It was one of the biggest moments in Cleveland sports history. (Seriously!) LeBron James’ first game back as a member of the Cavaliers, wearing that familiar No. 23 jersey. James returned with great fanfare Thursday night, leading his new teammates onto the floor against the New York Knicks. Those same Knicks were fresh off being routed by the Chicago Bulls in their 2014-15 season debut, and the Cavaliers — expected to be the best team in the Eastern Conference (not just by us, either) — were at home, in front of one of the most fired-up crowds imaginable.
Piece of cake for the Cavs, right?
Not quite. After a hot start (they led the Knicks by 11 early in the second quarter), Cleveland struggled to make shots and to keep New York from doing the same, eventually losing 95-90 in a game they were favored to win by 13.
It’s only one game, the first of 82 in what is effectively the longest regular-season in sports. But it’s fair to ask what went wrong, and what it means for the Cavs.
In the game, Cleveland had an offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions) of 108.3 and a defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) of 114.3. Just as a point of comparison, last season’s Knicks scored 109.3 points per 100 possessions and allowed 110.6, but the Real Plus Minus (RPM) ratings of New York’s roster this season would imply a decline of 2 points per 100 possessions on offense from last season, and a decline of 1.5 points/100 on defense. In essence, an average team would have scored around 112 points/100 and allowed 107 points/100 against the Knicks, giving the Cavaliers a ratings shortfall of 4 points on offense and 7 points on defense.
Cleveland was expected to be an offensive juggernaut going into the season, so in a sense its performance at that end was the big disappointment. But it’s difficult to imagine a LeBron James-led team not being an offensive powerhouse; a James-led team hasn’t ranked outside the NBA’s Top 8 in offensive rating since 2007-08. (And that’s not even considering the teammates he now has in Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, among others.) The bigger concern is that Cleveland’s defensive struggles against New York give credence to the most reasonable fears people had about the Cavaliers over the offseason — that their defense would not be up to par.
Anderson Varejao is an elite defender by plus/minus metrics, and he logged starter’s minutes for the Cavaliers last night. But although James has a strong defensive reputation as well — he’s made the NBA’s All-Defensive squad in some form (first or second team) every year since 2008-09 — his RPM defense ranked just 24th among small forwards a year ago. Meanwhile, scouts for years have questioned Love’s defense, even though his defensive RPM is surprisingly positive. And Cleveland’s other top minute-earners Thursday night — Irving, Dion Waiters, and Tristan Thompson — are defensive disasters whether you look at the numbers or just watch the games.
If ever there was an area where Cleveland’s new super team would struggle, it would be on defense, and Thursday night’s outing against the Knicks only reinforces that fear.
Cavaliers coach David Blatt is new to the NBA, and his defensive system is still a work in progress. Two of his team’s biggest issues Thursday night were transition defense and defending spot-up shooters, both areas that can be improved with better defensive cohesion, communication and awareness.
It’s unlikely the Cavaliers will play as badly on defense all season as they did against New York. But in a Bayesian sense, it does give us one new data point to reinforce doubts about the defensive quality of the group Cleveland has assembled.