Here’s what we learned from another winning week.
The Cavs are winning without their best stuff.
It was an up and down week for the Cavs to say the least. They opened with a thrilling win over the Nets where they completely shut down their offense in the fourth quarter. The Nets were held to just 19 points in the final frame as Kyrie Irving and James Harden combined for 10 points on 2 of 9 shooting.
The defense has been underwhelming this week outside of the fourth quarter against Brooklyn. The Chicago Bulls were able to get whatever they wanted offensively as they posted 117 points in their win on Wednesday. The Oklahoma City Thunder also got whatever they wanted offensively but went 7-29 (24.1%) on wide-open threes and were 9-16 (56.3%) from the line on Saturday.
The Cavs haven’t played what I would consider a complete game since their 111-91 win over the Utah Jazz on January 12. Every game since then has featured at least some stretches of bad play that we weren’t seeing from this team when healthy. The process simply isn’t as clean as it’s been in the past.
That said, the Cavs have still won six of their last seven and are within two games of the top spot in the conference. Young teams go through peaks and valleys. It feels like the Cavs are going through a valley now with their shooting slump and dip in defensive production, but are still finding ways to manufacture wins.
Darius Garland continues to be an impactful scorer despite his poor three-point shooting.
One of the biggest concerns with Garland was whether or not he could make a scoring impact when his three-point shot isn’t falling. His outside shot has left him as he’s shooting just 30.4% from three this month on 6.9 attempts.
Despite the low percentage and high volume, he still has an effective field goal percentage of 50 while averaging 20.9 points per game in January. Those aren’t good numbers, but they are needed considering the current state of the offense.
Garland has been able to supplement his scoring by adding an effective 10 to 20 footer to his arsenal. The third-year guard is shooting 56.5% on 4.6 shots per game from that range in January. He was attempting only 3.3 shots from that range prior to this month.
The Cavs currently need all the scoring they can get. It’s encouraging that Garland has still found ways to put up points despite his, and the rest of the team’s, poor outside shooting.
The Cavs continue to be in a shooting slump.
The Cavs shot 50% from the field but were just 30.2% from deep and 66.7% from the line this week. That was good enough for a 108.3 offensive rating this week which is down from the 110.1 they have this season.
The three-point shooting has taken a hit since Ricky Rubio left the lineup. They aren’t able to generate as many quality threes which is especially true for Kevin Love and Cedi Osman who spent the majority of their minutes with Rubio prior to the injury.
While the bench unit might be most impacted by Rubio’s absence, his absence is felt by the whole team as evidenced by the above table. Lauri Markkanen is one of the only players not shooting worse from three-point range since the injury.
It’s easy to look at these numbers and jump to the conclusion that the Cavs’ outside shooting slump is tied directly to Rubio being out of the lineup and not being able to replace him with another quality playmaker. While they dearly miss Rubio overall, I’m not sure if his absence is the entire issue.
Free-throw shooting is often linked to three-point shooting. We hear about this all the time in the lead-up to the draft. If a prospect is a consistent free-throw shooter but doesn’t have a great three-point percentage there is hope that they are a better three-point shooter than the numbers indicate. The inverse is also true.
The same is more or less true on a team-wide level. The top five three-point shooting teams in terms of percentage are the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks, Miami Heat, Charlotte Hornets and the Phoenix Suns. All of those teams besides the Hornets are in the top ten in free-throw percentage this season.
The Cavs' free-throw shooting has also been in a massive slump since Rubio’s injury. The Cavs were shooting 79.5% from the stripe before the injury and have been shooting 68.2% since.
Rubio’s absence can’t explain away the poor free-throw shooting as easily. It’s true that bad outside shooting will naturally affect confidence which can lead to poorer shooting elsewhere including the free-throw line. However, you wouldn’t think missing your backup point guard would cause over an 11.3% decrease in free-throw shooting percentage.
Rubio’s absence is a part of but not the entire issue. Garland, Love and Osman have been the Cavs best shooters all season but have been streaky shooters to varying degrees throughout their careers. Combining streaky shooters with a starting lineup that features three bad and/or non-outside shooters will inevitably lead to lower valleys due to the lack of other shooting options.
The Cavs miss Rubio and need to find an additional playmaker on the perimeter. However, I don’t think bringing in another Rubio-type player would magically solve the shooting issues. This is just a streaky outside shooting team that doesn’t have enough competent shooting options to avoid prolonged slumps.