Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Superstar trio forms to equal parts fear and fanfare (depending on whom you ask), and expectations reach a fevered pitch, only to have said troika stumble somewhat clumsily out of the gate.
Oh, and then everyone loses his or her mind. Can’t forget that.
And so it is that we find ourselves revisiting a familiar trope: Do these Cavs need more talent or simply more time in order to thrive?
Looking at the roster, the former might sound like a ludicrous proposition. LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, Shawn Marion, Anderson Varejao, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters—Cleveland fairly reeks of freakish talent and time-tested mettles.
To be sure, there’s plenty of cachet to Cleveland’s credit, exemplified by its second-ranked offensive efficiency (108.3). On this front, the Cavs have slowly but surely began creeping toward their Platonic ideal. Which, if you’re the rest of the league, is a terrifying proposition indeed.
Seldom are titles won on one side of the floor, however. As such, Cleveland’s 26th-ranked defense (108.3) remains the mud-caked elephant in the room. LeBron is still LeBron, of course. But Irving and Love—for all their offensive gifts—aren’t even in the same dimension as Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
The Cavs’ defensive woes are manifold. But if you’re looking for one stat in particular that encapsulates Cleveland’s struggles, it might be this: Per NBA.com (subscription required), in the team’s first eight games, it was surrendering an apocalyptic 65.4 percent on opponent field goals from zero to five feet from the rim. Dead last in the league.
That might sound like a simple case of bad rim protection. But while Love, Varejao and Thompson haven’t exactly been Dikembe Mutombo in the paint, the issues with the Cavs’ interior are much more complex.
There are several reasons for these major struggles. The Cavaliers don't exactly have many wing stoppers to limit dribble penetration, with both Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters renowned for being poor defenders. LeBron James has slipped a bit on that end, while Shawn Marion isn't what he once was. Looking at the rest of the roster, there's not really a plus wing defender in the bunch. It's no wonder Corey Brewer is reportedly on Cleveland's radar in trade talks.
In the frontcourt, nobody from the Kevin Love, Anderson Varejao and Tristan Thompson trio can really be described as a strong rim protector. Love certainly isn't; his habit of not always challenging shots in order to avoid fouls has come with him from Minnesota.
If the Cavs indeed have designs on improving their overall depth, defense is sure to be the motivating factor. Patt cites the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Corey Brewer—a rangy havoc-wreaker of a player capable of defending up to four positions—as one stopgap possibility. And there are sure to be others bandied about the rumor mill.
The question is whether and to what degree any potential trade might compromise Cleveland’s certifiably cartoonish offense.
Nobody grasps this need for balance better than rookie head coach David Blatt. Widely considered one of the game’s foremost offensive minds, Blatt—whose European grand tour netted him a bevy of championship wares—isn’t exactly turning a blind eye to his team’s mounting transgressions.
"I can honestly tell you I'm a little disappointed in the moments of lethargy that we have on defense," Blatt said following a recent 118-111 win over the New Orleans Pelicans (via ESPN.com’s Dave McMenamin). "And our guys need to understand that if we want to consistently beat great and good teams and very good teams like the one we saw tonight, we cannot afford to sleep for parts of the game or parts of the quarter."
To his credit, Blatt has done everything in his power to walk the talk. His most intriguing gambit: Giving rookie guard Joe Harris—lauded as a three-and-D specialist during his four years at the University of Virginia—more minutes off the bench in lieu of the comparably anemic Waiters.
There’s little doubt the Cavs will remain ear-to-ground in the coming weeks and months, ready to pounce should any defense-bolstering trade arise. The strategic conundrum they’ll be grappling with, however, is anything but simple:
Has their offense been good enough soon enough to warrant a bit of patience at the defensive end, or can Blatt and Co. count on similar offensive incendiaries should a trade for a top-tier stopper actually take place?
For his part, James has taken to stressing an all too familiar sermon: patience.
"Our team, it's a work in progress, and when you have a lot of new players—particularly a lot of new, very talented players—sometimes it's a little harder to put together,” James told USA Today’s Jeff Zillgitt following a brutal loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on November 6. “If you look historically, that's sort of been the case in many of these situations."
These Cleveland Cavaliers will never be the havoc-wreaking defensive force that was the LeBron-era Heat—The Flying Death Machine, to borrow a bit of Twitter parlance. If, however, they can manage to somehow sneak above the league fold while maintaining their already rubber-burning basketball ballistics, contention—particularly in a historically weak Eastern Conference—is anything but out of the question.
That these Cavaliers are destined to see a more scrutinizing eye practically goes without saying. The danger lies in said eye posing ultimatums on what the team needs specifically—be it players or patience or anything else—when really the answer is much more simple:
It doesn't need either. Although it could probably use a little bit of both.