I was really excited about the moves the Cleveland Cavaliers made at the trade deadline. Ben Wallace, Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West, and Joe Smith—major upgrades, on paper, over Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden, and the cast of thousands we gave up to acquire them.
But the Cavs are just 7-6 in the 13 games since the four have joined the team, and following the disheartening loss to Orlando tonight—getting outscored 31 to 18 in the fourth quarter, scoring just three points in a decisive five and a half minute stretch—I have my doubts about this Cavs team and how they will fare in the postseason.
What happened to this vaunted defense? Among the league leaders in that category last year, the Cavs got torched time and again by Orlando’s ability to spread the floor. The Cavs committed to doubling Dwight Howard, leaving someone open on the perimeter.
The on-the-ball defense was atrocious as well, especially in the second half as Orlando’s guards penetrated the paint and then kicked it out to an open shooter. Completely inexcusable.
I’m tired of hearing our announcers (FRED MCLEOD) make excuses. "Oh, the new players are just learning the system on defense, blah blah blah. I only have a job because Dan Gilbert likes me."
No—Keeping the opposing ballhandler in front of you has nothing to do with a defensive "system." That’s garbage!
It’s about effort and being physical and aggressive and moving your feet! Plus, these guys are professionals. They’ve had almost a month to figure out this “system” and get it done!
The small-ball offense in the fourth quarter was also nonexistent. The opening minutes of the quarter saw LeBron handle the ball exclusively and will his way to the basket. That didn’t happen for the final eight minutes of the quarter though, as the Magic steadily turned a one-point lead into double figures.
The possession that epitomized the Cavs offensive woes came with around 4:30 left, as West dribbled the ball behind the three-point line until only four or five seconds remained on the shot clock. He forced a pass to Sasha Pavlovic, who somehow nailed a deep three, while LeBron stood about 10 feet behind the play the entire time.
That is not an offense. That is not basketball. I don’t know what it is, except the same mess we've had for years without any semblance of plays being run or anything.
Szczerbiak has clearly struggled since the trade, missing countless open shots. He played just six minutes tonight and missed three of four shots. He’s shooting just 32 percent from the field in March, making 24-of-75 shots and two 3-pointers in the past five games.
He has become—dare I say it, Cavs fans?—Larry Hughes, except not nearly as good of a defender.
(Hughes, for the record, is shooting 40 percent from the floor in the 11 games he’s played in Chicago. Just thought I’d mention that.)
OK, so what can the Cavs do to get better? It’s pretty clear that they will finish no higher than the fourth seed in the East, as Cleveland trails Orlando by 6.5 games for third with just 14 games left.
The Cavs are also three games up on fifth place Toronto, and have three games left on their schedule with Detroit, one against New Orleans, another against Orlando, another against surging Philly, plus two games with Chicago and one with New Jersey. (Can’t overestimate those last two since we lost to both of them recently.)
The fourth spot and first round homecourt advantage is no guarantee. The Cavs absolutely have to get better on the defensive end. Remember, the offense sucked last year and we still made it to the Finals. Big Ben has played as advertised, blocking shots and grabbing rebounds, but I’m concerned about his ability to defend quicker and more athletic four’s—like a Rashard Lewis—and without Hughes, Devin Brown is the only perimeter defender who can keep his man in front of him. (LeBron’s almost there, but not quite.)
West is solid as well. He did a nice job guarding St. Joe’s pal Jameer Nelson tonight, although I think even I could hold Nelson below 10 points in an NBA game. But when the Cavs have to go to the bench, the defense is not there. amon Jones (I’ll give him back the ‘J’ with how well he's been shooting, but he’ll never, EVER, earn the ‘D’ in his first name) can’t stop anyone, and who knows how effective Daniel Gibson will be when he returns.
On offense, it’s simple: Either give the ball to LeBron and get the hell out of the way (a strategy perfected by every Cavs player over the past four years), or MOVE AROUND without the ball and try to get yourself open.
It also takes, on average, 12-14 seconds for us to bring the ball up the court and even get some type of play set up, which is fine...if it was high school rules without a shot clock or college with a 35-second shot clock.
But in the NBA, you have GOT to do something with the basketball early in the shot clock. You have to. It’s that simple.
The Pistons come to town Wednesday night. If the Cavs don’t improve their fourth quarter effort from tonight, they’re going to get blown out by Detroit.