Cleveland Cavaliers Season Recap: Five Negative Things


Last week saw a lengthy look at what was good about the Cavaliers this season. This week, we look at what was bad. Some people think losing in the Finals is a failure, even if it was against a historically great team. Others think the bad habits from the regular season destroyed Cleveland's chances against the Warriors. Still, others think trades need to be made and the team is simply "not that good."

Unfortunately, the reality is somewhere in the middle of these opinions. There's only so much a team can do to beat the Warriors. You might remember - the Warriors won 73 games in the 2015-2016 regular season, blew a 3-1 lead in the Finals, and then added Kevin Durant in an effort to beat the Cavs. It worked.

So now that the Cavs punted on the regular season, proved that "flipping the switch" is real, and lost in five games to one of the best teams in NBA history, it's time to look at the negatives.

Here are five pieces of bad news that we learned during this past NBA season.

1. These guys are old

This is a two-prong issue. First, the Cavaliers' final roster had eight players who were in their 10th season or later. 11 of the 21 total players who recorded minutes for the Cavs were 31 years old or older. It's hard to keep up with a team that's known for speed and pace when you've got that many old legs on the roster.

Maybe don't watch this if you're a Cavs fan, but here's the final 2:00 of Game 3, which Cleveland should have won. They just look a little tired.

It would be one thing if these guys were all back-of-the-rotation players or exclusively bench-warmers, but that's not exactly the case either. LeBron James, while still being an unfathomably great basketball player, should not have led the league in minutes played (37.8 minutes per game in his age-32 season, his 14th season). JR Smith is 31 (13th season) and dealt with injuries. Richard Jefferson looked a step or three slow in the Finals. Channing Frye went from 7th man to 11th man in the Finals. Deron Williams showed flashes of his former offensive prowess but it didn't last - he's 32. Kyle Korver is 35 and couldn't keep up defensively when it mattered most. Do you see a trend here?

Second, this shows how the Cavaliers have been bad at developing talent - especially on LeBron's teams. Take a look at Cleveland's draft history (which oddly doesn't include Kay Felder) and tell me whether you think they draft well. Since 2012, the guys who have contributed at an NBA level - Waiters, Crowder, Crabbe, and Wiggins - have done so for other teams. The guys who've stayed with Cleveland are basically out of the league. 

This year, with Kay Felder, it's hard to say if they're on the right track. The offense is not catered to bringing a guy up to speed (see below), so Felder had a rough go. The only way this team gets younger is by developing talents like Felder or giant-man Edy Tavares. Tavares might be able to play, and Felder could assume a bigger role this coming season, but the Cavs are historically inept at developing young players. It took a generational talent in Kyrie Irving to break through.

2. This is a team built around LeBron James

There's a lot to unpack in this thought, but the idea is that the roster, coaching staff, and coaching philosophy only works when LeBron James is in the equation. We knew this was the case during the regular season because the Cavs lost games when LeBron rested. We thought it wasn't that big of a deal because Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving are both excellent offensive players. But it became more and more painfully clear as the playoffs progressed.

You may have noticed in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, there was a ton of talk about how the Thunder simply could not compete when Russell Westbrook was resting. It was laughable. It became less laughable when the same thing happened to LeBron James.

LeBron needs two minutes of rest? OK, I guess the Warriors will go on a 10-0 run.

There are two stats to prove how absurd this was. Stat #1: The Cavaliers outscored Golden State by 7 points when LeBron James was on the floor in Game 3. He played 45:37 in the game, meaning he sat for a total of 2:23. In those 2 minutes and 23 seconds, the Cavs were outscored by 12 points. They lost the game by five. 

Stat #2: Over the course of the regular season, the Cavs averaged 8.4 points per 100 possessions more than their opponents when LeBron was on the floor. That's called a Net Rating (NetRtg) - how many points you score per 100 possessions is the offensive rating, then you subtract the points allowed per 100 possessions (the defensive rating) to get the net. When LeBron was not on the floor, the Cavs were outscored by 8.6 points per 100 possessions. The difference, then, is 17 points per 100 possessions when LeBron is on the court vs. when he's off.

That's not the whole stat though. LeBron's on-court net rating in the playoffs was +12.9. However, when he was off the floor, the Cavs were outscored by 17.8 points per 100 possessions. That's a difference of 30 points per 100 when LeBron is on or off the court.

That number is mind-blowing. For comparison's sake, James Harden's regular season number was +3.0 vs. LeBron's +17.0. Basketball-Reference doesn't allow us to break it down to just the NBA Finals, but rest assured, LeBron's 30 point difference would have been even bigger in that series.

To dig even deeper, the offense doesn't exist when LeBron sits. It's pure isolation basketball, which is OK in some cases, but even the best iso-ball only produces about as well as mid-tier motion-heavy offense. I wrote about this before the Finals and the torrid pace couldn't keep up. The coaching staff doesn't know what to do when he sits, as shown by the random lineups thrown on the floor during the Finals. For example, Irving, Shumpert, RJ, Love, and Korver played together twice in the entire regular season. They played together twice in the Finals. Frye, Irving, Shumpert, Deron, and Korver played together in the Finals but never in the regular season. Even the #1 LeBron-less lineup of the Finals - Irving, Korver, Love, Thompson, Deron, a unit which played six minutes together - had only played together for six minutes in the regular season.

These are my concerns.

3. This team can't beat the Warriors as currently constructed

On the one hand, the Warriors may not continue the way they're currently made up, but their core four players aren't going anywhere. Iguodala is probably going to get paid, and Shaun Livingston is due for a raise as well. Players like JaVale McGee, Ian Clark, and James Michael McAdoo may also field more lucrative offers than what Golden State will be able to afford after they (presumably) sign Stephen Curry to a max deal.

On the other hand, the Cavs were clearly outmatched in the Finals. Talks have been swirling about Paul George, Jimmy Butler, or even Kristaps Porzingis (not that the Cavs have a general manager to actually pull off any of these deals, but that's another story). In almost any trade scenario, Kevin Love is on the block. It's a bummer, but the theory is that Jimmy Buckets (note: during writing, sources are saying that Butler has stated that he'd prefer to stay in Chicago) or PG would be an enormous defensive upgrade over Love when playing against the Warriors. That's the driving force at this point, but there's no telling whether anything will happen.

As for this past Finals, I'm not in the camp of "it took a historically great game just for the Cavs to win one!" because, while the Cavs did play historically great in game four, they also won by 20. The problem is that in the four losses, the Warriors did not play historically great.

4. The regular season is - and will be - an exercise in patience

How in the world are we going to care about anything during the 2017-2018 regular season? This past one was a struggle to watch, but at least there was the continual debate about whether or not these problems were legitimate or the Cavs were just on cruise control. We very clearly learned that the Cavs were just on cruise control. 

Next season will be like this one except without the continual debate. We'll still wonder because the Cavs will almost certainly look bad for stretches. They'll also (possibly) try to figure out how to operate without LeBron in games - partly for future planning, partly because it's important to still be able to play NBA level basketball when your best player takes a breather. Whatever they do, the "wait for the playoffs" crowd will be louder than ever, and rightly so.

5. The only certainty is uncertainty

Throughout the season it felt like the Cavs could be competitive in the Finals, but were most definitely going to be the underdogs. With so much firepower, Golden State would require a Herculean effort from the Cavs, but everyone thought the Cavs still had a chance. In talking with fans, many of us felt like a post-Finals panic move by the front office would be a bad idea. From texting with friends, the general consensus before the NBA Finals was that if the Cavs lost, they should probably go for some minor tweaks and run it back this year after the Warriors (possibly) lost a few bench players in free agency.

Within two weeks of the Finals ending, the Cavaliers have been deeply engaged in trade talks centered around Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving has been rumored to no longer be "untouchable" in a trade, the GM, and his top assistant were let go, rumors of LeBron leaving in the summer of 2018 have gone from lukewarm to blacktop-in-Phoenix-in-August, and nobody has heard an explanation of anything from ownership.

It feels very likely that by mid-July of 2018, Cavs fans will be preparing for a tank-job. However, for all that doom and gloom, the Cavs are still the second best odds to win the NBA title next year at +380. The third best odds are +1800 - almost five times as long of odds. That just goes to show you that the Cavs aren't dead in the water.

The lesson is that nobody knows anything.

It's hard to call the 2016-2017 season an outright failure. The Cavaliers went as far as they were reasonably expected to go and then ran into a buzz saw. There are questions left over and there are unresolved issues. This summer will be a doozy, as the Cavs currently don't have a draft pick and are extremely low on money. David Griffin was able to get things done. Unnamed future GM (Chauncey Billups? Oof.) may not be as talented.

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