About a quarter into the season, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been an enigma. The path to their 13-11 record has been a series of ups and downs, some better or worse than the next. They either look completely out of sync, no matter what caliber of opponent they face, or like the team last season that had both a top-ten offense and defense. The inconsistencies are no longer early-season struggles or byproducts of smoothing out the rotations. There is something concerning about the Cavs that sooner or later is going to rear its ugly head in a more pronounced way.
Just a few weeks ago, the Cavs got manhandled at home by the rebuilding Portland Trail Blazers. One game later, facing the Detroit Pistons — who at the time were on a 16-game losing streak — the Cavs labored all four quarters before squeaking by with a win.
The offense looked clunky. The body language was poor too — so much so that J.B. Bickerstaff threw Sam Merrill and Tristan Thompson out there to get a spark. Donovan Mitchell continued to play selfish basketball. Darius Garland looked dangerously passive in the first half. They shot 67% from the free-throw line and lost the rebounding battle. The Cavs trailed by as many as eight points in the third quarter to a team that had not won a game since their home opener against the Chicago Bulls more than a month ago. The “get-right” game in Detroit, though it was a win, was not dominant enough to be taken as a positive.
While it was hard to say the win in Detroit was convincing, the same cannot be said for the next two games against the Orlando Magic and Miami Heat. The Cavs controlled the tempo, played much better offensively, stifled the Magic from deep, and beat the Heat without Evan Mobley. Those were good wins against quality competition, especially on the road in Miami. But the Cavs followed it up with a bad loss to the Magic in Orlando, where the offense cratered in the second half and the body language once again looked exceptionally poor. A tale of two teams.
Cleveland certainly has the talent to keep up with anyone behind their dynamic backcourt and two of the most defensively versatile bigs in the league. But there is something about their offensive approach and overall body language that allows opponents to punch them out. Against Portland and Detroit, Mitchell played poorly. He didn’t shoot well and commandeered too many possessions. He finished 2-9 shooting while in the paint against the Pistons, oftentimes dribbling into two or more defenders. This was the Utah Jazz version of Mitchell, one who dominated possessions and tried to do too much. Sometimes that led to dazzling, highlight reel plays. Other times, it was frustrating and directly resulted in losses.
In the second game against the Magic, Mitchell reverted to bad habits that he was able to minimize in the two games prior. He took over too many possessions and did not take quality shots. His play may also be starting to wear on the rest of the team. Notice how Garland throws his hands up after Mitchell gets tunnel vision and puts up a three, only to hit nothing but air at a critical juncture when the Cavs were on the cusp of coming back.
Bickerstaff bears some of the blame too. His rotations have changed seemingly from game to game as he searches for some consistency. Craig Porter Jr., who had taken over the backup point guard role and injected some life into a rotation with a tendency to sleepwalk through quarters, is either practically out of the rotation or getting 20-plus minutes a night. Sam Merrill has come into the fold due to his shooting ability and the injury to Caris LeVert. Damian Jones was unable to find the court in the second game against Orlando even with both starting bigs either hurt or fouled out.
Why not have Porter Jr. out there with Mitchell to be the table setter? Porter Jr. is much less likely to hijack a possession and he can run a pick-and-roll to set things up. Mitchell running around off-ball would be havoc-inducing for opposing defenses, especially if there are other shooters on the floor like Dean Wade or Georges Niang. Instead, the Cavs go back to their methodical nature from last year when Mitchell brings the ball up and tries to pick a defense apart himself. It is not efficient, and the Cavs can and should do better. Merrill is valuable as a shooter, but what happens when LeVert returns? While Tristan Thompson is serviceable in short bursts, does he have enough left in the tank to take over as the primary backup big for the rest of the season and the playoffs? There is reason to be skeptical that the Cavs have solved that roster issue from last season.
Despite loading up on shooters this past offseason, the Cavs are still simply not taking enough three-pointers. They’re still 19th in the league in three-point attempts per game and 27th in three-point make percentage per Cleaning the Glass. (Those numbers are up the last four games, to be fair. We’ll see if it holds.) By comparison, they are attempting 0.3% more three-pointers than last season. That simply won’t get it done in today’s NBA. In the half court, where the Cavs ranked seventh in points per 100 possessions last season, they currently rank 25th per Cleaning the Glass.
What happened to the Mobley sets where he operates from the elbow? Garland has been uncharacteristically careless with the basketball as well, especially damaging considering Mitchell has not been the secondary playmaker as often as he needs to. It seems like the two do not bounce off of each other as much as they should. The question is: why are these things still happening?
So far, the Cavs are Jekyll and Hyde. One night they look cohesive with an offense that whips the ball around the horn to get good looks while playing top-ten defense, and the next night they look completely disjointed and unprepared. Is this a coaching problem? Is the personnel not right? It seems like a mix of both.
Bickerstaff was out-coached in the playoffs and his rotations have been fluid to the point where the lack of continuity is damaging. The offense still does not generate enough good looks, often looking way too mechanical and labored. Mitchell and Garland have been inconsistent and injuries have impacted that aforementioned continuity. Mitchell is not playing efficiently or with any ability to be a playmaker when needed, and Garland has been extraordinarily turnover-prone.
There may be something bubbling below the surface here. It is worth fretting about. Coming into the season, the Cavs had a lot of pressure to pick up the pieces of a disappointing playoff showing and have some urgency. Instead, they look like a team that has started to give up on its head coach, and the superstar catalyst has reverted to his free-wheeling ways of old. It all feels odd like something is just not right at the center of things. Considering the challenging Eastern Conference, with teams like Orlando and Indiana shooting up the standings as they blossom, the Cavs are in danger of being passed by. It’s been that kind of weird season.