Facing reality with the Cleveland Cavaliers: While We’re Waiting

Associated Press

For the past four years, late October was a joyous time in Cleveland sports. The return of LeBron James and excitement over a new campaign of Cleveland Cavaliers basketball always brought a sense of renewal and joy.

Even if the Indians stumbled in their playoff ambitions … and the Browns were the Browns, because of course … at least the Cavaliers were going to be good and meaningful, albeit frequently frustrating to watch in the regular season. Now, it’s a whole new world: The Cavaliers are 0-4 for the first time since the 2003-04 season, LeBron’s rookie year.

Both Jeff Nomina and Andrew Schnitkey have written reflective words about where the fanbase is thus far this week. Sunday’s 22-point home beatdown at the hands of lowly Atlanta was the initial main eye-opener. Wednesday’s 16-point home loss to Brooklyn was the equivalent of banging your head against a wall just for fun, again. It’s time to start getting real.

The season started off encouragingly enough: The Cavaliers were moderately competitive throughout on the road, despite the 12-point and 8-point losses to Toronto and Minnesota, respectively. There were positive signs in terms of how the team fought to stay in those games. The young players, the depth, the energy, the internal improvements, all of those were positive indicators despite the record.

Not so much anymore just a few days later. For a brief moment, the Cavs have sole ownership of the NBA’s worst record at 0-4. The Oklahoma City Thunder are 0-3 and host Boston on Thursday but should turn things around soon with the return of Russell Westbrook. It’d certainly be expected they’d win Sunday’s home matchup against Phoenix.

For the Cavs? It’s hard to expect any win soon on the schedule given the home performances against Atlanta and Brooklyn. The team has had fits in Detroit for a while, meaning Thursday’s road game should be an adventure. Then it’s a three-game homestand against playoff-bound Indiana, pesky Atlanta again, and then playoff-bound Denver.

After that, it’s at Charlotte, at Orlando, versus Oklahoma City, at Chicago and versus Charlotte. Some of those should be wins! Hopefully. There are a lot of fellow bottom-feeders in the Eastern Conference over the next few weeks. If you average out the pre-season expectations with where things are now aligned, you’d have to stumble upon some wins somehow.

The franchise record losing streak to begin a season is 10 games, set in the inaugural year of Cavaliers basketball in 1970-71. The team also started 0-9 in 1984-851. The last NBA team to start 0-9 was the 2014-15 and 2015-16 Philadelphia 76ers, before their turnaround.

According to Basketball-Reference.com, the Cavs are 26th in Offensive Rating (104.8) and 29th in Defensive Rating (119.1) in the early going of the season. While there has been an overall offensive explosion around the league, the Cavs are looking archaic and discombobulated.

The team is dead-last in three-point attempt rate at 23.8 percent. At the league-wide level, 34.9 percent of all shot attempts have been high-value three-pointers. Morey-ball is taking over at unprecedented levels. The Cavs are trending in the very wrong direction in this category following the departure of LeBron and his shot-creation abilities.

Over the previous four seasons, the Cavaliers were second in the league at 36.7 percent in this category, in comparison to the league-wide average of 30.2 percent. Of course, not all of that differential is LeBron James shooting the ball himself. His three-point attempt rate was 24.4 percent over the past four seasons, similar to where the team is right now in 2018-19. But LeBron’s abilities to generate threes for his teammates changed the whole style of the Cavs offense.

Remove that fulcrum and this Cavaliers roster ain’t creating threes for themselves. Combine that with the presence of No. 8 draft pick selection Collin Sexton, who has gone all of 0-for-3 from long range in 93 regular season minutes, and the Cavs are playing a different game than the rest of the NBA anymore. This was fairly predictable on draft day!

Certainly, there can be some improvement. Kevin Love won’t shoot as poorly as he has done so far for long. It’s a worry, but it should self-correct to a better point. Rodney Hood is only 1-for-7 from threes, too. The Cavs are one of the league’s best offensive rebounding teams and they’re above average at generating free-throw opportunities, but due largely to shot selection, they’re not giving themselves a whole lot of wiggle room for missing shots like this. They’ve also been one of the league’s worst at turnovers, too.

A perfect example of the league-wide trend is Atlanta. While their roster has cratered, they’ve at least turned up the volume in three-point attempts. They’re fifth in the league at 41.7 percent of shots coming from beyond the arc, which is another leap from last year’s 36.3 percent and the 30.9 percent mark from two seasons ago. Rookie Trae Young, who just toasted the Cavs, represents this modern movement towards a certain aesthetic.

Meanwhile, the Cavs are going backwards, and backwards. Certainly, returning veterans like J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver are three-point trigger-happy, but at this point, you’d want to consider just giving them the chance to move onto greener pastures. For some, this is the best-case scenario in a fashion if the Cavs can keep their 2019 first-round pick. But it’s still been a bit of a shock to many.

I still recall reading Matt Moore’s Cavs preview at Action Network just last month. He was optimistic about where things could go this season! His words:

“The Cavs are going to be awful defensively, but they will still be able to put up points. They’ll also take advantage of the bad teams to get easy wins. The Cavs won’t have a great season; they’re largely irrelevant. However, a 30.5-wins mark is flat-out insulting to how good the leftovers of this team are. A coasting, no-defensive-effort regular-season LeBron isn’t worth 20 wins.”

Welp, four games in and two bad home defeats later, the Cavs are indeed one of those very, very bad teams. And 30 wins feels a bit like lightyears away. When will the first win even arrive?

  1. This is an eclectic season to look back at; George Karl’s Cavs started a depressing 2-19, then turned things around en route to a 36-46 final record and a playoff appearance as the No. 8 seed in the 11-team Eastern Conference []