Advice for the Cleveland CavaliersAt the halfway point of the 2015-16 NBA regular season, the Cleveland Cavaliers are the class of the Eastern Conference but they are far from being a championship team. After the Cavaliers lost to the Golden State Warriors in the 2015 NBA Finals, we heard a lot of noise--at least some of which came from the Cavaliers themselves--about how much different the result would have been if Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love had been available. It is fair to assume that the Warriors took notice of those comments. On Christmas Day, during the first of two meetings between the teams this season, the Warriors proved that they could beat the Cavaliers playing a grind it out style game, prevailing 89-83 at home. Irving and Love started for the Cavaliers and combined for 23 points on 9-31 field goal shooting.
In the much anticipated Martin Luther King Day rematch in Cleveland, the Warriors raced to an early 12-2 lead and never looked back, hitting the Cavaliers with their worst home loss in a game during which LeBron James played, 132-98. James--as he has done a puzzling number of times in big games during an otherwise stellar career--was oddly passive and disinterested, posting a quiet stat line of 16 points, five rebounds and five assists in what was supposed to be a statement game. Irving and Love scored 11 points on 4-16 field goal shooting.
Meanwhile, reigning regular season MVP Stephen Curry blistered the nets with 35 points on 12-18 field goal shooting--including 7-12 from three point range--in just 28 minutes before sitting out the entire fourth quarter. Curry could have scored 50 points easily if necessary, which is just one of many reasons that statistics have to be placed in context when they are used to compare players. Andre Iguodala, who earned the 2015 Finals MVP in part because of his role in limiting James' efficiency during the championship series, scored 20 points off of the bench, Draymond Green flirted with a triple double (16 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds) and Klay Thompson added 15 points.
Too much should not be read into one regular season game. I well remember that the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls--one of my favorite teams of all-time and one of the greatest teams of all-time--lost 104-72 to the New York Knicks. Two months later, the Bulls smashed the Knicks 4-1 in the playoffs en route to winning the championship.
However, this particular Cleveland loss highlighted some things about the Cavaliers that should not be blithely dismissed. Any team or person can have a bad day but not all bad days are created the same; some bad days reveal some problems/issues that may be glossed over until adversity strikes.
Cleveland Coach David Blatt and his star player LeBron James did not ask for my advice but I will provide it anyway:
1) Committing flagrant fouls and knocking over opposing players does not prove that you are tough; it shows that you lack discipline
You show toughness by playing hard, playing smart and playing through pain. Focus on the game plan and put the team's success above your own individual glory/agenda. Those are the traits of championship teams. Look at the difference between the New England Patriots and the Cincinnati Bengals. It can be summed up simply: "Dumb gets you beat every time." The Bengals blew a playoff game against their archrival the Pittsburgh Steelers because some of the Bengals players got so caught up in fake toughness and personal agendas that they lost sight of the main goal: win the game.
What does this have to do with the Cavaliers? When the game with the Warriors was up for grabs, the Cavaliers did not play hard or smart and they lacked focus to such an extent that they committed a five second violation, which is rarely seen in the NBA. Then, when the game was out of reach, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert started committing hard fouls. Smith got ejected after making no effort to get around a screen. Even James got in on the act, throwing Curry to the court in the first half. Those kinds of plays do not win games and do no prove that you are tough; they just prove that the other team has gotten into your head to the point that you are so frustrated you can no longer focus on the game plan.
2) Kevin Love seems uninterested in playing good defense; Kyrie Irving may not be able to consistently play good defense
One time when former Georgetown Coach John Thompson was commenting on an NBA game he made the very cogent point that Dirk Nowitzki was athletic enough to accomplish all kinds of things on the offensive end of the court and thus he was athletic enough to at least play competent defense. That was early in Nowitzki's career and Nowitzki eventually became a solid defender as he led Dallas to the 2011 NBA title. Nowitzki never became a great defender but he learned how to move his feet better and at least use his size to bother opposing shooters.
Love has the skill set to be an outstanding offensive player, so he has the necessary tools to be at least an adequate defender but far too often he looks disinterested at that end of the court.
Irving has improved on defense and at times he uses his quickness/athleticism to make some good individual defensive plays--but he lacks size and does not seem to have a strong base; the Warriors repeatedly went into the post with whichever player Irving was guarding. Irving's defensive effort is better than it used to be but he is not likely to grow, so unless he develops a better base and learns how to prevent taller players from getting good post position he will always be a defensive liability to some extent.
Therefore, it is up to the coaching staff to figure out how to either motivate Love and Irving to contribute more on defense or else put those players into defensive schemes/matchups that minimize their deficiencies.
3) The Cavaliers do not maximize the talents of their players who are not named LeBron James
It is often said that James makes the players around him better. It is certainly true that James makes his team better; James is a productive scorer, rebounder, playmaker and defender. However, it seems like the players around James have to give up parts of their games to fit in with him. Chris Bosh was a 20-10 guy before playing with LeBron James but when he played with James he was often relegated to being a three point shooter. Similarly, Kevin Love's game has regressed since he joined the Cavaliers to play alongside James. Despite all of the talk about how selfish Kobe Bryant supposedly is, consider how many players had the best seasons of their careers playing alongside him, ranging from the sublime (Shaquille O'Neal and Pau Gasol) to the ridiculous (Kwame Brown and Smush Parker).
How many players have had career-best years playing alongside LeBron James? The number is rather small and I am not sure why this is the case. There are undoubtedly many factors involved and I do not mean to suggest that this is all James' fault or even mostly James' fault--but James is clearly a prodigious individual talent and it does not seem like he is going to win championships at the level that Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan did. Many players had the best seasons of their careers playing alongside those guys. Jordan and Bryant had to fight the "selfish" tag, while Johnson and Duncan are lauded for their unselfishness; there is more than one way to get the job done but each of those players got the best out of their teammates while also playing at a high level individually. James almost seems like a modern-day Wilt Chamberlain; James is the best athlete in the NBA (or he was during his absolute prime) and he is going to own a boatload of records when he retires but his tally of two titles (the same number that Chamberlain won) is surprising considering that he was the consensus best player in the league for several years in a row and that he was blessed with very good supporting casts during those seasons.
4) The Cavaliers cannot beat the Warriors playing small ball
Even without Irving and Love, the Cavaliers took a 2-1 lead over the Warriors in the 2015 NBA Finals. Then, the Warriors decided to go small--inserting Iguodala in the starting lineup--and Blatt panicked, going small by slashing the minutes of center Timofey Mozgov. The Warriors went small because they were trailing in the series and could not match up with Cleveland's big lineup. The Cavaliers should have stuck with what worked in the first three games of the series; the Cavaliers may have lost no matter what they did but they had zero chance of winning by playing small ball against a team who has more good small players ("small" being a relative term, as we are talking about players who range from 6-3 to 6-8) than the Cavaliers do.
I guarantee you that if a fantasy matchup could somehow be arranged between the current Warriors and the 1980s Showtime Lakers there is no way that Lakers Coach Pat Riley would bench Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to play small ball. Obviously, Mozgov is no Abdul-Jabbar but the point is that basketball is about matchups and when you have a big guy who can score in the paint you force the other team to guard him, especially when the other team prefers to play small.
Since the Warriors are being compared to the 1995-96 Bulls, I will take this opportunity to throw in my two cents: the 1996 Bulls would beat the Warriors in a seven game series because Jordan and Pippen would be the best players on the court at both ends of the court. The Bulls would not shut down Curry but they would not let him score an efficient 30 points, either. I think that Chicago Coach Phil Jackson would keep Luc Longley in the game to be a post up threat but the Bulls could play small against the Warriors for at least part of the game: a small ball lineup of Jordan, Harper, Pippen, Rodman and Kukoc is a far cry from the small ball lineup the Cavaliers trotted out in the NBA Finals.
posted by David Friedman @ 2:48 AM