The past two weeks have been, at best, a tornado for Cavaliers fans. It started with the Cavs losing three out of four games, followed by time off where LeBron went down to Miami to workout with Dwayne Wade, which resulted in Stephen A. Smith reporting the king may leave Cleveland. This was made worse by a series of cryptic tweets on LeBron’s twitter account and an unbelievable loss against a heavily-depleted Memphis team. And today Chris Mannix, writing for Yahoo Sports’ The Vertical, suggested that Kyrie Irving and LeBron James have no chemistry as well as that, if the Cavs do not win it all, one of Irving or Kevin Love will be traded.
So why are the Cavs struggling? I’ve narrowed it down to three distinct reasons: a movement away from Kevin Love, overly-relaxed defense, and poor rotations. First, the weakened passing game and how it effects Kevin Love. The stat to know here is that the Cavs are averaging twelve less passes a game over the past ten games than they have throughout the regular season. Additionally, this occurs with only a .4% increase in pass efficiency. The Cavs need to start playing like a team again for them to consistently compete and win games they are supposed to win.
Additionally, over the past three weeks, Kevin Love is averaging 21.6% on three-point shots and 38.5% accuracy on field goals, in general. And while Love’s ability to draw free throws provides him with a respectable 53.9% True Shooting percentage, his net rating over the same span is only good enough for ninth best on the team. It’s not all bad, as Love is in the Cavs’ best four man, two best three man, and best two man lineups over that time span. Consequently, Love’s talent is still positively impacting the games; however, the former UCLA big man’s ability to score has drastically decreased over the past few weeks.
These two aspects are somewhat related. Let’s examine the data below:
Figure 1 Stats via SportVU
So when one examines this chart the trend is difficult to notice, however, it becomes easier once given context. One of the main criticisms levied against David Blatt was that the team was not passing a lot and when it was the passes were ineffective. Consequently, the first month under Ty Lue saw the team make a conscious effort to increase pass efficiency. An easy way of doing this was getting Kevin Love the ball at the elbow. As time has gone on, though, the team has learned to make efficient passes without as much action from the elbow and LeBron has played more point forward. This has directly hurt Kevin Love.
Thus, is Love in the same position he was under David Blatt? No, not really. But, it is trending downwards. Additionally, one area where I’ve constantly clamored for Love to have increased usage is in the post, and while the numbers are not as staggering now the story is the same: Love is a serious threat in the post but is barely utilized here compared to similar players.
If the team can get back to feeding Love at the elbow with LeBron playing a significant amount of point forward, as well as adding Love’s post game as a new wrinkle, than one should expect for the former’s numbers to stabilize. If not, though, Kevin will not be winning many new fans in Cleveland soon.
Now, moving to the second problem, lax defense. This one is pretty simple: the Cavs have not played good defense under Ty Lue. Starting with the positives, though, let’s look at basic analytics. Since he took over, the Cavs have had the eleventh best defense and, over the past three weeks are actually the eighth best.
Nevertheless, the area where the Cavs are struggling is a sign of being overly-relaxed. Since Lue took over, the Cavs are allowing the fifth highest field goal percentage in the painted area. More likely than not this is a result of poor transition defense. The good news for the Cavs, consequently, is that this is an easily solvable problem. All that is needed is greater effort, which given the performance we saw last year in the finals, should not be a problem.
Finally, let’s examine the lineups. Put simply, two of Ty Lue’s five most utilized lineups have a negative net rating. These lineups are Irving-Smith-LeBron-Love-Mozgov and Irving-Smith-LeBron-Thompson-Mozgov. Thus, what solutions does Lue have?
One thing the Cavs absolutely have to try is utilizing one of Shumpert or Dellavedova in important lineups over J.R. Smith. This has nothing to do with J.R.’s talent or performance this season, which has been fantastic, but rather general lineup potency. A lineup of Dellavedova-LeBron-Love-Thompson-Williams has the highest net rating on the team of +53.1; however, that same lineup with Kyrie instead of Mo has only played three minutes together. Why is that? I don’t know, but conventional wisdom would suggest the lineup with Kyrie replacing Mo should work as well.
Secondly, if that lineup is tested and fails, inserting Shumpert into the starting lineup is also an option. When Shumpert plays with Kyrie, LeBron, Love, and Thompson the Cavs are +33.7 per 100 possessions. Essentially, Shumpert plays significantly better with the starters. And while some have reported that he cares less this season, playing him with the starters may actually motivate improved play.
Now that I’ve provided solutions I am going to present the big issue. None of this should be difficult. The first two problems – Kevin Love’s play and defense – are solely effort issues, whereas the third problem seems to be common sense. The solutions are just way too easy. Thus, these dilemmas are reflective of the Cavs’ season: the lack of effort is startling. This is not last season, where a 19-20 start was followed by a 33-3 record (when heathy) to close the season. All year Cleveland has played with inconsistent heart. They need to make a serious recalibration over the next twenty games in order to be ready for the playoffs.