That’s more like it. After a less than desirable start to the 2017-18 season, the Cleveland Cavaliers (14-7) seem to have remembered how to play basketball. Riding high on a nine-game win streak, the Cavs are beginning to resemble the Eastern Conference trampling juggernaut we all expected. The club still has issues, but with wins finally outnumbering the losses this seems like a perfect time to check back in with the Wine and Gold to see how their critical stats are trending.
Semi-small sample size alert: Twenty-one games constitute 25.6% of the season. We are starting to see some trends develop here, but with more season ahead of us than behind please apply the proportional grain of salt to the following analysis.
Can confirm: LeBron James is still the best player in the league. The Akron Hammer is averaging 28.2 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 8.3 assists per game all of which are above his career averages. His free throw shooting clip has dipped in the past eleven games, but at 76.1% it is still leaps and bounds above last year’s dismal 67.4%. James even attempted a technical free throw last Friday against Charlotte (the shot bounced out). His exemplary numbers stem from high usage. The King’s 37.0 minutes per game lead the team and rank second in the NBA overall. The heavy workload does not seem to be phasing LeBron, but there is no telling how sustainable this pace will be over the next (hopefully) seven months. With the league’s new policies discouraging rest, Cavs fans will closely monitor how head coach Ty Lue controls James’ minutes.
In our last progress report, I maligned the Cavaliers’ embarrassing performance from beyond the arc. It’s unclear if my words alone inspired them to do better, but either way the club’s three-point marksmanship has improved. As a team, the Cavs have made 244 triples on 673 attempts for a 36.3% average. Those numbers are a step up from their ten-game mark of 33.4%, but still trail last season’s 38.4%. The good news is, the improved three point percentage now places the Cavs 13th in the league, up from 25th.
Kyle Korver still leads the club with a 44.3% three-point shooting clip. LeBron continues to pour it on from deep, knocking down 2.0 three’s on 4.8 attempts per game for a 42% rate. Channing Frye (37.8%) has started to make his presence felt from beyond the arc while Kevin Love (35.6%) and J.R. Smith (31.4%) have picked up their contributions as well.
The good news about the defense is that it did not get worse over the past eleven games. The bad news is, it’s still not great. The Cavs’ opponents are averaging 108.5 points per games which is third worst defensively in the league. Opponents’ effective field goal percentage, 53%, ranks 22nd. Opponents’ turnover percentage, 12.9%, puts them 23rd. The good news is the Cavs’ defensive rating (an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions) has improved from 114.5 to 110.0 which means they went from 30th to 24th in that category. Ty Lue and Co. are defending the perimeter better as well with opponents shooting 36.9% from deep, 12th worst defensive rate in the NBA. The Cavaliers do not appear ready to break out as an “elite” defensive team, but it is encouraging to see Cleveland holding opponents to under 100 points in four of the past five wins.
This section will remain incomplete until Isaiah Thomas returns from his hip injury, but in the meantime there are a few concerns and bright spots in the realm of new players. Derrick Rose appears to be on his way out of the NBA. At this point it is anyone’s guess how this situation will resolve, but it appears unwise to feature Rose too prominently in the Cavs’ present or future plans. Small forward Jae Crowder has enjoyed a few nice moments, but his numbers are down across the board. His 8.5 ppg, 3.4 rpg, and 1.0 apg are all lower than last year’s season in Boston. His 8.8 PER is a career low as well. It remains to be seen if his performance will pick up when his former running mate Isaiah Thomas gets back into the lineup. Dwayne Wade appears to be thriving off the bench with a 10.8 point per game output. Wade off the bench appears to be the best of all worlds – more rest for Lebron, bench production, and protects Wade’s health looking long term.
The Central Division appears to be more or less settling into its natural hierarchy. The Bulls (3-16) are in free fall according to plan. Milwaukee (10-9) remains an exciting young team with plenty of hype surrounding their core. The Pacers (12-9) seem to be thriving in a post-Paul George world. The Cavs are in a virtual first place tie with… the Pistons? You read that right. Stan Van Gundy’s Detroit club has a sterling 13-6 record including a recent statement win in Boston against the Celtics. It remains to be seen if they are for real, but through at least 21 games they look like a formidable opponent. Cleveland is 4-1 against division opponents.
Remember how the Cavs were in 12th place after ten games? Old news. Cleveland’s winning streak has catapulted them up the conference table into third place, 3.5 games behind the Celtics. There is more than enough time for the conference to shake out, but right now the Indiana Pacers occupy the six-seed and would be the first-round matchup.
It turns out that winning does in fact cure most everything. Much of the hand-wringing and pearl clutching from the first ten games seem out of place now. Still, there is a lot of season to go. With six of the next ten games at home against such opponents as Chicago, Sacramento, and Atlanta it seems the forthcoming stretch will be a ripe opportunity for the Cavs to bank more wins. If you’re looking for a measuring stick, the Cavs will visit the Golden State Warriors in thirteen games.