A lousy week for the Cleveland Cavaliers, the first of the season, is cause for concern. Will this team descend to the depths most everyone predicted for them, or can John Beilein, the coaching staff, and the veterans rid the team of the bad habits of the past three games? The first real challenge of Beilein’s NBA coaching career is upon him. The effort is there, but the results haven’t been.
In Philadelphia last Tuesday the Cavs played tough, hanging with the 76ers until being shut down offensively in the last five minutes of the 4th quarter. While one of the better games the team has played, issues affecting them now began creeping into their play during the Sixers’ 4th quarter comeback. Too often, the Cavs are gripping too tightly; while hanging in, they’re a few bad plays from losing confidence and allowing an avalanche to bury them. If they miss a few shots on offense or an assignment on defense, they lose their margin of error.
Collin Sexton, Kevin Love, and Jordan Clarkson drove the offense in Philly. After leading by 5 with 6 minutes left, the Cavs struggled to get good looks against the tough 76er defense. While Beilein’s offense needs movement and passing, in late game situations he should lean more on his bucket getters. Sexton’s quickness frustrated Philly all night. When he wasn’t beating their defense down the floor, he exposed cracks in the half court by getting to the rim. In crunch time, however, when the defense and nerves tightened, the offense lost its flow. In the last two minutes, Beilein should have gone to a Sexton/Love pick and roll. Sexton’s quickness and Love’s ability to either pop and shoot or post up a smaller defender on a switch would have created better shots. On the final possession, a Clarkson/Love pick and roll generated Love’s wide open three that was a touch strong, bouncing off the back of the rim. Get to those pick and rolls earlier.
Sexton’s quickness is elite. More at ease, he’s seeing the floor and taking advantage of defenses much better than a year ago. If opponents give him baseline, he attacks and gets to the paint. If his defender hesitates getting back, Sexton is past him and at the rim. When he’s in control and sure of himself, he’s a joy to watch. Once he gets to the bucket, however, he needs to finish. While the NBA average field goal percentage at the rim is 64.6% (nbadata.com) Sexton only shoots 59% (nba.com) from there.
On defense, Sexton has improved from his rookie year. His defensive rating a year ago, 118.1, has improved a staggering amount, down to 108.6 this year (nba.com). He works harder on that end and has a better feel for schemes while being more in tune with what his man wants to do. Sexton is a worker who plays hard and fights to make himself and his teammates better. Though undersized, he’s long and driven. That alone will allow him to be an average or better defender.
Defensively, he needs to work through picks more aggressively. A problem all of last year, Sexton still goes under too many screens against plus three point shooters. Any space given to good shooters is death. By ducking under the screener, Sexton is giving some of the best shooters in the league wide gaps to get shots off.
A bad loss to the Knicks in Madison Square Garden last night has the team spiraling. Offensively, they’re gummed up. The Cavs spend too much time thinking instead of reacting. Catch and shoots turn into catch and pump fakes, catch and jab steps. Beilein’s system hasn’t taken hold yet. This is causing long scoring droughts. Cleveland’s coaches should preach aggression on offense. The passivity is causing turnovers, shot clock violations, and bad shots.
The week ahead consists of a rematch with the Heat in Miami, a trip to Dallas, and a visit to Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse by Damian Lillard and the Blazers. All playoff worthy teams, the Cavs are in danger of being blown out in each if they continue their struggles. Effort is no longer good enough. While they may have sneaked up on opponents early, teams are ready for a fight from them. The defensive lapses and offensive stagnation must improve or 20 point losses will become the norm. Consistency is the next step.
What’s What Around the League
1. Save the Phoenix Suns, perhaps the biggest surprise early is the Miami Heat. The Heat are using defense (a 101.1 defensive rating, 4th in the league according to NBA.com) and passing (65.5% assist percentage, 2nd in the league according to NBA.com) as guide posts during their 9-3 start. Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo excel at each, both excellent passers who also set the tone defensively. Adebayo ranks second in assists per game at the center position, trailing only Nikola Jokic. A big man who can rebound, bring the ball up the floor, and distribute to his teammates is a luxury few teams have. The rest of the roster just fits. Goran Dragic has accepted his bench role, providing scoring and playmaking. Kendrick Nunn has been the G-League find of the year, giving the offense an unexpected punch. Tyler Herro has impressed, as expected, as a rookie, averaging 13.4 off the bench. Meyers Leonard is shooting 68% from 3. Top to bottom, the entire roster contributes. The Heat aren’t going anywhere.
2. The Philadelphia 76ers will be in the title discussion all year, but unless their offense improves, the chances of them winning the Larry O’Brien trophy are slim. Off to a ho-hum 7-5 start, their 18th ranked offense (106.1 rating) will continue to hold them back if Tobias Harris doesn’t improve. While Joel Embiid is a superstar and MVP candidate, a center can’t control the game in today’s NBA during crunch time. Harris, miscast in the role, is the only option on a team lacking shooting and playmaking threats. Ben Simmons cannot shoot and refuses to do so, making him a liability in crunch time situations. Harris, shooting 24% from 3 so far, must improve for the Sixers offense to function at the end of games. Better cast as a third option, it may be asking too much of Harris, yet Philly has no other choice.
3. Carmelo Anthony has signed with Portland, but will he help? The Blazers have struggled out of the gate at 5-8 and 11th in the West during a year the team expected to build off last year’s Western Conference Finals appearance. Is Anthony the answer? While there’s no doubt he’ll get buckets, Melo has been a disaster defensively for years. A turnstile on that end, his inefficient scoring will not make up for the holes on that end of the floor. A Hall of Famer who deserves a place in the league, Melo hasn’t shown the willingness to adapt his game as he’s aged, however. Offensive possessions where he gets the ball on the right side of the floor, jabs, jabs, jabs, dribbles, dribbles, backs into his man, then takes a fall away jumper won’t help Portland. Melo can be a scoring punch off the bench for 15-20 minutes a game while grabbing a few rebounds, but will be settle for that role?
4. Nikola Jokić may be the best passing big man ever.
5. The flashes suggest he’s a future All-Star, but Caris LeVert cannot stay healthy and it’s becoming likely he never will. Off to a great start and averaging 17, 5, and 4 while shooting 36% from 3 and playing excellent defense, he’s now out 5 or 6 weeks following right thumb surgery, an all too common occurrence with him. LeVert possesses the size and scoring ability to be a star in the league, but until be proves he can stay healthy for more than a month at a time, the Nets cannot count on his production.
6. An early season meltdown in New York is surprising to no one. After the Cavs demolished the Knicks two Sundays ago, both president Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry found it necessary to hold an impromptu press conference to let every know the obvious, that the Knicks are a dumpster fire. A team with minimal talent, the brain trust’s embarrassment of losing Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant to the Nets caused the signing of a slew of power forwards. The franchise’s hopes now rest with rookie R.J. Barrett. The only ones expecting anything out of this roster, the brain trust in New York is flailing, and the problem lies with ownership. James Dolan is a horrible owner and the Knicks will struggle as long as he remains. Fans overlook the main problem with bad organizations because they can do nothing about it. Horrid ownership, like in Cleveland with the Browns, drags franchises down, regardless of who the players, coaches, or GMs are. Something is waiting around every corner, another piece of drama for these stuck in the mud franchises. The pompous billionaires who own them aren’t smart enough to get out of their own way. James Dolan deserves the team and organization he’s built.
7. Skip Hawks’ games at your own peril. Trae Young is must watch, and along with Luka Doncic provides the best night to night show in the league. He proved it again last week in Denver, posting a ridiculous 42 point, 11 assist stat line. While his pull up 35 footers are worthy on their own, his mid-range floaters, slick dribbling, and acute passing mesmerize, drawing the eye to him where ever he is on the court. Write him down as an All-Star lock one month into his sophomore season.
8. If you aren’t on the Ja Morant train, time’s a wasting. Memphis will be a force, and soon.
9. James Harden: 39.5 points, 7.8 assists. Can he keep this up? The answer is yes, and it may get worse for opponents. Harden is only shooting 42% from the field, 33% from 3. Career wise, those numbers are 44% and 36.5%. What’s driving this scoring explosion, you ask? Harden is shooting 15 free throws a game and making 13 of them, jarring to see on paper. Harden’s unique size, quickness, and ball handling skills, along with the hidden advantage of being a lefty, gives him an uncanny ability to get to the line. Defenders aren’t used to guarding lefty’s; no matter how well they prepare, their minds play tricks on them, forgetting for a handful of possessions, at least, that Harden is going left. To average 40 for a season, the free throws are critical. In the years Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50.4 and 44.8, he got to the line 17 and 14 times per game. It’s impossible to score that much without forcing the action and getting to the line. While previously unthinkable, could Harden average 40 for the year?
10. Load management is a way of life, so teams, fans, television execs, and reporters may as well get used to it. Though old timers stomp their feet and pound their fists discussing the controversial topic, the top 15-20 players in the league wield the power in the NBA. If they feel the strategy will keep them healthy for the post season, it will continue. Fans and media have asked for this. As long we’re judging players disproportionately on the number of rings on their fingers at the end of their careers, load management will get worse. By comparing every player to Michael Jordan and hyperbolizing his 6-0 Finals record, those judging the game have decided what’s most important to a player’s legacy. If titles are what you’ve decided define legacies, this is a byproduct of that.