HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — We’ve probably done enough dissection of the struggling Brooklyn Nets, whose main problem is the health of three of their top six guys. So let’s move on and try to figure out what’s wrong with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Cavs didn’t have nearly the expectations that the Nets did, but they’ve been a lot more healthy and were a team we all expected to take a big step forward this season, compete for a playoff spot, and show potential free agents that this was a team you’d want to join. They have a new coach, a couple of new veterans, and a developing young core surrounding a star point guard in his third season.
But here they are at 4-11, tied with the Nets, having lost seven of their last eight games and ahead of only Milwaukee and Utah in point differential per 100 possessions. Their four wins have been by an average of 3.5 points and their 11 losses have been by an average of 13.0. So their point differential is that of a 3-12 team and it hasn’t been late-game luck that’s done them in.
There are trade rumors involving Dion Waiters, who they drafted with the No. 4 pick (ahead of Damian Lillard, Harrison Barnes and Andre Drummond, among others) just 17 months ago and their No. 1 pick from this year has shot 21 percent and is receiving DNPs. If things don’t turn around soon, this will be the ugliest situation in the league (if it isn’t already).
So how does it turn around?
Mike Brown, with help from a healthy Anderson Varejao, has made a difference on defense, where the Cavs are allowing 4.0 fewer points per 100 possessions than they did last season. They’ve defended the paint better, they’ve done a better job of keeping their opponents off the free-throw line, and they’ve rebounded better. Considering where they were last season, it would have been near impossible to regress in those three areas and they still have a long way to go on defense, but progress is progress.
On offense, the Cavs have regressed. In fact, only three teams – Utah, New York and Milwaukee – have taken bigger steps back on that end of the floor.
Most regressed offenses (points scored per 100 possessions)
The Cavs have shot better (and more) from 3-point range, but they’re not getting to the basket as much as they did last season and they’re shooting worse when they get there.
Cavs shooting from restricted area and 3-point range, last two seasons
%RFGA = Percentage of total FGA from the restricted area
%3PA = Percentage of total FGA from 3-point range
Kyrie Irving‘s 3-point percentage has dropped quite a bit this season (he’s 1-for-12 in his last three games), but he’s taken more of his shots from the restricted area than he did last season. Inside, the issue is the Cleveland bigs, who don’t exactly dominate the paint.
Andrew Bynum has shot 7-for-24 in the restricted area, Tristan Thompson has also shot less than 50 percent near the basket, and Varejao has turned into a jump shooter. He has taken 40 percent of his shots from mid-range, up from 23 percent over his first nine seasons. Overall, the Cavs have attempted 33.2 percent of their shots from mid-range, in a virtual tie with the Wizards for the highest rate in the league.
Turnovers are another issue. Last season, the Cavs had the sixth lowest turnover rate in the league, coughing up the ball only 14.3 times per 100 possessions. This season, they’re turning it over 17.1 times per 100 possessions, the eighth highest rate in the league.
Irving’s turnover rate is about the same, but Jarrett Jack has the second highest turnover rate (behind only Victor Oladipo) of guards averaging at least 20 minutes per game. A few other rotation guys have seen their turnover rates increase.
At this point in the season, schedule has to be taken into account. The Cavs have played the eighth toughest schedule in the league (accounting for location and days of rest). They’re one of only two teams (the Nets are the other) that has yet to play two consecutive home games and eight of their 15 games have been against the league’s top 10 defenses. (They’re 3-4 and scoring 101.5 points per 100 possessions against non-top-10 defenses.)
After they visit Boston on Friday (7:30 ET, League Pass), the Cavs get their first homestand, hosting the Bulls on Saturday and Nuggets on Wednesday. Amazingly, they won’t get their first homestand of more than two games until late January, but they’ll have a couple of practice days in the next week and only two of their next 10 opponents rank in the top 10 defensively.
So, just by virtue of their schedule, the Cavs should see their offense improve. And hey, they’re only two games out of a playoff spot.
But there’s still some fixing to do on offense. They have to cut down on their turnovers, take better shots, and hope that Bynum can be more effective as the season goes on.