What's Going on With the Cleveland Cavaliers?
This certainly isn’t what Cleveland fans were expecting after welcoming back their prodigal son this summer.
It’s always tough this early in the season to know when to panic and when to relax and say, “Let’s give it some time.” We definitely shouldn't make any rash conclusions after only four games. But what is that line? Is it 20 games? 40?
Regardless, it’s useful to dig into their play and see why things are going wrong, if only to have a better perspective on why things are right later in the season, assuming a cast featuring LeBron James and Kevin Love can at least get the ship somewhat righted.
Let’s look at some statistics from the Cavaliers’ first four games—specifically, the Four Factors, identified and weighted by basketball guru Dean Oliver. These are four categories identified by Oliver as having a very strong correlation with winning. They are shooting (eFG%), turnovers (TOV%), offensive rebounding (ORB%), and free throw rate. Here’s how the Cavs stack up so far, starting with defense.
Defensive Four Factors
Opp eFG% -- 55.0%, ranked 27th
Opp TOV% -- 15.8%, ranked 7th
Opp ORB% -- 28.6%, ranked 23rd
Opp FT/FGA -- 20.6%, ranked 7th
It was an uphill battle to craft a defense in the offseason that could get to top-10 status because the Cavs have multiple negative individual defenders in the starting lineup. The process will take time, although it is worthwhile to see how the Cavaliers are defending so far.
In Miami, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh crafted a good-enough defense, despite not really ever having a down-low rim protector. They dialed up their defensive pressure on the perimeter, often hedging pick and rolls, as opposed to the ICE strategy (the big man guarding the screener drops to contain penetration) that teams like the Indiana Pacers employ.
There was a lot of offseason talk about whether the Cavaliers would run the chaotic style of defense that worked in Miami or if they would take a more conservative approach and ICE the pick and rolls. So far it’s been the former, and teams have been taking advantage of the Cavs’ inadequacies as a result.
I’ve always been a believer that defense is largely coaching scheme, so let’s give Blatt some time. Point guards have been picking on Kyrie Irving on pick and rolls, along with big man Kevin Love. This isn’t going to change, and the Cavs will never have an average defense if teams can easily abuse Irving-Love pick and rolls all day. Blatt will need to be creative with how to limit these opportunities for opponents.
Offensive Four Factors
eFG% -- 44.6%, ranked 27th
TOV% -- 13.1%, ranked 8th
ORB% -- 29.1%, ranked 8th
FT/FGA -- 27.5%, ranked 7th
The sore thumb here is the Cavs’ shooting. They certainly aren’t elite in the remaining three categories, but they’re above-average. However, shooting so miserably will doom a team, regardless of their success in other areas.
And this is where most people are surprised regarding the Cavaliers. Not many people expected them to be elite defensively. However, an offensive group of LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving, along with reported offensive coaching genius David Blatt, should be enough to outweigh their struggles on the other end.
The most concerning statistic to me about the Cavs so far is their assist percentage, or the percentage of their baskets that were assisted. There are no surprises at the top of the league list – the Hawks, Spurs, Clippers, Warriors, Knicks, and Rockets make up the top six. The Spurs have perfected whipping the ball around the perimeter so fast that defenses aren’t scrambling to catch up, they’re literally frozen by the movement.
For reference, the Spurs have an assist percentage of 68%, which means that 68% of their shots were assisted. The Cavs? Dead last at a miserable 47.8%. Point guard Kyrie Irving somehow had zero assists in almost 45 minutes of action last night against the Jazz. That’s actually impressive—it’s very hard to play that long with the ball in your hands and not record a single assist.
And this is the reason their shooting is so low. As you would expect, there is significant correlation between assist percentage and eFG%. Good passing leads to good shots. Good shots lead to a better offense. The Cavs have shooters on their roster; they’re just taking a lot harder shots than other teams.
So who gets the blame?
It’s a tough question, especially when all the new player faces coincide with a new coaching staff as well. The Cavaliers have run very few plays so far this season, mostly relying on isolation sets, pick and rolls, or just James or Irving getting to the basket. But what is the reason for the lack of offensive plays? Is Blatt just not running them or implementing his offensive sets? Or are Irving and James ignoring them and creating on their own?
Regardless, the Cavaliers need to become a team, not a superb collection of individual talent. “Go do some cool outlet passes and create stuff on offense” isn’t going to be a viable long-term strategy. Maybe it just takes time. It’s definitely still early, but I’ll definitely be attentively watching how the Cavs adapt to these concerns.