Let me take you back to November 24th: the Cleveland Cavaliers had just dropped their fourth game in a row (three of which were at home) after allowing an early 18 point lead over the Toronto Raptors slip away. So a bunch of us at Fear the Sword got together for an emergency roundtable, where we discussed issues such as Dion Waiters' role on the team, confidence (or lack thereof) in David Blatt, LeBron's leadership, the team's defensive woes, the strange offensive scheme and potential trade targets.
That night, the Cavs went out and destroyed the otherwise plucky Orlando Magic by 32 points, setting the stage for what would become an eight game winning streak.
Fast forward to today - Cleveland's 5-5 over their past 10 games, fifth in the weaker Eastern Conference, and appear to have reached something of an uncomfortable stalemate. So a bunch of us at Fear the Sword are getting together for another roundtable, where we'll discuss... well... a lot of the things we talked about last time. Really, we're just trying to see if our roundtable chat will have the same effect as it did the first time around. Some at the site have theorized that we're the reason the team was able to get their act together at the end of November, and it's time we ran that hypothesis through the Scientific Method.
So without further ado, here's the latest FTS group discussion:
While it’s true Kyrie Irving missed the game while dealing with a knee contusion… Was Sunday night’s 103-80 loss to the Detroit Pistons the Cavs’ worst loss of the season? Worse than the Atlanta beatdown at home? Worse than the loss at home against Denver? Or the one in Utah? Or dropping opening night to the woeful Knicks?
Mayer: I think probably it was. Most of their other bad losses came early in the season, when it was understandable that they’d still be figuring things out. Even without Kyrie, dropping a game at home to the Pistons at this point in the season is inexcusable. (Unless the Pistons are actually really good now that they don’t have Josh Smith, which I suppose is possible.)
Mourton: Yeah, it was. Recent losses are worse, in my opinion, than losses at the beginning of the year. Especially openers, those are unpredictable.
Magnotti: The Detroit loss isn’t the worst we’ve seen this season, I don’t think. Granted, the Pistons are horrendous, but they have a roster that can attack the Cavs’ biggest weaknesses defensively if they’re firing on all cylinders, and Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe did just that. I’d still contend the Toronto loss was the worst one of the year, because they were up 24-6 and shooting $Texas from the field and still lost at home by 17. The Detroit loss is probably number three or four.
Luscher: The Cavs let Detroit shoot almost 55 percent from three and showed no interest as a team in the second half. LeBron’s near quadruple double (points, rebounds, assists, turnovers) on .401 true shooting was disturbing, and so was his defense.
Manning: I’d still go with the opening loss to the Knicks. Kyrie’s absence sort of explains to me why the Cavs offense looked so off against Detroit and, considering how bad the Knicks are now, it’s hard to not look past that game. It gets even bigger in my mind considering that it was in LeBron’s return and came on his big night. The emotions compound the Knicks loss tenfold.
Rowan: It was the worst loss of the season. Atlanta is a very talented team that is capable of getting hot and staying hot. The Cavs poor defense certainly was a factor, but that was just insane. The Cavs completely quit during the Detroit game and could have turned things around as late as the final minutes of the third quarter if they just dug in on defense and worked for good looks on offense. Forget the other losses, that was embarrassing and inexcusable.
Over their past 10 games, Cleveland has the third worst Defensive Rating in the league. Who or what is the chief culprit for the recent free fall at that end?
Mayer: Kevin Love hasn’t been great on that end, obviously, but he’s not alone. LeBron is still only playing defense when he feels like it. At the end of the day, though, there’s only so much these guys can do without having more rim protection behind them. We knew that was going to be a problem, and it turns out that we were right.
Mourton: There are a few things at play here, I think. First, Love and Varejao were not an effective pair defensively, now Varejao is out and things are even worse. Challenging shots was a problem anyway, but now the Cavs are down to two playable big men, neither over 6’10", and neither known for blocking shots. Until they get someone to alter shots, or LeBron can become the every play defensive force he has chosen to be at times, they will probably not be great. One lineup that intrigues me defensively is Tristan, Marion, LeBron, Dion, and Kyrie. That might be their best possible defensive unit right now.
Magnotti: I’m going to go the opposite direction and blame the perimeter defense, primarily. At the core the Cavs’ defense is doing the same things they have been all season. They’re preventing free throws, giving up open looks in the lane, and attempting to make teams beat them by scoring two-point shots. Unfortunately, their perimeter defense is allowing teams to dissect them with good ball movement because their rotations have been bad. The Cavs have given up the third most assists in the league this year, and teams are having no problems passing out of the pick-and-roll and spacing the floor. LeBron, Dion Waiters, and Matthew Dellavedova have been particularly bad at rotating to open shooters of late, and that’s what’s been the team’s biggest issue.
Luscher: Obviously, Love is part of the problem, but it’s not like he was a lockdown defender when the Cavs were defending well (or better). I consider Love a defensive constant -- he plays at various degrees of bad, but it’s always bad. Losing Varejao hasn’t been great for the defense. I wonder what Mike Miller is doing to the defense, but I’d like a bigger sample size before I pick on him. I think Kyrie Irving has been underrated on defense this year. People love Dellavedova because he looks like he’s trying hard out there, but Irving is the more physically capable defender. If I’m going to pick one person, it’s LeBron, who sets the tone on the defensive end but often doesn’t try as hard as he should. It’s not the best metric, but his defensive rating for his 2011-12 season (I believe his best season so far) was 99. His defensive rating so far this season is 108. His turnover percentage is also nearly two percentage points higher this year than 2011-12, so he’s coughing up a lot more points now than he was at his best.
Manning: I think the issues really stem from the perimeter defense. Yes, Kevin Love is limited defensively and the Cavs don’t have any one player who can protect the rim but that hasn’t changed. Over the past few games, we’ve seen LeBron and company get beat off the dribble. Luol Deng, for instance, killed LeBron on Christmas day. And with no one in the middle there to serve as a last line of defense, those are easy buckets for the other team.
Rowan: The Cavs continue to allow far too much penetration from the perimeter. The defense is left scrambling and with Tristan Thompson as the lone big capable of playing anything that resembles defense, the Cavs seem doomed to struggle on that end unless a move is made. The Cavs defense has been worse this season than last year despite an improvement in defensive personnel. It’s been a lack of effort and communication that’s caused this and things like LeBron looking worse on defense than Alonzo Gee at times certainly hasn’t helped. But with this defensive slump, the poor effort has resulted in even worse results on the defensive end due to the injuries the Cavs are dealing with.
Any issues or complaints with the way Kevin Love is being used in the offense?
Mayer: Yes. I really wish they would feature him more in the post. But it goes beyond just him; I have some issues and complaints about their offense as a whole. It’s become predictable and boring. If David Blatt can’t get them to play his system, then I’m not sure how long he’s going to be around.
Mourton: Yeah. Hell yeah. I don’t get it. David Blatt has forgotten more basketball than I will ever know (yes, that makes Blatt sound VERY impressive), but I have objections. There was a brief five minutes recently with LeBron in the locker room with an injury where the Cavs ran through Love in the mid-post. It is the only time I’ve seen it this year, and it was very effective. It was great actually. Love’s options seem limited to "post catch" and "spot up" most of the time, which I don’t care for. His touches at the elbow are almost non-existent, and where is the pick and roll?
Magnotti: RUN THE DANG PICK AND ROLL. It just feels like Love isn’t being used as a primary option in the offense ever. It’s been infuriating to watch the Cavs run PNR with Kyrie and Varejao while Love spots up, and maybe the Varejao injury is what actually pushes the team to try running Love in these sets more.
Luscher: It’s not good. I don’t think Blatt went from "borderline offensive genius" to a guy who doesn’t know what an offense is overnight, so it seems like an issue connecting with his players. That’s mostly on Blatt, but who knows how much effort the players put forth to buy in. Hard to tell without being a member of the team.
Manning: See Trevor’s response. Love PNR’s, and pick and pops, need to happen.
Rowan: Yup. Kevin Love is one of the most gifted players in the league and the team is not playing to his strengths at all. A David Blatt offense seemed perfect for Kevin Love, but since the reigns of the team have been seized by LeBron, any hopes of seeing that offense appear to be dashed. With LeBron’s effectiveness as a point forward (see the increase in turnovers and fumbled dribbles) the Cavs would be better served running a large portion of their offense through Love in the high post. This opens up many slashing opportunities and gets Love the ball in a position that he has excelled in. In running the offense through Love, and to a lesser extent Irving, it’ll make the Cavs a lot more difficult to defend. When the offense is almost always ran through LeBron, it makes the Cavs easier to defend. By switching up the initiator, it gets more players involved and makes LeBron even more difficult to defend when he decides to take over.
Any issues or complaints with LeBron’s leadership of the team?
Mayer: On the one hand, I actually do appreciate that he seems pretty calm about everything. That helps me remain calm. But is he too calm? I was excited to see him get a little fired up during the Miami game. I think he needs to do that every now and then, while still maintaining his patience overall. He also obviously needs to do a better job of leading by example. Specifically, he needs to stop failing to get back on defense because he’s too busy arguing about calls.
Mourton: He’s weird. He’s confusing. At times he’s been kind of a turd. I don’t think he’s getting mad at guys for things he isn’t doing too. Whatever though, that can’t really be judged until after the season I guess. If they’re really successful, we’ll sit around and say how effective his leadership was.
Magnotti: I have no issues with the leadership that I’ve seen from LeBron. It really doesn’t feel like the team is dropping games due to lack of leadership. I’d more blame a lack of effective game planning and guys being hurt, which I think is a very underrated piece of why the team’s struggled lately.
Luscher: Again, I’m not in the locker room with the players, so there’s a whole aspect to this leadership that none of us know about. That’s probably the biggest part of his leadership, and we just don’t know. On the court, it’s clear that the team goes how LeBron goes. They’ve won 60 percent of their games, so I guess he’s been a good enough on court leader 60 percent of the time. It’s speculation on my part because I can’t know, but I get the feeling LeBron is doing his own thing on offense no matter what Blatt tells him to do. A player who is a good leader at least tries to do what his coach is telling him to do. If LeBron isn’t, then I have some huge issues with LeBron’s leadership. It’s impossible for a teach to reach its full potential if the players and coaches aren’t on the same page.
Manning: Nah. Not in the locker room, don’t know how he’s operating on a day to day basis with the guys. This is a question better answered by a person with #sources.
Rowan: All I can say is that some of the criticisms he has lobbed at the team come across as hypocritical when you look at his own play on the court. I also feel like he’s talking to the media a bit too much about the process the team needs to go through. He speaks about his teammates as though he is a coach and separate from them in the locker room. I’d like to see him keep more of what’s going on out of the eyes of the media. Let people speculate, stick with your teammates.
Name one player you’d like to see much more of, and one you’d like to see much less.
Mayer: I guess I’d like to see more Brendan Haywood. I know he probably can’t play a ton of minutes, but if he can just give them a little bit of an inside presence every now and then, I think he could help. He hasn’t looked terrible the few times he’s played this season. And I want to see less of LeBron. After all of the talk about how his minutes would come down eventually, he’s averaging 37 minutes per game over his last six games.
Mourton: Right now? The player I want to see more of is not on the roster, probably. Maybe A.J. Price. Anyone who has followed my opinions for the last year knows the player I want to see FAR FAR FAR FAR FAR less of.
Magnotti: It’s kinda awkward to mention now, but I was calling for less Varejao and more Tristan Thompson before Andy went down. While it sucks that Varejao’s out for the season, I’m kind of excited to see what Tristan can do to step up. He’s looked strong offensively in the three games since Andy went down, and given a bit more time to assimilate, I think special things could be on the way for him.
Luscher: I’m pretty happy with the rotations overall since Andy got injured. I’m just not happy with the roster. So I guess the player I want to see more of isn’t on this team yet. I agree with Mayer that I’d like to see less of LeBron. In fact, sit him for a few games once Irving comes back. Maybe some rest would be good for him.
Manning: I’d like to see more of DIon Waiters and Tristan Thompson. Both have been good as of late and could be used to limit minutes for others. That means less of LeBron James and Kevin Love. Eventually, those 40 minute nights are going to make some kind of impact.
Rowan: More of Kevin Love, less of LeBron. (See my previous answers. Less CAN be more.)
Between now and January 16th, the Cavs play 8 of 11 games on the road. Their record over that stretch will be…
Mayer: There are some really tough games during this upcoming stretch. I think it’s going to be something like 6-5. The good news is that things should get much easier once it’s over.
Mourton: 7-4? Maybe? I dunno. 11-0? 0-11? In between those, probably.
Magnotti: I think 8-3 is a reasonable ceiling for this stretch. Granted, there’s a lot of road games and some tough Western Conference matchups, but realistically, I’m only worried about the Rockets, Warriors, and Clippers games being guaranteed losses. I’m confident this Atlanta game will be somewhere in the middle of their blow out of and their blowout by the Hawks, they can definitely outscore Dallas and Phoenix if Kyrie’s playing, and the rest of the games are against, like, the Kings, Lakers, and 76ers. I’d say 6-5 is the floor and 8-3 is the ceiling.
Luscher: I really think they’ll go 4-7, but I’ll say 5-6 instead because I should probably temper my low expectations. I think their floor is 3-8. Their ceiling is 8-3 -- and that’s if they suddenly put things together and look elite again. They have some wildly tough games away from home in this stretch.
Manning: I’ll say 7-4 with the potential to go 9-2. For all the issues, the Cavs are still really talented. Against a really difficult schedule, the Cavs have won 60 percent of their games. I think that will show itself during this stretch.
Rowan: Assuming Kyrie Irving plays, I’m going with 7-4. I think we might see an addition to the Cavs in this stretch, even if it’s just a temporary add while David Griffin explores the trade market.