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Is it Time to Worry About Cleveland?

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The three-time reigning Eastern Conference Champion Cleveland Cavaliers have had a bumpy start to the season by their lofty standards. They currently sit in third place with a 26-14 record that leaves them 5.5 games behind Kyrie Irving and the Boston Celtics for first place in the conference. History tells us that LeBron James doesn’t necessarily care about securing first place, placing more emphasis on rest and recovery during the 82-game grind of the NBA regular season. Only twice in the last seven seasons has a LeBron James-led team finished in first place in the Eastern Conference. Yet, we all know James has taken his team to the finals in each of those seven seasons.

Despite this, the Cavaliers find themselves in a New Year slump, and questions are beginning to surface on the credibility of their contending status in 2017/18. Losers in 7 of their last 10 games and fresh off a relentless beat down at the hands of the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Cavs defense is in the spotlight.

Cleveland currently holds the NBA’s second worst defense with a defensive rating of 109.0, only heading the lowly 13-27 Sacramento Kings. They also rank in the bottom half of the league for opposition second chance points (12.6) and points in the paint (45.9). Despite this, the offense continues to fire on all cylinders as it has for years, possessing the leagues third-most potent offense. LeBron James, Kevin Love and the recently returning Isaiah Thomas form one of the leagues most potent offensive trios. Combine that with bench versatility of veteran scorers Dwyane Wade and Jeff Green, sharp shooters Kyle Korver and J.R Smith and you can see why the Cavs are capable of blowing any team away on offense.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

When looking at Cleveland’s defensive woes it must be noted that last season they ranked 22nd in the league and their defensive rating was only one point lower, they were hardly a defensive juggernaut by any means. The concerning thing for Cleveland would be the manner in which they are losing. 7 out of their 14 losses have come by double digits and 5 of those were by 15+ points. Combine this with the fact they have conceded over 110 points 19 times out of 40 games, a fraction under half, and you can see why the concern is real.

Interestingly enough, when you look at the quarter by quarter defensive ratings for the Cavaliers, a very obvious outlier appears. Ranked in the bottom five in the league defensively for quarters 1 through 3, the numbers aren’t pretty. BUT, when you look at the fourth quarter, they rank 11th in the league with a rating of 105.4. Yes, the best players are on the floor for the majority of the last quarter but this is also the case in the first. Is it possible it’s just a matter of effort?

Potentially.

In a blockbuster off-season trade, Cleveland acquired Isaiah Thomas from Boston in return for Kyrie Irving. Thomas was fresh off one of the all-time great offensive seasons in Celtic history, averaging 28.9 points per game, entering the MVP discussion. Unfortunately for Cleveland, Thomas was sidelined until the new year due to a serious hip injury, only returning last weekend. IT has suited up in three games so far, still on a minute restriction, but figures to boost an already imposing Cleveland offense. With Thomas set to be sidelined, Derrick Rose was acquired as a stop gap at point guard and predictably, it didn’t go well. Suiting up in only 7 games due to various injuries, Rose was simply disastrous, posting a defensive rating of 118.0. In Rose’s absence, the point guard spot has been manned by 36-year-old Jose Calderon and James, not ideal by any means. Unfortunately for Cleveland, Thomas won’t provide any relief for the defense, at 5’9″, he has never been a defensive star and struggles to be a positive influence on that end of the floor. Not once in his seven full seasons in the NBA has Thomas posted a positive box score defensive plus/minus.

(Joshua Gunter / cleveland.com)

But perhaps the biggest concern of all for Cleveland is the miles on LeBron’s legs this early in the season. At the halfway mark, LeBron ranks third in the league for minutes per game with 37, only trailing Milwaukee duo Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. Never one to miss an opportunity to rest during the regular season, the luxury hasn’t been an option for the short handed Cavs, as LeBron has suited up in all 40 games so far at 33 years old and in his 15th campaign. Over the last six seasons LeBron has averaged 72 games per regular season. To hit that mark he would have to miss 10 of the last 42 games; that’s not happening.

Defensively, LeBron has always been at the very top of the league, when engaged arguably the best across all positions. Right now, James has a defensive rating of 111.0, last year it was 107.1. In his other 13 seasons in the league his worst defensive rating was 103.8 in 2007/08. How much of that is LeBron understanding he is getting older and needs to rest for the playoffs remains to be seen. I’m certainly not stupid enough to write him off, you’d be insane to do so given his recent performances in the playoffs. But the load he is forced to shoulder so early in the season is certainly a concern and with a tough schedule ahead, the grind appears likely to forge into the seasons latter months.

(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The next 20 games loom as critical to the Cavaliers playoff seeding. Those 20 games take them through until the beginning of March, only a month away from the playoffs. It’s an intimidating road ahead on paper.

15 of those games come against teams with winning records. Road trips include Toronto (28-11), San Antonio (28-14), Boston (33-10) and OKC (22-19). Home games in that period include Golden State (33-8), OKC, Houston (28-11), Minnesota (26-16) and San Antonio. It doesn’t get much tougher than that.

Whilst they sit comfortably in third for now, a continued form slump through this stretch could see them fall right back into the pack. I’m not ready to call time on a magnificent run for LeBron and the Cavs, however, defensive woes aside I believe they have too much firepower to drop out of the top three in the East. But the concerns are valid, they are concrete in numbers.

Feel free to sound the minor alarm but don’t go writing the obituaries yet. LeBron and the Cavaliers are still the King’s of the East, it’s up to the other contenders to prove otherwise.

*All stats sourced from nba.com and basketball-reference.com

Are the Cavs in trouble? Comment below why or why not!

Follow Kane Pitman on twitter: @mkebucksaus

 

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About Kane Pitman

Milwaukee Bucks fan from Melbourne, Australia. Long time aspiring writer and blogger on the Bucks and sports in general. General NBA and Bucks Lead contributor. Twitter: @mkebucksaus

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