10 Goals the Cleveland Cavaliers Must Achieve During 2015-16 Season
While the obvious goal for the Cleveland Cavaliers is to hoist some hardware, there are many smaller steps that have to come first.
By all accounts, Cleveland is off to a strong start. Its 8-3 record as of Nov. 17 was the best in the Eastern Conference, an impressive mark considering that Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert remain sidelined.
The record is sparkling, yet there are plenty of areas to clean up already. This isn't simply a matter of making changes on offense or defense, but also a problem with overall team demeanor that's recently been called into question.
Even in a watered-down East, the Cavaliers can't stand to get too comfortable, waiting around for the playoffs to start. Instead, reaching for these 10 goals now will help them lay the necessary groundwork for a championship run this spring.
Rest Star Players When Necessary
Fans and other members of the paying public may hate this strategy, but head coach David Blatt shouldn't be afraid to use it.
Sitting players like LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving will ultimately hurt the overall record and playoff seeding. It's a good thing that neither of those is what's most important.
James made many a mention last season that he didn't care where his team was seeded, noting that a healthy, rested roster was more important.
Cleveland showed that home-court advantage was far from a necessity, as they swept both the Boston Celtics and Atlanta Hawks on the road in the postseason. They also came away with victories in Chicago and at Golden State. This is a tactic the San Antonio Spurs and Gregg Popovich have used for years, to much success.
While the Cavs' core is far younger, one can't overlook the toll five straight trips to the NBA Finals have taken on James.
During March, the regular season's last full month, the Cavaliers play five sets of back-to-back games, including a sixth that spills into April 1. This is the highest concentration of such games of any point in the year, coming just weeks before postseason play begins.
If it comes down to seeding or rest for the roster, Blatt should definitely choose the latter.
Establish a Reliable Rotation by March
Blatt hasn't and won't be able to establish a rotation for quite some time.
His current starting backcourt of Mo Williams and J.R. Smith could easily both become reserves once Irving and Shumpert return, once again shuffling the deck.
There's also the current monitoring of Timofey Mozgov's minutes. The 7'1" center had knee surgery this summer and has witnessed his playing time reduced to this point.
In all, a whopping eight Cavaliers are averaging 20-plus minutes per night as Blatt tries to figure out the best role for every player.
Blatt needs an established rotation sorted out by the beginning of March.
This will allow plenty of time for the roster to heal and come back strong. It will also be after the February 18 NBA trade deadline, for which the Cavaliers hold two trade exceptions stemming from the offseason shipment of Brendan Haywood and Mike Miller to the Portland Trail Blazers.
While limited in its assets to send out, Cleveland can absorb nearly $13 million in total salary from another team in a combination of deals. This is perhaps the final time to add talent worthy of making the rotation.
By figuring out roles at this time, the Cavaliers will have nearly six weeks to establish chemistry before the start of the playoffs.
Get Kevin Love Away from the 3-Point Line
Heading into the season, James noted that Kevin Love would be the focal point of the offense. Yet we've still seen many of the negative traits that plagued Love a year ago.
Yes, the numbers are better. His 17.2 points and 12.2 rebounds are a big improvement, but they can be attributed to a higher usage rate without Irving around to dominate the ball.
In reality, Love is actually shooting more three-pointers (7.1 from 5.2) from last year while converting at a lower percentage (32.4 from 36.7). His shot attempts from within 10 feet of the basket have also dropped (37.7 percent from 39.4), despite what was supposed to be a better effort this year to get him more touches inside.
While the Cavaliers offense has been remarkably better with Love on the floor (plus-15.4 points per 100 possessions), Cleveland still isn't maximizing its 27-year-old forward's talent.
If not now, with Irving sidelined, then when?
Keep the Ball Moving
Last season, the Cavs led the NBA in isolation points, often relying on James and Irving to bail them out in one-on-one situations. Despite the strong temptation, it's something the Cavaliers have tried to reduce.
"We've got our sets that we want to run, that gets the ball moving and shifts the defense around," Matthew Dellavedova told Bleacher Report. "There's obviously a time and a place where you want to go off mismatches or isolations to get the ball to our main guys in the spots they like when we really need a bucket."
Thus far, the Cavs have done a much better job of being selective with these plays and have instead made a newfound commitment to moving the ball. Last year, Cleveland was 10th in the league with 22.1 assists per game. This season, they're up to fourth with an even 24 per night.
How important is sharing the ball? Of the three teams ahead of them, two (Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs) have won the last pair of titles, while the third (Atlanta Hawks) won 60 games and reached the Eastern Conference Finals last year.
Unselfish play is the staple of many a championship team. Climbing to the top of the assists list would be a tremendous goal for Cleveland.
Play More Aggressively from the Start
When asked why the Cavaliers have been so much better in the second half this season, Kevin Love provided a simple response: "Because our first halves have been so crappy."
For whatever reason, Cleveland has been a slow-starting team. It has averaged just 46.5 points at halftime, compared to 54.6 over the final two quarters.
An aggressive beginning would mean a lot to a team like the Cavaliers, with their plethora of veteran players who seem much better suited to protecting leads rather than attempting to erase them.
Veteran James Jones has already rallied the troops with one halftime speech, and James recently said the team plays with a "half-ass" effort at times, according to Chris Haynes of the Northeast Ohio Media Group.
For a team so loaded with talent, a lack of aggressive play may be its downfall.
Continue Home Dominance
Lately, the Cavaliers haven't just been good at home—they've been elite.
Off to a 5-0 start at Quicken Loans Arena, the Cavs are 22-1 dating back to Jan. 7 of last season. That one loss? A 99-90 defeat to the Boston Celtics in which Cleveland was clearly resting players. Irving sat out the entire game, while James played just 26 minutes.
The last time Cleveland lost at home with a healthy James, Irving and Love? One has to jump back 11 months to Dec. 17, 2014.
That remarkable streak has a lot to do with the passionate fanbase at the Q every game night. The Cavs have a perfect 100 percent attendance rate dating back to the beginning of last year.
Come playoff time, protecting home court is a must. Cleveland had a 2-1 Finals advantage over the Golden State Warriors before letting Game 4 slip away at home. The Cavaliers lost all momentum after the loss, with the Warriors going on to win the final two games.
Imposing their will at home is something the Cavs started many months ago, but they must continue to build an intimidating reputation around the league.
Utilize the Catch-and-Shoot 3
Perhaps no one in the league draws more attention on drives than LeBron, which constantly opens up looks for others on the perimeter. While he no longer possesses the athleticism to blow by defenders, the mere threat of his driving can open up a whole chapter of the offense.
With James, Irving and Love drawing double-teams, the Cavaliers need to use and abuse the catch-and-shoot three-pointer. From Williams and Richard Jefferson to Jones, Smith, Irving and Love, Cleveland is loaded with players who can light it up from deep, thanks to general manager David Griffin.
Yet, Cleveland is just 10th in the NBA with 26.6 catch-and-shoot points per game this season (as a surprise to no one, the Warriors lead the league with 32.4, according to NBA.com).
The Cavs must free James up with plenty of hard screens near the top of the key while spacing three at the line via different lineup combinations. They have three-point shooters at four different positions, not including Mozgov, who's shown the ability to occasionally hit from deep as well.
Death to the long two-pointer.
Become a Top-10 Team in Free-Throw Shooting
The Cavaliers have been downright awful from the charity stripe thus far.
Cleveland entered a Nov. 17 game against the Detroit Pistons shooting 69.4 percent as a team, good for next to last in the NBA. In a 104-99 loss to Detroit, the Cavs missed eight total free throws (12-of-20), furthering their plummet in the rankings.
Though there's no excuse for a team with the personnel to be near the top of the league, this drop can be attributed to two factors.
First of all, good free-throw shooters aren't getting to the line nearly enough. Williams (92.0 percent) is taking just 2.6 freebies a game. Love (85.0 percent) is still spending way too much time on the perimeter, making it to the stripe less than twice a game.
The second problem is with James. For all his otherworldly talents, the four-time MVP has shot a disastrous 60.0 percent from the line at a healthy 8.1 attempt-per-game rate. That figure represents nearly a third of the Cavaliers' entire attempts and is more than twice that of Love, the next closest player.
Led by James, Cleveland has the talent to be a top-10 free-throw-shooting team and needs to take advantage of it.
Pick Up the Pace
Teams that like to run need athletes and a deep bench. The Cavaliers have both, so why not pick up the pace?
Cleveland is 27th in the NBA with an average of 43.8 possessions per 48 minutes (after finishing 25th the year before).
Their average team speed of 4.1 miles per hour ranks 27th and is plagued by an offense that operates at just 4.4 mph, according to NBA.com.
The Cavs rarely post up with Love or any other big men, so why not run? James is a nightmare to stop on the fast break; upon the return of Irving and Shumpert, Cleveland's bench could go 11 deep if needed.
The Cavs have the athletes and talent to run a successful, fast-paced offense. Why not give it a try?
Hold Opponents to Under 43 Percent Shooting
Defense has to be mentioned somewhere here, right?
Cleveland has been pretty good thus far, holding opponents to 95.6 points per game behind a 99.8 defensive rating, good for fourth and eighth in the league, respectively.
What's more important is its opponents' field-goal percentage. It's the only stat the Cavaliers display in their locker room, with every team's rating listed.
Ranked just 10th, Cleveland is allowing a stingy 42.7 percent shooting from the field. While early-season shooting percentages tend to dip as guys struggle to fit into new roles and new teams, the Cavs should stick close to this mark.
Holding an opponent under 43 percent is no easy task. The Warriors were the only team to do so in 2014-15, leading the NBA at 42.8 percent.
Last year at this time, that kind of defending metric would have been impossible given the Cavs' personnel. Now with Mozgov in the middle, Shumpert on the perimeter and James able to guard four different positions, this kind of defense can become a reality.
Cleveland also has strong, nonstop defenders in Thompson, Dellavedova and Anderson Varejao to sprinkle in the rotation.
Keeping opponents under 100 points is nice, but allowing under 43 percent shooting from the field would be a much more impressive feat.