Five reasons the Cavaliers may or may not be doomed
MANILA, Philippines - We're nearly halfway into the 2014-2015 NBA regular season and one thing is clear: the Cleveland Cavaliers have been the most disappointing team in the league.
What was a feel-good story over the summer of LeBron James taking his talents back home to team up with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love with the mission of bringing Cleveland its first professional sports championship in the past 40 years has quickly turned into a campaign filled with numerous defeats, underwhelming performances, and multiple episodes of discontented body language from players.
Thirty-nine games into their calendar, Cleveland has a 19-20 record. No team in NBA history with such a win-loss clip this deep into their season has bounced back to win the NBA title.
The last time James was part of a club that had an under .500 record this late into the season was in 2003-2004, his rookie year with Cleveland. They didn't make the playoffs.
To finish with just 50 wins on the year - a far cry from the 72-10 record some analysts had them registering in the preseason - Cleveland will have to go 31-12 in their remaining 43 games.
The Cavs are currently sixth place in the Eastern Conference standings. The Milwaukee Bucks, who lost their best player in Jabari Parker to a torn ACL a few weeks back and rim protector Larry Sanders to personal issues, have a better record at 20-19.
The Miami Heat - whom James left for the Cavs over the summer - have struggled so far this season with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh each missing two weeks of action in different stretches of the season and Josh McRoberts being shelved for the rest of the year due to a torn meniscus. Yet they're still only two games behind Cleveland in the loss column and standings.
The Denver Nuggets, who as of the moment are ranked no. 11 in the West, have just as many losses as the Cavs. But when you compare the level of talent between both teams, it's not even close which club has more.
So, is Cleveland's season doomed? Can we say, as early as now in January - three months before the playoffs begin - that we can write the Cavaliers off as title contenders?
James mentioned in his Sports Illustrated letter where he announced his return to Ohio that this new chapter of his career would take time to reach fruition; that Cleveland fans need to be patient as the franchise aims to build the culture of a championship contender.
But the atmosphere surrounding the team isn't healthy right now. The Cavs have lost six straight and nine of their last 10 games. Signs point to them being a fringe contender that's eliminated in the first round.
Although, with a team comprised of James, Irving, Love, and a number of other talented veterans, can any other Eastern Conference rival confidently say that they would want to face Cleveland in the postseason since it would be an easy victory?
No. That's what makes the Cavaliers very interesting - outside of the obviously popular personalities in the team. The first year of LeBron's second go in Cleveland could end up as historically disappointing, or it could be the exact opposite.
Here are five reasons each why the Cavaliers (19-20) can still turn things around and deliver on the expectations placed over them the moment James penned his return letter. And of course, we also listed down five reasons why this experiment might be doomed to fail - and what kind of catastrophic events that could yield.
Why they will turn things around
1. They have way too much talent to not get it together
This is a team that still has LeBron James, four-time NBA MVP; Kyrie Irving, last year's NBA All-Star Game MVP; and Kevin Love, a double-double machine who can also go off for 40 points any night.
Most of their games the past month have been losses. But there was also a stretch in early December where they went on an eight-game winning streak - albeit with Anderson Varejao (Achilles) still in the lineup - that included wins against top Eastern Conference teams like the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards.
Over the past week, Cavs GM David Griffin added to that talent by acquiring three players who will be key parts of the team's rotation moving forward. The pieces are there for this team to be as great as they were advertised, if not maybe even better; it's only a matter of building an effective system.
2. Their new acquisitions will still get integrated to the team
The jokes about JR Smith are written on their own, thanks mostly to his own head-shaking decisions. But if there's anything the 29-year-old has, it's a lot of talent. His averages this season (11.5 PPG on 40% shooting) aren't superb, though he does have the ability to go on hot-shooting streaks on some nights and that could really be useful come playoff time.
Against the Golden State Warriors on January 9, Smith put up 27 points on 11-of-23 shooting with James sidelined. His offense kept the Cavs afloat for three quarters before the Warriors eventually ran away with the game in the fourth quarter - something they've done to a lot of other teams, hence their 31-5 record.
Against Phoenix on January 13, Smith scored 29 points and hit 8 3-balls, helping Cleveland rally from a 19-point third quarter deficit. The Cavs lost the game, but Smith's contributions before fouling out in the fourth quarter were instrumental to their rally.
Cleveland is also expecting Iman Shumpert (shoulder) to return in a few weeks. He isn't as good a defender as he was in his first few years in the NBA, but he's still an improvement in terms of perimeter defense over Mike Miller (old), James Jones (slow), or Matthew Dellavedova (lacks size).
The rest of the league is shooting 47% against the Cavs, which is 29th worst in the NBA. Cleveland also gives up 100.1 points per game. They need as much help they can get on D as possible.
The acquisition of Timofey Mozgov will also come in handy, if only because Cleveland is desperate for rim protection. Opponents were shooting just 48.8% at the rim with Mozgov in the paint before his trade to the Cavs, which is even better than Anthony Davis' number (50%). Cleveland is also only 26th in the NBA in blocks with 4 per game. Mozgov, who's blocking 1.2 shots a contest this season, will help remedy that.
3. The team is getting healthier
After missing eight games due to knee and back issues, James looked at his physical peak this season in his return against the Suns. He scored 33 points, grabbed 7 boards, and dished 5 assists, but most of all he looked back to being the athletic freak of nature he is: attacking the rim with reckless abandon by maneuvering through defenders, and affecting the flow of the game through different aspects on both sides of the floor.
Irving, Love, Miller, Smith, Mozgov, Tristan Thompson, and the rest of the team have looked healthier as a whole as of late, too. The only remaining domino is Shumpert, who's expected to be back in eight days assuming his original timetable stands firm.
Once he returns, the Cavs will have enough depth to make a serious late-season run for a first-round homecourt advantage seed.
4. Easy upcoming schedule
Yes, Cleveland has lost a lot of games, and quite a number of those were contests they were supposed to win owing to their superior talent. But in all fairness, the Cavs have faced one of the toughest schedules to date in the NBA.
According to ESPN's strength of schedule rankings, the Cavs have had the fifth toughest schedule so far as they've battled with teams who have a combined winning percentage average of .501 (1. Lakers, .541; 2. Pelicans, .529; 3. Jazz, .516; 4. Knicks, .514).
Cleveland's immediate schedule for the rest of January isn't easy, but it's not very difficult either. They face the Lakers (12-27), Clippers (25-13), Bulls (26-14), Jazz (13-26) over the next week, and then close the month facing six more opponents - five of which currently have below .500 records (the Thunder, who are better than their 18-19 record, are one of them).
In February, the Cavs have 11 games scheduled. Seven are against teams currently below .500. Cleveland may be looking down on their Eastern Conference rivals in the standings by the time March rolls around.
5. Playoff LeBron James
In the last year of the Big Three Era in Miami (2013-2014), the Heat looked lethargic for most parts of the regular season as they limped to a 54-28 record against a significantly weak Eastern Conference where there were only two real contenders (Indiana was the other one).
Miami was the second seed, but their record would have put them only at a tie for number 4 in the West with Houston and Portland. Yet when the playoffs began, the then defending champions flipped the switch and looked like a totally different squad - going 12-3 before facing the Spurs in the finals - and a lot of that had to do with LeBron James (27.4 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 4.8 APG in 20 playoff games).
As he has gotten older over the past few years, James has learned to pace his body throughout the regular season to be in better shape for the playoffs. That’s why he sits out more games now in the regular season compared to his first few years in the league and has been particular about the amount of minutes he plays.
Even if Cleveland goes a break-even .500 the rest of the regular season, they'll still be good enough to make the postseason in the East.
Would any of the current top four teams in the East - Atlanta (31-8), Washington (27-12), Toronto (26-12), or Chicago (26-14) - want to face the Cavs in the first round?
Experience matters in the postseason, and James had had countless of wars in past playoff series that will be very valuable for this team. Remember: Miller, Jones, and Shawn Marion (a champion with the Dallas Mavericks in 2011) have also had their own share of playoff battles in the past.
James has that extra gear he reserves for the postseason. If that version of the four-time MVP shows up come April, it doesn't matter what seed Cleveland will have; they will be a contender.
Why they won't turn things around
1. Their atrocious defense
One of the oldest sayings in basketball goes: "Defense wins championships." It's held true time and again, and if Cleveland wants to win the Larry O' Brien trophy this season, they're going to have to work on stopping their opponents from scoring.
Here's an image of one defensive possession from the Cavs' game against the Suns:
Lapses like this are forgivable for a team developing chemistry a few weeks into a season.
The Cavaliers have been together for two and a half months. When teams are halfway into their campaign, plays like this unacceptable.
There's 18 seconds left in Phoenix's shot clock. Basically, the shooter in this scene - PJ Tucker - just walked into a wide-open 3-pointer and not a single defender came even close to contesting the shot (this was LeBron's responsibility).
This open look wasn't even a product off a pick-and-roll play by a Suns point guard. It was a typical swing of the ball to the top of the key, and those three points helped Phoenix build a 19-point lead.
This season, the Cavaliers have a defensive rating of 108.6, which is sixth worst in the NBA. Their net rating (an estimate of point differential per 100 possessions) is -0.42, only 16th in the NBA.
Cleveland is also allowing opponents to shoot 52% from 2-point range, and has given up the ninth most 3-pointers in the NBA with 314. They've allowed 985 baskets off assists this year, too, which is worst in the NBA. The second worst team in that category are the Los Angeles Lakers, who have given up 953 assists.
How badly did the Cavaliers need to acquire Mozgov to bolster their defense? They've allowed opponents to convert 153 dunks this season, which is fifth most in the NBA. Making layups has also come easy against Cleveland, whose lackadaisical interior D has let counterparts make a ninth-worst 440 layups.
Their performance on defense, simply put, isn't good. Actually, it's borderline horrible.
2. They don't have respect for their head coach
David Blatt knows what it takes to win basketball games, as he's won multiple championships in the Israeli Cup, Israeli League, Euroleague, Fiba EuroChallenge, among aother international leagues.
But unfortunately for Blatt, his debut season as an NBA head coach hasn't gone smoothly. He was hired before Cleveland found out LeBron was coming home, was given the instant pressure of leading a new powerhouse team to a title, and has taken most of the heat for the team's disappointing performance this season.
He doesn't deserve all the backlash, but he hasn't performed well enough to be given the benefit of the doubt.
The image above of Cleveland's terrible defense on Tucker's open 3-pointer is representative of the team's head coach coach, who has to make sure his guys always come prepared and remain focused on defense. Way too many times this season, the Cavs have been lackadaisical on D, and their coach deserves heat for their piss-poor showing and obvious lack of preparation.
It didn't help as well that Blatt remarked that Love was not a max contract player following their team's 103-84 loss to the Sacramento Kings on January 11. Reports have also surfaced that the Cavaliers have ignored play calls from Blatt and his coaching staff, and that his lead assistant coach, Tyronn Lue, has been calling time-outs behind Blatt's back during games.
"They see players appearing to run different plays than the bench calls, see assistant coach Tyronn Lue calling timeouts literally behind Blatt's back during games and hear Cavs players openly talking about coaching issues with opposing players and personnel," Windhorst writes. "Not once, not twice, but frequently over the past several months."
That has unrest written all over it. If the Cavs have given up on their head coach and no longer show him respect, they may as well kiss the season good-bye.
This is pretty descriptive of the situation in Cleveland right now:
3. Kevin Love hasn't been good
When the Cavaliers packaged a trade sending their number one overall pick Andrew Wiggins to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Kevin Love, they were expecting the All-Star who put up MVP-caliber statistics last season: 26.1 PPG, 12.5 RPG, 4.4 APG, 46% FG shooting, 38% 3P shooting.
Through 38 games in his first year in Cleveland, Love's averaging just 17.7 PPG, 10.4 RPG, 2.3 APG, 44% FG shooting, 34% 3P shooting - a significant regression from his career campaign last year.
The dip in his numbers was expected due to him no longer being the top scoring option in Cleveland as he was in Minnesota. Love attempted 18.5 shots a game with the T-Wolves, but he's taking just 13.4 with the Cavs.
But his regression isn't just due to him taking less shots.
Though he attempted about 6 3-pointers per game in his last year with the Timberwolves, most of the big man's attempts still came close to the rim, where he was most effective. With the Cavs, Love has been designated to play the "Chris Bosh Role", as he's been relegated to being just a spot-up shooter who roams around at the perimeter.
Last season, Love took 359 shots at the rim. So far this season, he's attempted only 124 from the same distance, and the regular season is nearly halfway done. Love is most effective close to the rim, and Blatt needs to do a better job of involving his starting power forward in the paint, where he's at his best offensively.
On defense, Love is pedestrian at best. He provides no rim protection, he can't contain opposing big men in isolation, and he's constantly late when it comes to closing out on shooters, which displays his lack of defensive awareness.
His current defensive rating is 106.0, which means the opponents of the Cavaliers score 106 points per 100 possessions whenever Love is on the floor. He's already been benched a number of times for entire fourth quarters by Blatt due to his suspect D, and that's going to happen quite more often.
If Cleveland wants a title, they will need Love at his best. They may be able to live with his defense with Mozgov now in the lineup, but if Love keeps up his current offensive struggles, things aren't going to go well for Cleveland.
4. Will the new pieces really be able to help out enough?
We talked about how Smith, Shumpert, and Mozgov are improvements that can help out the Cavs. But that doesn't mean they're the answer to all of the Cavaliers' troubles either.
Shumpert is a good defender, but his offense is shaky. He's shooting just 35% from 3-point range this season and is making just 33% of his shots from 10 to 16 feet. He's taken a total of 170 jump shots this season, and has made just 64. Floor spacing isn't his strength.
As much as Smith can explode on offense on some nights, he's also capable of putting up stinkers as well. In Cleveland's 103-84 loss to Sacramento on January 11, he shot 2-of-10 from the field and scored just 4 points in 31 minutes with a -11 +/- rating. This NBA season, Smith has an average of -4.2 +/-.
As previously mentioned, he can make a lot of bone-headed mistakes. Check out this dumb elbow he threw at Jason Terry in game 3 of the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics 2013 playoff series:
Smith got suspended in game four, which his team lost, and went ice cold from the field for the rest of the postseason. The Knicks eliminated Boston in game five, but were defeated by the Indiana Pacers in six games in the conference semis.
Mozgov averages 8.5 PPG and 7.8 RPG this season, but his offense is severely limited. Outside of put-backs and shots right under the rim, he can't do much. He's shooting just 38% of his attempts from 3 to 10 feet, and is a total 4-of-23 in shots he's taken from 10 to 16 feet. He also doesn't have much of a post game, as he's gone just 12-of-28 with hook shots.
5. Irving and Love's lack of playoff experience
Irving and Love have played a grand total of 0 playoff games. It doesn't matter how great a player is; the playoffs are a different ballgame - games are twice as exhausting mentally and physically.
That doesn't mean Love and Irving won't perform well in the postseason. But will they be able to do enough to help the Cavs prosper come April and May even if they've yet to compete there in the past?
Again, a lot will be on the shoulders of James to lead this team. If the Cavs are in a situation where it's game 7, they're down by a few baskets with a minute or two left, and the pressure is at its highest, Irving, Love, and the rest of the team will look at him to lead them. So far, he hasn't done a good job of that this season.
It's difficult to predict where this Cavaliers team will end up. What's certain is that right now, they're in a flux. Love is a free agent this upcoming offseason, and with the way things are going in Ohio right now, it's more than possible he could leave. Besides, living in Los Angeles (Lakers) or New York - which host teams that will have a lot of cap space - will be tempting.
The Cavs might end up sacrificing 10 years of Andrew Wiggins for a single season of a not-so-great version of Love. Wiggins, just 19-years-old, has averaged 20.6 PPG, 4.8 RPG, and 3.4 APG in his past five games. He isn't even old enough to legally buy a beer in America, yet he's already showing flashes of becoming the next big star in the NBA.
Here's another important note: James' current contract has him signed with the Cavs for just two years. His contract this season, which pays him $20,644,400, is the only one that's guaranteed. The second year in his current deal - which pays him $21,573,398 next season - is a player option.
If what's going on in Cleveland continues to go downhill, James could forego his player option for next year and become a free agent again this offseason. And if Cavs fans think he'll stay loyal to the franchise just because he wrote a Sports Illustrated letter promising a championship for the team, then they're wrong.
James does what's best for himself and his brand. He wants to win as many rings as possible. That was his biggest motivation to go home this offseason, because he saw an opportunity to play with a more talented roster compared to what he had in Miami with an aging Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. It wasn't all because he wanted to be popularized as the prodigal son who returned home and delivered his hometown team a championship.
If James sees another opportunity to play for a roster that could give him a better shot at a title next season, don't be surprised if he takes it.
James promised Cleveland a championship before and left for Miami in 2010 anyway.
In South Beach, Pat Riley gave him the championship culture, teammates, head coach, and discipline required for him to win his first ring. They made it to four straight NBA Finals, creating a dynasty that will be storified by an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary one day.
Yet Dion Waiters, who's not even with the Cavs anymore, found out first about James' return to Ohio before Riley and the Miami organization did.
A lot is on the line for Cleveland this season.
Stats from basketball-reference.com and nba.com.