The Cleveland Cavaliers may very well make another run to the NBA Finals. Ruling out any LeBron James-led team, especially after seven straight appearances, and especially with flaws to every Eastern Conference contender, would be foolish.
Cleveland is notorious for coasting through the regular season before evaluating its play headed into the postseason, and the team has dealt with injuries throughout this year’s first three months. While the Cavaliers have lost six of their past eight games, they also won 13 straight games earlier this season. They can fix this losing stretch.
They cannot fix their defense, though. It’s broken.
It’s January, and the Cavaliers are allowing the second-most points (109.5) per 100 possessions. The only team worse is the Sacramento Kings, who are currently tied for the 27th-best record in the league.
On Thursday, Cleveland suffered a humiliating thrashing from the Toronto Raptors, allowing four 30-plus quarters in a 133-99 defeat. They allowed the Raptors to hit half their shots while hitting 18 three-pointers, and they allowed it to happen after a long Wednesday film session where Cavaliers head coach Ty Lue hoped to send a message to his team. In their previous two games, the Cavs had allowed 127 points to both the Timberwolves and the Magic.
A LeBron James led team has never lost be 25 points on back to back nights. Ever.
Just how bad was the Cavaliers’ defense vs. Toronto?
It was awful in the halfcourt. Here’s Kevin Love closing out hard on Pascal Siakam, a 15 percent three-point shooter this season. Siakam blows by him and dunks while Tristan Thompson and LeBron James watch:
I see the Cavs defense taking the night off pic.twitter.com/CvFcxwrp7X— gifdsports (@gifdsports) January 12, 2018
It was terrible in the fast break. Here’s Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder both attempting to guard an opponent running to the corner while letting Delon Wright drive for a layup virtually uncontested:
Man... this Cavs’ defense has been atrocious. pic.twitter.com/qSAAzAPoP4— Leading NBA (@LeadingNBA) January 12, 2018
It was hideous on a “transition” opportunity even when they had plenty of time to set up defensively. Here’s three Cavaliers players watching DeMar DeRozan — afraid of the two-for-one, I guess? — while Fred VanVleet runs up for a wide-open three-pointer:
this is just horrific defense by the cavs. THREE players defending ONE person??! pic.twitter.com/ucLfsna6Z8— nbaayy (@nbaayy) January 12, 2018
Congratulations, Cleveland. The Kings would be proud of this.
Cleveland doesn’t have the personnel
In two of the last three seasons, Cleveland has finished with a defense that ranked 20th or worse in points allowed per 100 possessions. The lone exception was its championship year, where the Cavs finished the regular season ranked 10th. That year, Cleveland played bench units that included feisty players like Matthew Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert, Timofey Mozgov, and Richard Jefferson. The Cavs started LeBron James, Kevin Love, and J.R. Smith, two years younger and all three more engaged on an every game basis.
It’s somewhat remarkable that that roster managed to put together a top-10 defensive season, but it’s no surprise that this year’s iteration can’t. Who on this roster is a positive defender? It’s not Kyle Korver or Dwyane Wade or Jeff Green. It’s not Derrick Rose or Jose Calderon. It’s damn sure not Isaiah Thomas.
It’s bad enough that James is deflecting questions with jokes about reporters. He knows exactly what he’s doing here:
I asked LeBron James what it says about the defense that 3 highest-scoring games against of year are in last 3 games: ""That if we put you in the lineup, we'd probably give up even more, because you look like you couldn't guard anybody."— Jerry Sullivan (@ByJerrySullivan) January 12, 2018
It’s hard for James to be both an MVP candidate in his 15th season, and an All-Defensive anchor on a team laden with turnstiles that must be propped up over and over again. James can’t roam the paint as a free safety with impunity while still recovering to his wing shooter assignment in a league that values shooting more than ever. Cleveland wouldn’t dare put him on a bigger man with any real consistency, for fear of wearing him out by the postseason.
Cleveland’s most frequently used five-man unit still allows 108.3 points per 100 possessions. Of the 14 lineups that have played at least 35 minutes, only four allow fewer than 100 points per 100 possessions, but none carries any real trends with it. The only player consistent across all four is Wade, but I assure you Wade is not the secret to making this Cleveland Cavaliers defense tick. These “good defense lineups” are more likely small sample size mirages or offensive juggernauts against outmatched opponents. Either way, they won’t hold up that strongly over time.
The Cavaliers must keep playing Tristan Thompson and, when he returns, Iman Shumpert, even if that ruins the ideal five-out offense for LeBron. There’s also a deeper dive that should happen someday soon about Jae Crowder, who has been an abject disappointment on both ends since coming over from Boston.
Cleveland’s only true option is a trade
Look — I’m not suggesting that the Cavaliers will finish the year as the second-worst defense in the league. Some percentage of their defensive problems are effort, and that pesky save-it-for-April bug will help them bounce back to some degree. It won’t elevate Cleveland from the bottom 10, though. As The Action Network’s Matt Moore points out, Cleveland’s defense already got better this season compared to how it started and then regressed ever so slightly again.
A defense that bad means a repeat of the 2017 finals. It might even mean that they don’t make it there.
Which brings us to Cleveland’s one magic trick: the 2018 first round pick acquired from the Brooklyn Nets, a pick that seems likely to fall within the top 10 but probably not the top five. I believe the Cavaliers should trade it. Here’s why:
- It’s dumb for Cleveland to balance “building for the future” and “winning now” when LeBron James is on your roster. How often does any franchise have the best player in the world on its team? How often does it get three straight trips to the finals and a reasonable chance at one or two more?
- A mid-lottery pick would be nice if James leaves, but it won’t make a huge difference. If James leaves, Cleveland is and should be bad, probably for several seasons.
- Even if James stays, how many years do you have left at this peak? Is a mid-lottery first-rounder really going to change everything for this team? Can you trust that player to be an immediate difference maker, even during a lengthy finals run as a first- or second-year NBA player?
I don’t know what trades are out there. Would Cleveland be interested in Wesley Matthews and Nerlens Noel? Matthews isn’t quite the defender he once was, but he’s hitting 38 percent from three on high volume. He cares, and this team needs someone who will scream at them for missing rotations. Noel is a huge gamble, but he could theoretically fit better than Thompson does. For that Brooklyn lottery pick, it would probably be hard for Dallas to say no.
That’s just one idea, and there are surely others out there. But it must happen. This Cavaliers defense isn’t fixable on its own.