It’s been the better part of a decade since the early weeks of November could signal crisis for a LeBron James team. His Cleveland Cavaliers have been a mess at 5-6, 10th in the East, including a loss Sunday to the now 2-9 Atlanta Hawks, but it’s hard to drum up much genuine concern given the team’s history of getting its act together just in time for the postseason. It’s especially tough to make any proclamations until guard Isaiah Thomas, who was acquired in the Kyrie Irving trade, returns from a hip injury, and we find out how much he’ll be able to contribute.
A 124-119 win Tuesday over the Milwaukee Bucks — playing without newly acquired Eric Bledsoe — stanched the bleeding, for now. But issues remain, some predictable and some less so, and the early season has left some clues about what the team will need from Thomas and the rest of the roster in order to get back on track.
The Cavs aren’t rebounding (16th overall rebound rate, 14th on the defensive glass), aren’t defending (dead last in defensive efficiency), and aren’t doing much moving whatsoever (23rd in both average movement speed and average distance traveled). Which is to say, they have all the outward appearances of a team mailing it in during November knowing full well it can turn on the jets when it needs them. So maybe it will all fall into place come spring? But there’s one complicating factor for the Cavs-aren’t-trying explanation: LeBron has been as good as he’s ever been these first 11 games — and the surrounding cast has been unable to capitalize.
James has been remarkable this season, even by his standards. He’s shooting 65.7 percent on 2-pointers, including 80 percent within 3 feet of the rim. That’s enough to give him a career-best true shooting percentage of 67.3 percent even though he’s drawing fouls at a career-worst rate. And not only is James scoring efficiently himself, but he’s assisting on 45.8 percent of his teammates’ field goals when he’s on the floor, another career high.
Over the past three seasons, James has improved his teammates’ shots at a tremendous rate by leveraging his practically unstoppable drive-and-kick game into high-value opportunities for himself and others. According to data from Second Spectrum, the average shot off of a LeBron pass from 2014-15 to 2016-17 would have been converted at a rate of 55.9 effective field goal percent by an average player. The Cavs had a 60 percent eFG on those shots, meaning they turned good shots into great ones.
Based on shot location and distance, defender location and other variables, we would expect the average player to shoot 55.5 percent eFG on James’s passes this year — functionally the same as the last three seasons. But the team is converting them at a rate of just 56.6 percent eFG.
It’s not hard to pin down what is happening. A season ago, the shooters James passed to the most were Kevin Love, Channing Frye, Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith and late-season addition Kyle Korver. Each took those passes and added value to them — Korver was the standout with a 69 percent eFG when LeBron passed to him, but Love, Smith and Frye all had big positive effects. This season, that hasn’t really been the case:
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Every Cavalier but Korver is struggling to shoot off the catch from James. They’re struggling in general, shooting just 48.8 percent eFG1 on all catch-and-shoot plays as a team, but the James drive-and-kick engine sputtering out undermines the team’s best go-to move. The good news is that the results aren’t necessarily going to stay this bad. Love is performing only slightly above his expected rate, and Smith is shooting far below his. Both are proven shooters and could easily rebound going forward.
But even if those two recover, the team has to be concerned with Jae Crowder, another piece of the Irving trade. The offseason rotation shuffle has caused the bulk of Frye’s shots (as well as Kyrie Irving’s) from last year to be redistributed to Crowder, who has been awful and is less likely to rebound, considering he’s a career 34.5 percent 3-point shooter. The team is also working other players who aren’t 3-point shooters, like Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose, into the rotation, which was always going to be painful.
The point here isn’t that the Cleveland offense is broken — Tuesday’s win launched it from seventh in offensive efficiency to second, and the Cavs can find points when they need them. The problem is, if Cleveland is going to rely on flipping a switch on defense once the playoffs roll around, which it certainly appeared to do a season ago, the offense can’t be merely good: It has to be phenomenal. Maybe Thomas’s return will change how this all works, but for now we’re seeing evidence that LeBron at his best may no longer be enough to float his team to the top of the conference.
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