With the Cavs a quarter of the way through the season, a large portion of the Fear the Sword staff answers a number of key Cavs questions ranging from how the Cavs have played to how Kevin Love his played this season as opposed to last.
1. On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate the Cavs' play so far this season?
Chris Manning (@cwmwrites): Six. There are moments where the Cavs look like world beaters and dominate games. And then there are times where they coast, play down to lesser teams' levels and play nothing like a team that will probably play in the NBA Finals come June. There's fair reasons why the Cavs aren't playing well - missing Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert definitely hurts - but it's not everything. At the moment, this team is a sleeping giant playing slightly above average basketball.
Jack Zink (@jackson_zink): 6. Because of the Golden State Warriors' success this season, everything the Cavs do is, to an extent, be in comparison to them. And even though the Cavs are 14-7 and currently hold the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, their play hasn't been all that inspiring. Injuries certainly haven't helped anything, but too many games have had the Cavs sleepwalking through first two-to-three quarters, then turning on a switch only when they need to. Outside of a three-game stretch against Milwaukee, Atlanta and Orlando, the Cavs haven't dominated games from start to finish, which is what was kind of expected from them. I'm not concerned at all about games in November and December (see last year) and the returns of Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert should turn the dial up for the Cavs going forward.
Mike Mayer (@MikeMayer1964): I'm going to go ahead and give them an eight, because I think they deserve to be graded on a curve (I hope my own professors are equally as generous during my final exams this month). The fact that, as Jack just said, they are 14-7 and first in the East is pretty impressive when you consider that neither of their starting guards has played in a game, especially given that one of those guards is their second-best player. Once they are back at full strength, the curve will go away, and my expectations will be much higher.
Scott Recker (@scottmrecker): I would say a 7. They've done what they've had to do to stay at the top of the Eastern Conference standings, which, all things considered, is what matters most â possibly outside of staying healthy. Sometimes they've looked quick and brilliant, sometimes they've looked sluggish and lost, sometimes both are interchangeable within the same game. They have fallen behind to quite a few lesser teams and then snagged a win in the second half, which is a good sign for in-game adjustments and the ability to maintain confidence and control despite the obvious frustrations of losing when you shouldn't be. I worry about the offense leaning too heavily on LeBron at times (although they have been, at others, moving the ball really well) and the defense struggling against athletic teams that attack the rim off of pick-and-rolls, but I'll be surprised if both of those are still problems in February.
Carter Rodriguez(@Carter_Shade): Eh, a 6? I'm not super enthused about anything that they've done, but it is nice to see that Kevin Love is getting a more active role in the team's gameplan. It also helps to see that they're running real NBA sets. Mozgov has been a concern, but the team is 14-7 without Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert, so, despite an easy schedule, it's hard to be disappointed with the start. They can be much better.
Trevor Magnotti (@IllegalScreens): I'll go with a seven. I can understand why people are freaking out. LeBron seems very dad-like with the amount of emphasis he's putting on discipline and competitiveness, and they have had some unexplainably poor performances while not looking like the dominant team we know them to be. But, the Cavs are missing two rotation players with injury, one of which is the best point guard in the Eastern Conference. A third looks like he's switched talent levels with Rasho Nesterovic. A fourth spent the first three weeks of the season getting into condition because of a contract dispute. Expecting this team to come roaring out of the gate destroying teams was foolish, and the Cavs have basically looked exactly how I expected them to. They'll get it together, and look much, much better 25 games from now.
Aaron Perine (@Sumitlakehornet): 7 sounds about right. All things considered, I think the guys are going to be alright. They have been without J.R. for a couple games early along with Mo and Delly for a game or two here and there. However, the Cavs seem to keep on ticking. LeBron seems none too pleased with the effort on a consistent basis but, we still don't know what this team will look like on a consistent basis. Not great but certainly good enough for us to put down our torches and pitchforks while we wait for Shumpert and Irving to return.
Justin Rowan (@Cavsanada): I'll also go with seven because I'm unoriginal. The Cavs really have performed well when you consider the players they've been missing, injuries to Timofey Mozgov, Mo Williams, J.R. Smith and even Matthew Dellavedova. They are at the top of the East waiting for their starting guards to return, that's pretty good. Seven just feels right, they have had a few nine performances sprinkled in with a few apathetic games. Is it frustrating to watch at times? Yes. But ugly or not they're still winning.
2. TImofey Mozgov has been the Cavs' worst rotation player so far this year. How concerned are you about his play and how much do the Cavs need him?
Manning: I'm concerned, as he was so good last year and has totally regressed this year. While he won't be the reason why the Cavs win or lose a title, he's a key role player who is capable of being a top notch defensive anchor. The Cavs, though, can win without him playing great - they're doing it now even - but this team can get a lot better. Mozgov returning to form would help because at some point they're probably going to need him to protect the rim. If he can at least do that, it'll greatly help the Cavs.
Zink: Part of his play, it looks like, seems to be him struggling to come back from his knee surgery over the summer. It's disappointing that he's played so, so poorly, but it really isn't a cause for concern right now. Blatt has said that he wants Mozgov to rehab himself into shape and that clearly isn't working. And since the Cavs have been better with Thompson on the court than Mozgov (both this year and last), it's hard to say the Cavs desperately *need* him.
Mayer: I don't think Mozgov will be the reason the Cavs win the title, or the reason they don't. Over the course of the regular season, it would be nice if he could contribute something. But, come playoff time, they can probably get through the East without him. And they will probably need to play small to hang with the Warriors. So I guess I'm not really all that concerned.
Recker: I'll become concerned if it becomes obvious that his injury/ies are nagging and long term. If this is getting back into shape and reintegrated to the flow of the game, it'll probably be fine, but he can't be battling his body all year if the Cavs want to protect the rim, because he's their best chance of doing that at a high level ... unless they find someone else to.
Rodriguez: I'm feeling a little anxious. I think that he really needs some more time off to get healthy, and the Cavaliers were happy to play small ball against the Blazers, and should be happy to do it more if it buys Mozzy some rest to get right. The short term gains of playing him are minimal right now anyway, so why not try to make sure he's good to go when the games are really important?
Magnotti: I'm plenty concerned, mainly because bigs in their late 20s don't just totally lose their ability to finish at the rim without significant reasoning. He's dealing with injuries, which I get, and I think he's a little unhappy with how his role was reduced from the start by Tristan and Love getting more minutes and the Cavs playing more functional small-ball. He does get Kyrie Irving back soon though, and he was almost always on the floor when Mozgov looked his best offensively last season. Maybe that helps.
Perine: I'm cautiously concerned because he looks a little lost out there right now. Is he still recovering from injury? Yes. Has the team been able to rise above the fact that it has seen TT become the defacto center in 4th quarters despite his height limitations. Yes. Do you need Moz to help build those early leads that allow the stars to get rest and enforce your will on the opposing team? I think so... and that is where the rub is for me.
Rowan: I'm a little worried. Even though Anderson Varejao has been better than I expected, their centers outside of Mozgov have not been championship calibre. There's a hole in the rotation that needs to be filled either by Mozgov returning to form or David Griffin going out and getting a replacement that can give them some of what they need. I have confidence in the front office, but obviously the hope would be that Mozgov starts playing at a level similar to last season.
3. As of right now, who the Cavs' biggest threat in the Eastern Conference and why?
Manning: It's the Heat. I have no idea what to make of the Wolves, the Wizards are a mess and there's not reason to think the Hawks are any better than last year. Miami is a veteran team that knows how to win, has a really good coach in Erik Spoelstra and can play both big and small. Plus, Dwyane Wade is still Dwyane Wade and with him, Chris Bosh and a good supporting cast, the Heat have a good of chance as any of making the Cavs sweat.
Zink: The team that previously employed LeBron James. Last week's game against the Cavs is gives me zero indication as to why I think the Miami Heat pose the biggest challenge to the Cavs, considering Cleveland was without their top two players two of their top three players. I don't think Heat coach Erik Spoelstra gets the credit he deserves as a coach and a healthy Dwyane Wade still scares me, especially in a seven-game playoff series.
Mayer: I want to preface my answer by acknowledging that it is completely irrational. Everybody got that? Ok, my answer is the Bulls. Yes, in our season preview I said the Bulls would be the team in the East that takes a step back. No, it's not clear that Hoiberg knows what he's doing. And no, I'm not really sure how their lineup will shake out in the playoffs. But there's just something about the Bulls, man. If LeBron hadn't hit that game-winner in Game 4 against them last year, the Cavs may well have been down 3-1 in that series, and Hoiberg might be coaching the Cavs right now for all we know. The Bulls just scare me, even if they probably shouldn't.
Recker: Miami, because if their veterans stay healthy and their young talent continues to develop, they could be tough to deal with.
Rodriguez: I don't care. They're not gonna lose in the East unless LeBron gets hurt, and if that happens, then you'll have to find me at some random street corner in Chicago, sobbing. If I had to pick though, I'd pick the the Heat. I'm less impressed with the Heat than most people, but they play really good defense and the team doesn't have an athletic counter for Hassan Whiteside. Dwyane Wade can pull out some vintage performances here and there, and if things break right, they could really have the Cavs sweating.
Magnotti: I think it's the Heat, because that's a team built to rip the Cavs' defense apart. The Cavs have struggled with elite dribble-penetrators this season, and if you couple that with a team that can draw Mozgov and Tristan away from the rim and force a ton of turnovers defensively, that's going to give the Cavs issues. The Cavs will give the Heat a ton of issues from three on both ends, because the Heat do lose spot-up shooters naturally due to their pick-and-roll coverages and they can't shoot from outside at all outside of Bosh and Tyler Johnson. But Miami probably gives the Cavs the most issues on both ends.
Perine: Atlanta. I think so because they haven't quite figured out life after Demarre Carroll. If/when they do, look out because even though the Cavs beat the brakes off of them last year, they still have the positional flexibility to give the Cavs some issues. Also, I just dont believe that strongly in either Chicago or Miami. Both of those teams have key players that I have trouble counting on to stay healthy over the course of an entire season (Wade and Rose).
I can't pick that? Fine. I'll say Indiana, not because of who they are now but if they were to make a move at the deadline to go along with Paul George playing at an MVP level I could see them being a pain. As currently constructed the East isn't too threatening, so I have to go with the team with the second best player in the conference that plays a small ball style that could bother Cleveland.
Photo credit: USA Today
4. Aside from LeBron and Kevin Love, who has been the most impressive Cavalier so far this season?
Manning: It's Matthew Dellavedova. He's not doing much more than he did last year, but he's improved into an actual NBA guard. I mean, he's freaking leading the league in assist to turnover ration and still playing really tough defense.
Zink: *whispers* Matthew Dellavedova /runs
Mayer: Mo Williams, in part because they are so desperate for somebody like him in the absence of Kyrie. When he's been healthy, he's done pretty much everything the team has needed him to do offensively, whether as a starter or coming off the bench.
Rodriguez: I think Delly's been very good. His assist to turnover ratio is better than anything I'd ever expect, he's shooting the ball at an excellent clip, and he's just been the guy who I miss a ton when he's not on the floor.
Recker: No one has made a huge leap, per se, but Delly definitely looks like he has more instant potential and long-term value outside of just a defensive grit role. He's been the Cavs' second best facilitator, and, in a strange way, that seems problematic because his minutes are going to significantly decrease with the return of Kyrie. They need someone to step up as a second-string floor general. LeBron won't rest much otherwise.
Magnotti: Mo Williams has proven me wrong in every facet of the game this season. He's hitting league average from three, and his passing's been a huge help to the Cavs offense. He hasn't been good defensively, but considering he has been a total trainwreck over the past three seasons, he's totally exceeded expectations this year. Also, he's shooting 62.7 percent from between 16 feet and 3-point range. A Mo long two has had a higher chance of connecting this season than a Kevin Love shot from inside three feet (52.9 percent) this year. THAT IS BANANAS.
Perine: It's really Delly but, for the sake of diversity can we talk about Richard Jefferson? Like its a good luxury to have a veteran that not only knows his role and mentors the younger players on the roster but, consistently performs his job at the level expected of him. i.e. He doesn't look like the Cavs had to use an assistant coach as an emergency substitution.
Rowan: I hate myself for answering Delly. Kevin Love has been great, but that's what I expected. Delly has been really really good and deserves minutes when this team is fully healthy, that's something I never expected.
5. What tweaks, if any, would you make the Cavs' rotation?
Manning: When Iman Shumpert comes back, I'd try him at the starting two guard spot just to see how it looks. I'd also try to go small with a frontcourt of LeBron, Richard Jefferson and Kevin Love just to see how it looks and how it flows.
Zink: Maybe inserting a point guard who can get the offense out of the funks they go through. Maybe a guy who's a pretty good spot up shooter, as well as an elite finisher at the rim. Maybe a guy like... Kyrie Irving?
Mayer: Just like I would have said early last season, I'd like to see LeBron's minutes reduced. I know it is hard, because they want to win, and they're missing players at the moment. Once Kyrie is back, it will be easier. Guys like Steph Curry and Kawhi are right around 34 per game; there's no reason that soon-to-be-31-year-old LeBron should be over 37 per night.
Recker: I've been fine with the Cavs rotations, for the most part, although, especially when Kyrie and Iman come back, I'd like to see them get a little weird with certain line-ups, to see the range of what works. Play Love at center more. See if a better-shooting Delly can play longer minutes at the two. Can Iman play the four in small samples? Should LeBron play more post defense since the Cavs are getting burnt on pick and rolls? Most of what I said probably doesn't make sense, but if you can successfully do things that don't make sense, maybe that creates the lineup versatility and mismatches that you need.
Rodriguez: I was going to make a joke about starting Kyrie Irving, but Jack stole it. So I'm sitting this one out in protest.
Recker: Declined to answer
Magnotti: Kyrie and Shump in, more Mo/Delly/LeBron/Love/Tristan (That group's +53.1 in 40 minutes), less Mozgov, more Love-centric lineups in the second quarter, no more lineups without one of Love, LeBron or Kyrie outside of garbage time.
Perine: Staggering the minutes more and making sure we get the most out of both LBJ and Love while the other is sitting. The offense is still prone to dry spells in the early season and it can be a little weird to see. Also figuring out how to bottle up that defensive intensity from the 3rd quarter of the Portland game and injecting it into the Cavs right before tipoff would be nice.
Rowan: Starting Shumpert when he gets back. I think Smith's offense is best off the bench and that creates touches for Love even with Irving around. Blatt can also continue to tinker as much as he wants. It doesn't always make sense, but it somehow works. I've been impressed with how good of a job David Blatt has done this season. Also, adding Joe Johnson once he's bought out. He's been bad but I want him.
6. Who ultimately finds a set place in the Cavs' rotation: James Jones or Anderson Varejao?
Manning: Trick question: it's neither if Kevin Love at the five becomes a decently regular thing, especially if Mozgov is struggling. But if I have to pick one, it's Jones. He can shoot and abovec all else, the Cavs value shooting around LeBron.
Zink: I personally think this is more obvious than it should be, but it has to be Jones. Varejao has provided some good minutes this year, but at full strength he's the Cavs' fourth big behind Mozgov, Love and Thompson. We saw some of it against the Trail Blazers, but we could see a lot more small ball from the Cavs which would ultimately knock Varejao out of the rotation. Jones, on the other hand, has shown he can guard power forwards and is still a good enough shooter to roam around the three-point line and open the lanes for LeBron and Irving.
Mayer: The fact that Varejao has played at all, much less that he's actually played well at times, kind of feels like a miracle. But the answer here is probably Jones. He's versatile and can shoot, which makes him useful in smaller lineups. Going forward, I'd imagine we'll see Blatt utilize small lineups more often, making Varejao the fourth big on a team frequently playing without more than one on the floor at a time.
Recker: James Jones, because he can come into a game quickly impact it and then go back to the bench. He doesn't need many minutes to successfully do what he does best. Plus, I think that the Cavs will look into shopping with Andy's contract in the mid-season market.
Rodriguez: Can I suggest that neither play much? Blatt has shown signs that he's willing to play Kevin Love at the five, and I'm over the moon about it. I think the Cavs, especially in the modern NBA, should focus on just playing their best players. You could absolutely run lineups featuring Love at the five and Jefferson or James at the four to save themselves from playing players that would be better suited to being on the edge of their rotation.
Magnotti: Jones. What are you, new here?
Perine: The champ is here to stay. Jones is the obvious answer here but, I will caution that if he is playing too much then there might be something bad lurking under the surface for the Cavaliers. If he is just a stand-still jumpshooter, then awesome. But, at this point we all know that opponents just lick their chops to go back on the other end and negate the positives he brings on the offensive side of the ball.
Rowan: Champ. I'm more confident that he'll make it through the season.
7. How would you rate Love's performance so far this season? How will his role adjust when Kyrie Irving gets back?
Manning: It's still odd and frustrating that he's had a few downright bad games, but the Cavs are getting him shots where he's comfortable and he looks like a tweaked version of Minnesota Kevin Love. He's being aggressive and putting in more effort on defense, who things he didn't do much of last year. When Irving gets back, it's totally realistic to hope he plays roughly the same role that he is right now, but it's also possible that he starts spitting up more. The answer to that question actually should tell us a lot about the Cavs' offense.
Zink: It's been a lot better than last season. He's getting to his spots that helped him succeed in Minnesota (block and the elbows) and his game has been better because of that. The one thing I've been impressed with Love so far this season has been his aggressiveness. At times last year he would fade out of the offense and just stand around the three-point line and be limited to s spot up shooter. Part of that could be Irving's absence, part of that could be LeBron pushing that Love be more involved as a focal point of the offense. I'd like to believe that the latter has been a bigger influence for Love's success this year.
Mayer: I agree with Jack that he's been much better this season. He's shooting more threes, but still managing to get more rebounds than he did a year ago. But the only thing that matters, of course, is how he fits once Kyrie is back.
Recker: Blatt (and LeBron) been much more creative â or reasonable â in terms of using Kevin Love this year. They're looking to get him easy looks early and often, instead of just making him stand on the perimeter like a glorified Channing Frye. He comes off screens and hits jump shots incredibly well for someone his size and they've been incorporating a little bit of that too. I hope Love's role won't change much when Kyrie gets back, but, that means, by default, Kyrie's role would slightly have to shift, and that's ok if it simply means less isos and more ball movement â especially since we know Kyrie can score in almost any sort of situation. I think everyone can win here.
Carter: I agree with Scott that the Cavs have done Love a lot more favors in terms of their usage of Kevin Love. They're not just throwing the nominal "hey you're a big go post up" plays out there, instead setting interest screens and leveraging Love's skills to get him post entries that are close to the basket. He's still missing a ton of bunnies, and his defense leaves a lot to be desired, but he at least looks like Kevin Love this season, and I'll call it a win.
Magnotti: He's been good. It'd be nice to see his passing get more emphasis, and of course we could always use more elbow touches from him. But offensively he's been a monster in the post, he's hitting threes, and he's crashing the glass well. Defensively the Cavs have been slightly better with him off the floor, but they're still pretty good, at 101.4 points allowed per 100 possessions with him on the floor, and his effort is definitely much better this year. I think the "HOW WILL HE FIT NEXT TO KYRIE" stuff is overblown because you just run Kyrie/Love PNR and let Kyrie spot up around Love post touches, two things that worked well the few times they did them last year. The usage works itself out from there, I think. Love's been playing at All-Star level this year.
Perine: I feel much better about everything he's done except the Miami game, where I probably shouldn't single him out. We are starting to see what made the front office go get him in the first place. He asked for the ball more near the basket and he has gotten his wish this season. It's been a delight to watch him get a defender into position for that little jump hook near the low block because it's as close to an easy two points that the Cavs seem to get out of their half court offense. Love has even started to show some good moments on defense as he looks somewhat interested in that for certain parts of games. Big improvements lately.
Rowan: I've been really impressed with Love. Early in the season he was getting great looks and being productive despite not having his touch. Like most bigs he is reliant on the rest of the team getting him touches and often how he plays is a barometer for how well the ball is moving. I'd like to see him be a bit more assertive at times, but overall I think he's been very good. I think Kyrie is going to make things easier for everyone, him included. I don't think it's going to be a huge adjustment once Irving is back, he'll still get his 15 shots a night and have some nights bigger than others. That's the beauty of having three stars, they can take turns leading when they have the hot hand. But no matter what, the Cavs need to make sure the ball is finding his hands, because good things happen when he touches the ball.