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Making sense of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ puzzling offense

Are the Cavs better than they look?

NBA: Orlando Magic at Cleveland Cavaliers Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

It has been a season of pain for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Things are now worse with extended injuries for Evan Mobley and Darius Garland — but just how bad was it leading up to this?

A 13-12 start is not what anyone envisioned. Yet, given the context of early injuries and their strength of schedule — should we have expected anything better? The Cavs have played the 7th toughest schedule with eight different starting lineups. The Cavaliers' typical starting five has played just 145 minutes together.

Some of Cleveland’s issues solved themselves as players got healthy. For example, their defensive rating has improved from 17th to sixth since Jarrett Allen made his season debut in November. The Cavs record also improved, tied for 4th best in the league from Nov. 8-to-Dec. 8.

One thing that hasn’t normalized, though, is their offensive output. Cleveland ranks 24th in offensive rating — and that number hardly budged during their most successful stretch of the season. They have bizarre cold stretches that make it hard to feel reassured when they shoot the lights out, like they did against Miami or Atlanta.

With so much emphasis placed on adding spacing this summer (Max Strus and Georges Niang) shouldn’t the Cavs be in a better position than last year? How is it they ranked higher (eighth) in offensive rating with fewer tools at their disposal?

Contrary to popular belief, numbers lie. At least, they can be deceiving. Let’s break down the Cavs' perplexing offense and try to understand what is and isn’t working for Cleveland.

What’s changed?

First things first, we need to examine how the Cavaliers are scoring their points. Has anything changed from last season? Or have those fancy new shooters amounted to nothing?

The Good

The 2022-23 Cavs were missing two mighty important things on offense. Space and pace. They placed 30th in pace and 24th in three-point attempts per game. While the results this season have been a mixed bag — you can’t deny they are trying to shift styles.

So far this season, the Cavaliers are 18th in pace and three-point attempts. Both improvements from the year before. They also rank 10th in fastbreak points, after ranking 24th last year.

The addition of Max Strus has truly added a new layer to their offense. A third on-ball creator and off-ball scoring threat has alleviated the burden of Garland or Mitchell having to generate everything.

Running Strus off a ghost screen like on this play (above) — or tossing him the ball to run a pick-and-roll with Mobley (below) are options previously unavailable to Cleveland. Strus’ playmaking has been a welcomed addition. He’s a connective tissue allowing the Cavs to adjust from 16th in isolation frequency to 23rd this year.

Strus is a willing shooter who currently leads the NBA in catch-and-shoot three-point attempts. Because of this, he demands defensive attention even when his shot isn’t falling. His off-ball gravity is surely a reason the Cavs rank third in overall shot quality, according to the Bball Index.

Georges Niang benefits the offense, as well. He helps to fill the gap of frontcourt shooting left by Kevin Love’s departure. Niang is shooting 35.6% from downtown after a rough start and has buried a few clutch triples in winning efforts.

Strus and Niang have allowed Cleveland to play fast and loose, at least compared to last season. But something is still missing. What hasn’t been working for the Cavs?

The Bad

Right off the bat, we can point to two factors that contribute to the Cavaliers' woeful offensive rating. Turnovers and three-point efficiency.

Cavs league rank in 3PAs/3Ps/3P%

  • 2022-23: 24th/19th/12th
  • 2023-24: 18th/25th/24th

Cleveland might be attempting more three-pointers — but they are actually making fewer overall. The Cavs ranked 19th in three-pointers last season on the 12th-best shooting percentage. this year? They place 25th in makes on the seventh worst shooting clip.

Darius Garland, Donovan Mitchell and Caris LeVert are all shooting below their splits from last year. Garland, in particular, was making just 1.7 three-pointers per game. A career-low for Cleveland’s second in command.

Can all of this be attributed to bad shooting luck? Possibly. The Cavaliers, as a whole, could blaze their way back to normalcy by the midway point of the season if their luck starts to change.

Of course, with Garland sidelined for a month or longer, this becomes complicated. Huge production from Mitchell will need to be met with timely contributions from the others. LeVert, Strus and even Craig Porter Jr. could become vital to Cleveland’s success during this stretch.

Turnovers

Any time you generate a quality three-pointer and draw a blank is going to hurt. But what about the possessions where Cleveland doesn’t even get a shot up?

The Cavs valued each possession last year, turning it over at the sixth-lowest rate. Playing a methodical, slow pace with limited turnovers and efficient shooting — it is no wonder Cleveland wound up 8th in offensive rating.

This season, though, Cleveland is turning it over at the ninth-highest rate. They are coughing the ball up far too often. Combining this with their faster pace and poor shooting, it becomes clear why their offense sometimes looks brutal. More possessions also means more empty possessions.

To make matters worse, the Cavaliers are just 20th in second-chance points and 23rd in free-throw attempts. This team isn’t generating extra possessions or doing themselves any favors by racking up easy points at the line. They are almost entirely reliant on shot-making. Which, of course, comes with variance.

Where do we go from here?

So, the Cavs are taking more threes but making fewer of them. They are playing at a faster pace but coming up empty on more possessions. Was this change of style all for nothing? Or is it a sign that something is deeply wrong with the roster construction?

I don’t want to give a cop-out answer... but I think it’s still too early to tell. And with Garland and Mobley missing time, we might not know until March, if ever.

This team has yet to maintain any lineup continuity through two months. On the rare occasions when they were healthy — Mitchell or Garland dealt with individual slumps. It is hard to imagine this team will ever look good when their two best players are struggling.

This doesn’t mean we can’t take away a few things. For starters, the Cavs have to make open shots. Even in the halfcourt, Cleveland’s offense is generating quality looks. With proven shooters on the roster, this has to normalize at some point, right?

And the turnovers. Most of which have felt unforced. Cleaning this up could be as simple as having an extended run of lineup continuity to establish (or re-establish) some chemistry. For example, Cleveland’s bread-and-butter connection last year was the Garland to Evan Mobley assist. Those have been cut in half to start the year. Re-establishing this dynamic later in the season could be huge.

Overall, the Cavaliers appear to have an execution problem. The good news — they still have time to figure it out after the All-Star break. All that matters now is weathering the storm and maintaining a record that is salvageable in the back half of the season.