The Cleveland Cavaliers (3-12, 13th in the East) travel to Atlanta where they will try to say farewell to a trying and disappointing opening month by trying to upset the soaring Hawks (9-4, 4th in the East). The combination of injuries and a brutal schedule, spent mostly on the road, have left the Cavaliers looking weary and sporting an uglier than expected schedule.
Don’t get me wrong, none of us expected the Cavaliers to be good this year. But most of us expected better than 3-12 at this point. Who are the teams worse than Cleveland so far? The Toronto Raptors are half a game back at 3-13 and Washington is a game behind the Cavaliers at 1-12. That’s it. Only two teams in the NBA are off to a worse start than Cleveland.
Remember, all of this is happening with an insane All-Star caliber campaign from Anderson Varejao. Perhaps that’s the worst part of all of this. Varejao’s prime seasons of excellence are being spent on nothing. But that’s what happens when your young superstar PG gets hurt and the team plays a demanding schedule. This isn’t what anyone expected, but it’s what we have to deal with.
As the story has been for the Cavaliers over the last couple years, the story this year will remain focused on two things: player development and draft lottery status. That’s not to say the Cavaliers should and will tank again this year. It’s just that the reality is, even when Kyrie was healthy, the Cavaliers were losing basketball games. This is not a good basketball team.
The Atlanta Hawks are a good basketball team. Former Cavalier GM Danny Ferry stepped into a tough job and immediately did what nobody thought possible, he found someone to take Joe Johnson off his hands. And the Hawks are really no better or worse off for it. They continue to hang around just outside the fringe of contention.
But make no mistake, the Hawks are indeed a good basketball team. Al Horford is having a monster season, new guard Lou Williams (signed as a free agent in the offseason) is following up last season’s stellar performance with another great season, Kyle Korver has continued to be the same old dependable scorer off the bench, Jeff Teague is continuing to get better and better every season, and Josh Smith is Josh Smith. The Hawks are playing this well, and Devin Harris has been dinged up with injuries while having the worst season of his career by a mile.
I think when Danny Ferry made all the moves he did in this offseason, some people thought the Hawks were content to backslide out of the playoffs and pickup some lottery picks en route to rebuilding. But the Hawks have just continued on their way and are playing some really good basketball.
For the Hawks, it’s all about defense. While the Hawks are 22nd in offensive efficiency and 20th in points per game, they are 4th in points allowed per game (92.0) and first overall in the NBA in defensive efficiency, giving up just 98.5 points per 100 possessions. The Hawks are holding teams to a mere 42.5% shooting from the field.
If you want to compare the Cavaliers’ defense (and trust me, you don’t), Cleveland is allowing 100.2 points per game (23rd in the NBA), are 27th in defensive efficiency at 107.9 points per 100 possessions, and are letting teams shoot a league high 48.9% from the field from them (and it somehow feels like a miracle that number is even that low).
Look, I know you guys don’t always like to read a bunch of gloom about the Cavaliers, and I get it. I don’t like thinking about this stuff in the first month of the season. But injuries or not, tough schedule or not, the Cavaliers are playing a lousy brand of basketball on both ends right now. Having opportunities to beat Miami and Memphis were fun, but they look like the outliers if you look at the last few weeks of basketball.
The schedule in December gets a little bit better, with an 8 games at home and on the road, but it’s not until February when the schedule tips back in their favor a bit. Kyrie is still likely weeks away from returning. Daniel Gibson is still out. So yeah, this game is going to be tough and life isn’t getting easier any time soon for the team.
But that’s ok. This is all a learning process and there is experience to be gained in going through times like these. The Cavaliers just have to keep focusing on moving forward and coming out of this with a better appreciation for what it takes to win and how much easier it is to lose than it is to win.
In this game specifically, the Varejao-Horford matchup will be awesome to watch. In fact, this could be an All-Star showcase to decide which one makes the All-Star game. Ok, ok, maybe it’s a little early in the season for that kind of impact. But after watching Varejao eat the Memphis frontcourt alive, I’m curious to see how he handles Horford’s nightmare balance of strength and athleticism. This is a true heavyweight bout.
The Cavalier’s porous defense should be a decent enough match for Atlanta’s mediocre at best offense. The real issue will come down to whether the Cavaliers can get their offense to execute enough to stay in this game with the Hawks. Against the Suns on Tuesday, the Cavaliers got away from any motion in their offense whatsoever. They need to get back in their offensive groove in this game. Hopefully the Phoenix fiasco was just a matter of fatigue from playing 4 games in 5 nights and not about the team reverting to some bad habits developed last season. This game should be a good test of where the Cavaliers currently stand mentally.