Append all the ordinary caveats, of course: It’s October; they’re without Isaiah Thomas; they’re integrating what seems like a small army of new players; the East is so godawful shitty there’s basically no floor to playoff contention; and so on. Fine. But still. The Cleveland Cavaliers are not just treading water right now. They blow!
Last night, on their home floor, the Cavs did not just lose to the extraordinarily shitty New York Knicks. They got smushed by the Knicks. The Knicks did not even play well. They didn’t even play well for the Knicks. They played like buttered ass, and walloped the Cavs by 19. Frickin’ Tim Hardaway Jr. looked like a dang All-Star.
Perhaps you have an impulse here to note that the Cavaliers were playing their second game in as many nights (having gotten blasted by 22 points by the also quite miserable Pelicans the night before, in New Orleans) against a more well-rested Knicks squad. Okay, great! Now explain why they lost to the abysmal Brooklyn Nets three nights before that. Or why they needed a furious fourth-quarter comeback, at home, to put away the injury-depleted and astoundingly talent-poor Chicago Bulls the day before that. Or how the hell they got their doors blown off by the Orlando Magic nine days ago.
You can’t do it, except by saying that the Cavs stink. Because... they stink. Here is an informal catalog of some of the many reasons they stink.
1) They can’t guard anybody. This isn’t so new. They were a shit defensive team last season, too, and it didn’t impede them from storming to the Finals. But they’ve taken it to a new level so far this season: Through seven games, they have the league’s 27th-highest defensive rating, according to the NBA’s stats site; it’s a truly gut-churning 109.8 that somehow fails to do justice to the horror. Here’s a sadly representative high-leverage possession from last night’s game, when the Cavs were trying to fight their way back against one of the shittiest teams in the entire league, at home:
Now, don’t get me wrong: That’s a cute little off-ball action to run for a 7-foot-3 monster, and I like it. But, the Knicks run it with all the urgency of a wake, and it was at least the second time they ran that action for Kristaps Porzingis, on that side of the floor, in the second half of last night’s game (he missed the first one, over a too-late sprinting closeout by Tristan Thompson). What is Kevin Love doing? What is LeBron doing? What is J.R. Smith doing? What is literally anybody doing?
The Cavs were not going to be exactly a good defensive team this season, under pretty much any plausible circumstances. But the theory, as I understood it, was that adding Jae Crowder would give the Cavs greater versatility at that end of the floor: He could switch a bunch of positions and handle defensive assignments that previously fell to LeBron; this would free LeBron to play the roving, opportunistic, all-court defense that suits him best; and this might have a cascading effect on Cleveland’s overall team defense. Nope. Maybe all of that will happen at some point between now and June, but for now, all Crowder has added to the team is a truly impressive head of hair.
And, again, this is not the idling kind-of-shitty the Cavs have played at for long stretches of the past couple seasons, where it seemed clear they had identified and settled into a level of effort and focus somewhere south of their highest capacities, for the sake of preserving themselves for the spring. When they try to rev up and make a push, like they visibly did in the fourth quarter last night, they couldn’t sustain it for more than a couple minutes at a time before inept defense undid it. At one point, even Clyde Frazier was like, “Damn, why are we only getting easy, wide-open looks?”
2) Oh hey also, their offense isn’t good either. Their middling 15th-ranked 104.3 offensive rating only tells part of the story. A familiar conundrum in the NBA is the team that has to choose between lineups that can shoot but will struggle on defense, or lineups that can defend but can’t shoot. The Cavs have a worse problem, which is that they don’t have any lineups that can defend, period, but they also don’t really have any lineups that can shoot.
They have one or two guys who can shoot, but really no plausible combination of five players that spread the floor enough for LeBron to operate in the half-court (more on this in a second). So when they don’t get stops (they never get stops!) and have to bring the ball up against a set defense, they’re forced to settle into a hideous, gear-grinding shamble, with LeBron directing things as best he can from the top of the key or the wing, the action never really getting anywhere near the paint, and the shot-clock looming as a threat on damn near every possession. Down the stretch last night, their half-court offense devolved all the way to whatever catch-and-shoot looks ancient Kyle Korver could create for himself by running off a couple screens, like the circa-2015 Atlanta Hawks. With LeBron James on the floor.
3) Using Kevin Love at center more has not worked out super great. Superficially, at the counting-stats level, Love is producing basically the exact same season he put up in 2016-17. It’s actually uncanny! Here, check his per-game averages:
- 2016-17: 31.4 minutes, 19.0 points, 11.1 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.4 blocks, 2.0 turnovers, 2.1 personal fouls, .427 FG, .373 3PT, .871 FT
- 2017-18: 29.4 minutes, 19.1 points, 11.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.4 blocks, 2.9 turnovers, 2.1 personal fouls, .426 FG, .359 3PT, .889 FT
Bizarre! He is like a replicant or something!
On the other hand, Love’s defensive rating, which was (a not particularly good) 106.0 last season, has ballooned to 115.8 this season; his net rating has plunged from 7.2 (second-highest on the Cavs in 2016-17) to -11.8 this season. Among five-man lineups that have logged five or more minutes for the Cavs so far this season, four of the worst five, in terms of net rating, feature Love as their center; Cleveland’s second-most often used five-man lineup features Love at center and has a hideous net rating of -21.7 in 27 minutes of action. All of this... it’s bad.
The Cavs basically acknowledged as much last night, against a Knicks team featuring something like 400 vertical feet of lumbering doofus in its frontcourt, and reverted to a starting lineup with Tristan Thompson at center and Love at his familiar power forward position. That lineup posted a respectable 99.4 defensive rating in 13 minutes of action. Encouraging! It also posted an offensive rating of 90.4, against the Knicks. Less encouraging!
4) They are relying on some truly butt players right now, and possibly for the rest of the season. Dwyane Wade looks pretty well dried up, and (admirably) okay with it: He drifts through possessions in perfect blissful disengagement. J.R. Smith has been awful. Korver is like 50 years old now; he can still chuck in some quick-release threes when he can manage to slither loose to take them, but even shitty teams go directly at him at the other end. The Cavs are giving actual consequential minutes to Jeff Green, who I am sorry to say is bad even when he has been around long enough to have settled in, and has not been around long enough to settle in. Cleveland’s guard play is a complete fucking disaster, and yet old-ass José Calderón can’t even get on the court for more than spot duty and/or garbage time. Oh, hey, speaking of guard play:
5) Holy fucking shit, Derrick Rose is so incredibly bad. This may not be totally fair, given that Rose has already missed time to injury, and likely wouldn’t be a very big part of Cleveland’s rotation if Thomas’s hip injury hadn’t pressed him into greater service. But still. The Cavs look like shit right now, and they look especially like shit when Derrick Rose is on the floor (his net rating, so far, is -13.2), and if they are smart they will figure out some way to keep him off of the floor as much as possible for all the rest of time.
Rose’s injuries alone don’t seem quite sufficient to explain how shitty he is now. Watching him try to play pick-and-roll defense is like watching a kid in one of those Chuck-E-Cheese wind booths where fake money flies around and you have to try to grab some out of the air. Look at this shit:
What is that? What is it? This is against the Knicks, man. That’s Jarrett Jack and Enes goddamn Kanter running that pick-and-roll, for chrissakes. Just what in the absolute blue hell is Derrick Rose doing. What is he doing? What is he even trying to do?
Possibly the most alarming thing is that this is not even a particularly bad iteration of Derrick Rose: NBA Defender. Most possessions last night, and in Cleveland’s opening two games before injury sidelined him, and in the preseason, seemed to feature him getting lost in some comically and/or distressingly amateurish way, on the ball or off. It is some kind of deranged performance art. In all seriousness, I think he might have farted out his brain.
But it’s more than that. Rose never was exactly the most sublimely skilled dude, but the stuff he could do, he was able to do at terrifying speed and with terrifying explosiveness. Now that he’s not able to just blow by defenders anymore, it’s more apparent that his handle is alarmingly suspect; at a run he looks like he’s slapping the ball, grandpa-style, and he can’t change direction without losing it. Now that the threat of his dribble-drives isn’t sufficient to collapse five defenders toward the middle of the floor and create mile-wide passing lanes, it’s apparent he has no court vision whatsoever.
He’s a reeeeeeally profoundly shitty NBA player, now. Even if Thomas were healthy, the Cavs would have a problem. They would need to upgrade their backup point guard. That’s how bad Derrick Rose is.
All of this is real, and all of it matters, and goes some distance toward explaining why the Cavs suck right now. But also, and most distressingly:
6) LeBron appears more limited than ever. Yes, yes, I know, he will make me feel stupid about typing that, probably soon. But, whether by a conscious dialing down of his exertion for the purpose of preserving himself, or (as he has indicated) bad conditioning, or an undisclosed injury, or because he’s finally old as hell, LeBron sure seems like he Actually For-Real Can’t do lots of the stuff he used to do. Like, for example, he generally doesn’t seem explosive enough to dart and/or bash his way to the rim against a set half-court defense before the help arrives to cut him off. This means that, when not out and running in transition, he has spent a lot of possessions looking like a really tall Rajon Rondo, directing traffic from a stationary position at the top of the key, against a defense happy to sag back and dare him to short-circuit the possession by cranking up a three-pointer. So far he’s hitting those threes at what would be a career-high .407 clip if it stands up for the whole season, but that only goes so far—and it would have to hold up for a hell of a lot longer than two weeks to get defenses to fear it more than they fear him rumbling downhill toward the hoop.
Now, look, dammit! I am not saying LeBron is washed up now! Do not attempt to own me with screenshots from this blog when the Cavs rampage through the East playoffs and make their fourth straight Finals! I am just saying that right now, LeBron does not appear to have access to that special gear of play that allows him to overcome the shittiness of the players around him, and that this is part of why the Cavs currently sit in 10th place in the conference, behind the freaking Brooklyn Nets. Okay?
Goddammit, he is going to drop 70 on the Wizards on Friday night, to punish me for this.