Thursday, November 30, 2006

What's Wrong with the Cavaliers?

First of all, let me preface this with a little perspective, the Cavaliers have finished up the month of November and they are (at the time of this writing) one game out of the top spot in the Central Division and third overall in the Eastern Conference. Compared with their own sorry history and to the rest of Cleveland sports, complaining about a 9-6 month is almost laughable.

Almost.

The Cavs and their fans had some pretty high expectations coming into this season; they ended their team huddles with a "1-2-3-championship!" and I half-heartedly called them the best team in the East. They opened the season with a win over the Wizards and followed that up with their first victory in San Antonio since the Reagan years. Wins versus the Wizards and the Spurs? This season looked promising.

However, the Cavaliers followed up their big San Antonio win with their first loss to the expansion Bobcats. Cavs fans were a bit bummed, but hey, it was a weird travel schedule (Texas to North Carolina??) and we figured it was just an early season bump in the road. Unfortunately, it was the beginning of a trend.

All season long, the Cavs have played down to the level of their opponents. The Cavs are 9-6, but 4 of those losses are against teams that didn't make the postseason last year. Plus, some of the wins haven't exactly been encouraging; the Boston and Memphis wins definitely left a lot to be desired. For whatever reason, the Cavalier team that played so well against the San Antonios and Chicagos of the league didn't show up against the Torontos, Bostons and Indianas.

One could legitimately argue that this team should be 12-3 (however, they could very easily be 7-8 if they hadn't saved those wins versus the Celtics and Grizzlies). So what's been the problem?

Unfortunately, there is no one singular thing that we can point to and say, "There- if the Cavs can fix that, they'll be fine". There's a multitude of issues the Cavs are dealing with (in really vague terms and no particular order):

Offense
Defense
LeBron James
Consistency
Fox Sports Net (okay, not really, but they piss me off)
Coaching

(I told you they'd be vague) Let's address them, shall we?

The Offense

It stinks. Mike Brown added a new motion offense this offseason, which replaced the classic 'stand around and watch LeBron' offense that was used for much of last season. At best, this new offense has been a mixed bag. The offense is supposed to benefit Hughes and James the most; get them moving without the ball and open up some passing and slashing lanes.

This offense require a lot of picks being set by Cavalier big men, sometimes multiple picks in one set. This is wasn't exactly the ideal offense for a 7-3 center with roughly 10,000,000 foot surgeries. Z had a rough time to start this season, bottoming out versus the Pacers with just two points on 1-2 shooting. Many, including Cavaliers beat reporter Brian Windhorst, didn't think this was the best way to use their $55 million dollar center. Since the Indiana game, Z has put in two very strong performances (18 points, 15 rebounds and 5 blocks vs Philly and 12, 12 and 3 vs the Knicks); he seems to have turned the corner.

However, Z's lack of touches wasn't the offense's only ills. The offense stagnates far too often; the Cavs fall back into their "LeBron watching" syndrome and they settle for way too many jumpshots. The Cavs said they'd used LeBron (and others) in the post this year. They seem to feed the post early in games but seem to forget about it as the game wears on.

The Defense.

Overall, the defense has been much better the offense; at the very least it's been more consistent.

Their main weakness has been quick guards. Even when Hughes was healthy, the Cavs had trouble defending the quicker guards of the league (and without him? Ugh):

Versus the Cavaliers, Tony Parker had 21 points, Raymond Felton had 23, Tryonn Lue had 19, Sebastian Telfair had 15, Chucky Adkins had 17, Nate Robinson had 19 and Jamal Crawford had 18. Not good.

The Cavs help defense hasn't exactly been stellar either. In Wednesday's game versus the Knicks, Eddy Curry got a multiple dunks and free throws off of various guard penetrations. The pick-and-roll play also gave the Cavaliers fits vs New York (they've had trouble with the pick-and-roll for a number of years now).

LeBron James

James has been wildly inconsistent on offense and just plain bad on defense.

James knows he can get his jumper off whenever he feels like it. So he seems to hoist it up whenever he feels like it. He doesn't go to the post nearly enough for my tastes (of course, I want the ball in the post on every possession).

James seems to start off games almost deferring to his teammates. He rarely looks for his own shot early in contests, preferring to get Gooden and Z some quick touches. I like this idea in theory; both Gooden and Z tend to play better overall when they have some offensive touches, but this can lead LeBron not getting himself into a good rhythm and he'll struggle from the floor (and the line).

LeBron's defense seemed to hit rock bottom on Wednesday versus New York. Quentin Richardson scorched LeBron for 27 points on 10-15 shooting (including 5-7 from three).

At times, James looks disinterested (and not just with defense). He's lackadaisical versus the lesser teams (Charlotte for instance) and he'll settle for too many jumpers. Part of me wonders if James is tired; he's played a ton of minutes the last couple years and he was playing all summer. James averaged over 42 minutes the past two seasons and is averaging just over 40 this season. For comparisons sake, Michael Jordan never averaged more than 40.4 mpg during a season (and just 41 a game for the playoffs). You got to wonder if James is tired; the Cavs have been riding him hard for 3 years now.

Consistency

Drew Gooden is averaging 12 points a game but, like always, that doesn't tell the real story. Drew will follow a 20 point outburst (vs Chicago) with a 0 point stinker (vs Boston). You don't know what you'll get from him game to game. His play is maddeningly erratic.

As is the play of one Sasha Pavlovic. Sasha had great back to back games against Boston and Chicago, but then fell off the map. He's often out of control on the offensive end (committing too many charges and turnovers) and his defensive intensity comes and goes.

Speaking of inconsistency- Larry Hughes. Actually, when he's been on the court, he's been fine. He's just not out there enough.

But the consistency (or lack thereof) also applies to the team. The Cavs show up for the big games (the season opener, the Spurs and the Bulls) but fail to bring it versus the lesser teams. The offense comes and goes, as their team defense.

Coaching.

All of the aforementioned problems can come down to one thing: coaching.

The Cavs shooting too many jumpers and not going inside? Coaching.

The Cavs not being mentally prepared against lesser teams? Coaching.

Not getting Z enough touches in his comfort zone? Coaching.

Poor pick and roll defense? Coaching.

Larry Hughes getting hurt? Coac- wait. No. That's bad luck.

Weird substitution patterns? Coaching.

David Wesley being on the court? Coaching.

With some bad losses and some equally ugly wins, Coach Brown has started to receive some (not unwarranted) criticism.

Rarely do I see the Cavs run a good set play after a timeout; I'm not sure what they discuss, but I've seen too many inbounds plays that end up with an off balance Eric Snow jumper. Not pretty.

I also don't get some of his substitutions; Daniel Gibson played well versus both Toronto and Indiana, but then got a DNP-CD in both the Philly and New York games. Shannon Brown started those latter two games and played well in one of 'em (NY). He had 10 points in just 12 minutes of playing time; he started both halves, but once he sat down, he never got up.

The Cavs also react too much for my liking. Instead of forcing teams to play their style, the Cavs seem to willing to adapt to the opponents' style. One of the Cavs strengths is their big men. Z, Gooden, Varejao and Donyell Marshall are a pretty nice rotation, but opposing teams often go small and Brown seems to follow right along. Instead of going zone on defense and forcing feeding a 7-3 Lithuanian on offense, Brown puts out a line up that looks something like this:

Eric Snow
Damon Jones
LeBron James
Donyell Marshall
Anderson Varejao

Needless to say, the Cavs offense stagnates and opposing teams either cut the Cavaliers lead or take/increase their own. When they go small, they often get very few offensive boards, as Varejao is often the only going crashing the boards.

I'd like to see Mike Brown get fired up a bit more. The Cavs have laid some stinkers out there this season and Brown seems to take each mishap in stride; never showing emotion and never becoming very animated. Personally, I'd like to see Brown get a tech here or there (or even thrown out) just to light a fire under his team. Wake 'em up every now and then.

I'd also like to see Brown discipline LeBron more. When Gooden or Pavlovic blow a defensive assignment, they get yanked. But LeBron can play the worst defense and loft the most ill advised shot and he'll get 40 minutes a game. I know he's LeBron and I know he's the franchise and I know he's basically saved basketball in Cleveland (right now he's saving all of Cleveland sports), but he has to know when he did something unacceptable. Hell, even Damon Jones was giving LeBron some grief after his poor play versus Richardson. Get his attention. Prove a point; I don't care who you are, play some defense every now and then.

Plus, if Brown yanked 'Bron 'Bron every now and then, he might be able to get LBJ's minutes down under 40 a game.

I know I just threw a fair amount of criticism Brown's way, but I am not advocating firing him. Under no circumstances would I advocate that. The NBA hires and fires it's coaches way too often. The Cavs alone have had 6 coaches since the 1999-2000 season.

If the offensive problems persist throughout this year, I would make it very clear that he needs to hire an offensive assistant next summer. But it is way to early in this season (15 games) and into his tenure to even think about canning him.

Now, if the Cavs are having these same problems 15 games into next season? His seat would be pretty warm.

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With the Browns in the midst of another awful season (8 years with no line, how long can they go?) and the Indians in the middle of the Offseason of Dellucci, the Cavs are the Cleveland fan's only source of sport pride.

And after losses to Charlotte, Atlanta, Toronto and the dreadful Knicks, the fan base is growing a bit restless (especially after the high expectations coming into this year).

My recommendation would be, as Douglas Adams would say: Don't Panic. It's a long season (82 glorious games) and the East is pretty weak.

I'm trying to look for game to game improvements. Better team defense. More touches down low. Consistent play from Gooden. Good shot selection. Blowing out weaker teams.

That last one is a biggie. If the Cavs can take care of business versus the lesser teams (instead of letting them hang around), that will enable Brown to rest the starters and play the rookies (with a big lead or in garbage time). The more they play, the more Brown will trust them in games that are close. I really believe we'll be seeing more minutes for Gibson and Brown come March and April then we will now (no matter what LeBron says).

Look, this season hasn't gone the way most of us would've liked, but the Cavs are winning and above .500. Hughes has been gone almost two weeks and the Cavs didn't get Z involved on offense until very recently. Hell, David Wesley got significant minutes.

Ya, things could be better. But try to calm down and have some perspective here: we're complaining about a Cavs team that is above .500. How weird is that?

2 comments:

Erik said...

Since we are all so desperately hanging on to the Cavs as the only good thing in Cleveland sports right now, it's easy to forget that they are still a work in progress.

All those "LeBron doesn't stack up to MJ" comparisons are woefully premature. He's going to turn 22 this month. MJ didn't stack up to MJ at 22.

They don't have all the right pieces in place. Brown is still learning how to be a head coach. What you see with the Cavs is not necessarily what you are going to get in 2-3 years.

I think that if the Cavs somehow reach the NBA Finals this season, it will be an overacheivement and/or the product of a weak conference.

Here's a random, out-of-left-field thought: Bron Bron, as you said, has been ridden hard by the Cavs and USA Basketball for the past three years. He's obviously not giving max effort in some games. Maybe he is indeed tired.

Why not sit him for some games?

Sounds stupid? Think of it like this: Sit LeBron in the games where the Cavs traditionally sandbag and lose. If LeBron's lackadaisical effort is just going to rub off on his teammates, let him rest. Force the rest of the team to beat the dregs.

It's kind of like when children have weak-eye syndrome. You put a patch over the strong eye so the weak eye learns to get stronger.

If the Cavs truly are one of the best teams in the East, they should be able to beat Charlotte, Atlanta, etc. when LeBron is on the bench. Then let LeBron suit up for the Detroits and Miamis when his adrenaline will take over.

It's the best of both worlds: LeBron gets some much-needed rest, and the rest of the team learns how not to use their superstar as a crutch.

Ben said...

I don't know if I'd sit him for a game, but I'd sit him for a quarter here and there.

At first I wasn't really concerned about the Cavs riding LeBron; he never seemed to tire and what the hell, he's young.

Now I'm reading articles about Tracy McGrady is feeling old and talking retirement (at 27) and how Antoine Walker just looks done.

Those guys logged a lot of minutes early on. Brown really needs to rest LeBron, especially early on.