Cleveland Cavaliers: 5 Goals for the Season's 2nd-Half Stretch
The 2017-18 season is just starting to get juicy for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas is back, looking to recapture the magic he brought to an underdog Boston Celtics team a year ago. Derrick Rose, the team's fourth-leading scorer at 14.3 points a game, could return from an ankle injury in January as well.
It's also a time when the opponent intensity ramps up. The Cavs are 26-14 through the NBA's easiest schedule thus far, with meetings against the Golden State Warriors, Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors all in the next two weeks.
While we've learned nothing really matters with this team until the postseason, this year is different. There's no Kyrie Irving to rely on and no assurance this won't be LeBron James' final season in Cleveland.
There's far more work to be done in the regular season now than perhaps in any since James' first year back.
For the Cavs to best prepare for the playoffs, the following goals must be met.
Jumpstart Jae and JR
The Cavaliers' starting lineup contains LeBron James, the best player in the game, and Kevin Love, a walking 20-and-10 who could make his second straight All-Star team in Cleveland.
Somehow, the starting unit still has a negative on court rating (minus-0.4) and is just 16th in the NBA in scoring at 68.8 points a game. Part of this has been the revolving door at point guard (Derrick Rose, Jose Calderon, Isaiah Thomas), but another major factor has been the poor play of the other two starters, Jae Crowder and J.R. Smith.
Crowder is giving the Cavaliers just 8.4 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.1 assists on 39.1 percent shooting in his 25.8 minutes. Smith chips in with 7.7 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists on 38.1 percent shooting in his near-30 minutes per night. Both are expected to be defensive stoppers, yet the team's defense improves by a combined 12.9 points per 100 possessions when the pair are on the bench.
Cleveland isn't likely to trade or bench either, given its athleticism and two-way potential, both key ingredients to facing the Golden State Warriors.
One key for Smith is early shots for him to get into a rhythm and establish his defensive desire early. If he's not involved in the offense, his effort on the other end noticeably slips.
Smith is averaging just 8.6 shot attempts per 36 minutes, by far the lowest of his career. This, from a man who holds the NBA record with 22 three-point attempts in a single game. Cleveland needs to get him some open looks early while sharing the court with James and Love.
For Crowder, perhaps playing with Thomas again will help. The two built chemistry while with the Celtics, and early results as Cavaliers teammates have been positive.
Crowder is scoring 21.6 points on 42.9 percent shooting per 100 possessions when sharing the court with Thomas. Without him, these figures drop to 15.7 points on 38.9 percent shooting, per NBA.com.
The two will be key pieces to beating Golden State and need to start contributing more.
Upgrade Roster Without Using Nets' Pick
The Cavs have been an active part of NBA trade season for the past three years. February should be no different.
With the Thunder climbing back to the fifth seed in the Western Conference, however, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski says the team is "fully committed to playing out the season" with George.
If George is to stay in OKC, that leaves little star power left on the potential trading block. Instead, Cleveland may have to settle for small upgrades while keeping both an eye on Golden State this year and the roster in general for the future.
The Cavaliers' best trade asset remains the Brooklyn Nets' first-round pick, likely to fall in the top 10 overall. If George is off the table, there's no free agent-to-be that Cleveland should sacrifice the pick for. No one.
If Cleveland wants to convince James to re-sign on a max deal, they'll have to do a better job of reshaping the future of the roster. With the news young Los Angeles Lakers' big men Larry Nance Jr. and Julius Randle are available (per Wojnarowski), adding either would be a nice start.
Anyone who can play defense and hit a three-pointer is worth a look in today's NBA as well. The Cavs need to get this roster as Warriors-ready as possible using every non-Nets pick available to do so.
Reduce LeBron's Workload
James, despite popular belief, isn't aging in reverse despite putting up another statistically dominant season.
He's registering 27.2 points, 8.2 rebounds and a career-high 9.0 assists, a product of playing the first half of the season without a regular point guard.
While these numbers are great, the one stat that should stand out perhaps even more are his minutes.
James remains among the league leaders at age 33, playing nearly 37 minutes a night. This isn't just the third-highest mark of any NBA player, but it makes James the only player 33 or older to rank in the top 40 in court time this season. Among players in their 15th season or later, only Kobe Bryant and Karl Malone have been used more, per Basketball-Reference.com.
It's hard to believe James would want to return to a team that relies on him quite this much, especially at this stage of his career. Cleveland has to prove it can lower his workload and still be OK.
Enter Isaiah Thomas, who should play a big part in keeping James' minutes down.
When James takes the court without Thomas this season, his usage rate is 31.2 percent, a mark that would rank 15th in the NBA. When he shares the floor with Thomas, LeBron's usage falls to just 18.9 percent, or around 206th overall in the league.
It now falls on head coach Tyronn Lue to let Thomas begin to start taking over some of James' minutes and making things easier on his superstar.
Until recently, the Cavs didn't have a choice but to play James heavy minutes. Now they do.
Fitting Isaiah Thomas in
Speaking of Thomas, it's kind of important that he fits the whole LeBron-running mate role.
Yes, the Cavs have Kevin Love and Dwyane Wade around, but only Thomas can become the second star James needs to take down the Warriors.
In his first three games back (two starts), Thomas is putting up 15.0 points and 3.3 assists in just 19.7 minutes a game. Spread these stats over 36 minutes and it equates to 27.5 points and 6.1 assists, extremely similar numbers to those he put up last season. For someone who just started playing five-on-five for the first time in seven months, that's a good sign.
Thomas isn't Kyrie Irving. He's not as good of a shooter or ball-handler, but he does bring nearly as impressive of an offensive repertoire and should only get better by sharing the court with James.
Thomas has to work out for the Cavaliers to have any chance in the Finals. Irving averaged 23.9 points on 41.5 percent shooting from three in 52 postseason games for Cleveland, not exactly easy shoes to fill.
With Crowder struggling and the Nets pick providing no immediate value, it's on Thomas to justify the trade this season.
It's also an important time for him personally, as he'll hit unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career. A hefty raise from his 2017-18 salary of $6.3 million awaits, but just how much will depend on the next few months.
Start Giving a Damn on Defense
At some point, the Cavaliers have to at least pretend to play defense, right?
One of the more famous statistics when predicting NBA champions is defensive rating, since no team in the last 15 years has ranked outside the top 10 and still won a title. The 2016 Cavs finished exactly 10th. This year's group sits 29th overall with a 109.0 rating, only besting the 13-26 Sacramento Kings.
Any thought that getting trounced 4-1 in last year's Finals would have inspired a better effort this year has sadly been proved wrong, wrote David Zavac of The Athletic:
"One might have hoped the Cavaliers would have been humbled by the Finals result and tried to commit themselves to getting better defensively. They were given an unexpected opportunity to try to improve the roster defensively when Kyrie Irving asked to be moved. Irving was as guilty as anyone for the team's defensive lethargy over the last couple of years, though he did just enough in the 2016 Finals to prove you could win with him. Instead, the Cavs opted to swap Irving for another undersized point guard with defensive deficiencies."
Personnel is certainly an issue, especially with starting Kevin Love at center. Still, with players such as James, Crowder, Smith, Tristan Thompson and Jeff Green, there's no way the Cavaliers should be this bad.
Cleveland finally has enough healthy bodies that Lue should be commanding defensive effort or threaten to cut minutes or even bench players. A switch can only be flipped so far, and going from the league's second-worst defensive squad to one that can stand a chance against Golden State will require a lot of work.
The Cavs still have time to prove they care about stopping teams. Obviously, waiting until June to start trying is too late.