Writing about basketball teams on a micro game-by-game basis is sometimes a daunting challenge. Not that it’s hard to find things to write about. In the NBA season, there are almost always storylines galore. No, the hard part is deciphering what matters at the 5-game point of the season.
A lot of us get over eager to project early season results in the context of an 82 game season. It’s only natural. We don’t know what the future holds. We only know what little evidence we have.
So when the Cleveland Cavaliers have been so wildly inconsistent through 4 games, it makes it even harder to separate fact from fiction. This gets amplified even more when you consider this is an all new coaching staff, there are 4 new players getting meaningful playing time1, and a new focus on defense that these players aren’t used to.
My point here is this, the Cleveland Cavaliers we are judging today are almost certainly not what the Cleveland Cavaliers will be when we look back on this team after the 82nd game of the season. But when we formulate our final verdict on the 2013-14 Cavaliers, these 4 games will be included in there. It’s a small part of a larger story that is being told. We just don’t know how the story ends yet, and in that context, it seems pretty foolish to say anything definitive about this team.
We can’t call Anthony Bennett a bust. We can’t say Kyrie Irving took a step back. We can’t say the Cavaliers are a good defensive team. We can’t say Andrew Bynum is an impact player for this team. We can’t say this is a poor offensive team. We just don’t have enough evidence yet to know any of that.
So as the Cavaliers travel to Milwaukee to face the Bucks on Wednesday night, we may not be able to talk in absolutes about either team. But on the micro level we can observe a game like this for what it is….just another piece of the puzzle.
The Bucks are an interesting team in just how uninteresting they really are. The Bucks had one of the most active offseasons of any team. They traded JJ Redick for a couple 2nd round picks, they acquired Luke Ridnour in the Kevin Martin trade, they traded Luc Mbah a Moute for a couple more 2nd round picks, they signed OJ Mayo, Carlos Delfino, Zaza Pachulia, and Gary Neal in free agency, and then they traded Brandon Jennings to the Pistons for Brandon Knight, Viacheslav Kravtsov, and Khris Middleton.
The Bucks are a team that refuses to tank. Every year they do just enough to remain competitive enough to be fighting for one of the last playoff spots in the East. It doesn’t always work2, but they’ve won 34 or more games in 4 of the last 5 seasons. In some ways it’s commendable that they are trying to win every year and not partaking in the embarrassing tank-a-thon that the Cavaliers and so many other teams in the NBA have been embracing. But on the other hand, it’s fundamentally stupid. If you want to win in the NBA, you either need to be a free agent destination spot, or you need to be a team willing to get really bad and draft really well. The Bucks are neither of those things.
This game should be a good road challenge for the Cavaliers. It’s a winnable game, sure, but it won’t be easy and the Cavaliers will have to work on putting together a full 4-quarter effort in order to win. It’s exactly the kind of challenge these young Cavaliers need this early in the season, especially coming off Monday’s near collapse.
It’s hard to know what to make of this year’s Bucks team, especially this early when they too are a team with many new pieces that need to get acclimated with one another. The Bucks will come into this game well rested, having not played since Saturday. They also come into this game extremely banged up. Carlos Delfino is still out after having surgery on his foot, and Brandon Knight, Luke Ridnour, and Ekpe Udoh are all doubtful for this game.
One of the keys for the Cavaliers in this one will be to cut down on the costly turnovers. The Bucks are pretty good at converting turnovers into points, and the Cavaliers give up almost 20 points per game off turnovers. The turnovers are a big part of why the Cavaliers nearly gave up the win on Monday, and they really need to show better focus in making simple passes.
The most intriguing matchup in this game will be the 2nd units. Both of these teams, while not having a lot of top end talent, feature very deep benches with NBA-worthy talent. The Bucks come into this game 2nd in the NBA in bench scoring at 55 points per game. The Cavaliers are 10th at 35.3 points per game. The Cavaliers give up the 5th fewest bench points, the Bucks give up the 6th fewest. The Bucks have used 3 different starting lineups in their 3 games, so their bench is pretty interchangeable and fluid, but no matter who is coming off the bench for them, they are getting quality production.
Regardless of who is starting or coming off the bench, the Bucks have been getting great play from Zaza Pachulia and John Henson. OJ Mayo, Gary Neal, and Ersan Ilyasova have been solid, and rookie Nate Wolters has been impressive early on in this season.
For the Cavaliers, the matchup I’ll be watching is the backcourt battles. Wolters and Neal are expected to start for Milwaukee. Kyrie has traditionally had huge games against the Bucks. A lot of that was against Brandon Jennings, who is no longer there, but this still is a team Kyrie might be able to get his season really going. As impressive as Wolters has been, he’s a rookie playing his 4th NBA game. This is a matchup Kyrie should be able to dominate.
And for Dion Waiters, there will be opportunities for him to be aggressive getting into the lane. Gary Neal is not exactly known for his defense. And even if the talk of his poor defense is a little overstated, this is still a good matchup for Dion on paper. If the Cavs can test the Milwaukee interior defense and do so without turning the ball over, the backcourt can control their matchups and steady the offensive attack a bit.
But really, in an early season NBA game like this, anything can happen. What’s most important for the Cavaliers is that they continue to get better. That Andrew Bynum can continue to increase his minutes without having any setbacks. That they get closer to playing tough defense all 4 quarters. That Kyrie and Dion continue to search for some kind of on-court chemistry. And, hopefully, that Anthony Bennett can make his first career NBA basket.
Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE