It seems like the stock of every potential contender — and their shot at bringing home a trophy — has risen and fallen throughout the year, except one. And that one team (obviously the Warriors) is the reason why. The bar that they’ve set in everyone’s minds is so unpredictably high that it’s created league-wide chaos within opposing organizations and fans. They’re like Donald Trump — unless you’re them, their (somehow) longterm fan base or their newfound zombie horde of devotees, their meteoric rise makes people uncomfortable, because the potential of what they could do is equal to a tornado hitting a golf cart. And before the year’s over, the lingering thought of their juggernaut status will probably cause a few teams to blow it up and press the reset button, while others make desperation trades … or abrupt coaching changes. Some of it will be warranted.
Some of it will be an overreaction. If the Cavs are smart, they won’t panic, but there are questions they have to answer. It’s hard to tell exactly, at this point, where the Cavs stand. There’s a lot of basketball left to play. And, if I recall correctly, 11 months ago the narrative was that the Cavs couldn’t possibly win a title. Two months later, they were hailed as the favorites. But, so it goes. Anyway, here, in my opinion, are the keys to the Cavs moving toward a title.
Kevin Love’s defense
A perpetual concern that almost always revolves around a potential finals rematch with the Warriors, Love’s defense — predominately switching on pick and rolls — has caused conversation about how playable he is in still situations, especially against Steph/Klay/Barnes/Iggy/Draymond lineups in crunch time. Love’s not a terrible one-on-one defender, but he does get lost in the pick and roll a lot. He’s strong, and relatively quick for his size, but he tends to get sucked into picks that are set on a guard, losing his visibility and then just being too far behind the play. Sometimes he takes wild chances on the front end of the scenario and looks like the prototypical sucker that makes the play go exactly how it was drawn up. Unless, the Cavs decide to move him to center for a large chunk of the playoffs — something that I would support, especially if they add another wing — they really can’t have him drop back hard against the pick and roll, as Mozgov does.
I think the Cavs have proven that this won’t affect their chances of blazing through the East (although an upset is always possible), but it’s that the Warriors are looming in the distance in terms of a rematch that kind of psychs the team’s thinkers into whether or not Love can match up against that small, accurate, quick-thinking offense. Personally, I really hope they don’t make a freak-out trade, and find a way to maximize Love against the Warriors by being clever — possibly matching him up against Bogut, or taking him out early and running him with the second unit, or hiding him on a wing when the Warriors go small and hope for the best.
They tried the "Let Iguodala have long-range jump shots and if that beats you, then you lose" mentality last year, and the veteran burned the Cavs on it, but with that team you have to pick your poison. But, if it was Love on Iggy, the added offense — and spacing — could have changed the pattern of the game. The Cavs will probably need to be extremely situational with Love in a finals series, but he’s too offensively talented and too great of a rebounder to not figure it out in some regard. In a series versus the Warriors, they will spend time hiding Love, but since that teams game plan is destroying their opponents game plan,
Love will inevitably have to spend some time on Draymond, who he’ll have to up his defensive awareness against to keep the number of easy shots to a minimum. Draymond can ruin a game plan in so many ways that you can’t afford to just lose him, like in the video below:
Kyrie Irving’s passing
Unquestionably, Kyrie’s ability to score has made a positive impact on the Cavs. His prowess to make quick scoring decisions and hit shots from all over the floor unlocks a lot for the team, including that slick mid-range pick and pull up game as well as driving at seemingly impossible angles from isos, both of which take a lot of pressure off of LeBron’s shoulders. But, to fully progress the starting lineup, the Cavs probably need a consistent secondary facilitator, and, to take his game to a truly elite level, that should be Kyrie. Right now, he’s averaging 4.5 assists per game, less than Delly (4.8), Kemba Walker (5) and Michael Carter-Williams (5.5). It seems apparent that his scoring has had a positive impact on LeBron, who seems to get trapped into less bad shots when Kyrie’s healthy, which appears to be reflected in LeBron’s December (left) and January (right) shot charts, as you can see below.
But, for his ability to collapse defenses, draw double teams and be a constant threat, he doesn’t distribute as well as he should — and for himself (to avoid injuries) and the team (to get more easy looks), his court vision probably needs to open up. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes he looks sharp as a passer, but if he could establish himself as a consistent assist threat, it could take the Cavs ball movement to the next level and make the offense run a lot more smoothly. Sometimes Kyrie holds the ball for extended periods of time, and he doesn’t posses the pure skill to thread the ball into impossible spaces like LeBron or Curry, but it doesn’t always have to be pretty — just being aware of an easy pass that you can make early in the shot clock gets it done:
I didn’t dislike Blatt as the coach of the Cavs, but when he was fired, I didn’t really care — the announcement that he was replaced didn’t really matter to me, a rare reaction for a life-long Cleveland fan, and it seemed like the players didn’t really react either. And, while my initial indifference doesn’t really matter, that of the players certainly does. If it’s true that the players didn’t fully respect Blatt because of his failure to criticize LeBron, then there was a problem. Without being in the locker room, it’s almost impossible to know how the players felt about the whole thing, but in a league where players get paid millions and on a team with stars that inevitably overshadow the coach, it wouldn’t be surprising if someone was pissed that Blatt got fired that they would have been vocal about it. Instead, crickets.
But … it happened, and it’s hard to analyze or critique what Lue has done thus far because it’s been such a small sample size. I do like how it seems like the team is trying to play in transition more, because LeBron on the loose is almost an automatic two free throws and sometimes an absurd and one. But, only time will tell if this was the right move, and if Lue has what it takes to show the sort of scrappy genius it will take to beat the Warriors or the Spurs in what will almost certainly be a grueling series. Or, worst case scenario: the team implodes while they are still in the Eastern Conference, in which case heads will roll, scapegoats will be manufactured, moves will happen.
I’ve always thought that superstars bring you to the edge of winning a title, and role players push you over the edge. When crunch time hits, and the pace slows to half-court heavy scenarios, teams need lock-down defenders on one end who can knock down open shots on the other. Especially when opponents structure their defensive game plan around cutting off Cleveland’s strongpoints, Iman Shumpert is a catalyst. It seems insane to say when he’s shooting a 38.8 from the field and a 32.2 percent from three, and that he’s been the best from the side of the floor that both Love and LeBron like to work from (see shot chart below), but we know he’s capable of more on offense — it’s just a matter of whether he can stabilize himself at the right time.
On one hand, he can theoretically guard one through four on the defensive end. He’s a solid perimeter defender, strong for his size and he has an uncanny ability to strip the ball and create turnovers. Offensively, when he’s hitting jumpers, he allows you a lot of versatility in terms of lineups. But, on the other hand, he’s injury prone and inconsistent. He’s put the ball on the floor better this year, as he looks better driving off the dribble, and he still seems fine as a low usage player, but if Shumpert gets hot in a hypothetical finals series versus any of the three teams predicted to come out of the West, I think it would mean everything to the Cavs to be able to give him starter’s minutes and tough defensive assignments.
Especially taking into consideration the feared Steph/Draymond pick and roll/pop/drive/pass that’s so hard to guard, because he’s one of the few guys (LeBron probably being the only other) on the team that you could seemingly put on either opponent on the front end of that play and not get utterly embarrassed. But, first he’ll have to start shooting better, especially from the right side.
More depth at wing or a athletic, small-ball big both seem to be on the Cleveland trade deadline wish list, which makes sense for lineup flexibility, with emphasis on more athletic and versatile players being able to share the floor. Here’s a quick lightning round of players that have been linked to Cleveland in recent days/weeks.
Kosta Koufos: Can the Cavs make it through the Eastern Conference as they are? Yes. Does Koufos have a chance to make a significant impact versus the Spurs or the Warriors? Probably not. My inclination is that there are better fits out there.
Kyle Korver: If the Hawks press the reset button, and the Cavs trade for Korver, one of last year’s most feared shooters who has taken a step back, it would be a major gamble, but it would allow them to play extremely wing-heavy lineups that space the floor for LeBron.
Markieff Morris: I’m for it. He can stretch the floor a bit and play as a small-ball center. Yes, I know he’s a crazy person. Yes, I know he would probably be upset with his amount of minutes. But, with Kevin Love’s struggle to defend the pick and roll, and TT’s severely limited offensive game, I don’t think the team can land a better fit for certain situations. I also don’t think it will happen.
Ben McLemore: Seems desperate.
Trevor Ariza: His best days are behind him, but at 6’8, and as a career defensive-minded player who can knock down a three, he could possibly be a good fit. He is shooting 37.7 from three this season, and 57.1 percent from the left corner — a good place to plant a stretch four.
Joe Johnson: The thought of adding another iso player causes Dion Waiters flashbacks … but let’s talk again when buyout season approaches.