season, which means that he isn’t really set up for the usual “flipping of the switch” LeBron’s teams do in the playoffs, and he will be pretty consistent. That is a good thing, and he will be good for them, as long as he is healthy. Rodney Hood has only been to the playoffs once, and he was not good. He played in 11 games, shot 35.2% overall and 26% from deep, while averaging 8.9 ppg. Now, he has only played in 11 games, so it’s a relatively small sample-size, but that’s the whole basis of this article. Based on his numbers in the playoffs, he is not nearly as effective, which means that against the better teams in the league, in the biggest moments, he is not as good. Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. have never been to the playoffs, so there’s nothing to predict how they will fare come springtime. Now, the playoffs will be an entirely different animal for the new additions because not only will they be on a new team, they will have to focus on reintegrating Kevin Love.
Kevin Love broke his hand on January 30, and would be out for 6-8 weeks. He is a big part of the Cavaliers’ offense, especially when he is the 2nd option, which he now is. With just 27 games left, there is very little time for the new guys to adjust to the rest of the team and playing with LeBron every night. When they do finally adjust and get going, as I expect them to, they will have to bring back Kevin Love, and he will take shots away from the rest of the team, leading to lower effectiveness with guys like George Hill. This is not the biggest issue facing the Cavaliers, I think that this actually won’t be as big of an issue as people think it will be. Their real issue though, is on the defensive end, their defense is still going to be abysmal, because none of the players they brought in are known for playing great defense. The Cavaliers are 28th in defensive rating, and I don’t see that improving much at all.
Do they have enough to be the team that comes out of the Eastern Conference, absolutely. I thought that they could still make it to the finals before they made these trades, and they definitely increased their odds at the deadline. Will they be able to beat the top teams of the East though? Well, they beat the Celtics today, pretty easily, and that is not as big of an accomplishment as many people are making it out to be. The Celtics started the year off incredibly hot, but they made a trip to London to play the 76ers, and ever since, they have gone 6-8. They have cooled off, and were beaten pretty badly by the Toronto Raptors in their last game. I don’t think that the Celtics are real contenders for the Eastern Conference title at this point, they are too young and aren’t great enough on offense to really beat the Cavaliers four times in seven games. The team that I think is the best in the East right now, is the Raptors. Yeah, I know this happens every year, a team has a really good regular season and then gets smacked by LeBron in the playoffs, and the Raptors have been on the receiving end of these things several times. This year though, something feels different. DeMar DeRozan is playing like an MVP, and they have a lot of good pieces around him, as well as being the best team in the NBA at home. If they can hang on to the No. 1 seed, then I think they have as good a shot as anyone because of their home-court advantage. I think the Raptors would come out of the East if the season ended today.
Now, how likely am I to be wrong about the Raptors beating the Cavs in a playoff series? Very likely, LeBron is probably going to explode in the playoffs again to blow past every Eastern Conference team like he always does. He can carry an otherwise mediocre team to the Finals with relative ease. The real issue for the Cavs though, is that they aren’t in a very good position to beat the Warriors, or even the Houston Rockets. The real reason that I am writing this article is because I saw one incredibly ridiculous take on Twitter.
No, there is no way that this Cavaliers team could sweep the Golden State Warriors. In fact, it is hard to imagine them winning more than one game. We saw what happened last year, and the same thing happens all the time with the Warriors. It is a cycle, and it goes a little something like this: Cavaliers make a trade…“This is the deepest team that LeBron has been on”...Cavaliers lose to the Warriors…“They jumped him! He doesn’t have help.” Wash, rinse, repeat. It is like clockwerk, the cycle never ends. Now, there are several reasons that the Cavs won’t beat the Warriors, and the trades that they made did not help solve any of the problems that the Warriors give the Cavaliers. The Warriors still have three different players who can score 50 points on any given night, have the best defensive player in the league, and a veteran bench that knows what it takes to win and has stepped up in the biggest moments. Last year, the Cavaliers threw everything they could at the Warriors, and only won one game, and it took an NBA-record number of made threes and some questionable refereeing for that to happen in game four. Last year’s Cavaliers team was better than the team they have this year, and I don’t feel like there is much to question about that. The Warriors only really feared two players on the Cavs, and they traded one of them away. Kyrie Irving has hit the biggest shots on the biggest stage and is a wizard with the ball in his hands. The Warriors have always been unable to stop him, and even with him playing well and having LeBron average a triple-double in the finals, they couldn’t beat the Warriors. All the Warriors really have to do is put Steph and KD in pick-and-roll, and they are practically unbeatable, as we saw in game five when this was truly unleashed.
All in all, the Cleveland Cavaliers definitely got better thanks to these trades, and they definitely put themselves back in contention for the Eastern Conference championship, but thinking that they could beat the Warriors is an incredible overreaction. The team has played one game, and while they did beat the Celtics, that does not mean that they have a chance against the Warriors. I think that given the current makeup of the Cavaliers, and the current makeup of the Warriors, a potential series would last no longer than five games. Cavaliers fans, you need to slow your roll.