It turns out the Cleveland Cavaliers did not put it all together overnight. Their early success has vanished, with an eight-game winning streak quickly breaking into a four-game rut. The Cavs now stand at 8-5 overall.
Cleveland is still searching for its groove, coming off a summer of seismic roster changes and revamped expectations. It was never going to be easy and the growing pains have become hard to ignore.
Solving these three problems will go a long way toward getting the team back on track.
The most glaring issue for the Cavaliers is their execution in the fourth. Taking care of business in closing time has been the difference between extending their previous win streak and stumbling down a hole.
Cleveland has held a fourth-quarter lead in four of their five losses this year. They narrowly fell to the LA Clippers behind a 15-0 run in the final four minutes and recently pulled within two points of Minnesota before numerous mistakes at the end sealed their fate.
There is enough blame to go around. On defense, the Cavaliers have given up the seventh most fourth quarter points during their losing streak (29.5 points per game). They have a 123.5 Defensive Rating in the clutch (fifth worst) that is plaguing otherwise strong performances. On the season, Cleveland ranks fourth in overall Defensive Rating.
Offensive production has been an issue, too. The Cavs have been slowing down games to a grinding halt, beginning their attack too deep into the shot clock. This has led to rushed, difficult jumpers at the buzzer.
Cleveland shot a combined 4-19 in the crunch against LA, Sacramento and Golden State. Three of their four makes were assisted – almost all of their misses came in isolation.
Donovan Mitchell has been a point of emphasis. Opponents are making an effort to deny him the ball with the Clippers holding him to just one shot attempt in the final seven minutes of Cleveland’s collapse.
Still, Mitchell leads the NBA in field goal attempts (34) in the clutch. The issue is Cleveland’s stagnant fourth quarter offense has increased the difficulty of his shots — with Mitchell shooting nearly 10% below his season’s true-shooting percentage in the clutch.
As for Darius Garland, creating a shot for himself in the final two minutes can be a challenge. He’s a prolific shooter but his options in the paint are limited. Combine this with tired legs in the waning seconds of a game and it’s easy for Garland to be forced into a less-efficient pull-up shot.
Jumping into the offense earlier should resolve this issue. Rather than halting all momentum to burn the clock, the Cavaliers need to keep their foot on the gas and keep all five players involved offensively to avoid crumbling in closing time.
Expanding the rotation
One reason for those aforementioned tired legs is the Cavaliers' minute allocation. The starters are playing heavy minutes and Cleveland is wielding a tight rotation.
Donovan Mitchell is shouldering a herculean 39 minutes per game, the most of any NBA player this season. Caris LeVert, Evan Mobley and Darius Garland are all hovering around 34 minutes, placing a total of four Cavaliers in the top 50 for minutes per game.
It is strange to see the bench on such a tight leash, especially since they have been one of the most effective in the league. Cleveland’s bench is first in plus/minus at 7.1 and posts a third-best Net Rating of 4.7.
There is a logical explanation for this. The Cavs have found themselves in quite a few close games, trucking into overtime three times already. Tightly contested games tacked onto a few ongoing injuries and star players such as Mitchell have had to take on a heavier role to start the season.
Still, Osman and Love have both spent games in the doghouse while a quality depth piece like Lamar Stevens has hardly appeared this season. Robin Lopez, Raul Neto, Isaac Okoro and even occasional starter, Dean Wade, have each spent long stretches on the sideline.
Nagging injuries are already piling up for Cleveland’s best players. For a team hoping to make a deep playoff run, it would be wise to expand the rotation and risk a few cold stretches if it means preserving the star core for the long haul.
Discovering an identity
The Cavs haven’t been playing their brand of basketball. And it’s because, well, they don’t know exactly what their brand is yet.
They’ve found success as a run-and-gun team, lighting up the New York Knicks for a season-high 23 3-pointers in an electric comeback. The Cavs have also tried their hand at grit-and-grind, pounding Detroit and Orlando for 60 and 54 points in the paint respectively in their lowest-scoring wins of the season.
The problem is Cleveland hasn’t maintained either identity during the losing streak.
Mitchell’s presence lends them to be a pace-and-space team but non-shooters like Okoro, Allen and Mobley make this an uncomfortable fit. Even LeVert, who began the year 55% from deep, has sunk to 30% as a shooter over his last eight games.
As a result, the Cavaliers’ offense can feel like a two-man show between Garland and Mitchell. This is fine, as both players are All-Star caliber talents, but it has led to reduced paint touches for Allen and Mobley.
The frontcourt duo should provide the Cavaliers with easy dunks on offense and a fortifying wall on defense. But, quick-trigger 3-pointers leave the bigs out of the offense and lead to runout opportunities for opponents that simply can not be contained.
Cleveland is giving up the 12th most fast break points despite playing at the seventh-slowest pace and scoring the fifth-fewest points in transition themselves.
This falls mostly on the guards, who have done a poor job of controlling the tempo and stopping opponents in transition. The bigs are guilty too — occasionally falling asleep and allowing outlet passes to fly over their head for easy points.
The Cavs need to figure out a better way to blend their perimeter stars with their interior talent. As of now, they’re playing without a clear sense of direction and their inconsistent performances reflect their lack of identity.