It’s early… right? The regular season doesn’t matter… right? It’ll get better once Isaiah Thomas returns… right? These are the questions Cavaliers fans are no doubt asking themselves this season. Seeking their fourth straight NBA Finals appearance, the Cleveland Cavaliers have exhibited some alarming play in their first ten games en route to a 4-6 record. Right now they look more like a five or six seed than the world beaters the city expected. So in in an effort the take the team’s temperature, let’s look at their performance so far relative to previous LeBron James-led seasons and the league in 2017-18.
Disclaimer: SMALL SAMPLE SIZE ALERT. Ten games is roughly one-eighth (12.2%) of an 82-game NBA season. I am by no means assuring you that these trends, small or large, will continue. Still, every game provides a data point and ten contests feels like enough to at least get a sense of the patterns and trends emerging for the Wine and Gold this year.
The team runs through LeBron so this analysis will too. At 33-years-old The King looks as spry as ever, averaging 28.8 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 9.1 assists so far. His scoring and assists are up from last season while his rebounds are down a tick. LBJ has worn a number of hats so far playing as point guard, de facto big man, and do-it-all player. His 57 points against Washington were a thing of beauty. Even his free throw percentage (84.6%) is markedly up over his career average of 74%. At a point in his career when many players would start to slow down or show their age, James appears eternally 28.
Three Point Shooting
James thrives when surrounded by shooters. At best, the combination of his driving ability and his teammates’ sniper accuracy flummoxes defenses and creates opportunities for everyone. However, that only works if his teammates hit shots. So far the Cavs are averaging 30.5 3-point attempts per game (down from 33.9 in 2016-17, making 10.2 threes (down from 13.0), which comes out to 33.4% accuracy (down from 38.4%). The problem is not attempts but accuracy; the Cavs’ rank sixth in attempted threes, but 25th in three-point percentage. Golden State leads all clubs with a 41.5% clip because of course they do.
Cleveland needs the three ball to succeed. In the first three seasons since James returned the team shot 36.7%, 36.2%, and 38.4% from deep. They never led the league in three point shooting, but they finished no lower than eighth. While the percentage is down, the number of makes is roughly in line with historical marks. In 2014-15, the Cavs averaged 10.0 made 3’s per game. It bumped up to 10.7 in 2015-16 and jumped to 13.0 last season. So if the Cavs’ 10.2 treys per contest are in that range then what’s the problem? The number of attempts is consistent, but the number of made shots is not. That means the Cavs’ offensive sets are ending with more misses that more often than not turn into transition opportunities for the opponent. It isn’t necessarily bad that the Cavs are hoisting so many deep shots; they just need to connect more to justify it.
J.R. Smith has been a notable deficiency on offense. The Shirtless Wonder is averaging 1.1 made three-pointer per game off 4.7 attempts. That 23.4% rate would be the worst of his career. Smith saw reduced playing time when Wade started, but the former’s return to the starting lineup has not sparked a bombardment yet. Kevin Love has also struggled from range. In his first three seasons in Ohio he hit 36.7%, 36%, and 37.3% from beyond the arc. So far this year he has hit 34.6%. The number of attempts is in line with historical averages; the makes are just down. The only bright spot appears to be Kyle Korver who has hit 26-of-55 triples for 47.3%. Also, just to address everyone’s curiosity, Boston guard Kyrie Irving is hitting 43.6% from three-point land this season.
Oh the defense. Yikes. Last season the Cavaliers struggled on defense which arguably led to their ultimate result. The Warriors ran roughshod over the Cavs in The Finals partially because Cleveland could do little to stop their prolific scoring ability. Turns out, adding more players over 30 did not help the Cavs’ defensive fortunes in 2017-18. The Cavs are allowing opponents to score an average of 113.4 points per game (third most in the league). Meanwhile the Cavs are scoring only 108.5 points per game. Opposing teams are splashing 41.7% from deep which ranks dead last in terms of allowed percentage. In terms of defensive rating (an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions) Cleveland ranks dead last with 114.5. Opponents efficient field goal percentage sits at a startling 55.3% (Cavs rank last in this one too). The Cavs are forcing 12.2 turnovers per game (fourth worst in the NBA). For comparison, Oklahoma City is forcing 16.9 turnovers per game. In other words the Cavaliers are not playing much defense and when they do they tend to be pretty bad at it.
The New Guys
As mentioned above, the prize trade pickup, Isaiah Thomas, remains sidelined and won’t see the court until January assuming his rehab goes according to plan. Point guard Derrick Rose has conducted himself pretty well – 15.0 ppg, 2.8 rpg, and 1.7 apg. Those assist numbers are pretty lousy for a point guard, and Rose tends to ball hog a little too much, but he is scoring double digits per game which only five Cavaliers can claim. Guard Jae Crowder has been pretty forgettable in the early going. He averages 8.2 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 0.8 assists so far. His 28.6% three point clip is underwhelming, as is his lack of impact in games. Dwayne Wade looks good for moments, but then he quickly reminds everyone he is 36-years-old playing against kids he could have babysat in high school. Wade is contributing 9.0 ppg, 3.0 rpg, and 4.1 apg. Switching to a reserve role has not dramatically changed his production, though he did drop a sweet 25 points against Atlanta on Sunday. Jeff Green has been a pleasant surprise for the Wine and Gold faithful this season. An under-hyped free agent pickup, Green has provided handsomely off the bench with 10.1 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 1.6 assists per game. Cedi Osman and Ante Zizic are not worth mentioning since I’m not sure that head coach Ty Lue knows their names.
Much like its baseball counterpart, the NBA’s Central Division has been generally perceived as weak with one dominant team running it a time. Since No. 23 returned, the Cavaliers have rattled off three straight division titles with relative ease. Right now, Ty Lue’s team sits in fourth place, trailing the Detroit Pistons (7-3) by three games. The Milwaukee Bucks (4-5) and Indiana Pacers (5-5) both sit above the Cavaliers right now while the Chicago Bulls (2-6) are merrily plummeting to the depths of the Lottery floor. In this respect, I would definitely preach patience since the Cavs will have multiple opportunities against each of these division foes as the season presses on.
Caveat: Looking at the standings, especially for “if the playoffs started now” conversations, is a pretty dumb thing to do before Christmas. Still, it’s unnerving to see the Cavs sitting in twelfth place behind such recent also-rans as the Knicks, Magic, and Pacers. The Celtics (8-2) are currently in first place with Detroit only a game behind.
Yes it is early. Yes the regular season doesn’t really matter. Yes Thomas’ return should help things. Still…I can’t help but feel a little underwhelmed so far. Here are the records for the past three seasons of Cavs basketball through ten games:
So far the 2017-18 season is the worst of The Second Era of LeBron. The team will have myriad opportunities so improve their fortune. I have no doubt this team will make the playoffs. I am still reasonably confident they will win the division. I am not sure about finishing with the top seed in the East. Right now, however, none of that matters. This team needs to figure out its rotations, spend more practice time shooting threes, and tighten up on defense. Let’s see if another ten games together improves their trajectory. It won’t be early forever.