by Anthony Lima
Listen to Anthony weekday mornings 6-10 am on The Ken Carman Show with Anthony Lima
Five games of 82 in the NBA is no kind of legitimate barometer. It’s a sample size so small that you tend to see some weird outliers around the NBA landscape. The Brooklyn Nets are not going to finish above .500, but yet here they are, atop their division at 3-2. Victor Oladipo will not finish the year as a top 10 scorer, yet he’s averaging 26 points per game so far. The world famous halftime act Red Panda probably will shore up her unicycle plate-kicking routine and avoid any international embarrassment the likes of what we saw on opening night.
But is it ever too early to start diagnosing some trend – especially on veteran teams where player identities are pretty well carved out over time? Last year, the Cavs had plenty of issues emerge throughout their 31-loss season, some of them were mended, others were obscured based on the level of their opponent, and others were Golden State-specific. Through the first five games of season, the Cavs have already developed some troubling habits that may be tied into their flawed roster composition. After five games, they are dead last in three-point makes given up – 14 per game. They are also getting outscored by roughly 12 points a night at the three point line. Numbers that likely won’t wash with an analytics-driven front office that championed the three pointer in recent years to adapt to the evolution of league.
Our morning show asked a simple question after the embarrassing loss to the short-handed Nets this week, “Does the 3-2 start concern you?”
Nearly every response on social media was a reflexive, “no.” Many pointing out the absence of Wade, Rose and Isaiah Thomas. Many pointing out that it’s just the first five games. Many pointing out that it’s the regular season and the Cavs are like 6 months from “flipping the switch.” All somehow legitimate points of view, and given the way the Cavs set playoff records in the first three rounds of last year’s postseason, it’s easy to dismiss any and everything that plagues them.
The difference though this year – is that Cavs fans shouldn’t be delusional anymore about the greatness of the Warriors and just how perfect they might have to play to get past them. The Cavs had many issues stylistically against the Warriors that hurt them – but they also struggled with defending the arc and transition defense – the same types of bugaboos that have reared their ugly heads five games. Fans should also know that the Cavs are the oldest team in the league and it’ll be tough to rely on three players who have battled injuries the last few years (Rose, Wade, Thomas).
Against the undermanned Nets – missing their top two playmakers – the Cavs allowed 17 threes. Tyronn Lue said before the game that the Nets live and die with those shots, and yet after the game he sounded like a broken record bemoaning his team’s inability to run them off the line. As constituted, the Cavs will have to get MUCH better at this throughout the season or they’ll stand no chance to win another championship. The Cavs are built much differently this year than they were a season ago.
While J.R. Smith was a welcome addition to the starting lineup just a few games in, there still are major questions about whether they’ll have enough shooting or spacing to compliment LeBron’s genius play. Wade and Rose really won’t be able to make much of a dent in those issues, as neither has ever been able to connect from deep at the levels that are necessary to compete with Golden State. Though both should aid in getting out in transition, something that only LeBron and Pleasantly Surprising Jeff Green have been able to do. (That’s right, I’ve capitalized my new nickname for Jeff Green, because so far, he’s been Pleasantly Surprising, as opposed to what I had expected; “Almost Assuredly Disappointing.” )
One area the Cavs will have to improve is pacing. Last year the Cavs were 14th in the league in possessions per game. This year, through five games, they’re 19th, a full ten possessions behind the BROOKLYN NETS! Think about it logically, 10 possessions is a wide gulf and also highlights why they probably lost to the Nets on Wednesday night. When you’re used to playing a more plodding pace and you’re unable to impose your will on a team, you’re stuck trying to catch up. Also, the Cavs are likely to lose plenty of regular season games they shouldn’t by limiting pace.
The less possessions per game there are, the less possessions where guys like LeBron and Kevin Love can take advantage of their constant mis-matches. Think about Villanova in 1985 beating Georgetown. The Wildcats would want as few possessions as possible because they knew over time, they couldn’t match the Hoyas talent level and that milking the clock in a shorter game was their only chance.
The Cavs aren’t some trainwreck and certainly should still have smooth ride to the Finals. But the hope is that when healthy – if healthy – they will be able to push the pace more and find many more transition points that should be there for the taking. We may not truly know what we have until Isaiah Thomas gets into the lineup but his effort level should help snap some of the other vets out of their malaise and inject some life into the team, something the team and its fans could certainly use.