The Cleveland Cavaliers own the league’s worst first-quarter net rating, as the three-time defending Eastern Conference champions have been outscored in the opening 12 minutes by 23.6 points per 100 possessions through their first seven games. They’ve lost three straight and four of their last five, with the only win being a come-from-behind effort against a Chicago Bulls team in complete disarray.
Asked if he’s noticed a trend, Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said, “Yeah, we’ve been getting boned early.”
Late in their losses, there’s a new theme developing as well: The Cavs are leaving the court in disgust before the final horn even sounds. No handshakes. No pleasantries. Just straight to the locker room.
It started with a 112-107 loss to the Brooklyn Nets last week, when Jeff Green inbounded the ball on his way to the tunnel and LeBron James followed, leaving the ball bouncing idly for the last two seconds:
That loss may not have been enough to send Cleveland into a panic, since we’ve seen these valleys before LeBron reaches his peak in the playoffs year after year. But it was still eye-opening, considering the Nets were without top scorer D’Angelo Russell and the Cavaliers own Brooklyn’s first-round pick.
And things only got worse for the Cavs this past weekend. They lost to the New Orleans Pelicans by 22 on Saturday and the New York Knicks by 19 on Sunday. Lue had already emptied his bench late in both losses, and the starters could again be seen heading for the exits even before the games were over:
There is no rule requiring players to participate in postgame handshakes, and we understand that the Cavaliers aren’t going to be as thrilled to hug opponents after a loss as they might be following a win:
LeBron and Kyrie embrace after Kyrie's miss pic.twitter.com/51TlnQwqck
— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) October 18, 2017
But the early exits speak to the level of frustration the Cavaliers are feeling right now.
Lue called the Knicks loss “unacceptable,” and James added, “Guys are just scoring at will against us.” Both coach and player conceded the Cavs — the league’s oldest team — are getting run off the floor. James cited his ankle injury as the reason for his lack of fitness, and Lue credited another Finals hangover:
“Guys got to get in better shape, we understand that,” Lue told reporters, according to Cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon. “A lot of times when we make runs guys ask to come out because they’re tired. It’s got to be a balance, getting in shape, but also being smart.”
James isn’t the problem. He’s averaging 24.6 points, 8.6 assists and 7.4 rebounds in 37 minutes per game — comparable numbers to last season — and his shooting percentages are up across the board. But just about everyone else has been a mess. The Cavs are double-digit points per 100 possessions worse with Kevin Love and J.R. Smith on the court, and those are the guys that know the playbook.
“Guys have got to understand that LeBron, he’s a giving person, he’s a giving player,” added Lue. “You’ve got to come in and play your game and we’ll adjust. I think a lot of times we defer to LeBron or guys are scared to be aggressive because of that. He’s not that type of player at all, so we’ve got to talk about that on Tuesday, guys being who you are, being aggressive and playing your game.”
Lue didn’t mention anyone by name, but Derrick Rose, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade and Jeff Green are all being incorporated into new roles in a new system. Rose is already battling injury that cost him four games, Crowder lost his starting job after the Nets loss, Wade is settling into a reserve role, and Green has yet to find a consistent approach in six NBA stops. There is hope they can all find their way.
“What is this? October? I’m not about to go crazy over it right now,” James said on Sunday. “It’s too long of a season, and I’ve been a part of this too many times, so I’m the wrong guy to ask. I’m too positive right now.”
This is the prevailing theory — that any team with James at the top of the bill will eventually figure it out. What nobody in Cleveland seems to be willing to acknowledge is that the loss of Kyrie Irving could make this year different. Rose, Crowder, Wade and Green are shooting a combined 42.5 percent, and that’s not all that different from what they’ve been the last few years. All but Crowder are liabilities defensively, and even the former Celtics forward’s defense took a step backward last year.
This Cavs season has always hinged on Isaiah Thomas’ ability to return healthy, and he’s not expected back until at least January. The sky isn’t falling yet in Cleveland, and nobody will write off a LeBron-led team until they’re actually ousted from the playoffs, but it’s not so easy to flip the switch when a handful of new rotational players don’t even know what the Cavaliers look like when the lights are on.
The Cavs have Monday off for LeBron’s annual Halloween party before getting back to work in preparation for the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday. We’ll see if they play that one from start to finish.
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