What is Wrong With the Cleveland Cavaliers?The story of the 2010-11 Cleveland Cavaliers has been a tale of two seasons so far; they started out a solid 7-9--not a bad record considering the well documented offseason turmoil that the franchise experienced--but they are currently in the midst of an eight game losing streak, with seven of the defeats by double digit margins. Five of those losses took place on the road and four of the losses were to teams that are expected to be strong playoff contenders (Boston, Miami, Chicago, Oklahoma City) but there is no getting around the fact that during most of this stretch the Cavs have looked overwhelmed and--most disturbingly--disinterested, a marked contrast with how hard they played during the first 16 games.
The funny thing is that despite how awful the Cavs have been recently they still are on pace to win more than twice as many games as a certain yahoo predicted that they would win but the measuring stick for a successful season cannot be to simply exceed a ludicrous prediction by an unqualified NBA "expert." Commentators and fans want to pretend that the Cavs' performance this season is some kind of referendum on the strength of LeBron James' 2009 and 2010 supporting casts but that is ignorant. The 2009 and 2010 Cavs were defensive-minded teams coached by Mike Brown and run on the San Antonio Spurs' model, while this year's Cavs have gone in a new direction under Coach Byron Scott, who has a much different personality and coaching style than Brown; Brown was an easygoing coach who hesitated to call out players publicly and whose top strategic concerns all revolved around defense, while Scott is a former NBA player who will publicly rebuke players who do not perform up to his expectations and whose teams run the precise, intricate Princeton Offense developed by Hall of Fame Coach Pete Carril (Carril and Scott were both assistant coaches with the Sacramento Kings). That is not to say that Brown ignored offense or that Scott ignores defense but the Cavs did things a certain way for several years and are now adjusting to a coach who has a different approach and a different demeanor. In addition to the coaching change it is important to emphasize that the 2011 Cavs' roster is significantly different from their 2010 and 2009 rosters. Four of the nine Cavaliers who averaged at least 20 mpg during the 2010 regular season are no longer members of the team; five of the eight Cavaliers who averaged at least 20 mpg during the 2009 regular season no longer play for Cleveland.
Obviously, LeBron James is by far the most significant player who left but the 2011 Cavaliers have a much different player rotation and coaching philosophy than the 2009 and 2010 Cavaliers did. In order to truly have a referendum on the strength of the 2009 and 2010 Cavaliers teams without James we would have to see those rosters otherwise stay intact with the same coach and play a complete season sans James--and don't talk about the Cavs' 2009 and 2010 record in a handful of scattered games without James, during many of which the Cavs rested multiple other starters: that sample size is too small and too skewed to be meaningful.
The current Cavs team, led by former All-Stars Antawn Jamison and Mo Williams plus defensive stalwart Anderson Varejao, has enough talent to win 40 games and claim the final Eastern Conference playoff berth. Why has this team gone into such a tailspin? One game early in a long season should not make or break a team but it is evident that the Cavs are having a "pity party" amongst themselves in the wake of the overblown spectacle surrounding LeBron James' return to Cleveland as a member of the Miami Heat. That Cleveland-Miami game was the Cavs' only scheduled nationally televised contest this season and it was not being broadcast because anyone expected to see a competitive basketball game; no, the interest revolved around a ghoulish fascination with what might happen in the arena: would a fan rush the court, would people throw things at LeBron James, would there be some kind of riot? That is a terrible atmosphere for a basketball game. Cleveland fans hoped/expected that some kind of miracle would happen and that a team that has a legitimate shot at the eighth seed would rise up and beat a team with three young stars that is on a championship or bust mission. The Heat have a few weaknesses but the Cavs are not currently able to exploit any of them: the Heat are vulnerable against teams that have strong inside games and/or a quick, penetrating point guard but the Cavs are also lacking in those areas. James has yet to prove that he can lead a team to victory over an elite squad when it matters most but he certainly has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to rise to the occasion against inferior teams when he feels personally challenged (just ask the Washington Wizards, who foolishly engaged in trash talking battles with James during several lopsided playoff series). The spectacle in Cleveland was tailor made for James to have a big game so that the national media could once again fawn over the team that they prematurely anointed as a dynasty in the making. Meanwhile, the Cavs got embarrassed on their homecourt and they alienated their fans by seeming to be too chummy with James. I think that the whole situation negatively affected the Cavs' morale. Is that a valid reason/excuse to go on a long losing streak? Of course not--but anyone who watched the Cavs play before and after the Miami game knows that the Cavs simply have not looked the same since James came to town. The Cavs need to forget about James and the Heat and start focusing on realistic, obtainable goals for this season, namely playing hard every night, outexecuting/outhustling the sub-.500 teams and at least being competitive against upper echelon teams.
Even when the Cavs looked better in the early part of the season, there were some indications of potential weaknesses. The Cavs lack paint presence both offensively and defensively. In recent years the Cavs were a big, long team not just because of James starring at small forward but also because of the presence of Zydrunas Ilgauskas and (last season) Shaquille O'Neal. Yes, those guys did not play huge minutes or put up awesome statistics but if you understand basketball then you know that having a legit seven footer who can play alters things at both ends of the court. O'Neal is a key member of the Eastern Conference-leading Boston Celtics, starting at center in place of the injured Kendrick Perkins; the Heat have gone 13-4 since inserting Ilgauskas into their starting lineup. This season the Cavs have trouble protecting the paint defensively and they have trouble getting into the paint offensively. Anderson Varejao is an excellent player but he is best suited to be a starting power forward and/or a backup center; he is a bit miscast as a starting center.
Another problem is that the Princeton Offense that Coach Byron Scott loves does not smoothly fit with the Cavs' current roster. The Princeton Offense works best when a team has excellent high post bigs who can screen, pass and make jump shots. Varejao is good in pure screen/roll situations as a screener but he does not have the ballhandling dexterity or shooting touch of someone like Vlade Divac, who thrived in this offense with the Sacramento Kings. The Cavs should run more pure screen/roll sets with Varejao and also use pick and pop sets with Antawn Jamison. In certain matchups they should feature Jamison in the post, because he can be very tough to cover down there. The Cavs do not have the option of going big, so they should revel in going small, playing fast, hustling and trying to get uncontested three pointers in transition for guys like Mo Williams, Daniel Gibson and Anthony Parker.
I knew about these problems and tendencies before the season began, so why did I predict that the Cavs would "hover right around .500 for most of the season and to manage to hold on to the final playoff spot"? I thought that the Cavs would probably start slowly--though not quite this slowly--but then round into form in the second half of the season. I also realized that other than the top four or five teams every team in the East has significant shortcomings/weaknesses. The main concern for the Cavs right now is not their record--in an Eastern Conference populated by broken Pistons, nearly extinct Raptors, Wizards lacking special powers, spiritless 76ers and empty Nets it will not take a great record to get the eighth playoff spot--but rather their attitudes. The Cavs are just not playing hard and they clearly do not have enough talent to just coast. The current losing streak will end soon--quite possibly against a team that no one expects them to beat--and I still do not think that it is out of the question for the Cavs to get to 35-37 wins, which could be enough to grab the eighth seed. However, if they don't get their minds right and/or if they suffer an injury to a key player then their season could spiral down the drain, though it would take a collapse of epic and historic proportions for them to end up with just 12 wins!
posted by David Friedman @ 4:44 AM