July 24, 2014

The Diff: How the Cavs lost momentum during home losses

The Diff is your weekly WFNY look into the amazing world of sports statistics. For a complete log of articles, click this link. Last week, I wrote about C.J. Miles’ oddly impressive plus-minus data. This week, I’m logging terrible recent runs against the Cavaliers.

The Diff

This Cleveland Cavaliers season has not gone according to plan. That’s the understatement of the year. Heading into this five-game home stand, the team appeared to be turning a corner. With Luol Deng in tow, they were 4-2, including a very solid five-game road swing. But with just one win – against the NBA’s worst team – over the past nine days, the Cavs season has perhaps hit its crescendo. And these losses weren’t just any boring defeat; no, they went down in the most Cleveland way possible.

During each of these four losses, the Cavs showed periods of brilliance – or at the very least, mediocrity. They dominated some first halves and first quarters. They made furious second-half comebacks. They showed some signs of intermittent basketball life. That’s decent. But most significantly, they also were beaten to smithereens in specific crucial stretches of each game. This is not something that happens that normally.

Looking back at these terrible, out-of-the-ordinary negative runs can perhaps lead a trail of clues for what to avoid in the future and what to do next. Was it the offense, largely regressing under Mike Brown? Or was it the defense, constantly ridiculed, yet actually much better overall this season? Were there usual culprits? Any noticeable trends? Let’s dive in and see what happened.

Monday, Jan. 20 vs. Dallas Mavericks (recap)

Final Score: 102-97 Dallas
The run: 38-16 Dallas over 14:30 to end first half

Background: This game is depressing to look back upon. The Cavs were just returning home, it was MLK Day afternoon, and it was a close affair through most of the first quarter. Then, suddenly, boom: The Cavs were down double-digits at the break. They made a valiant effort in the second half, but to no avail.

Key Stat #1: The Cavs shot 5-for-21, including 1-for-9 from three-point range, and had seven turnovers. The fault here begins on the offense. Kyrie Irving and Earl Clark each had four misses. The offense eventually unraveled completely, leading to failures on the other end.

Key Stat #2: Dallas had 15 points off turnovers and five steals. Monta Ellis killed the Cavs in transition, accumulating five assists on easy baskets. After nearly every Cavalier miss, the Mavericks seized easy opportunities.

Key Stat #3: DeJuan Blair was 5-for-5 for 11 points in just 6:20 during this stretch. The big man destroyed Tyler Zeller down low in a variety of ways. He was the big bully for Dallas. Almost everyone else from Dallas chipped in a bit here or there besides that.

To begin, this is perhaps where the halfcourt offensive woes really showed their true colors. The Cavs have been notorious for a while for being lackadaisical defensively when the offense goes awry. This was a perfect example of such. The Cavs bench had only eight points total in this game. The starters led the team back late, but it was too difficult.

Wednesday, Jan. 22 vs. Chicago Bulls (recap)

Final Score: 98-87 Chicago
The run: 20-8 Chicago over 6:40 to start third quarter

Background: This wasn’t a bad first half, actually. After a slow-ish start, five second-quarter Kyrie Irving three-pointers startled back the team. But that perhaps led to bad habits and poor all-around effort again. The Cavs were simply smoked by the three-headed offensive monster of D.J. Augustin, Mike Dunleavy and Taj Gibson.

Key Stat #1: The Bulls were 8-for-9 from the field, as led by five perfect attempts from Gibson. The Cavs had no answers defensively for Chicago’s ball movement, which led to easy mid-range looks. None of Gibson’s makes were inside the paint. Only two of Chicago’s 20 points were in the paint during this run.

Key Stat #2: Despite five offensive rebounds, the Cavs were 2-for-12 shooting. One of the two makes – a C.J. Miles three – was as the result of a second-chance opportunity. But nothing was falling and the ball was flying everywhere.

Key Stat #3: Kyrie Irving was 0-for-3, but all three misses were early-in-the-shot-clock attempts off resets. In order: 11:09 off offensive rebound, 8:42 off offensive rebound, 5:44 off inbound play. All were taken with 20 seconds or more left on the clock.

Most significantly here, the issue was defense. When you give up 20 points that quickly to this bare-bones Chicago roster – without Derrick Rose, Carlos Boozer and Kirk Hinrich – you’re likely going to lose the game. Rotations and close-outs were sorely lacking, leading to one uncontested shot after another.

Sunday, Jan. 26 vs. Phoenix Suns (recap)

Final Score: 99-90 Phoenix
The run: 38-9 Phoenix over 15:30 to start second half

Background: The first half of this game was one of the Cavs’ best all season. They were leading 61-43. Irving was an excellent distributor, the bench was performing quite well and the offense was very good. Then, it all fell apart. There was no movement offensively. And each ensuing Phoenix basket rained boos at The Q.

Key Stat #1: The Cavs were 3-for-25 shooting. They were 1-for-9 in the inner circle. Irving and Varejao were a combined 0-for-11. The team was 2-for-22 in the third quarter alone. Here’s the half-by-half shot chart. The three makes during this run: C.J. Miles difficult running shot, Luol Deng layup on broken play, Earl Clark three as shot clock ends. Yikes.

Key Stat #2: In total, there were nine Cleveland turnovers and nine Cleveland points during this stretch. The Suns versatile backcourt defenders (even Leandro Barbosa) disrupted the Cavs’ primary offensive option, leading to desperate passes and no offensive rhythm. Phoenix converted 15 points off turnovers.

Key Stat #3: Five three-pointers for Phoenix. Kirk’s Film Room broke this game down as well as some of these three-pointers. None were in fastbreak. The Cavs, again, did not rotate or close-out to the known three-point entities in the halfcourt. Channing Frye had the first three such makes in a 90-second stretch early in the third.

This was just dreadful, dreadful offense. Sure, the Suns pressured the Cavs defensively – but it was nothing more than what a high school team faces. Heck, all three makes were lucky breaks, in a sense. The Suns were incredibly more aggressive on both ends.

Tuesday, Jan. 28 vs. New Orleans Pelicans (recap)

Final Score: 100-89 New Orleans
The run: 43-21 New Orleans over 17:20 to end third quarter

Background: The run here was mostly a 16-0 finish to the second quarter and resulted in a complete emptying of the Cavs bench in the fourth. Similar storyline: The game was close, the Cavs were playing with a solid offense. Then, some disruption occurs and chaos leads to bad habits on both ends. There was no answer for Anthony Davis.

Key Stat #1: In this stretch alone, Davis had 17 points, five blocks and four rebounds. He played the entirety. He was 7-for-9 shooting and showcased why his coach Monty Williams believes he’s a worthwhile Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

Key Stat #2: The Cavs were 7-for-30 shooting, only 5-for-17 in the inner circle. The shot chart again is an ugly display. Davis prevented easy looks, leading to misguided mid-range shots. Luol Deng was 0-for-7 as the team relied upon the crafty veteran to create offense – never a great idea.

Key Stat #3: New Orleans had 14 assists against two turnovers, shooting 67% overall from the field. They had 20 points in the paint. Even offensively limited players like Al-Farouq Aminu and Greg Stiemsma got in the fun with some made baskets off nifty halfcourt passing.

The Cavs were forcing shots and nothing was working. If it weren’t for Dion Waiters going 3-for-5 during this stretch, the shooting would have been significantly worse. The play was dreadful on both sides, a disturbing continuation of the collapse fans saw on Sunday and other times previously during the home stand.

The Final Results

It’s quite clear that there is not just one person or incident left to blame for this 2013-14 season from hell. Chris Grant’s summer additions – signing Andrew Bynum, Earl Clark and Jarrett Jack; drafting Anthony Bennett, Sergey Karasev and Carrick Felix – have probably had a net negative effect overall. Mike Brown could end up being the scapegoat for this whole mess. And lots of people, such as the Akron Beacon Journal’s Jason Lloyd, love to put a chunk of the responsibility on the team’s lone All-Star.

But Lloyd emphasized Irving’s defensive flaws. During these four game-changing runs, however, there were only two instances of opposing guards taking control: Dallas’ transition game and Chicago’s hot shooting. Even still, Ellis had just four of his team’s 38 points during their run and Augustin had only five of 20.

Much more so, I’d point out that Irving let down the Cavs offensively as their point guard, distributor and leading scorer. His inconsistency on that end was way more responsible for these collapses. He had a very good second half against Dallas and first half against Phoenix. The rest of his minutes left a lot to be desired in this token area.

Combined, these four terrible stretches included 54 minutes of playing time. In total, opposing teams outscored the Cavs by a whopping 139-54. (Per 48 minutes, that’s 124-48.) That’s right, the Cavs were only scoring one point per minutes. They shot just 17-for-88 (19.3%) with 21 turnovers. Opponents were 53-for-89 (59.6%) with only six turnovers.

That means in the remaining 138 minutes between these four games, the Cavs were actually in charge 309-260. (Per 48 minutes, that’s 107-90.) But in the final three losses – all beside the second half against Dallas – the team made up some ground only because the verdict was well in hand.

To review, the defense did have some major problems. I’d specifically add on to Kirk’s comments on rotations and help-side awareness. There also were issues of lacking interior defense and zero pressure on ballhandlers. Irving was not the top guy of concern, however.

For starters, I think Tristan Thompson and Tyler Zeller deserve way more defensive blame. They didn’t come close to stopping Gibson’s mid-rangers, Frye’s three-pointers or Davis’ dunks. Those dominant stretches destroyed any positive energy. The Cavs sorely lack an inside defensive presence and a guy who can consistently guard stretch 4s.

But again, through these numbers, the offense was much more proportionally worse to NBA averages (one point per minute!). This team has three primary ball-handlers in Irving, Waiters and Jarrett Jack, yet can’t seem to figure out how to effectively space the court. There likely aren’t enough floor-spacers on the roster anyway. But there is very little designed off-ball movement. Deng’s presence alone can’t solve these issues as he’s merely an average offensive player overall. He’s certainly not good at creating.

Looking forward, we saw Anthony Bennett a ton on Tuesday and we should see him way more often. In terms of this team’s offensive future, he provides the biggest upside and most likely couldn’t make this spacing much worse. Anderson Varejao has been an effective catch-and-shoot mid-range guy this season. But he’s a veteran soon-to-be free agent in another lame duck season. Thompson is struggling on both sides. The Earl Clark experiment should end. The Cavs now need to more aggressively test out Bennett’s offensive arsenal as a possible solution to these dreadful issues.

Perhaps that change could result in some more maddeningly inconsistent stretches of play. Bennett has not been good for much of this season. But he needs to get regular playing time despite the score, just like he did in the first half last night. He played 10.5 of the first 17 minutes off the bench, largely preceding New Orleans’ big run. Hopefully Bennett’s presence can assist Irving on offense with another primary option and the Cavs can see more of what the future might hold. The present certainly ain’t pretty.

  • http://www.centsports.com/?opcode=487541 c3j1v62

    The browns and cavs have me absolutely DREADING this upcoming Indians season. And yes I think Cleveland is cursed.

  • mgbode

    they have me looking forward to the Tribe’s season. I mean, how could things possibly get…

    whoops, I almost said it.

  • RGB

    Zip it…

  • Kildawg

    Why not give more minutes and opportunities to Bennett? The Cavs are maddeningly inconsistent enough, why not try to stabilize it with a raw and somewhat inconsistent Bennett? We all know that Earl Clark is consistent at sucking…

  • Chet Manly

    I think it’s time to start seriously discussing blowing this thing up entirely. We’re only a few games out of a top 3 pick in a year it’s actually worth having one. Obviously look into dealing Andy and Deng (not giving him many reasons to stay), but I say go all in and see if there’s a team willing to throw themselves at Kyrie. Some stupid big market team might be willing to mortgage their future for him and as much as I love his offense, his lack of D hurts. I know I’m in the minority, but I can see Dion Waiters being a better overall player in 5 years.