Happy Tuesday, WFNY!
Don’t worry….don’t worry. I’m not going to do what you all think I’m going to do, which is just FLIP OUT!
The Cleveland Cavaliers lost to the Golden State Warriors Monday night. Ok, fine. That they lost by 35 points in a game in which it seems like a miracle that it was even that close, is problematic. It is so easy in basketball to overreact to one game. Fans do it all the time, players do it, front offices do it. Basketball is a game of constant motion. Not just on the floor, but from minute to minute, game to game, season to season. Momentum matters, trends matter, habits matter. One game does not matter.
But here’s the thing, things haven’t been great for the Cavs for some time. Sure, they’re still winning plenty of games and still hold the top spot in the Eastern Conference. There are plenty of excuses (reasons?) for why. Channing Frye had to deal with losing his mother first and then his father less than a month later. JR Smith has a fractured thumb that required surgery and is also dealing with a frightening and challenging personal issue at home, Kevin Love dealt with the illness that forced him to miss time and lose ten pounds, Kyrie Irving is coming off an offseason in which he played in the Summer Olympics and got precious little rest and is now coming off a hamstring injury and hasn’t quite looked like himself, the team got no production from Mike Dunleavy and traded him for Kyle Korver and have been trying to work him into the offense, the team is stuck in the doldrums of a six-game road trip.
In many ways, this blowout loss to the Warriors was showing signs of coming for weeks. The buildup of the Warriors’ frustration with the Cavaliers combined with the recent team woes in Cleveland just had the writing on the wall. The Warriors weren’t backing down from calling this a rivalry and foaming at the mouth for another shot at the Cavs. LeBron, meanwhile, spent all week trying to downplay the rivalry and the importance of this game. But again, losing a game like this, even getting blown out is one thing. Giving up 78 points in the first half en route to a 35 point loss is something else.
As Dave McMenamin wrote for ESPN on Monday night, there are actually some eerie parallels to last season:
It was 364 days ago that the Golden State Warriors took it to the Cleveland Cavaliers, blowing them out by 34 points on Jan. 18, 2016, on their home court to drop the Cavs’ record to 28-11 and push their mark to 38-4.
On Monday, Jan. 16, 2017, the Dubs blasted the Cavs by 35 at Oracle Arena, with the 126-91 win putting Cleveland at 29-11 and boosting the Warriors’ record to 35-6.
So that’s it, the Cavs should fire Ty Lue, right? No, that’s not McMenamin’s point nor is it mine. The bigger point is that the Cavaliers were a flawed team despite their record last season at this time, and it is true of this year’s team as well. Last year showed us there’s plenty of time for things to be corrected and that’s also true of this year.
What are the Cavaliers flaws? Well, the inconsistency of defensive intensity and focus is concerning, but not really a flaw. The Cavs can play really good defense when they want. They’ve shown it time and time again. Sure, we all wish they would bring that level of defensive focus every night, but it just doesn’t happen. The thing that concerns me much, much more is the complete and total breakdown of the offense.
The Akron Beacon-Journal’s Jason Lloyd really put it best in his Final Thoughts column after the Warriors loss:
Beyond Draymond Green’s collision with James at midcourt, beyond Steph Curry’s awkward shimmy while lying on his back with all fours in the air and beyond the final score, the overwhelming takeaway from this is what we already knew: The Warriors have a number of players who can break teams down and beat them a number of different ways. The Cavs are more one-dimensional. They just happen to do that one dimension really, really well.
He’s right. The Cavaliers have become so brutally and overwhelmingly one-dimensional on offense. The offense has devolved to a simple pick at the top of the key so either LeBron or Kyrie can attack the lane and then either go to the rim or kick out to a shooter standing on the perimeter. The problem is, teams are starting to figure out how to stop this. They’re not cheating in and leaving the shooters open as much. Instead, they’re content to play under the high screen and force Kyrie and LeBron to over-dribble while looking for a lane to exploit. It is becoming increasingly more and more difficult for the duo to get to the rim.
This season 20.1 percent of LeBron’s two-point field goals have come off 7 or more dribbles, up from 18 percent the year before and 16.2 percent in LeBron’s final season in Miami. LeBron’s over-dribbling is back to the levels of his first season in Cleveland (20.6 percent) when the offense was truly a mess and nobody seemed to know how to play together. That the offense is reverting to that awful slog in year three, coming off a Championship, when the chemistry has never been better, is disheartening.
It was frustrating beyond words watching the Warriors in constant motion on offense, the ball flying all over the place, guys working off the ball to cut and create space and get open en route to 34 team assists. Meanwhile, on the other end, the Cavaliers routinely had three players literally just standing in one spot on the perimeter watching the ball handler, whether it was LeBron or Kyrie, dribble around looking for an opportunity and often forcing bad passes and bad shots. The Cavaliers had 11 assists.
The Cavaliers started this season as one of the best passing teams in the league. Through their first 14 games of the season, they only failed to get to 20 assists three times. They have now been under the 20 assist mark in nine of their last 11 games. As Kyle Welch pointed out in his Behind the Box Score for Monday’s game, after showing glimpses of turning a corner and making a leap in playmaking and assists in December, Kyrie Irving has crumbled back to earth in January, averaging just 3.8 assists per game this month, down a full four assists per game from his previous month. As a team, the Cavaliers averaged 22.3 assists and 110.5 points per game in December. So far in January, they figures have fallen off a cliff to 16.3 assists and 101.1 points per game.
Make no mistake, the Cavaliers are not playing anything close to resembling good basketball right now, and this has nothing to do with the 35-point loss to the Warriors. That game was merely symptomatic of a much larger problem. The Cavaliers have some serious issues on both sides of the ball. These are issues that will not be fixed by simply acquiring another point guard or playmaker of some sort. These are issues that will be fixed by composing themselves and getting back to communicating on defense, giving max effort every game, and running an actual offense again.
The Cavaliers had a very favorable schedule to begin this season and they took advantage of it by exploiting lesser team’s weaknesses. Somewhere along the way, though, they fell into bad habits of thinking they could just rely on a simple screen at the top and then a drive and kick. They forgot how to work off the ball, how to use passes to initiate the offense, and how to exploit floor spacing.
It’s a long season and there’s plenty of time for this to all get worked out. Getting back to Cleveland and being able to have some actual practices with the full team back together (minus JR Smith, of course) will be a godsend for this team. As I said in the opening, I’m not going to flip out over one loss. But I don’t like the direction this team is going right now. Thankfully, I have a lot of confidence in Ty Lue and his staff, along with the players themselves on this team, to get things turned around. They had better do so quickly, though. The San Antonio Spurs are coming to town on Saturday and they will be more than happy to take advantage of the same old stale Cavaliers offense if that’s what they see.
We’ve all seen what the Cavaliers are capable of. That’s why nobody is freaking out too much right now. It’s concerning, but it’s not the end of the world. Pretty much all teams, other than the Golden State Warriors, go through plenty of adversity and down swings every season. It’s how teams pull themselves out of these ruts that dictate the quality of the team come the end of the season. We’ll see what the Cavaliers’ answer is.