5 Concerns Cavaliers Still Must Address Despite Recent Turnaround
After a 5-7 sleepwalk to begin the season, the Cleveland Cavaliers have now won a franchise-tying record 13 straight games.
This has all been done without the services of All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas as he nears his return from a hip injury. Derrick Rose, Tristan Thompson and Iman Shumpert have missed all and/or part of the streak as well.
Now, 13 straight wins is a commendable feat, no matter the team or who they've beat. That being said, this streak of victories still can't mask all of the little flaws that still need cleaning up.
The Cavs are good. They've been good and will continue to be good as long as LeBron James resides in Northeast Ohio. To truly be a championship contender, however, the following issues will need to be addressed.
Can They Beat Good Competition?
The Cavs have won 13 straight games for a lot of reasons, most having to do with their improved play on both ends of the floor.
Of course, the low level of competition hasn't hurt, either.
Of the 13 teams they've played and beaten, only two (the Detroit Pistons and Philadelphia 76ers) would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. Cleveland has mostly feasted on bottom-feeders, playing the three worst Western Conference teams (Dallas Mavericks, Sacramento Kings, Memphis Grizzlies) and the four worst teams in the East (Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets and Charlotte Hornets).
This isn't to say Cleveland won't or can't knock off a team like the Golden State Warriors now, but rather that the level of competition should be considered before calling it a true title contender.
The last time the Cavaliers played against one of the true powerhouse teams in the NBA was the last time they lost. Cleveland dropped a Nov. 9 duel against the Houston Rockets 117-113 in what was actually one of their best games of the season.
Some would point to the opening-night win over the now 22-4 Boston Celtics as being significant, but the shell shock of losing Gordon Hayward less than six minutes into his initial appearance definitely threw the Celtics off their collective game.
Cleveland's doing everything it's supposed to be doing now by beating on lesser competition. As the schedule gets tougher (see January), we'll have a much better idea of just how good it is.
Can a Derrick Rose/Dwyane Wade Backcourt Work?
Rose is still out with an ankle injury, with no return date set.
It wouldn't be a stretch to say even Thomas could beat him back to the court and grab hold of the starting point guard duties. Rose as a starter until Thomas returns has always been the plan, no matter how well the former MVP was playing.
Rose recently spent two weeks away from the team while pondering his future, although he kept in touch with Cavs general manager Koby Altman. Head coach Tyronn Lue has been purposefully secretive when pressed for details of Rose's return, often deflecting questions to Altman.
Rose returned to the team practice facility Wednesday and asked Lue if he could address the team.
"He didn't have to, but he did," Lue said of Rose's message to the team, via ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin. "He asked me could he talk to the team before we started shootaround and addressed the team. Everyone welcomed him back and is happy he is here, and that's it."
Hopefully Rose can carve out some sort of productive rotation role, but his path to do so will be tough. With Thomas and JR Smith set to start in the Cavaliers backcourt, that leaves Rose and Dwyane Wade to once again share the court in the second unit.
The Cavs began the season with Rose and Wade together as starters. As anyone could have guessed, it went horribly. In the 46 minutes they shared the court together this season, the Rose-Wade lineup is minus-16 and shooting 42.7 percent from the field and just 19.0 percent from deep, per NBA.com.
Wade has essentially become a point guard, running a highly effective second unit that relies on his playmaking. Rose brings a scoring threat, but his inability to pass or space the floor does more harm than good.
Lue could attempt to stagger their minutes and play Thomas and Rose together for stretches, hoping that a Wade-Smith duo would work as well.
Or, he could do the smart thing and keep Rose out of the rotation altogether.
Tristan Thompson vs. Jae Crowder: Who Starts?
OK, let's get this straight.
Jae Crowder spent all training camp preparing to be the team's starting power forward. Thompson was moved to the bench as a backup center to Kevin Love.
This lasted exactly three games as all players involved were struggling with their new roles.
Lue shuffled his cards, sending Crowder and Wade to the bench while Smith and Thompson regained their starting spots. Five games later, Thompson suffered a strained calf, and back into the starting lineup came Crowder.
Everyone caught up?
Now, Thompson is nearing his return. He's back at practice playing 4-on-4 full contact and could join the team later this week, according to ESPN.com's McMenamin.
Lue said, "Not sure how he's going to feel after today when he got done working out, so just trying to get a gauge on how he feels today, if there's any soreness or pain or anything and go from there."
When asked after a Dec. 2 game against the Memphis Grizzlies if Thompson would once again be the starter, Lue simply said, "We'll see."
There are arguments to be made for both sides. Thompson gives the Cavs better size, rebounding and interior defense. While he would protect Love from guarding bigger centers, it may force Cleveland to adjust its defensive strategy.
Having the 6'6" Crowder on the floor lets the Cavs switch on every 1-through-4 pick-and-roll while they use Love to blitz with the 5. Putting Thompson back in means asking Love to switch on the pick-and-roll or else a new scheme will have to take place.
At this point, starting Thompson would make the most sense given Crowder's awful beginning to the season (8.4 points, 2.9 rebounds, 38.9 percent shooting) and the team's 16th-ranked rebounding rate (49.8 percent).
Crowder is still an important part of the team, but he would probably serve better coming off the bench.
Is LeBron Doing Too Much?
Stop if you've heard this one before, but James is logging a lot of minutes on the basketball court.
His 37.1 ticks a night are second in the NBA, a pretty hefty mark for a guy set to turn 33 in just a few weeks. He can play any or all five positions on a given night, and James' usage rate is still top-10 in the league.
In season No. 15, he may be putting up the finest stat line of his illustrious career with 28.0 points, 7.9 rebounds, 8.5 assists and 1.1 blocks per game while shooting 58.4 percent from the field and 41.6 from three.
Getting Thomas back will help ease the burden bestowed upon James, as he won't be the only playmaker in the starting unit any longer.
Despite all of this perceived workload and eye-popping stats, some around him don't think he's even close to giving 100 percent yet.
"Well, everyone was talking like, 'Hey, this is not Playoff LeBron,'" said Channing Frye, who has been James' teammate for two-and-a-half years. "Usually LeBron gives you about 60 percent. He's about 80 percent LeBron and it's looking effortless, so pretty scary.
"This is 80 percent engagement. He's engaged on offense and defense. He's shooting the ball well, he's seeing the game a lot better, he's diverting to his teammates and that's pretty scary.
"Once he starts adjusting, then he starts getting the ball screen-and-roll. You're seeing post-up-passing LeBron, post-up-scoring LeBron, shooting-threes LeBron. There's a lot of different aspects of that. So when I say 80 percent, I just mean that it's engagement every single game."
If this is James at 80 percent, lord help whoever has to guard him when he's pushing 100. While Lue definitely needs to cut his star player's minutes, it's nice to know James is conserving his energy even when playing at an MVP level.
Trade or Not to Trade?
Cleveland will no doubt be in the middle of any and all talks, as it came close to a deal for George this past summer but Indiana Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard nixed it at the last minute, per ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne, McMenamin and Brian Windhorst.
Just how big of a trade will Cleveland need or be willing to make?
The crown jewel of its trade assets is the Brooklyn Nets' 2018 unprotected first-rounder acquired in the Kyrie Irving-Thomas swap. It's not only the first thing that every team will ask for, but it also serves as the Cavaliers' insurance plan should James bolt in free agency this summer.
It remains unlikely that Altman would part with the pick for any player who could leave with James this summer. That includes George, Cousins and Jordan. Of course, those players' teams may not be willing to move their star player if they don't get the Brooklyn pick back in return, either.
Trading the pick for a star would send the message to James that the team is all-in on sacrificing the future in order to help him win now. Of course, there's really no present or future if the pick is traded for an impending free agent who leaves with James next summer.
Over the next few months, Altman needs to decide just how much better this roster needs to be and what he's willing to sacrifice to get it there.