Things aren't going well in Cleveland. The Cavaliers are reportedly shopping Dion Waiters, per ESPN's Chris Broussard, after an altercation at a players meeting with Tristan Thompson. The team is 4-11 under new head coach Mike Brown, and 2013 No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett is off to a slow start.
Narrowing down their poor play to any particular problem is always a faulty point of origin. Any team well under .500 is hampered by multiple issues, whether it's cohesion, strategy or effort. In Cleveland, it's a little bit of everything.
The first reflex with any struggling team is to point the finger at the coach. Brown was brought in to teach defense to a young team with multiple offensive pieces, and there has certainly been some progress on that front. Anderson Varejao has always been a solid defender, and Thompson is rapidly improving. In terms of future outlook, the Cavs defense is on the right track.
The offense, unfortunately, is heading in the other direction. Certainly the locker room tension is undermining the on-court chemistry, as Waiters accused Thompson and Kyrie Irving of playing "buddy ball," according to Broussard. But Brown has never been tagged as an offensive mastermind either.
During his first tenure in Cleveland, his offense amounted to very little more than handing the ball to LeBron James for an isolation or high screen-and-roll. This worked to a point, as LeBron is dominant enough on the ball as a scorer and creative enough as a passer to keep things moving. But this time around with Irving at the helm, it isn't working.
There's no doubt that Irving is a wonderful one-on-one player; it's just that isolation has an expiration date in terms of its effectiveness and should only be sprinkled in on occasion. Same goes with the pick-and-roll: Varying the type, location and pre-movement before any pick-and-roll helps to keep defenses off balance.
Many teams resort to isolation with their best player in end-of-shot-clock situations. The team needs a shot attempt quickly, after all, and an iso is a band-aid solution. But too often in Cleveland, Irving is presented with situations like these:
With 15 seconds left on the shot clock, Irving is already pulling up for a long, contested two-pointer. This shot, both by location and level of contest, is the worst shot in basketball. But it's more than that: Irving takes the shot with 15 seconds left on the shot clock and without organizing his team into any semblance of a set.
On occasion, teams are forced into late clock isolation. This is fine, especially when a team has cycled through an action completely and not been able to find a quality look.
On this possession, the Cavs run a double stagger for Alonzo Gee into a dribble handoff for Irving.
Cleveland fumbles the ball a bit, and San Antonio defends it well. Eventually, there are under 10 seconds left on the shot clock with the ball in Irving's hands. This is where isolation, though not ideal, is an unavoidable conclusion to the possession.
What isn't helping Irving is the flexibility within the offensive play-calling. Whether it's Brown relaying play calls to Irving or Irving choosing himself, it's impossible to say. Either way, you might recognize this same exact action only two-and-a-half minutes later.
This time it leads to an Irving three-pointer, a fine shot. Cleveland isn't punished for its use of the same play only a few possessions later, but the problem is this: The Cavs have burned the use of this play for the time being, as San Antonio will definitely be able to sniff it out if Cleveland gets into it for a third time.
Even though NBA playbooks are large, this eliminates one option the Cavs can use. Not to mention that, in most cases, use of the same play in near-consecutive possessions doesn't work out most of the time.
The most public problem—the Waiters problem—also looms. Back in the early 2000s, the Knicks tried pairing two ball-dominating, undersized 2-guards in Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis. It didn't work, as the two took turns in isolation as opposed to working with one another.
Same with James and Dwyane Wade in the first year of the Big Three: two players used to controlling the ball, unable to find a proper balance and play off each other. Irving and Waiters are nowhere near as talented but suffer from a similar problem.
As much as Irving can sometimes take bad shots and play with his head down, Waiters doesn't help by remaining stationary off-ball. He's not well versed in moving away from the play, whether it's setting screens or cutting backdoor.
This cuts off Irving's options and almost forces him to iso. And when he isos, off-ball players are more likely to be stationary. It's a cyclical problem, and the Cavs can't seem to break out of it.
To be fair, the problem isn't limited to Waiters. It's a Cleveland-wide problem, and even Irving is stationary when Waiters has the ball.
On this play, Irving first dishes the ball to Waiters on a curl. Waiters drives into traffic and misses but manages to get the ball back. He then dribbles out to the right corner and takes a long two with 10 seconds left on the shot clock.
While it's easy to dump the blame on Waiters for this possession, Irving has responsibility here as well. As the point guard, it's his job to corral the troops and get them into a set. Even after Waiters misses, there's still time to run something quick. But Irving backs off and stares at Waiters, who makes a bad decision.
All of this is symptomatic of an offense that runs plays as opposed to a system. In Rick Adelman's offense with the Minnesota Timberwolves, they have a default action to generate movement. In Cleveland, that's not the case. There are individual and scripted plays and an offense that demands creativity from its best player.
When you have a player like LeBron James, this works: He's good enough to make things happen for himself and his teammates, while also not making poor decisions. In Cleveland, Irving isn't quite there yet. Until he is, the Cavs will continue to be plagued by offensive troubles.