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What we learned about the Cleveland Cavaliers: March 21 - 27

The Cavs continue their slide down the standings without the help of their all-star big man.

Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

The Cleveland Cavaliers dropped all three of their games this week as they have fallen out of the top six in the Eastern Conference for the first time since Dec. 8. The Cavs will need to mount a late-season charge if they want to avoid the play-in.

Here’s what we learned from a disappointing week.

The Cavs are a bad defense without Jarrett Allen.

The Cavs have stayed relevant through their many injuries this year, but the Allen injury appears to be the straw that broke the camel's back. The Cavs are now 6-12 in games this season without Allen. For comparison, the team is 7-7 without Darius Garland and 3-5 without Evan Mobley. Overall, the Cavs are 26-14 when Allen, Garland and Mobley are in the lineup, but are 15-19 when just one of them are out.

Allen is arguably the most important of the trio mentioned due to his impact on the defensive end. Before the most recent Allen injury, the Cavs were giving up 106.5 points per 100 possessions and were the fourth best defense in the league. Since the injury on March 6, the Cavs are giving up 117.7 points per 100 possessions which is good for the 22nd defense in the league during that span.

Opponents' ability to score in the paint is the biggest reason why the defense has fallen off since Allen’s injury. According to Cleaning the Glass, opponents are shooting just 57.4% at the rim with Allen in the game but are shooting 62.6% at the rim with him out.

Any defense will fall apart if you aren’t able to protect the rim as we saw happen repeatedly this past week. LeBron James was able to get to the rim at will on Monday night as he racked up 38 points. The increased pressure he put on the basket caused the defense to collapse which opened up looks for his teammates as the Los Angeles Lakers shot 12 of 32 (37.5%) from behind the line.

A similar thing happened against the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors were able to generate open looks and knocked down 16 of the 37 (43.2%) threes they attempted. The Cavs defense was often out of position defending drives which left them vulnerable to offensive rebounds. Toronto leveraged their 13 offensive boards to 21 second chance points.

The Cavs have been a good to sometimes great team this season due to the interior defense Allen and Mobley provide as a tandem. The Cavs don’t have any way to replicate Allen’s rim protection which causes the defense to fall apart. Without their defensive identity, this Cavs team is mediocre at best.

Caris LeVert is having a tough time adjusting to Cleveland.

It feels like we’ve seen the worst possible outcome so far from the LeVert trade. He hasn’t been able to consistently stay in the lineup since the trade — which was a prior concern — and he hasn’t been very good when he has been available.

LeVert is averaging 12.6 points and 3.4 assists on .418/.338/.636 shooting splits since coming to Cleveland. The decreased scoring output and efficiency is mostly due to not being able to finish at the rim. Prior to the trade, LeVert was finishing 64% of his shots at the rim. Since, he is finishing just 53%. On top of that, he hasn’t been able to get to the line as frequently as he was drawing shooting fouls on 9.9% (76th percentile) of his shot attempts with the Indiana Pacers and is drawing them on just 8.3% (61st percentile) of his attempts with the Cavs. This has led to him going from 3.7 free throw attempts per game to just 2.

It is often difficult to join a team with a clear identity and good chemistry over halfway through the season and make a positive impact. It can often take a full off-season to really get your feet underneath you. That said, things have not gone well so far for LeVert. Hopefully a more defined role in the starting lineup will help get him on track.

Second quarters are killing the Cavs.

The Cavs made valiant second half comebacks against the Raptors and Chicago Bulls before coming up short. However, the need for large comebacks have become a trend during the second half of the season which has only gotten worse since the Allen injury.

In the 10 games since Allen’s injury, the Cavs are getting outscored by 15.4 points per 100 possessions in the first half due to a 106.7 offensive rating and a 122 defensive rating. The poor first halves are mostly due to dreadful second quarters. The Cavs have a -26.5 second quarter net rating during that span thanks to a 136.9 defensive rating. Unsurprisingly, both are worst in the league for second quarters during that time frame.

Slow second quarters generally indicate a lack of bench production as it is usually a bench unit that starts the second. That has certainly been the case for the Cavs as they haven’t gotten good minutes from the majority of the bench during that span. However, things haven’t gone much better for the starters. For example, Garland has a -18.8 net rating in the second quarter during his last 10 games.

The starters have been playing heavy minutes since Allen’s injury. This has led to a loss of focus at times which seems to show up most often in the second quarter.

All is not lost even though the Cavs are likely play-in bound.

The Cavs will have a very tough time securing a top six spot in the East. They are no longer in control of their own destiny as they are a game behind Toronto with just eight games left. Basketball Reference’s playoff probability model now gives them a 44.3% chance of grabbing a top six seed.

Despite the dreadful last ten games and the increased possibility of being a play-in team, the season is not lost. This team has shown to be good when healthy and have clearly identified three cornerstone pieces to build the franchise around for upcoming seasons.

The issues they are facing now with their defense will be solved if Allen is able to return and play at the level he has for most of the season. The Cavs can still make the playoffs and gain valuable learning experience through the play-in process that will help them in the future.

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