It’s officially panic time in Cleveland; stop me if you’ve heard that before.
On the heels of an embarrassing thrashing at home against the Rockets, and a road loss to the Magic during which they surrendered a 21-point lead, the Cavaliers seem to be free-falling. They’ve lost 14 of their last 21 games. Add in a fractured hand for Kevin Love, an All-Star and the team’s number two scorer, and you have a recipe for disaster. Even in the thin Eastern Conference, “Believeland” feels like it’s hanging from a thread.
Sure, Cleveland will miss Love’s production for the next six-to-eight weeks (17.9 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 40.4 3P%), but the team’s issues emanate from the other end of the court.
The old adage “defense wins championships” must not mean anything to this squad. Their defense has been subpar for a team that thinks of itself as a championship contender. Every metric is abysmal, including rankings of 26th in opponent’s points per game (109.5) and 28th in total defensive rating (111.7).
In addition, LeBron James may be the league’s best player, but his days of consistently dominating defensively, at least in the regular season, are gone. At 33, he’s much more prone to conserve energy, especially given his top-10 usage percentage (30.9). Since the beginning of last season, his defensive rating has been his worst at 108.
Cleveland has searched for another spark plug defensively, but the two key wing players acquired to address the issue have underperformed. So far this season, Jae Crowder has the first negative defensive box plus/minus (-1.3) and the worst defensive rating of his career (113). Jeff Green has been a nice offensive spark off the bench at times but holds the same defensive rating as Crowder and an even worse plus/minus (-1.6).
The excuse of being the league’s oldest team is overblown. The Spurs have the league’s second-oldest team and their defense ranks second in the league.
Isaiah Thomas’ historically bad defense can’t be solely blamed either. Sure, he’s on pace for the worst defensive rating of the past 25 years and his defensive box plus/minus is nearly 1.5 points worse than it’s ever been (-4.4). However, while it’s fair to attribute some of Cleveland’s struggles to him, Thomas has only recently hit the court. The Cavaliers were one of the league’s worst defensive teams well before his return from injury.
“We’ve been a lowest five defensive team in the NBA the whole (season), so when I come back, it’s my fault now,” Thomas said. “Which, life isn’t fair but that’s not fair bro. At all.”
The Cavaliers are searching for answers and excuses. Quite simply, a Cleveland roster that seemed deeper and more talented this season has underperformed so far. Most basketball savants would call this an issue of effort and pride, something that true championship contenders never have to search for.
Beyond a lack of effort, the Cavs’ defensive struggles can also be attributed to a lack of unity, continuity, and health. James was significantly limited in training camp because of a lingering ankle injury, missing all but one preseason game.
“This was probably the worst training camp for me in my career because of the injury,” James said at an early-season shootaround. “I didn’t get a chance to do some of the things I like to do, and with the summer I had, I kind of had a setback.”
Additionally, multiple Cavaliers spent too much time on the injury report in the first half of the season, most notably Tristan Thompson, Iman Shumpert, and Derrick Rose. The team also began the season starting Dwayne Wade instead of J.R. Smith. That much fluency in a lineup hurts chemistry and communication, something that is crucial on the defensive end. Adrian Wojnarowski’s recent report gave insight into what seemed to be a fractured locker room. Several team members challenging the legitimacy of Love’s illness speaks further to the team’s lack of camaraderie and trust.
As the Cavaliers defense continues to struggle, optimism about their chances to win the Eastern Conference withers. Their chief competition — the Celtics and Raptors — would have to be considered favorites against them if the playoffs started today. Boston’s top-ranked defense is the polar opposite of the Cavaliers’ disjointed, lethargic group. They are one of only two teams in the league to give up less than 100 points to their opponents on average (98.5); that defensive intensity has earned them seven more wins than the Cavs.
In a potential playoff matchup, Isaiah Thomas will be key in replacing Kyrie Irving. Irving’s offensive value is undeniable, but his absence is much more evident defensively. Compared to Thomas, Irving’s been a brick-wall defender this season. He’s registered the best defensive rating (104) of his career this year. However, Thomas, when healthy, is an excellent approximation of the offensive production that Irving gave them. Thomas’ defensive deficiencies didn’t prevent the Celtics from finishing in the top half of the league defensively last season, and the Cavs must learn to defend with him on the court. Thomas is a superstar when his legs are under him, and that can’t be forgotten.
Toronto hasn’t slacked either. Months after being embarrassingly swept by James’ Cavaliers in the playoffs, the Raptors have one of the league’s most balanced teams. They rank third in both scoring (111.6 PPG) and defensive rating (105.9).
Nonetheless, Cavaliers fans can be optimistic in the fact that they’ve seen this movie before. Getting out of the East has been routine for this squad for several years, even when the regular season has looked bleak. The Cavaliers finished near the bottom of the league defensively at the end of last year’s regular season before their dominant Eastern Conference playoff run. The 2014-15 Cavaliers finished in the bottom half of the league defensively (18th) before sweeping a 60-win Atlanta Hawks team in the Conference Finals.
If history is to repeat itself, Love will be back and highly productive, and LeBron will be LeBron. Nonetheless, James’ career narrative has been as much about his surrounding pieces as the player himself. If the other pieces don’t come together the way they have in the past, especially defensively, winning the East will be an uphill climb.
Betting against a James-led team is never a safe bet, no matter the odds. Just ask the 2015-16 Warriors or the 2006-07 Eastern Conference. James has always been capable of the improbable, but as of now, the betting odds have never been more enticing.
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