Sometimes it takes an event to make us fully recognize something that has been happening all along. Like when you find yourself tapping your feet to a song you’ve heard 100 times on the radio or realizing you’ve always liked cilantro; you just didn’t realize you were eating it. And sometimes, it’s beating the red-hot Washington Wizards in overtime without the help of LeBron James.
The Cavaliers pulled out the victory on Monday night with LeBron James on the bench after fouling out. Dave McMenamin wrote a wonderful piece about the Cavs learning from the experience. Without James, the Cavs have gone just 4-18 over the last three seasons. Was this the team finally gaining the confidence to win without their leader?
Disclaimer: 2016-2017 season statistics are through Monday February 6.
Or, was this the culmination of a trend that has been happening all season? Through February 6th, the Cavaliers have been +4.4 points per 100 possessions with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love on the floor and LeBron on the bench. This stretch is the first time since LeBron’s return that Irving and Love have been able to be a positive force without James on the floor.
Why have the Cavs struggled so much since the new year? Why is LeBron begging for a point guard?
Last year, when Irving and Love sat but James played, the Cavs basically played teams even. When Matthew Dellavedova shared the court with LeBron on the bench units, the Cavaliers were able to blitz teams, outscoring them by 12.5 points per 100 possessions. This year, lineups featuring James but neither Irving or Love are being outscored by 5.6 points per 100 possessions. More or less, everything goes to hell when Irving and Love aren’t on the court.
There are small signs of life. No one will confuse Iman Shumpert for a point guard. But, when he shares the bench units with James, they’ve outscored teams by 6.6 points per 100 possessions over 206 minutes.
Until a point guard is acquired, the Cavaliers may want to experiment with putting Kyle Korver in the starting lineup and letting Shumpert help James support the bench units. While not a long-term solution, Korver’s defense can be hidden a bit easier when he is not sharing the court with Channing Frye and Kay Felder. Those two are unlikely to see heavy playoff minutes, so he’s not really gathering important chemistry with the bench unit.
Don’t confuse this with a long-term solution. Shumpert-James lineups have yielded results, but not because Shumpert is running the second units. James is assuming a much larger play-making role than he has in past years, and likely why he feels the need to acquire someone to handle the ball. While their usage is similar, Shumpert isn’t creating opportunities for his teammates and is also putting stress on those lineups by turning the ball over.
You can see why LeBron is frustrated. The bench units are getting blitzed, forcing the Cavaliers to play catch-up, or to blow large leads. And LeBron is being forced to exert more energy while playing with those bench units. Gone are the days of the unstoppable Delly-to-Tristan lob to manufacture points. Even with an incredible amount of shooting on the floor with Channing Frye and Kyle Korver, the bench units just don’t have enough players that can pressure a defense.
The good news is that the Cavaliers need the bare minimum in terms of a ball handler to fix this issue. Matthew Dellavedova excelled in this role, and we’ve seen him struggle since moving on. It’s likely that an otherwise mediocre player can look better when put with LeBron James and the bevy of shooters at the Cavaliers’ disposal. But, the Cavaliers are without much in the ways of assets, and used some of their arsenal to trade for Kyle Korver as a half-season rental. Hopefully, the Cavs are able to acquire someone to pair with the bench unit. Better yet if that someone can be under control for more than just this season. If not, we’ll continue to see LeBron be forced to play a large number of minutes at a high level.
While Irving and Love have learned to stand on their own without LeBron, the Cavaliers still can’t afford to stand pat.