It’s not just that the Cleveland Cavaliers started the season 4-6. It’s that they started the season 4-6 against what should have been one of their easier stretches of schedule. Six of their first 10 games were at home and seven were against teams that (before the season started) weren’t expected to make the playoffs this season.
Now, some of those teams – Indiana, New York and Orlando – look better than expected, but the Cavs have played a part in that with their disinterested defense and not-so-three-happy offense.
Is this just a team on cruise control until the games count? Last season taught us that there’s a big difference between the regular-season Cavs and the postseason Cavs. But at this point last year, Cleveland was 9-2 and on its way to a 23-5 record through Christmas. Cruise control came after the All-Star break.
A string of wins would have the Cavs quickly climbing the Eastern Conference standings. They got Week 4 started right with a win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday. But a four-game road trip begins at 8 p.m. ET in Houston on Thursday, the first game TNT’s double-header.
Pace: 101.1 (15th)
OffRtg: 108.9 (2nd)
DefRtg: 112.4 (30th)
NetRtg: -3.5 (24th)
The Cavs have allowed 4.4 more points per 100 possessions than they did last season. That’s the biggest increase in the league.
Through Wednesday’s games, the league average is *down 2.1 points per 100 possessions from last season. So, relative to the league average, the Cavs are 6.5 points per 100 possessions worse defensively. On average (over the last 10 seasons), the difference between the best defense and the worst defense in the league is 12 points allowed per 100 possessions. So 6.5 is a big deal.
* Typically, league-wide efficiency rises as the season go on. Right now, league-average points scored per 100 possessions is higher than it was at this point last season, which turned out to be the most efficient offensive season of the last 40 years.
And that’s a drop-off from a defense that wasn’t very good in the first place. Cleveland ranked 22nd defensively last season, the lowest rank (on either end of the floor) for any LeBron James team in his 14 full seasons in the league and the lowest *defensive rank for any team that made The Finals in the last 40 years.
* One team in the last 40 years ranked lower than 22nd offensively and made The Finals: The 1998-99 New York Knicks, who ranked 26th in offensive efficiency (and third defensively) in a lockout-shortened season.
Of course, it’s early. The Cavs are just 11 games into an 82-game schedule. Still, the earlier you start building good defensive habits, the better. Where they ranked defensively didn’t matter to last year’s Cavs through the first three rounds of the playoffs, but some of their worst habits were on display as they allowed the Warriors to score 118 points per 100 possessions in The Finals.
Only one below-average defensive team – the 19th-ranked 2000-01 Lakers – has won The Finals in the last 40 years. Unless things change dramatically, this will be the third time the Cavs have been a below-average defensive team in the four seasons since James returned to Cleveland. The exception was 2015-16, when they ranked 10th defensively … and won the franchise’s only championship.
Just 11 games into the season, a team’s improvement or drop-off could be partially a result of the schedule they’ve played. The Cavs have played four games against the league’s top 10 offenses, one more than the average team has. But that hasn’t been the problem, as they’ve had the league’s worst defense against teams that don’t rank in the top 10 offensively, allowing 110.6 points per 100 possessions in those seven games (while no other team has allowed more than 107.5 against the bottom 20).
This early, a team’s improvement or drop-off could also be a result of luck, and that’s where there is some good news. The Cavs’ defensive drop-off has come almost entirely as a result of their opponents’ shooting. They’ve actually improved in regard to defensive rebounding percentage and forcing turnovers (though they still rank in the bottom five in opponent turnover percentage). They’ve held relatively steady in regard to opponent free throw rate.
The big difference has been opponent effective field-goal percentage. Shooting – how well you shoot and how well you defend your opponents’ shots – is the most important thing in basketball. But on defense, you don’t control shooting as much as you do on offense.
Cavs opponents haven’t shot much better in the paint or from mid-range than they did last season. The difference has been from beyond the arc, and given the value of the shots, a drop in 3-point defense is more damaging than a drop in interior defense.
Corner threes have been a particular problem. Cavs’ opponents have shot an incredible 43-for-80 (54 percent) from the corners. And the two corners have been equally damaging, as their opponents have shot 22-for-41 from the left corner and 21-for-39 from the right.
The good news is that those percentages will come down, no matter what the Cavs do. Opponent 3-point percentage in a small sample size is noisy data. But it must be noted that the two teams that currently lead the league in opponent 3-point percentage are the same two teams – Golden State and Boston – that have ranked in the top five each of the last four seasons.
How their opponents shoot from beyond the arc isn’t totally out of the Cavs’ control, as some of those looks from the corners have been too easy.
On this possession from Tuesday, Giannis Antetokounmpo gets the ball on the block after a pick-and-roll, and all five Cleveland defenders are ball-watching, with three open shooters on the perimeter. Antetokounmpo finds Tony Snell for an open, in-rhythm shot in the right corner before James, who was in no-man’s land (not helping, not staying at home on his man) can recover.
- NBA.com/stats Video: Watch the Bucks shoot 3-for-4 from the left corner and 3-for-3 from the right corner in Tuesday’s loss to the Cavs
TWO MORE CAVS NOTES
1. The Cavs have taken 35.1 percent of their shots from 3-point range, down from 39.9 percent last season.
This season, with the league continuing to shot more from beyond the arc, 35.1 percent ranks 12th and the drop from 39.9 percent ranks as the league’s biggest reduction from last season, with 20 of the 30 teams seeing an increase in the percentage of their shots that have come from 3-point range.
Only once in their last 283 games (including playoffs) have the Cavs attempted fewer threes than they did in Tuesday’s win over Milwaukee, when they were 9-for-18 from beyond the arc.
Even with that 50-percent performance, the Cavs have also had the third biggest drop in 3-point percentage (from 38.4 percent to 34.4 percent) from last season. Combine that with the drop in attempts and the Cavs are scoring almost nine fewer points per game from beyond the arc.
Another drop of note: 24 percent of their threes have come from the corners, down from 31 percent last season, when they set an NBA record with 353 corner threes. LeBron James leads the league on assists on corner threes, but has assisted on 1.4 per game, down from 2.2 last season. The drop in corner rate contributes to the drop in 3-point percentage, because the Cavs (like most teams) shoot corner threes better than above-the-break threes.
You can pin the change on some of the Cavs’ new personnel. Over the past three seasons, Jeff Green, Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade have shot a combined 29 percent on threes, which have accounted for just 17 percent of their field goal attempts.
None of them fit the Cavs’ formula for offensive success over the last three years, which was to surround James with as much shooting as possible. In each of the last two seasons, the Cavs had eight players who have shot 35 percent or better on at least 750 career 3-point attempts. This season, they only have *five.
* They gained Jose Calderon, but lost Kyrie Irving, James Jones, Richard Jefferson and Deron Williams.
Through 11 games, the Cavs have shot better and more often from 3-point range with none of the Green-Rose-Wade trio on the floor than they have with one. And they’ve shot better and more often from 3-point range with only one of those three guys on the floor than they have with two or three.
Even with the drops in 3-point attempts and percentage, the Cavs still rank as the league’s No. 2 offense. They’ve scored 2.0 fewer points per 100 possessions than they did last season, but that’s a smaller drop than the league average (2.1).
They’ve made up for the drop in threes (and an increase in turnover percentage) with more shots and better shooting in the restricted area. They’re still below the league average in regard to the percentage of their shots that have come from the restricted area, but have seen a small increase from 30 to 31 percent.
A decrease in perimeter shooting should have an adverse effect on the ability of James to get into the paint and finish, but that hasn’t been the case. He has taken 49 percent of his shots, the highest rate of his career, from the restricted area. In his 15th season, he’s registering career-high marks in both effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage.
It’s a different Cavs offense, and it will evolve as the season goes along. After a slow start, J.R. Smith has shot 8-for-13 from 3-point range over the last three games, Cleveland’s best offensive stretch of the season so far.
But it will be interesting to see how Isaiah Thomas affects the shot chart when he returns from his hip injury and if any of the Green-Rose-Wade trio are on the floor when Cleveland needs to score late in a big game.
2. The Cavs have been outscored by 12.2 points per 100 possessions in the first quarter..
So far this season, you’ve been able to determine early on whether or not the Cavs are engaged. Often, they haven’t been. They’ve lost five first quarters by nine or more points, and only three times have they had a lead at the end of the first.
The Cavs have been much better in the second quarter (plus-6.7 per 100 possessions), with equal improvement on both offense and defense. But while they’ve made some pseudo comebacks, the only team against which they’ve been able to climb out of hole and win a game is the 2-7 Chicago Bulls.
When the Cavs have been tied or ahead at the end of the first quarter, they’re 4-0. When they’ve trailed at the end of the first quarter, they’re 1-6.
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