August 17, 2014

Blame game: Ranking reasons why the Cavs are where they are

Mike Brown Kyrie IrvingThe Cavaliers are 6-13, not the start that many envisioned for this team with playoff expectations. Why is that? Well, there are several different contributing factors, and not all of them are equal in weight. Here’s a laundry list that I’ve been building for a while in my head, and now I’m ready to unveil it after last night’s blowout loss in Atlanta. Without further ado, we’ll break down the list in descending order.

6. Chris Grant’s team construction

I’ve been very patient with letting Chris Grant’s draft picks develop and his free agent and trade moves play out. However, there are some fundamental things that are certainly worthy of head-scratching or at least discussion. I list these as the main ones.

-The Anthony Bennett selection and where he and Tristan Thompson complement each other long term.
Anthony Bennett isn’t in any type of shape to realistically be playing the small forward position right now. He hasn’t shown the ability to take anyone off the dribble as he did at times in college. He seems content to just chuck up threes and get torched by faster small forwards when he’s playing that slot. Tristan Thompson’s pretty firmly entrenched as a small forward. Was it the best idea to lock yourself in with these two both needing minutes and setting yourself up for a required trade down the road?

-The Dion Waiters selection and how him and Kyrie Irving are supposed to share the ball and get enough shots.

We’ve seen some damning evidence that Irving and Waiters haven’t been able to effectively share the ball and both have solid scoring offensive performances. It seems that each of them thrives most when the other is mediocre or disengaged. I’ve said since Dion came on board last year that it seemed very much like a “I do my thing this possession, you do your thing next possession” type of relationship between these two. Substitute the words “quarter”, “half”, and “game” for “possession” in the previous statement, and you have the reality that the Cavaliers have in their backcourt.

Pardon the Harry Potter reference, but I think the “Neither can live while the other survives” quote I dropped on Twitter last night rings true. If these two can’t figure out how to play together, one of them has to go, and it’s a failure that Grant didn’t anticipate these issues.

-Leaving the small forward position wide open with incumbent Alonzo Gee, square peg Earl Clark, and rookies Bennett and Sergey Karasev who are better suited for other positions.

There’s not much more to say here. Relying on players that aren’t small forwards to play small forward minutes is not a good idea. As a result, most of the Cavaliers’ most effective lineups have three guards instead. Writing in “Hope for LeBron to come back this summer” is not an acceptable response to “Who is your starting small forward?” for the past three years, Chris Grant.

5. Mike Brown’s refusal to call out bad offense and work on it

What do we hear after every loss from Mike Brown? Rarely, even in the face of a bad offensive effort, do we hear about not scoring enough points, getting enough good shots, or moving the ball effectively enough. Instead, Brown will turn a 90-78 loss into a soapbox about how their defense wasn’t good enough. In his mind, the Cavs should’ve won that game 78-76.

When the Cavaliers move the ball on offense, work the ball inside-out through either Bynum, Thompson, or Varejao, and they swing it around the perimeter off dribble penetration, they’re at least an average offensive team. When they don’t, and they have Irving, Jack, or Waiters play 1-on-5 hero ball, they are probably the worst offensive team in the league. With them currently sitting at 28th in offensive rating, 26th in free throws per FGA, and 29th in effective field goal percentage, it’s been much more of the latter. It’s that time where Mike Brown begins to be held accountable for not getting his team to consistently run his sets when they’re proven to work with effort.

4. Constant lineup changes/injuries

The Cavs are only now getting a consistent starting five going with Irving, Miles, Gee, Thompson, and Bynum. It’s no coincidence to me that they’ve played better overall since that lineup has solidified a bit. Still, Miles is playing on a minutes restriction as is Bynum. Dion Waiters, Earl Clark, Anderson Varejao, Sergey Karasev, Matthew Dellavedova have all had starts through the first 19 games with all but Karasev having at least 3 starts.

Even more than that, Brown has failed to settle on a rotation either. He started out playing 10 or 11 guys with Bynum on a heavy minutes restriction, and he’s been shuffling people in and out almost constantly. At some point, he has to decide what he wants this team’s identity to be with both the starting five and the bench and stick with it.

3. Lack of chemistry

To me, the first thing that caused this was the uncertainty of the preseason surrounding Andrew Bynum and to a lesser extent Anthony Bennett. Bynum played in zero preseason games, and in the first 19 games, it has looked as such as conditioning is still a work in progress. Even more than that, however, it’s been the guards (all of them) who have truly struggled to get Bynum the ball in a position where he wants it and can score confidently. All of this takes time, and time is something the Cavs haven’t had much of in regards to getting used to playing with a post presence. His limited minutes and slow ramp-up haven’t helped this one bit.

For Bennett, it doesn’t take any in-depth analysis to know that he’s out of shape. A slow start and a lack of consistent playing time have only compounded this fact, and he’s now a man without a consistent slot in the rotation.

My biggest frustration is when the Cavaliers are getting dismantled. Why not run the offense through Bennett? Why not maximize his minutes in these situations? He’s been an afterthought, and quite frankly, Mike Brown has handled the #1 pick the exact opposite of what I had hoped.  At some point, coaching has to kick and tell Bennett to lay off the threes and work on scoring in the post by driving or working on the mid-range game and in.

You can add my comments about Kyrie and Dion’s apparent incompatibility as to case for this item being so high on the list.

2. Turnovers

It’s not just the volume of turnovers (21st with 306 or about 16 per game) or the frequency (14.7% turnover ratio, 19th in the league), but rather the drastic change from last season that is the most alarming. Last season, they averaged only 14 turnovers per game (good for 7th fewest) and a 13.0% TOV (good for 4th lowest). Gone are bench players like Shaun Livingston, Wayne Ellington, Marreese Speights, and Donald Sloan who almost never turned the ball over. Left in their place are turnover-prone players such as Bennett, Jarrett Jack, and Karasev.

To me, the number of careless turnovers specifically is alarming. I’m talking specifically about mishandled rebounds, lazy passes, lazy picks that are whistled for offensive fouls, and loose dribbling when driving to the hoop. Miscommunication and deflections are going to happen from time to time, but the Cavaliers are paying dearly for it in transition.

1. Kyrie Irving not playing like a star

At the end of the day, when you take out the personnel moves, the lineup changes, the turnovers, the uncertainty of the preseason, and the heavy-road slate to start things, when you strip it all away, it’s on Kyrie Irving above all. His numbers are down, his attitude has left a lot to be desired, and he’s regressed after doing more with less last season.

Statistic 2012-2013 2013-2014
TS% (True Shooting %) 0.553 0.477
EFG% 0.503 0.432
FT% 0.855 0.775
FGA 18.8 19.6
3PT% 0.391 0.300
PTS 23.3 20.7
AST 6.2 6.0
ORtg (points per 100 possessions while on the floor) 108 98
Win Shares 5.3 0.5 (given even distribution with last year’s numbers, would be at 1.2)
PER 21.4 16.2
20-pt games 37 (in 59 games or 63% of games) 7 (in 19 games, or 37% of games)

Kyrie has other offensive options that he needs to lean on when the defensive attention becomes too much. In crunch time, he has to tighten up his handle and avoid dribbling to the point that offensive movement stops dead in its tracks. More than anything, he has to be the type of leader that doesn’t let his team come out with zero effort in SEVERAL games in the course of the first quarter of a season (the Washington home game, last night against Atlanta, at Minnesota, at Boston, and at San Antonio all come to mind off the top of my head).

Do you agree with my rankings? Is there some element that I missed? Let’s hear about it in the comments.

(Photo: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

  • Steve

    #1 is absolutely Irving, then such a huge gap to the rest that I really don’t care how you order everything else.

    “More than anything, he has to be the type of leader that doesn’t let his team come out with zero effort in SEVERAL games”

    Yup. I think we would have been fine absorbing a few losses on nights where Irving’s jumper was off, but he’s got to make up for that elsewhere. He seems to tune out when the game isn’t coming to him.

  • kipsmudilike

    I really wish Karasev would get more playing time.

  • Adam

    This makes me :(

  • Wow

    You nailed this whole list. Irving is hands down #1 and it’s obvious. If he wants to be the star then he needs to play like one. Mike Brown is also a problem. The fact that he didn’t work on offense in training camp was borderline arrogant and foolish. Fans waited very patiently for this team to be built. They were given a pass more than the Indians and Browns. It’s time to show us that team we were promised.

  • hutch058

    Kyrie mopes too much…watch his body language when he starts missing shots, he just looks sad….

  • Marek Włodarczyk

    #1 is Brown’s system – Kyrie play bad because of that

  • Travis Fortney

    Gotta put a lot of the blame on Mike Brown. You’re not giving Kyrie a chance when you put him in there with a starting lineup featuring Alonzo Gee, CJ Miles, and TT. Also, got to blame Brown for starting Karasev, Delly, etc. Pretty much anyone could tell you that these “ideas” are not going to work. In my mind, if you don’t start Waiters you start Jarret Jack, and it’s obvious. Anything else, and you’re just being cute. You drafted Anthony Bennett number one. You’re already playing him at small forward, so he starts over Gee. And that is also obvious. Let the kid develop. Also, this offense seems to be running no plays at all. And the opportunity seems to be there for high pick and rolls, etc. Bynum is a pretty good passer from the post. But yeah, approximately one quarter into this season, I remembered why I despised Mike Brown for all those years. No matter how many games the Cavs win under Brown, anyone who thinks Lebron would leave the beautiful offense Miami has developed to muddle through “ugly, fundamental basketball” with the Cavs is delusional. There is no chance of that happening, ever, even if the Cavs tank this year, manage to miraculously win the lottery again, draft Wiggins, and complete the “Big Three, Eh?”.

  • DirtyWax

    The buck stops with Dan Gilbert.