Happy Tuesday, WFNY!
What’s good? Sports life is pretty good. Ohio State is in the college football playoffs, the Cleveland Indians are supposedly talking to a big free agent, and the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Toronto Raptors last night to snap the Cavs’ three-game losing streak.
I’ll cut right to the chase, we’re going to talk about the Cavaliers today. For the past couple weeks, I’ve been contemplating writing about the Cavs’ bench and how it might end up being the thing that trips up this team the most. I hinted at it a bit in the season preview, but I focused solely on the PG depth. In reality, this is a team without much meaningful depth at all. Now with JR Smith injured in last night’s game, and without knowing the full extent of it or how long he will be out, the issue is only further amplified.
Thankfully Iman Shumpert has been pretty decent this season, shooting a nice percentage from outside the arc. Channing Frye has been absolutely exceptional. Outside of those two, though, things start to get a little dicey. Richard Jefferson is still a solid and dependable player at what he does, but at 36 years of age, RJ isn’t an impact player off the bench. The Cavs really are lacking a lot of options with their bench. They can’t create different matchups or looks. They mostly are just buying time without totally bleeding away the advantage until the starters can get back in the game.
The issues are plentiful. This is a season in which Kyrie Irving is coming off an extended playoff run and the Olympics. LeBron James, who is now over 1,000 regular season games in his career to go along with his 199 playoff games (an extra 2.4 regular seasons, basically), was expected to keep his minutes lower. But with Kay Felder not being ready to play at the NBA level, the Cavs do not have a lot of options at PG besides Kyrie and LeBron.
Mike Dunleavy being a complete disappointment thus far has been brutal for a team that was relying on him being an impact player off the bench. Lauded as a perfect fit for what the Cavaliers do, expectations were high for Dunleavy prior to this season. When it was thought the Cavs would have Mo Williams, and when expectations were still high for Dunleavy, some projected the Cavs to have one of the best benches in the NBA. It hasn’t played out that way.
To this point, the Cavs’ bench ranks 28th in Efficiency, 26th in Efficiency Differential, 28th in scoring, 29th in rebounding per game, 27th in assists per game, and 28th in minutes per game1. Dunleavy is shooting career lows in literally every shooting statistic this season. Obviously, Dunleavy can still get his shot back and make a difference for this bench. There’s no reason to completely write him off just yet. But even getting Dunleavy back won’t solve the backup PG issues.
Much has been made of LeBron’s shift in his role this season, and for good reason. LeBron is the defacto PG on this team. He is averaging a career-high in assists per game and his usage rate is the lowest it has been since his rookie season. In a way, LeBron is almost resting while playing, running this Cavs offense with pure mastery. Kyrie is the primary scorer, and LeBron has shooters surrounding him allowing him to be brutally efficient in setting everyone up. This is why the Cavaliers have been ok without a reliable backup PG. Kyrie and LeBron essentially share the minutes and the load at the position. But an injury to either derails everything.
Now, of course, the Cavs aren’t going to defend their title no matter who the backup is if Kyrie or LeBron get hurt. But having Mo Williams fill in for Kyrie at the start of last season was huge for the team. Being able to have a PG the coaches trusted in Matthew Dellavedova allowed them to have more options for creating lineup mismatches and more freedom to rest Kyrie and LeBron as they chose. The options are much more limited this season.
Look, the Cavaliers are a great team. This is nitpicking to some degree. When you have three players like Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, and Kevin Love on your team all making max money, you have to sacrifice elsewhere. It’s going to be hard for the Cavaliers to address bench issues. They will likely continue to look at veterans like Dunleavy and Chris Andersen to fill out the depth. So some of this is just expected. But as we are now in the second full month of the season, we’re beginning to be able to find trends and issues that are going to be problematic. And for the Cavaliers, the bench is starting to look like an issue.
Thankfully the X-Rays on JR Smith’s leg were negative. Hopefully, he doesn’t miss extended time. But if he does miss some time, Shumpert will move to the starting lineup, leaving Channing Frye as the only real impact player off the bench. With Dunleavy not getting much play right now, it will basically leave RJ and DeAndre Liggins with Frye as the bench rotation. Not great.
One thing we know is that Cavaliers GM David Griffin has shown that he will be aggressive when he sees a weakness on the team. Time and time again he has pulled the right strings with the team, whether it was the trades to acquire JR, Shumpert, and Timofey Mozgov, the firing of David Blatt midseason and replacing him with Ty Lue, or the trade for Channing Frye, moves have been made to specifically target something Griffin sees as an issue. If the bench is still in this bad shape come deadline time, it will be interesting to see if Griffin makes yet another move.
The Cavs could be fine without a move. If they are healthy in the postseason, relying on Shumpert, Frye, and RJ off the bench will probably be sufficient to get back into the Finals and from there, who knows. Anything can happen. But it’s a long season and the Cavs were fortunate enough to have an early season schedule that was loaded with home games and few back-to-backs. December and January are much tougher schedules with significantly more back-to-backs and road games. These are the games that take a toll on players’ health. This is where the lack of depth may be most noticeable.
Hopefully, Mike Dunleavy can turn his season around at some point. That alone would go a long way to solving some of these issues. If he doesn’t, though, then is going to be something to keep an eye on all season long.