Despite an Eastern Conference-best 21-9 record, the Cleveland Cavaliers have looked far from a championship team.
Unable to field a healthy roster for much of the first two months, the Cavs can now begin to establish a consistent rotation with the returns of Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert.
With four months to go until the playoffs tip off, and a whopping six until the NBA Finals, Cleveland has plenty of time to clean up the areas that have plagued it thus far.
While few complaints can be made to this point (especially for those who watched from 2011-2014), these are the three biggest issues that the Cavaliers need to address heading into 2016.
Re-Establishing the Deep Ball
While not quite at Golden State's pace, the three-ball was an excellent weapon for the Cavaliers on their run to the Finals. Cleveland finished the year tied for fifth at 36.7 percent while attempting 27.5 a game, good for second overall.
This year, the Cavs have continued to let it fly from downtown, but with little to show.
Despite actually attempting three-pointers at a slightly higher rate than last season (27.7 per game), the Cavaliers have struggled mightily from beyond the arc.
Their team percentage of 35.2 ranks just 14th in the NBA. What's worse is that this doesn't appear to be an accurate reflection of the shooting talent that this group possesses.
A large part of this could be due to the absence of Irving, the team's best three-point shooter (41.5 percent) last season. Irving has taken part in just four games to this point, connecting on a lowly 4-of-16 attempts (25.0 percent).
A healthy Irving should be good to hit at a 40-percent clip, but what other improvements can be made?
For one, the way the Cavs attempt their threes needs to change.
The pull-up three is an excellent way to establish one's dominance in any playground pickup game, as it allows sufficient time to prance back down the court. If talking efficiency, however, it can be an offense-killer.
This season, Cleveland has shot 6.5 pull-up threes per contest, according to NBA.com. That number places the team at 11th in terms of attempts, yet it's converting just 24.1 percent (28th) entering the new calendar year.
Added ball movement, especially now with Irving back, will lead to more catch-and-shoot opportunities, which is an area where the Cavs already find success. They are currently seventh in terms of attempts (20.5) and fifth in efficiency (38.6 percent).
Players such as Kevin Love, Mo Williams, Matthew Dellavedova, J.R. Smith, James Jones and Richard Jefferson can all thrive when used as spot-up shooters, relying on crisp passes from James, Irving and others.
Where Art Thou, Timo?
If someone happens to find a 7'1", 275-pound Russian man wandering around in the wilderness, kindly point him toward Northeast Ohio.
Whatever Timofey Mozgov the Cavaliers acquired in a January trade last season appears to have vanished.
|Mozgov 2014-15 vs. 2015-16|
|2014-15 (With Cavs)||10.6||6.9||1.2||59.0||25.0||18.7|
While he did miss spend six weeks this summer recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery, he's got problems that seem unrelated.
Almost on a nightly basis, a pass or rebound will clank off his gigantic hands out of bounds. Frustration has clearly taken its toll, even affecting Mozgov's effort when in the game.
"I don't know if there was something wrong mentally, but he could have been more engaged," coach David Blatt told Chris Haynes of Cleveland.com following Mozgov's 0-of-5 shooting performance in an 89-83 loss to the Warriors on Christmas Day.
In one of his worst performances in a Cavs uniform during Cleveland's biggest game of the year, Mozgov missed multiple layups and even a dunk.
"I got to finish a little better," Mozgov said, per Haynes. "I've got to go in the gym and work a little bit, so that's all I can say. I have to make those shots."
Those shots were nearly automatic for him last year, as he posted a sparkling 72.6 percent shooting mark from within three feet. This season, that number has dropped all the way down to 65.9 percent.
His lift and lateral movements are noticeably hobbled, a sign illustrated by his dunk numbers.
Mozgov hammered down 91 easy ones in just 46 games last year, or just under two slams per contest. This year, he's finished just 20 dunks in 27 games.
While he was arguably the Cavaliers' fourth-best player last year, Cleveland has now been far better with him on the bench. Despite being their only shot-blocking threat, the Cavs defense actually improves by 8.5 points per 100 possessions when Mozgov sits.
With all of Mozgov's struggles, Blatt recently made the tough decision to demote the center to the bench in favor of the smaller, more athletic Tristan Thompson.
Set to hit unrestricted free agency this summer, Mozgov needs to improve his play if he wants to return to the Cavaliers next season.
Effort and Consistency
For a team so loaded with talent, it's sad to say that effort has been an issue throughout the year.
While it's been tough to establish any sort of consistency with so many players missing time and 10 different starting lineups utilized thus far, there's no excuse for effort to not be there every single night.
This is a team with an NBA-high payroll over $110 million, per hoopshype.com. In total, 11 of the Cavs' 15 players received new contracts this past summer. While money should never dictate any employee's work ethic, there can be absolutely no excuses on the financial end for not playing hard all the time.
That being said, how can one explain a recent blowout road loss to the lowly Portland Trail Blazers?
Cleveland dropped a Dec. 26 contest to a Damian Lillard-less Blazers squad, 105-76, in a game where it was consistently down by 20 to 30 points. There was no raging comeback effort, noticeable pick up in intensity, defense or ball movement at any point. Guys appeared to just be going through the motions, constantly taking ill-advised jumpers and watching Portland get easy baskets out in transition.
This wasn't a loaded Warriors squad like the one it had faced the day before, but rather a team that had lost eight of its last 10 and appears headed toward the lottery.
Golden State simply would not lose a game like this. Nor would the San Antonio Spurs.
James has been critical of the team's enthusiasm at times already this year as well.
"We give a half-ass effort sometimes and expect that we can just make a run at the end. We're not good enough to do that right now," James said in November, per Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com.
With a healthy, complete roster now finally formed, the excuses have to stop.
The Cavaliers don't need to play perfect basketball, and they won't.
They do, however, have to learn championship habits now if they truly want to contend for a title in June.
Effort and consistency are two of these habits. Blatt has the luxury replacing complacent players with reliable backups.
Even with a conference-best record, the Cavs are still far from where they need to be. Giving a better effort all the time will certainly help them get there.
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