Small sample size evaluation can be problematic in some situations. There is always an NBA crowd sensitive to any conclusions or definitive statements made after a fraction of the season. In a league a lot less static in player movement than it was 10 years ago, you can assume something in November only to be the April fool at the end of the season.
For the most part, it’s best to stay away from overreactions and hysterical responses after eight of 82 games. A lot of teams had high roster turnover this season and need time to experiment with the ingredients before they settle on one recipe.
Nevertheless, the Cleveland Cavaliers aren’t handing out tasteful samples to begin the year. Less than 10 percent of their schedule is in the books, but it’s the most bewildering start of any LeBron James season. Despite almost scoring at will — 66 percent from inside the arc — James finds his Cavs at 3-5.
Their five losses are to Orlando, Brooklyn, New Orleans, New York, and Indiana. Only one of those teams (the Pacers) made the playoffs last year, and it lost a top 12 superstar in the offseason. Three of those losses have come at home, a place where the Cavaliers were a combined 95-28 (.772) since James returned to Cleveland in 2014.
The binary wins and losses don’t matter to Cleveland in the first two weeks of the season. And they shouldn’t. Embarrassment and greatly underperforming in the easiest stretch of a long schedule does, however. Through eight games, the Cavaliers have been outscored by 55 total points.
This is after just one Western Conference road game. The West is absurdly dense, and Cleveland has struggled in interconference play in previous seasons. Last year’s 51-win Cleveland team, with a healthy Kyrie Irving all year, had a 16-14 record against the West. In road games versus West teams? They went 4-11. It’s not a good sign for this Cavs team, which is older, more injury prone, and less top-heavy with talent, when they have to play tougher competition.
If the struggles continue against lottery-projected East units, a mediocre record out West later in the season could leave them in the 45-47 win neighborhood. That’s unfathomable for a team with LeBron, fresh off a triple-double average in the Finals.
Dwyane Wade turns 36 in January and has a history of knee issues. Derrick Rose frequently misses a chunk of games. Isaiah Thomas doesn’t return until at least January and has to be cautious of his hip. Now, Tristan Thompson is out 3-4 weeks with a calf strain.
Three of those players are emphatically negative defenders in 2017, all for different reasons. Wade has too many miles on his body and can’t generate the consistent effort and intensity to defend pick-and-rolls. Rose often wanders out of defensive position, can’t stay in front of anyone, and puts a lot of pressure on Cleveland’s frontline to defend the paint. Thomas has size limitations that his effort simply can’t make up for.
So far, 10 players have logged over 100 minutes for the Cavs. The average age of those 10 players is 30.6 years, making them the oldest rotation in the league.
Expectations heading into the season weren’t stellar for Cleveland. New General Manager, Koby Altman, attempted to patch the roster’s holes on the fly. You can’t place too much of the blame on management considering three things:
- Owner Dan Gilbert didn’t make the process easy by parting ways with David Griffin, the most competent GM during LeBron’s tenure in Cleveland.
- Irving’s trade request caught everyone by surprise. In late July, the Cavs had to manufacture a trade that would help them stay relevant in LeBron’s 15th season, but also set them up for a potential rebuild in 2018. Had they went into the season with Irving on the roster, they surely wouldn’t have received Irving’s full effort, and the locker room would have been a mess.
- They were in a financial stranglehold from the last two offseasons. Most would point toward management for getting Cleveland into that outrageously high payroll, but their hands were pretty much tied. When LeBron is actively making comments and social media posts about Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith being unsigned as training camp begins, there really isn’t anything management can do except give in and pay them unfavorable deals. Thompson and Smith combine to make 22.4 percent of the salary cap and have struggled mightily to begin the season. When LeBron is the icon your franchise, it’s difficult for an owner or GM to run the risk of making him unhappy, especially in this era of short superstar contracts.
This is where the sample size theater has its merits.
It was easy to be impressed by the Cavs’ offseason activity on paper. Wade and Rose are names people care about, especially in the context of eliminating their previous roles and making them ancillary members of LeBron’s cast. Jeff Green, for some reason, still draws a sense of optimism from a subset of fans, despite being on four teams in three years.
While the perception of Cleveland’s moves was focused on the “increased depth,” an inverse effect was actually happening.
The Cavs were magnifying their greatest weakness and underlining their most vulnerable area. They were getting worse defensively by nearly every transaction. The only part of the offseason that somewhat made sense defensively was bringing Jae Crowder along in the Celtics’ package deal, and even that’s looking dull at the moment.
Regardless if it’s eight games into the season, we’re seeing a trend that was predictable all along. Cleveland would have more scoring options to give them a slightly more balanced attack offensively (more depth), but also get roasted with third-degree burns defensively.
Tom Haberstroh has a nice way of putting early season observations into context. As he stresses, eight games of an NBA season is the equivalent of 16 MLB games. A few important things are learned about a team in that amount of time. We may only be a couple weeks into the journey, but it’s more about the minutes and level of competition faced than it is the number of games.
The Cavaliers have played nearly 400 minutes of basketball, with the roster relatively healthy outside of Rose’s ankle injury. In those minutes, they have the 29th-ranked defense. Cleveland is allowing 111.3 points per 100 possessions, hovering above the Dallas Mavericks, who are dead last. Oh, and by the way, the Mavericks are starting a rookie point guard and 39-year-old Dirk Nowitzki as their rim-protector.
Cleveland is giving up a staggering amount of three-pointers, not generating transition points of their own, and coughing up more turnovers than usual:
It’s fair to judge their level of play and estimate a defensive ceiling for Cleveland this early on, because of two things. Age isn’t something players or coaches can control, and the only silver lining for the Cavs is that Isaiah Thomas, the most one-sided player in the league, is the one returning in January.
Last season, the Cavs were the most unbalanced team to ever reach the NBA Finals. They were third offensively and 22nd defensively, allowing them to barely outscore their opponents (on a per 100 possession level) during the regular season.
It’s what doomed them in the Finals. When they were matched against a team that moved the ball and played at a high tempo, their defensive rotations would break. They looked confused and out of sort.
In a matter of four months, the roster makeup has impeded any growth on the defensive end. Once the new players have a chance to get acclimated with the team, could they improve by a few ranks? Sure, but there isn’t a universe where this Cavs unit crawls to league average, or even out of the bottom 10, in points allowed per possession. Not when offenses are more nuanced than ever before and full of young, fresh legs.
The most unsettling part of the Cavaliers’ defense is their transition effort. Given their age and the amount of negative defenders on the court, you can extend that to transition skill.
In its first eight games, Cleveland has found itself in transition situations for 16 percent of its defensive possessions — meaning they are turning the ball over, or simply not rushing to get back. Opponents have scored 1.17 points per possession in transition, the sixth-highest mark in the league.
Younger teams such as Philly, Boston, and Miami get back on defense and force tougher transition attempts. Not the Cavs:
The communication above is unclear. LeBron, Smith, and Green are the first three back in transition, with the assignments of Courtney Lee, Tim Hardaway, and Kristaps Porzingis. Green tries to communicate to Smith and James to pick up the corner shooter (Lee). First, it looks as if Green will stop the ball (Hardaway), but everyone’s timing is off. Green doesn’t know if LeBron will dart to Lee in enough time, so he goes himself. It leaves Hardaway wide open for a catch-and-shoot three.
We see the same transition problem here, with Kyle Korver and Jae Crowder getting confused on who to pick up:
LeBron has to stay in front of Porzingis, which means Crowder and Korver have to fill in the holes and contain the corner (Lee) and penetrator (Hardaway). It’s Korver who brings the unnecessary help, leaving a shooter wide open in the most favorable spot on the floor. LeBron has to scramble, trying to contain two guys at once.
In that sequence, there was absolutely zero communication. It’s bad when the Knicks are making decisions in transition that literally break your defense.
Opponents are shooting a blazing 58.1 percent from the left corner three on Cleveland for this exact reason. When forced to get back and cover all the weapons, they don’t have quality defensive minds capable of reading and directing teammates.
Most of the time, it’s after a turnover or long rebound. Other times — and this is frightening — it comes after a made basket:
There is never any excuse for a team to allow an open corner three just six seconds after a made dunk. Whether it’s cross-matches causing the confusion or players not caring enough to sprint back, it’s not a good early sign.
Opponents are cakewalking into layups with at least three Cavs back in time, taking advantage of Cleveland’s older lineups and spreading the floor in transition to make them cover tons of ground. A lot of these are effort-based mistakes:
Perhaps the league’s pace is going to catch up with them this season. The average pace of the 10 fastest teams is currently 104.5 possessions per 48 minutes. Last season, the average pace of the top 10 was 101.4. Maybe this season’s numbers will regress as teams get fatigued, but it’s already looking to be a much faster league.
The Cavs are running at a league-average pace, getting roughly 100.6 possessions. However, they have played Brooklyn, Orlando, Indiana, and New Orleans, all in the top 10 of pace. By playing those opponents, Cleveland’s pace has been slightly inflated compared to how they would choose to play. In reality, this veteran Cavs team would rank in the bottom portion of the league.
As the Warriors demonstrated last June, if you get Cleveland running up and down the floor at a high tempo, they will make countless defensive mistakes. It’s another detriment to having the oldest team in the league this year. You have to wonder if they picked the worst year possible to experiment with the rotation they have. Teams are pinpointing their weakness and exploiting it.
Cleveland is allowing an effective field goal percentage of 54.8 to begin the season, the third-highest in the league. From the early returns, it all starts with their guard play. Take a look at how J.R. Smith and Dwyane Wade defend this initial action, and how much resistance they give New York’s penetration:
Many don’t realize how much of a team’s defense is predicated on the first line of attack. Guards have a huge responsibility to keep their frontcourt from getting burned. Smith overplays Hardaway and gets out of position, while Wade doesn’t communicate or switch.
It leads to Hardaway penetrating, drawing a help defender (Crowder), and putting LeBron in another tough situation. If James stayed on his corner shooter, a lob attempt for Kyle O’Quinn would’ve been easy money. He commits to cutting off the lob, and that results in yet another corner triple.
Opposing guards are realizing if they can get past the first defender, the Cavs have very little protection at the rim to stop them. That gets amplified when Cleveland rolls out lineups with either Kevin Love or LeBron at center. Hardaway feels comfortable enough to isolate against them because he knows there will be no difficulty inside:
Just the simplest pick-and-roll will get guards into the lane, which results in LeBron trying to rotate over and save the day. There aren’t enough defensive tools to cover everyone, though:
To be clear, basically any lineup the Cavs have tried for significant minutes has failed in the first eight games. Nevertheless, let’s examine how the lineups with Love at center have fared defensively:
Each one has given up at least 123 points per 100 possessions, with the bottom one being outscored by 49.6 points per 100 in the 12 minutes Lue tested it out. With Thompson being sidelined for a month, it’s not looking peachy for any defensive improvements.
Indiana was another team to recognize how vulnerable Cleveland is inside without Thompson. They actively searched for screen-rolls to include Thompson’s man, forcing the big guy out of the driving/rolling lane:
Even just a small opening is enough for Sabonis to catch, drive, not worry about Korver’s help defense, and finish at the rim.
The same goes for Love. When he’s in the game at center, teams are trying to run pick and rolls with Love’s man as high as possible. They want to drag Love as far from the rim as they can, which leads to incredibly easy paths to the rim:
At that point, Victor Oladipo and Darren Collison are aware Cleveland doesn’t have enough weapons in a downhill jog to the rim.
The issues with the Cavs’ defense don’t absolve LeBron, either. As much as he is a proven leader and one of the greatest offensive orchestrators in history, his defensive leadership and communication have been poor for the last couple years.
When you have this many new pieces on the roster and you’re trying to instill a culture around the team, leading by example should be paramount on defense. Perhaps it’s the added responsibility LeBron has to babysit other defenders on the floor, but we’re seeing a lack of focus from him in close games, particularly at the end of possessions.
There’s getting caught ball-watching and having his man cut backdoor:
Or totally disregarding his man with four seconds left on the shot clock, when the Cavs played solid defense for 90 percent of the possession:
Or failing to communicate with Smith on a series of screens, only for his man to get the easiest three of his career:
The way LeBron and the Cavaliers defend some of these possessions, a non-NBA fan would think they’re a bunch of rookies out there learning for the first time.
There are countless clips we could show, and it’s only been eight games. Should the defensive disaster be expected to continue to this degree?
Probably not. Opponents have shot 41.8 percent from three against Cleveland. Even though a lot of them are easier corner threes, that will likely regress back to a normal rate. For as many wide open threes as they’ve allowed so far, the same amount of contested bombs have dropped from players having a breakout season.
But, as far as the uptick in defensive efficiency between now and April? The only thing that can bring their defense back to a respectable level in the big picture is a midseason trade.
Cleveland is currently a wrecked car with a hundred broken parts, held together by the steel that is LeBron James. They have time before the real race begins, but they are no longer the intimidators.
For the first time in years, the East could be wide open. The Cavaliers’ opponents certainly are.