The Cleveland Cavaliers are in the midst of their toughest stretch of the season thus far. After winning 18 of 19 against mostly subpar opponents, the Cavs have struggled on the road and against the Western Conference since the middle of December.
Following two of the worst back-to-back losses of LeBron James career in Cleveland, the team dropped another close one in Indianapolis against the Pacers on Friday night. The team was flowing in the first half, going up by 22 at multiple points, but the defense disappeared in the second half and the offense was stagnant.
There needs to be some sort of shakeup in the starting lineup. The 25-plus point losses to the Toronto Raptors and Minnesota Timberwolves were great indicators of that.
Inserting Isaiah Thomas consistently in the starting lineup will take time. He needs to get back to full health and even more time to adapt to his new team halfway through the season. Luckily, there’s plenty of games left for that to happen and Thomas should get into a better flow of the offense post-All Star break.
But there’s other issues at hand that need to be dealt with. Jae Crowder hasn’t played like a starter. J.R. Smith hasn’t played like a starter. And until they prove they can return to the players they were only a short year ago, it may be time to reconsider where they fall in the rotation — for the time being, at least.
There are a ton of variables that go into changing the starting lineup. There needs to be so many shooters on the court and at least some semblance of a defensive presence. Bringing in Tristan Thompson instead of Jae Crowder could could maintain at least one of those variables. Crowder has only shot 30.3 percent from deep this season and his defense has not been anywhere near what it was in Boston. Thompson has played decent since his return from injury and more so over the last six or seven games.
The Cavaliers would lose Crowder’s deep threat — even if he hasn’t performed well from that area - but Thompson’s defense and rebounding might be worth it. Thompson can guard smaller ball handlers with confidence while also bringing in a rebounding component that can take pressure off of Kevin Love.
The team has been lacking energy during this losing stretch and Thompson provides that energy necessary to keep both the Cavaliers offense and defense on their toes. As evident in the most recent loss to the Pacers (and plenty other games throughout the season), the Cavs can get way too lackadaisical and fumble away leads rather quickly.
Will Thompson be the driving force in maintaining leads? Probably not, but he has played solid defense and the team desperately needs consistency on that end. Swapping out a below average shooter for an above average rebounder and defender is an upgrade.
Another starter who could benefit from coming off the bench might be J.R. Smith. To put in simply, Smith has not played well this season. His shot has been off, at times he’s invisible on offense, and his defense has been practically nonexistent. Smith has done a lot for this team and his contributions since his arrival from New York should not be understated, but he isn’t the same Smith right now.
That’s okay, too. It isn’t time to completely faze out Smith from the starting lineup or even anything remotely close to that, but maybe having him come off the bench for a few games can allow him to settle in and find rhythm with the second team while guarding backup shooting/point guards.
Not to keep harping on energy, but Cedi Osman would provide a spark in the starting lineup that Smith has yet to bring. Osman is young and hasn’t even logged 300 minutes this season, but he always plays hard. He’s been a good enough defender that replacing him for Smith wouldn’t be noticeable in that aspect.
What Osman would bring to the starting lineup is a solid offensive perimeter threat who loves to run on the break and attack the rim. You know that you’re going to get his best every night, even if his potential for big plays isn’t as prevalent as Smith’s. If Osman gets beat, he doesn’t mope. He sprints back into plays and does his best to make up for his mistakes. For Osman to continue his development, he simply just needs to play more minutes. He’ll never take a leap in production without it and being inserted into the starting lineup midway through the season will give some looks he hasn’t seen yet as a pro.
He has a small sample size of playing next to LeBron, but Osman’s stats are up pretty much across the board when he plays next to the best player in the world compared to when he doesn’t. More minutes with LeBron will lead to more production from Osman. Smith is still a better player than the rookie, but during the middle of the season, it might be more beneficial for them to swap roles, at least for a few games and especially when Thomas is playing.
Thompson and Osman surely aren’t perfect, but they play harder than almost anyone else on the team. Channing Frye is another guy who plays hard, but doesn’t see many minutes.
Which is understandable given his defensive limitations, but when Frye is in, the Cavs have played better this season. Frye only averages 11.7 minutes per game, but the Cavs have a positive net rating of 11.1 when he’s on the court and -1.7 when he’s off. He has almost completely fallen out of the rotation and there isn’t any reason he shouldn’t be playing more minutes.
The All-Star break is still a month away and the team is a rut. If there were a time to experiment with lineup changes, now would be the time. The team is deep enough that they have the ability to experiment and continuing with what isn’t working would be pointless.