Fresh off a 24-point whitewashing in Oklahoma and a come-to-Jesus team meeting that ended with Kevin Love getting put on blast, the Cleveland Cavaliers faced a San Antonio Spurs team playing without the injured Kawhi Leonard, Pau Gasol, Rudy Gay and Manu Ginobili. This was an opportunity to turn things around, to come together as a group, and to take advantage of a Spurs lineup — All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, newly elevated point guard Dejounte Murray, Danny Green, Kyle Anderson and Davis Bertans — that had played just three minutes together before Tuesday.
Naturally, San Antonio dictated the action, took control with a 38-point second quarter, and kept Cleveland at arm’s length in a 114-102 win.
The Spurs entered Tuesday averaging just 100.8 points per 100 possessions over their last 10 games, fourth-lowest in the NBA over that stretch. They scored 116.3 points-per-100 against Cleveland. The Cavs are nothing if not generous: they will transform your Sacramento Kings-ass offense into something straight out of Golden State, using only schematic confusion, miscommunication and indifference:
A fraction of a bucket is all that separates the Cavaliers from having the NBA’s worst defense. Despite employing the world’s best player, the Cavs have now been outscored for the season, and boast the exact same “net rating” as the Milwaukee Bucks, who just fired their coach, and the Charlotte Hornets, who are preparing to sell off their best player.
Cleveland has lost 10 of its last 13. The Cavs wake up Wednesday as far away from ninth place as they are from second. The only team they’ve beaten in the last three weeks is the Orlando Magic, who are so bad they’re making Frank Vogel look clinically depressed; Cleveland’s two wins came by a total of five points. This isn’t a slump. It’s corrosion.
The Cavs are 27-19, five wins off last year’s pace and seven games worse than their 2016 title season. To be fair, it’s one game ahead of where they were this time in 2015, when they were in the midst of bouncing back from a rock-bottom loss in Phoenix to right the ship with 12 straight wins. That team, though, had a version of LeBron James who was three years younger. It still had Kyrie Irving, just coming into his own as one of the game’s premier offensive savants. It had just added J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov, all of whom helped solve specific problems that allowed Cleveland to flip the switch.
Now, Mozgov’s riding the pine in Brooklyn, two teams removed from lighting victory cigars, and with Tristan Thompson rarely looking like the guy who used to destroy everyone with work, Cleveland’s got no heft or menace inside. Shumpert has struggled to stay on the floor or produce when he’s there, and is reportedly on his way out, too. Smith has all but disintegrated over the past two seasons, plummeting from vital cog to borderline unplayable ghost. The midstream reinforcements of 2016 and 2017 — Channing Frye and Kyle Korver — have found their effectiveness muted by the impact of more recent additions (like Dwyane Wade and Jeff Green, who have both been good) on Tyronn Lue’s rotation management.
Irving, famously, is gone. Jae Crowder, the anticipated do-everything forward brought back in the Kyrie deal, still doesn’t look particularly close to finding his game. And Irving’s replacement, Isaiah Thomas, has been a shell of his former All-Star self since returning from seven months of rehabbing a torn hip labrum.
Thomas is trying his damnedest, but it’s clear that he just doesn’t have the first step, burst or timing to do what he wants to on the offensive end. He missed six of his nine shots on Tuesday, bringing him to 39 percent from the field and 28 percent from 3-point land in eight games back. As ever, he lacks the size and awareness to do much more than get picked on, relentlessly, when the other team has the ball.
Thomas is flailing. Literally: he just, like, fell down several times against San Antonio, chucking his body and the ball around in hopes that activity will breed accomplishment. So far, no dice. The Spurs outscored Cleveland by 15 points in Thomas’ 28 minutes. The Cavs are -73 in his 199 minutes, with the starting lineup of James, Thomas, Smith, Crowder and Love getting blitzed by 22.8 points per 100 possessions.
Those results come from a small sample, but they’re bad enough that Lue knows he has to change his lineup, though the specific adjustments — Crowder out, Thompson back in, Love back to power forward? Korver for J.R.? Wade or Jose Calderon in for Isaiah? — haven’t yet been revealed. They’re bad enough that general manager Koby Altman knows he’s got to pursue outside help like George Hill (among others) to bolster a sagging roster. (It remains to be seen whether the Cavs have the assets to do all the shopping they’d like.)
But even if Altman can reload this year’s team — ideally without mortgaging the Brooklyn Nets’ unprotected 2018 first-round draft pick that came in the Kyrie deal, but hey, desperate times, etc. — it’s getting hard to believe there’s a cure-all here. Cleveland’s defensive issues are so glaring, widespread and multifaceted that even adding two plus defenders feels more like a start than a solution. Perhaps even more troubling: efficiency numbers aside, the Cavs still don’t really have an offensive identity as Lue continues to struggle to figure out how to use disparate pieces, resulting in an offense that’s been pretty punchless for a month.
LeBron’s productivity in Year 15 is basically unprecedented, but his defensive effort is clearly occasional, and even he can’t lift all boats anymore. However optimistic you might be about Thomas’ chances of finding his legs, he looks miles away from last year’s magic. Any hope that Monday’s meeting would reignite some competitive fire fell by the wayside as the half-strength Spurs just kept getting whatever the hell they wanted.
And the vibe around the team, the one that LeBron’s apparently been privately saying is “the worst it has been since he returned” … well, it doesn’t seem like that improved much, either:
Maybe the Celtics and Raptors aren’t ready to seize the moment yet. Maybe there’s still a switch to be flipped, and maybe LeBron and whoever else is left will still be enough to win the East. (It will not be enough after that.) But it seems like there’s something broken in these Cavs, something sour and different from anything they’ve hit the past three years. Expecting George Hill to fix it seems like an awfully big ask.
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