'They Aren't Trying Yet': When Will Cavaliers Address League-Worst Defense?

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterNovember 6, 2017

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 5:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks on during the game against the Atlanta Hawks on November 5, 2017 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images)
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CLEVELAND — When trying to get his team prepared and focused for competition, don't expect any inspirational speeches from Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue.

Not surprisingly, he expects the league's oldest roster to earn its collective $134 million by putting forth sustained effort on both ends for 48 minutes.

So far, it hasn't happened.

"I've been around, it's my 20th season, and it's not a rah-rah thing," Lue said. "These guys are grown men."

The grown men wearing wine and gold are now 4-6 to begin the 2017-18 season, a mere two games from the bottom of the Eastern Conference they've dominated for the past three years.

At the heart of their issues is a defense that ranks dead last (111.7 rating) in the NBA.

"We've got a lot of shooters, we've got a lot of scorers, but ain't nobody going to guard teams that score 33, 32, 37 points every quarter," Channing Frye said. "So, we're going to have to play some defense until we figure it out."

Cleveland doesn't possess the strongest individual defenders in the league, but that's hardly the problem right now. Amid injuries and an ever-changing rotation, until the Cavs show an interest in playing defense, it doesn't matter who they put on the floor.

Internally, the Cavs have three primary units of measurement when it comes to defensive effort: contested shots, transition points and points off turnovers.

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While these early metric results aren't good, they're also not as horrendous as many would think.

The Cavaliers are contesting 57.3 shots per game, a so-so 17th in the NBA. They're 19th overall in transition scoring allowed at 19.1 points a night and give up 17.8 points off turnovers (19th in the league).

These numbers add up to a below-average defense, but they don't scream league-worst. So what gives?

One could blame it on the individual players.

The Cavs' starting unit of Derrick Rose, JR Smith, LeBron James, Jae Crowder and Kevin Love carries a D-rating of 133.5, the worst of any five-man unit that's logged 40 minutes or more together this season.

Love struggled at center out of the gate, and Lue put Tristan Thompson back in the starting lineup after just three games. Now a calf injury to Thompson has him sidelined for the next three to four weeks, meaning more time at the 5 for Love.

Despite his struggles, Love may actually be the third-best defender in the starting five right now. Rose and Smith are getting cooked on a nightly basis, flipping back and forth between not closing out on shooters and closing out too hard, often flying right by a pump-faking opponent.

They're not the only ones.

Dwyane Wade saw just 14 minutes in a 130-122 win over the Washington Wizards on Nov. 3, largely due to his inability to guard John Wall or Bradley Beal.

"The way those guys move and the pace they play at, I just thought it was fair if D-Wade just tried to play against the guys that came off the bench," Lue said.

Crowder has struggled to defend the perimeter, while James has shown an overall lack of interest. He's been slow to close out on shooters...

...and watches others get to the rim with ease.

All of these sloppy individual performances are compounded by the fact this is a team with eight new players still getting used to one another. In 10 games, Cleveland has rolled out six different starting lineups.

"It's just communication." forward Jeff Green told Bleacher Report. "We switch a lot. We have a lot of guys guarding multiple positions. It's just communication and being on the same page at the end of the day."

Poor communication has led to numerous confusion in matchups. A perfect example can be found here as Jae Crowder attempts to cover three different Hawks before closing out too hard on the shooter, Taurean Prince. The effort is noble but could be avoided if everyone was in his proper place.

Cleveland is getting killed behind the three-point line as well.

It ranks dead last in the league in three-pointers allowed (13.4) and success rate (41.7 percent). If sustained, both would fall as the worst marks in NBA history.

These pitfalls have a common theme: effort.

"It's simple. They aren't mentally checked into the season yet," one NBA scout told Bleacher Report. "It's just an effort thing. They aren't trying yet. [Teams] just beat them up and down the court in transition. That's just effort.

"All the pick-and-roll numbers and talk is pointless until the team checks in. It's a long season. LeBron teams do this a lot ... coast into the season."

Lue has to hope this is the case. James has been to seven straight Finals. The Cavs are 36-5 the past three years in the Eastern Conference playoffs. So far, no one has even pushed them to seven games. Motivation is clearly lacking.

"Yeah, so far," James responded when asked if this was the worst job his Cavaliers have done of sustaining effort since he returned in 2014. "You've just got to try and find a way. Guys are in and out, there's different lineups and things of that nature. But the energy and effort from everybody—we don't single anybody out, but everyone has to step up their play for us to be as good as we would like to be."

When the Cavs actually looked interested against the playoff-likely Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks and Washington Wizards, they went 3-0. Against the Orlando Magic, Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets, New Orleans Pelicans, New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland sleepwalked to 1-6.

"Every night we have to respect our opponent. Not just the last six minutes," Lue said. "It's been happening most of the past four years."

This is partially true. In the past, however, it seemed like the team was a little younger, a little more athletic and a little more interested in the regular season. As the schedule pushes toward spring, the Cavaliers will inevitably have to crawl out of hibernation and begin trying again.

Until then, expect more of the same.


Greg Swartz covers the Cleveland Cavaliers for Bleacher Report. Stats provided by NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted. All quotes obtained firsthand.

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