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The Cavs Might Actually Be In Trouble

After making six straight NBA Finals, LeBron James and his teams have earned the benefit of the doubt when they hit a rough patch. His Heat and Cavaliers teams have shown they can turn things around in a hurry, almost as if all they needed to do is flip a switch to revert to their dominant selves.

But, my, what a rough patch they’re in. The club, which entered Thursday in a virtual tie with Boston for first place in the East, has dropped 10 of its last 17 games. Six of those defeats have been by double digits, including each of their last four1. Perhaps most troubling: The team’s defense has been the NBA’s worst throughout the month of March, which is saying a lot, given how many teams aren’t really trying to win anymore.

It’s becoming harder and harder to ignore what Cleveland’s play might mean for the Cavs’ chances of repeating as champs. This may be the weakest LeBron team we’ve seen this late in a season since his finals streak began in 2011. Our NBA win prediction model gives Cleveland a 2 percent chance of winning it all, less than teams such as Boston, Washington and Toronto.2 And while that seems surprising, it shouldn’t be: Cleveland’s recent struggles are testing the limits of how strong a team’s defense needs to be to win a championship.

At the moment, the Cavaliers are tied for 22nd in defensive efficiency, a mark that would rank as the worst among any team that’s reached the finals in modern history.3

There are several reasons the Cavs aren’t good defenders. Unlike much of the Big Three era in Miami, where players had the athleticism and smarts to fly around and cause havoc on defense, Cleveland is slow footed. Some of that is a function of the Cavs’ roster being long in the tooth; six members of the rotation are at least 31 years old. Other times, it looks as if players aren’t hustling, which partly explains why the club ranks dead last in transition defense, according to Synergy Sports. The Cavs also really struggle to keep the ball in front of them, and are tied for worst in the league at containing pick-and-roll ballhandlers.

As the Cavs seek to work out their kinks, opponents have found that they can often generate fantastic looks against Cleveland with minimal effort and ball movement. Last year the club was pretty solid — 12th best in the NBA — at forcing foes to use nearly all of the shot clock. This season, Cleveland is tied for last in the NBA in terms of how often it forces clubs to use the final four seconds of the shot clock. (That lack of pressure also speaks to how seldom the Cavs force their opponents into turnovers compared with the rest of the league.)

Still, context for the Cavs’ struggles is important. Yes, the team looks mediocre and is in real jeopardy of finishing with the No. 2 seed, or worse, in the East. But James hasn’t really needed the top seed to make the finals over these past six years; in four of those seasons, his team finished in second place before going on to win the East anyway.4

“It matters more that we’re playing better basketball than where we’re at,” James told reporters after a 29-point loss in San Antonio this week. “If that results in us having the No. 1 seed, the No. 2 seed, 3 or whatever the hell it is, we need to play better basketball. That’s what it comes down to.”

Most clubs would gladly take Cleveland’s problems, given that the Cavs — for all their struggles — have continued to boast a top-flight offense, scoring 110 points per 100 plays (eighth best) over this 17-game span. Coach Tyronn Lue, in a somewhat odd comment, said he has a potential antidote for the team’s defensive woes but that he doesn’t want to unveil it until the postseason begins. (Making the comment even odder: Lue also said he’s not necessarily confident the fix will work.)

Yet there are a couple of warning signals worth noting as the Cavs hit the homestretch that simply weren’t there in years past. No James-led team the past six seasons has finished the second half of the season with a negative point differential per 100 possessions, but this one is on the cusp of doing so. Cleveland, with nine games left in its season, is getting outscored by 2.8 points per 100 plays since the All-Star break.

POINT DIFFERENTIAL PER 100 POSSESSIONS
SEASON TEAM FULL SEASON AFTER ALL-STAR BREAK
2010-11 Miami 8.5 7.3
2011-12 Miami 7.2 3.0
2012-13 Miami 9.9 11.9
2013-14 Miami 6.1 5.8
2014-15 Cleveland 3.7 6.9
2015-16 Cleveland 5.8 5.9
2016-17 Cleveland 2.8 -2.8
Is it time for LeBron and the Cavaliers to hit the panic button?

*The amount of points a team outscores its opponent by over a span of 100 plays

Source: NBA.com

Love’s defense has also regressed. It had improved a bit during the first half of the season, but now looks problematic again since he returned from an injury. The Cavs, who were 4.5 points better than normal when Love and James shared the court before Love got injured, have been 24 points worse per 100 plays when that duo plays together since Love came back. And much of that decline is on the defensive end; particularly when offenses find ways to pull Tristan Thompson out of the paint in hopes of punishing Love in the middle of the floor, with no one to guard the basket.

Defensive rebounding is the other area that’s marked a clear difference from last year. Cleveland ranked fifth in defensive-rebounding percentage last year but now is tied for 24th; a decrease due in part to Thompson’s full-time shift to the center position, where he’s been tasked with increased rim-protection responsibility as opposed to just gobbling up misses.5

As such, the Cavaliers aren’t the stingy team they once were. Last season, they allowed the third-fewest second-chance points; now they’re the NBA’s sixth-weakest team in that regard. The Cavaliers have enough problems when they limit opponents to one shot, let alone two or three.

But how much of the Cavs’ defensive struggles will matter come June? Knowing what we know about LeBron’s ability to flip the switch, analyzing the Cavs’ late-season struggles this closely may prove to be silly. But if the Cavs do indeed fail to reach the finals, there will have been at least some writing on the wall from earlier in the season.

Footnotes

  1. The team’s Big Three missed two of those five shellackings, while only Kyrie Irving played in a blowout loss against the Bulls back on Feb. 25.

  2. This is noteworthy since the Celtics are virtually tied for first with the Cavs, while the Wizards and Raptors are currently behind Cleveland in the standings.

  3. The Cavs managed to reach the finals two seasons ago with the 20th-ranked defense. But they improved considerably at that end of the floor after making midseason trades for wing stopper Iman Shumpert and center Timofey Mozgov.

  4. Looking at this season’s contenders in the East, these teams don’t really stand out as extraordinary compared with what James has seen in the past; at least not when gauging their point-differential strength against teams the four-time MVP has faced in the playoffs before.

  5. Advanced tracking statistics suggest that Thompson has held his own defensively at the rim this season. The 26-year-old has held foes to 52 percent from close range, 9 points beneath their average marks, good for seventh best in the NBA among players who’ve had to defend at least four shots per game from within six feet.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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