I’m not sure it necessarily needed saying after four consecutive losses, including two on their home turf at Quicken Loans Arena, and three by more than 16 points. Regardless, Dwyane Wade made it clear that he doesn’t think anybody in the NBA is particularly concerned about playing the Cleveland Cavaliers right now.
“Ain’t nobody afraid,” the future Hall of Famer-turned-reserve guard said before the Cavs’ Friday night matchup with the Washington Wizards, according to Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com. “Teams come in here to whip our butt and they’re whipping our butt. One thing I did notice [with the] Miami [Heat], teams were afraid of us a little bit. Ain’t nobody afraid. Maybe at some point it will get there, but not right now.”
With the Cavs reeling and interior stalwart Tristan Thompson and wing defender Iman Shumpert both sidelined by injuries, head coach Tyronn Lue’s quest for answers has apparently led him to a somewhat surprising destination:
The Cavs coaching staff – Ty Lue included – is at Capital One Arena early running rookies Cedi Osman and Ante Zizic through the offense
— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) November 3, 2017
Whether Cedi Osman, a 6-foot-8 wing the Cavs brought over from Turkey this summer, or Ante Zizic, the Croatian center imported from the Boston Celtics as part of this summer’s Kyrie Irving-Isaiah Thomas trade, are the cure for what ails Cleveland very much remains to be seen. But they’re young — Osman is 22, Zizic is 20 — with fresh legs and energy, two things that have seemed in short supply for the Cavs thus far. And, to hear Lue tell it, at least they’re prepared.
“We came out here early today, ran through a lot of the plays, and they knew them the best,” Lue told reporters at the Cavs’ Friday shootaround. “So that was a good sign.”
Asked if the fact that Cedi Osman and Ante Zizic knew the plays the best of anyone was “terrifying,” Lue couldn’t help but laugh.
“It is,” said Lue. “It really is. But, I mean, they knew every set. So, um, that was a good sign.”
Those have been few and far between lately for LeBron James and the Cavs, who came into the season widely expected to once again romp through the Eastern Conference en route to their fourth straight appearance in the NBA Finals, but who have gotten off to a surprisingly rocky start. Cleveland enters Friday’s meeting with the Wizards at 3-5, in 13th place in the 15-team East, owning the NBA’s second-worst defense. (The Cavs owe Rick Carlisle’s Dallas Mavericks a nice gift basket for bumping them out of the basement with a 21-point loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday.)
It’s not just that the Cavs are losing. It’s how they’re losing. Cleveland has been getting drilled by teams that don’t boast marquee names like James, Wade, Kevin Love and Derrick Rose, but that have played harder, faster and smarter than the three-time-reigning Eastern champs.
Despite playing at a pace that (100.58 possessions per 48 minutes, according to NBA.com) that’s far and away the fastest of LeBron’s second tenure in Cleveland — and that still ranks just 15th among 30 NBA teams, a reflection of just how much the league as a whole has hit the gas this year — the NBA’s oldest team has largely looked stuck in the mud.
Sixteen percent of opponents’ offensive possessions against the Cavs have come in transition, the 10th-highest share in the league, according to Synergy Sports’ game charting; they’re scoring 1.17 points per possession on those trips, the fifth-highest rate. On the other side of the ball, Cleveland’s spending a fair amount of its own time looking to push — 17 percent of the Cavs’ offensive plays have come in transition — but haven’t had nearly as much success converting, scoring just 1.03 points per transition possession, 20th in the 30-team league.
“Last year our offense saved us a lot,” Lue said, according to McMenamin. “We were able to score, and when teams were scoring on us we could score. But now, the way the games have been going, you miss three or four shots, you’re down nine points. Quick. And that’s around the league.”
Some of the Cavs’ issues have stemmed from their problems at the point. Their summertime blockbuster trade shed one All-Star ball-handler (Irving) in exchange for another (Thomas) who has yet to play as he continues to work his way back from a hip injury. Rose, as is his wont, has looked more effective driving to look for his own offense than facilitating for others, and 36-year-old Jose Calderon is more caretaker than catalyst at this stage in his career.
That’s put a more outsized creative burden on LeBron. While he has produced at his typically ludicrous level — 25.6 points, 8.9 assists, 7.3 rebounds, 2.2 combined blocks and steals in 37 minutes per game while shooting nearly 60 percent from the field — he’s also coughing the ball up 4.5 times per game, the highest per-minute share of his career.
All told, the Cavs are turning the ball over on 16.1 percent of their offensive possessions, a sharp uptick from last season (13.7 percent) and the ninth-highest rate in the league. It’s also a stark reversal of a trend that saw the Cavs’ ball security improve in each of LeBron’s first three years back in Northeast Ohio. And when you’re committing those miscues in live-ball situations, you’re getting the other guys off to the races — and that can cost you.
Through eight games, Cleveland is scoring 15.6 points per game off their opponents’ turnovers, while allowing 18.6 a night off their own. Similarly, the Cavs are scoring 6.9 fast break points per game, but allowing 10.1. That’s six points per game, right there, stemming from the combination of sloppiness with the ball, a disinclination to bust it back or communicate in transition, and a general lack of defensive aggression.
Working on the Cavs D vid, as a LeBron fan this makes me angry, just too much space pic.twitter.com/PTfZUHR6cL
— Dawkins (@DawkinsMTA) November 3, 2017
That last part has been most clearly displayed, and most clearly damaging, at the 3-point arc. The Cavs have allowed 33.5 3-point attempts per game, fifth-most in the NBA, with opponents cashing in on a whopping 41.8 percent of them, easily the league’s highest mark.
That feels like a bit of small-sample-size theater, an unsustainably hot start from the opposition that will come down as the temperature does. But it also doesn’t feel super out-of-whack that teams would be generating and splashing more quality long-range looks against a Cavs team longer on recognizable names than on bankable, credible defenders.
No resistance here, this Cavs D video will be longer than expected pic.twitter.com/dqxEeif7sj
— Dawkins (@DawkinsMTA) November 3, 2017
“Boy, the Cavs keep running into teams that are just devastating from outside.” Funny how that keeps happening.
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) November 2, 2017
There are issues here — actual, on-court concerns that go beyond the kinds of motivational and interpersonal woes that might be addressed by stuff like team meetings. Lue’s been handed a somewhat ill-fitting roster, and has had to shuffle his rotation and starting lineup a half-dozen times already this season due to myriad injuries to expected contributors. (“Look at me,” Lue told reporters at Friday’s shootaround. “I ain’t slept in days.”)
And now, with the Cavs in an early-season skid, he’ll have to try to find the brakes against a Wizards team looking to wash out the bad taste of its own bad loss to the Phoenix Suns, and bursting with belief that Cleveland is ripe for the picking this season, and that they’re the team to knock LeBron and company off the top of the Eastern mountain.
“We feel like we they biggest threat,” All-Star point guard John Wall told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols ahead of Friday night’s matchup. “We’ve just got to find a way to get over that hump and meet them in the Eastern Conference finals.”
The third round of the postseason is a long way away, but Wall, Bradley Beal and the rest of the Wizards could go a long way toward validating that (arguably unearned) confidence with a win on Friday night. Standing in their way? The NBA’s second-worst defense, now bolstered by Cedi Osman and Ante Zizic.
Be afraid, Washington. Be very afraid.
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