We’re at a point where comparisons to the 2010-11 Miami Heat are laughable.
Those Heat had their issues. They started Mike Bibby in postseason games. Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Erick Dampier, and Jamaal Magloire all had to man the middle. The superstar triptych of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh seemed afraid to step on each others’ toes.
By the time spring rolled around, however, they still had that superstar triptych. They mustered a top five finish on both ends of the floor, and after an embarrassing Eastern Conference final Game 1 blowout the team won four straight gritty games against the Chicago Bulls as it moved on to the NBA Finals.
This year’s Cleveland Cavaliers figure to be on no such course as presently constructed, and as currently playing.
LeBron James is not coming through with the sort of year we expected, Kevin Love was benched in the fourth quarter of his team’s most recent win, Kyrie Irving is currently on the shelf with a scary knee injury, and center Anderson Varejao is out for the season. On the team’s home floor on Sunday night, the miserable Detroit Pistons outscored the Cavs by an 86-48 mark over the final two and a half quarters of the game to finish the night with a boo-heavy 103-80 win.
Following the embarrassment, LeBron James did our job for us:
''We're not a very good team, as far as on the court, where we're still trying to find our way,'' said LeBron James, who had 17 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists for Cleveland. ''Right now we're just not very good in every aspect of the game that we need to be to compete every night.''
The loss was sadly typical of Cleveland’s usual 2014-15 low points. James did well in the assists (seven) and rebounds (ten) department, but he also turned the ball over seven times and needed 19 shots to score 21 points, and he was far from dominant. Kevin Love was not in the game plan following the first quarter, and the Pistons absolutely went mad from behind the three-point arc.
Now, fluke elements do come into play here. Even after that 54.8 performance from deep, Detroit still ranks in the bottom third of the NBA in three-point percentage. In the video, you'll also spy Brandon Jennings and Caron Butler attempting shots that defenses would usually want to allow. These guys made some bad shots.
They also made a lot of open, easy, and good shots in the win.
We knew even in the summer that if the Cavaliers were to race out to a Heat-styled dynastic turn, they’d have to produce what was easily the top offense in the league in order to overcome their defensive issues. Issues that no amount of proper coaching and tricky elements could be eliminated because of the personnel in place.
The man they hired to coach, David Blatt, has largely abandoned some of the more complicated aspects of his international offenses in order to kowtow to NBA orthodoxy, and partially as a result the Cavs are only fourth in the NBA on that end. That might seem like an achievement worth crowing over, especially when considering all the new faces on board, but fourth isn’t good enough. The Eastern-leading Toronto Raptors, for example, are ranked tops in the NBA on offense, which is enough to move past the mitigating detail that is their 18th-ranked defense.
These are the sort of rankings that most expected from Cleveland this season, a middling defense alongside an offense from the ages. The Cavs have the fifth-worst defense in the NBA this season, however, one that doesn’t figure to improve anytime soon even with Varejao (who at times was overrated by many, defensively) out for the year.
And it isn’t as if teams are going to line up in order to give the Cavs any help.
Names have been bandied about, with Memphis’ Kosta Koufos in the clubhouse lead, but why would any squad queue up to make Cleveland’s day? The Grizzlies actually need Koufos badly, even as a reserve center, because of the team’s stylings on either end and the possibility for injury or fatigue from starting big man Marc Gasol. Koufos is of paramount importance to their play, and though the Cavs have the tidy option of relinquishing a first-round draft pick back to Memphis (protected heavily this year, protected to the top five in the years following) from a 2013 deal, it may take even more to pry a big man that can defend and finish away.
It may even take Dion Waiters in a trade. That’s how poor Cleveland’s leverage is right now.
Clouding things even further is Waiters’ play of late – he’s actually been quite good on (mostly) both ends. Of course, he’ll still do this …
… but he’s valuable.
With that in place, why would an efficiency-driven front office in Memphis, one working with the sixth-overall offense in the NBA right now, deal a needed big man for a swingman that is always one brain synapse away from tossing up a left-leaning (like, George McGovern-style) 24-footer? All for a player that would most certainly act as a reserve for Tristan Thompson, the Cavs’ starting center – one that shares the same player representative as LeBron James?
Cavs general manager David Griffin is still your 2014-15 NBA Executive of the Year. One shouldn’t care if other teams finish with better records (as was the case in 2010-11, when the Bulls’ Gar Forman won the award ahead of Pat Riley), because David Griffin still put LeBron James and Kevin Love on a team that already featured Kyrie Irving. If he whiffed on a coach that some think LeBron is uneasy about, so be it. This is your Executive of the Year. He signed LeBron. He traded for Love.
Kvetching over James’ supporting cast is useless. Yes, Mike Miller, James Jones, Shawn Marion and Lou Amundson seem like the sort of signings that helped doom the aging Heat in years’ past, but who else was Griffin going to sign? There weren’t any mythical big man defenders or lights-out swingman stoppers floating around last July. This was the best the Cavaliers could do, and Griffin shouldn’t be judged for failing to acquire hypothetical players that don’t exist or (at best) aren’t available in reality. Do you really think Memphis would have traded Marc Gasol for Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett?
Cleveland is “just” 18-12 and still very much in the mix. There is always the mental image to be had of LeBron locking down on Kyle Lowry or Jimmy Butler this May, much in the same way he did to Derrick Rose in the Eastern Conference finals back when the 2010-11 Chicago Bulls blew past the Heat in the regular season. This is more than salvageable, and anything can happen in a seven-game series. Even against a team from the Western Conference.
This has to be the bottom, though. The squad will not be able to approach the realm of the mediocre on defense, but it has to at least start trying to. And the offense, once David Blatt rightfully decides to throw his position around, has to achieve top rank.
It’s the only way to save a season that should be starting to worry northern Ohio. Clowntime is over, and chill mode has to end.
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