It would be an understatement to say the Cleveland Cavaliers aren't living up to expectations. It would be an outright lie to say that they're getting better.
Defensively, the team isn't looking right. Offensively, the team has never looked right.
Kyrie Irving still doesn't look like Kyrie Irving. Head coach Mike Brown looks like he should be fired. Dion Waiters doesn't really look like he's coming off illness, does he?
These are just some of the concerns that have plagued the Cavs of late. But the question that everyone wants to ask, that nobody truly knows, is what exactly is wrong with this team right now, and how can the ship be righted toward what seemed like a certain postseason appearance?
Low-Post Presence (Or Lack Thereof)
Cavs GM Chris Grant believes in advanced metrics. That's no secret. Neither is it a secret that the Cavs offense has been atrocious.
The connection? As it stands, the offense has been horrendous, in part, because it's doing exactly what advanced metrics suggest you shouldn't do.
To wit: Shots at the rim and the corners are good; shots from mid-range are bad.
Well, would you look at that big red area closest to the rim! In addition to only making 48.03 percent of their shot attempts within eight feet of the basket, the Cavs are dead last in both field goals made and field-goal percentage in the restricted area, with 158 baskets on 53.2 percent shooting, per NBA.com.
Not surprisingly, the team has taken a league-leading 402 field-goal attempts from mid-range. And while they're making them at an above-average clip of 41 percent, those shots are by no means efficient. What would be efficient, however, is if the Cavs turned those already long mid-range shots into corner three-pointers—of which they've only made 29 so far.
Taken together, you have the formula for a Cavs offense that has shown few, if any, signs of progress. Their offensive efficiency rating—an estimate of points generated per 100 possessions—still ranks 28th in the league at 98.25, besting only the Utah Jazz and Milwaukee Bucks.
Thankfully, the Cavs seem to be partially aware of this particular fault in their offensive makeup, as they've been accelerating Andrew Bynum's return to the regular-season grind. Starting in back-to-back games for the first time this season, Bynum posted arguably his best game with the Cavs against the Spurs, with a season-high 16 points on 8-of-15 shooting, along with six rebounds and a block.
Despite the fact that Bynum has clearly lost a step or two since the 2011-12 season, he still provides the Cavs with a vital low-post scorer. His size, strength and touch around the basket alone are enough to warrant a double-team—something that he's shown he can pass out of.
Should Bynum continue to round into form, that very passing gene from deep in the paint could and should allow those iffy mid-range shots to either become shots in the paint or, better yet, corner threes.
Of course, fully integrating Bynum would only partially alleviate the team's offensive struggles.
Iso Ball (aka Kyrie Ball)
As painful as it is to direct criticism toward the Cavs' 21-year-old All-Star (and believe me, I enjoy writing about it as much as you enjoy reading about it), it's impossible to discuss the team's struggles without circling back to Mr. Kyrie Andrew Irving.
Do me this one favor and just watch the last few minutes of the fourth quarter in the Cavs' loss to the New Orleans Pelicans last Friday night.
With 4:28 left and a 10-point lead after a pair of free throws from Ryan Anderson, this should have been a victory. The Cavs blew open the fourth quarter with a scoring flurry from Jarrett Jack, the Pelicans guards had gone cold and future All-Star Anthony Davis had a quiet night to that point after being stymied early.
Over the next three minutes, that lead would quickly evaporate as part of a 12-2 run by the Pels—a run made possible because no Cavs player outside of Irving took a shot. In fact, the next player to take a shot would be Jack with 14.7 seconds left to go, at which point the Pels were icing the victory from the free-throw line.
All the common criticisms are evident in those three minutes. The overdribbling, the one-on-five drives, the subsequent offensive stagnation as the other four teammates settle into the corners or wings, etc.
In fairness, there are times when the only option available is for Irving to play one-on-five because the offense has stagnated, and not the other way around. It'd be hard for any ball-handler to find open teammates when everyone's scrambling around the baseline, compromising both spacing and passing lanes.
What's an offense in the Cavs' situation to do? Well, if the offense is stalled because of Irving, then it's up to him to develop his pass-first instinct. Currently, Irving only ranks 17th among the league's starting-quality point guards in passes per game at 56.4—just barely above the Phoenix Suns' Eric Bledsoe.
Coach Brown, for his part, must tweak his currently questionable offensive sets to provide Irving with better spacing, either for a drive or an open pass to a teammate. Establishing that aforementioned post presence is one solution. In addition, if players are already in the corners, Brown can have one of the bigs set a back screen along the baseline to draw the defense away while the shooters switch off.
No matter what the coaching staff implements, however, it means nothing if the players can't sustain their competitiveness and execute.
Plain Ol' Effort (Defensive and Otherwise)
As disinterested as the Cavs have appeared at times with Coach Brown, it's hard to engage with someone whose recent commentary sounds like something you'd expect from the Boston Celtics' Gerald Wallace.
"The only positive that we got out of it is we got to see how to play basketball the right way,'' Brown said. "It's night and day between how hard they play on both ends of the floor, offensively how hard they cut, how they share the ball, how quickly the ball moves, how they set screens, how they space the floor, how they attack the rim, how they play for one another -- the same stuff we preach to our guys. Defensively, same thing. You could see the multiple effort they give on every possession. You could see them contesting. You could see them boxing out. You could see the doing the little things that matter for one another to be able to play the game the right way. So that's the one positive that we got out of it.
"We got to see a team do what a team's supposed to do.''
Speaking of effort and defensive intensity: Remember when the Cavs defense appeared promising through the early slate of games? Well, it's since regressed.
And by "regressed," I really mean tumbled off a cliff. Their defensive efficiency rating has fallen from 102.61 to 107.47; from the 11th-ranked defense to the 24th. Adjusted for strength of opponent offense, that already porous 107.47 rating drops to 109.55—as with the Cavs offense, nearly dead last in the league, save for the Washington Wizards.
While there were several plays to be highlighted from the Cavs' lopsided second quarter, during which they were outscored 35-11 by the Spurs, this sequence stands out for the team's lackadaisical approach throughout.
From the lazy inbounds pass, to the lack of defensive lateral movement by anyone not named Matthew Dellavedova, to the passive collective backpedal as Ginobili drew the defense, ending in Waiters completely losing his man for a wide-open jumper—there were truly few, if any, bright spots from that game.
Meanwhile, the Cavs have since dropped six of their last seven games, including losses to two teams they had previously beaten—a 29-point blowout at the Minnesota Timberwolves and an eight-point loss at home to a Wizards team they trounced in overtime just four nights prior.
So, how to address this? In truth, this is the most disheartening issue. The team as a whole lacks a consistent identity, at first on offense and now on defense. The communication and chemistry aren't where they should be. Neither is the leadership.
Still, this is a young squad; their average age of 23.8 years old is tied with the Philadelphia 76ers as the youngest team in the league. Coach Brown has four years to prove himself worthy of a renewal.
But for this season, both the players and Brown need to agree on what kind of team they'll be—how their offense will be run, who'll be playing when in the rotation, who can and will be trusted with the ball and how everyone else will be calibrated around them.
The outside chance of a playoff seed is still there, but for that to become a reality, they need to get busy, beginning with at least a competitive showing against the Miami Heat this Wednesday night.
Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.