Just last Tuesday the Cleveland Cavaliers were up five points, on the road against Eastern Conference favorite Philadelphia with 2:30 left in regulation. They sat at a record of 4-5 at the time, technically in an Eastern Conference playoff spot, albeit only 9 games into the season. They would go on to squander that lead and lose the game 98-97 in the Wells Fargo Center.
Since then they have dropped 4 more games in a row including yesterday’s 124-100 loss to the Miami Heat. They have been out scored in these games by an average score of 117-99. Even more startling, the average score after 3 quarters has been 95.5-73. The final quarters in each game have been 20/20 club garbage time.
So what happened? This team was showing promise not but 9 days ago and looked like they would be more competitive than we (or at least I) originally imagined. Now it seems like the bottom is dropping out. Coach John Beilein went as far as to scrap his starting lineup after halftime yesterday, playing a different rotation to begin the 3rd quarter.
Of course, understanding problems is the first step in solving them. Below I have 5 big reasons I think are tantamount to the Cavaliers’ recent struggles. All statistics referenced either come from basketball-reference.com or NBA’s tracking data and stats.
- The Cavaliers average 7.2 of their shots being blocked per game. Only the Atlanta Hawks are worse at 8 shots blocked.
The league’s best teams at avoiding blocks average about half of this. Two of the last four losses have included double digit blocked shots against. There are 11 Cavaliers that have had a shot blocked during their most recent losing steak, and the only regular to not have been rejected is Larry Nance Jr. I think a lot of this can be attributed to a lack of flow in the offense. In their last four games, the Cavaliers are just one of three teams in the league to assist on less than half of their made baskets. They aren’t moving the ball effectively and are putting up predictable and often difficult shots. The chief culprits in this have been Tristan Thompson, who has gotten blocked 5 times in 3 games and Collin Sexton who has been blocked 6 times in the last 4 games.
Sexton in particular appears to be desperately, and ineffectively trying to create offense- mostly for himself. During this losing streak, the majority of his shots are coming after 3 dribbles or more. His second most popular location to shoot from during this span has been the area inside the paint but outside of the restricted area. This has also been his least efficient shot according to effective field goal percentage (35%). This would dictate he is forcing his way into the paint to take contested shots near, but not at the rim and he is missing a lot of them. Naturally, he is getting blocked on others. When placed in this situation it seems like it would be a perfect time to draw the defense’s attention and then kick out to an open player. Unfortunately, Sexton is still averaging just 2 assists per game this season. His offense hasn’t been the only individual struggle though.
- Cedi Osman hasn’t been good, especially defensively
I wrote in my Cavaliers preview that this was going to be a key year for Osman. The 3rd year forward was headed into a contract year with a full season of starting under his belt at the age of 24. This was the make or break year for the Cavs to commit to this high-potential 2nd round draft choice. They took that pressure away though by signing Osman to a 4-year extension just one game into this season.
Osman has not re-paid the Cavaliers for their faith as of yet.
Opposing teams have feasted on him on the defensive end of the floor. They are shooting 69.2% on field goals within 10 feet of the rim when Osman is the primary defender. This would dictate that size is killing him, especially when he is forced to play the power forward position. Miami power forward Julius Randle scored 30 points in the Cavs’ match-up with the Heat last Thursday in Cleveland. While Osman wasn’t always defending Randle, he was primarily. Osman would also be the main defender against Philly’s Tobias Harris when Harris scored 27 points on just 14 shots this past Sunday and for Duncan Robinson’s 9 for 12 on 3 pointers night that occurred yesterday in Miami.
Meanwhile, Osman’s Offensive Rating for the season is 99, with a rating of 100 being average. So for all his trouble on the defensive end, Osman hasn’t been proficient offensively either. His offensive ratings of 94, 66 and 76 in three of the last four losses are even worse to boot. But he isn’t the lone player to struggle on offense.
- Tristan Thompson has been shut off offensively.
Thompson had been a rather large focal point of the Cavaliers’ offense in their first 9 games. He was effective enough that ESPN’s Zach Lowe wrote about how pleasantly surprised he was with how capable Thompson had been on the floor this year. Thompson didn’t play yesterday for rest reasons and perhaps the break was appropriate as for the season he is averaging 11.6 field goals a night. Over the last 3 losses before yesterday however, he had put up just 6.7 shots per game and was shooting just 45% from the field., compared to 53% for the season. Most notably, he only shot 3 times last Wednesday against the Heat in 23 minutes. Perhaps Beilein was right to keep him off the floor yesterday. I hope this means his minutes will be able to go back up in the coming games as Thompson hadn’t played under 30 minutes in a game before this now 5-game skid. He hasn’t played more than 28 since the streak started.
- Wear and tear is starting to set in already.
Thompson isn’t the only regular Cavalier to miss time lately. Both Kevin Love and Larry Nance missed Monday night’s game against the Knicks in New York and I think the team paid dearly for their absence. Truly, some of the problems I am listing here are inter-connected. A lack of Love and Nance led Osman to more minutes at the power forward position, where Randle was able to take advantage Monday night. Additionally, the Knicks had 19 offensive rebounds in that game, a clear indicator of the lack of effective big men for Cleveland.
The Cavaliers also appeared lost on offense without the ability to run plays through Love, further worsening Sexton’s previously mentioned shot selection problems. They also turned the ball over 19 times to New York’s 7, leading to an assist-turnover ratio of less than 1. Absolutely brutal.
Additionally, the schedule hasn’t done the Cavaliers any favors. This week includes two back-to-backs, including a trip from Dallas to Cleveland with consecutive games on those trip days. This comes at the end of a 3 game road-stand that started with a home game followed by a game in New York also on consecutive nights. This schedule dictates that these current woes could get worse before they get any better. Which is bad, because defense requires effort and…
- The Cavaliers are having trouble guarding anyone
For example, Cleveland has played Miami twice during this losing steak. The Heat have shot 54.4% and 52.6% in those games. The scoring is coming from stars and non-stars alike. In the first Miami game on the 14th rookie guard Kendrick Nunn scored 23 points with 8 assists. Another rookie, Tyler Herro had 16 off the bench. Journeyman center Meyers Leonard was 5 of 6 from the field and 2 of 2 from three.
In the next game in Philly, Tobias Harris killed the Cavs for 27 points on 14 shots leading to a phenomenal True Shooting Percentage of 90.7% (aided by Osman, as I mentioned earlier) . The Sixers shot 54.8% as a team for the game, aided by 11 Ben Simmons assists. Randle then ran wild in the following contest scoring 30 points on 17 shots and a 70.6% field goal percentage. Yesterday, it was the Duncan Robinson show as Miami shot 51.4% from three point land as a team. Probably the best stat to depict how horrible the defensive effort has been during this losing streak though is the 95.5 points per game the Cavaliers have averaged allowing through 3 quarters each game. For comparison, Cleveland has scored 97 or less for full games in 3 of their 5 recent losses.
The Cavaliers will have to clean up at least some of these issues if they want to get back to their winnings ways. This is a season of growth and their is a lot for Beilein and company to work on. To be fair, they are only 1 loss worse than I predicted as this point, but early flashes of competence have turned into the issues we see now.
There isn’t a lot of time to snap out of this. Five more games are to come in the next eight nights, but if Thompson can play effectively coming off of rest and young players like Osman and Sexton can show up in multiple facets, the Cavs have the ability to have wins ahead of them.