The Cleveland Cavaliers are off to a somewhat shaky start, given that they were being praised as the league’s best team in the offseason due to the additions of a certain King and a certain power-forward. The Cavaliers currently sit 7th in the Eastern Conference with a 6-7 record, which includes blowout losses to both the Portland Trailblazers and Toronto Raptors. They have also lost to a number of other teams and have just barely escaped out of certain games. In fact, their only convincing wins have come against the Orlando Magic and Atlanta Hawks; the rest of their games were either blowout losses or coin tosses.
Despite the early struggles, many people have been quick to defend the Cavaliers with the belief that chemistry takes time and even the 2010-2011 Miami Heat got off to a slow start. That Miami Heat team got off to an 8-7 start and ended up finishing the season with a record of 58-24. While chemistry is not built over night, there is a huge difference between the issues this current Cleveland Cavaliers team face and the issues the 2010-2011 Miami Heat team faced. Quite frankly, it is rather simple. The Miami Heat had players that did not know how to play together. The Cleveland Cavaliers have players that do not know how to play.
While stacked with talent at their core, the other 9 guys on their roster are atrocious at quite a lot. Dion Waiters, whom Coach Blatt does not know if he should start or bench, has proven to be entirely non-existent off the ball. In all seriousness, if Waiters is on the floor and he does not have the ball in his hands, the Cavs might as well be playing 4-on-5 on offense; it is that bad. The problem is that when you have ball-dominant players like Irving and James, both of which are light-years better, Waiters will have no option but to play off-ball when he is on the court with them. For this reason, Blatt has resorted to bring Waiters off the bench.
It seems like a solid decision at a quick glance, but once you take a good look at their roster you realize that the Cavs do not even have another shooting guard on their roster to start over Waiters. Coach Blatt has started Shawn Marion over Waiters, but Marion is far from a 2-guard. While an outstanding and versatile defender in his prime, Marion is now 36-years old, not nearly as quick as he once was, and does not ease the pressure off of Irving on offense. At least with Waiters you have a player who can get to the rim and create for himself. Waiters serves as another offensive option altogether, while Marion only serves as a clean-up guy in the paint or someone you may or may not want taking an outside jumper. But Waiters is on the bench for another reason as well; the Cavs have no bench.
Waiters is the only player that comes off the bench that you can confidently go to on offense. As far as the talent, this is where it starts to get really ugly. Tristan Thompson, for instance, seems to only be in the NBA due to his height and great athleticism. He is a scrapper with a great motor and a lot of heart, which enables him to do a lot of dirty work for Cleveland in the paint, especially on the offensive glass. However, outside of that, Thompson does not offer much more of anything, just like Lou Amundson. James Jones and Mike Miller are stand-still shooters that are relatively easy to defend as long as you keep a body on them. While Miller may be a decent defender and a great rebounder at his position, beyond that, he too does not bring much to the table. The Cleveland Cavaliers need a big improvement to their bench if they do not want to wear out LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. That said, one of their most glaring issues is just as present among the starters as it is among the bench players. Cleveland’s defense is atrocious.
Cleveland’s interior defense is among the worst in the league. They currently allow 100.5 points per game, 11th worst in the league, and are allowing teams to shoot 64% from less than five feet, 3rd worst in the league. Simply put, Cleveland cannot defend the rim. Anderson Varejao, while always known for his heart, has never had the body to defend the elite bigs of the NBA. He is often overpowered by more aggressive centers. While he is sometimes capable of getting away with his thin frame, given how small centers are nowadays, most elite teams come with elite talent at the center position and that could seriously hurt the Cavs in the long run. Offensively, Varejao provides great hustle points, is a solid roll-man, and has great chemistry with LeBron James, but he can be quite a liability defensively.
A certain power-forward is no better, but we all knew this. Kevin Love has never been a good defender, and on a team that currently seems to not know a thing about team defense, nothing seems to have changed. The duo of Love and Varejao have had fits with many bigs, including Anthony Davis (who hasn’t?), Kelly Olynyk (who h…wait, what?), and a number of point guards who get to the rim at will because of Kyrie Irving and then meet no defense in the paint
Kyrie Irving is another defensive liability. He seems to have all the tools offensively, but on defense, he couldn’t keep his own nose in front of him if you paid him to. Irving’s issue defensively seems to be effort, since he has all of the physical attributes to be a good defender. While he has quick hands and often strips players, he is still awful at keeping players in front of him; just ask Damian Lillard, John Wall, Lou Williams, or Ty Lawson. Cleveland’s interior defense is bad as is—which will not do them any favors against the Bulls, Raptors, or Wizards—so Irving cannot afford to let guys blow by him at will due to a lack of effort.
Regardless of Irving’s perimeter defense, Cleveland may need an upgrade inside because if deceptively quick guards do not kill them, then skilled bigs will. The addition of Kevin Love may have added some scoring and rebounding to the team, but both of those things were not issues for the Cavaliers. Their biggest issues coming into this season were interior defense and bench scoring, both of which Love does not address. However, we have pointed blame at a lot of players but one: LeBron James.
If there is one guy who has received little to no blame, it is LeBron James, wrongfully so. There is no way to tell if he is/was nervous, confused with how to teach this young group, or simply bored. Nevertheless, one thing that has been extremely evident is that LeBron James has seemed almost uninterested at times. Perhaps it is just frustration from the lack of early success, but he is no stranger to a change of scenery; he knows how these things work. Regardless of the reason behind his lackadaisical play, his lack of aggressiveness has played a huge role. He is currently averaging 32 points per game in Cleveland’s wins, but only 19 points per game in their losses. He is also averaging nearly twice as many turnovers and is shooting an unimpressive 40% from the floor in their losses, the same guy that has not shot under 50% in his last 5 seasons.
James has already shown how dominant he can still be, with already 5 games with +30 points and two near triple-doubles. However, that has only been the case in games where he seems to be locked in. When he seems uninterested, his body language says it loudly and his team suffers, both from the lack of leadership and from the poor attitude. James has looked very passive in their losses and needs to understand that some nights it is alright to remind the world of who the best player in the league is. James will be fine and will have another phenomenal year. However, the Cavaliers as a team have a lot of issues to tend to if they have any aspirations of making it out of the Eastern Conference.