If the Cleveland Cavaliers win two games and then lose the third one all year long, they'll be pretty darn good. However, if they struggle to put away a team after their (arguably) best player goes down with a gruesome injury and then get shellacked by a bad team, it'll be a long season. What's been going on with the Cavs in these first few games?
There have been some good things, but boy has there been some bad things. We'll start with the good.
What's gone right?
The Cavs are scoring in the paint
For obvious reasons, the past few years of Cavaliers teams were not as active in the paint as they were from deep. This year has seen that swing around with Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade's lack of shooting prowess. Through three games, the Cavs are scoring 49% of their points near the basket, which is 6th most in the NBA. Last year that number was 36% - second lowest in the NBA. This is good because paint points are efficient points: The shortest shots are the easiest shots. It also helps that LeBron James takes a lot of those shots and, well, he's a monster.
LeBron James still plays for the Cavs
Who knows what he'll do next summer, but for now, just watch this guy and enjoy it. According to the eye test, James struggled in the blowout loss to Orlando Saturday. He had 22 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, 1 block, and 1 turnover. He was 8-15 from the field and 5-6 from the free throw line. That's his off-night. If you averaged that line for 12 seasons, you would be in the top 40 in scoring in NBA history, and six games into the 13th season you'd pass Larry Bird on the all-time scoring list.
Anyway, it has felt to me like LeBron hasn't been jumping as high or running as fast as we've seen in years past, but he's nursing a sore ankle. Must be rough when this is all you can muster.
Kevin Love has scored a few points after the first quarter
This will be something to keep an eye on all year long. Love has been a first-quarter superstar for the past few years who then immediately disappears. Through no fault of his own, LeBron and Kyrie would take over after that. However, with Kyrie gone (and the rest of the team showing up in the "what's wrong?" section below), Love needs to stay active all game long. I know it's only three games, but his per-36 points/rebounds/assists/blocks/free throw numbers are up substantially. He's taking fewer shots from deep and more at the rim as well, calling back to point #1 above.
There are a ton of good players on this roster
Channing Frye is still a stud. He shows up in garbage time and just drills threes for kicks these days. Teams would kill to have him as a 7th or 8th man in their rotation but the Cavs have him at about 13th. Kyle Korver is fighting his way back into the rotation - the best shooter in NBA history (6th best three-point percentage for a career, #1 best season in league history, holds five of the only 84 seasons in which a shooter cleared 45% on three-pointers) is struggling to get minutes. That's bananas. B-A-N-A-N-A-S (in Gwen Stefani's voice). This team is crazy-deep, even without an All-Star guard who will be out for another two months.
On the other hand, the Cavs got absolutely embarrassed by the Magic, who are expected to win about 35 games this year. It begs the question:
What's gone wrong?
Oh man. A lot of stuff. More stuff than you'd think, considering they're 2-1 thus far.
Dwyane Wade is off to a nightmare start
This is getting beaten into the ground already, but it's hard to overstate how shaky Wade has been so far. Win Shares is a complex statistic that determines how much a player is contributing to a team's chance of winning. It can be broken down to separate offense and defense, although it's probably more accurate on offense where there are more tangible statistics. Dwyane Wade's offensive win shares sit at -0.3 after three games. At this pace, he would break -3 offensive win shares by Game 30. According to Basketball-reference.com, 13 players in NBA history have cleared -3 offensive win shares in a season, and only two of them have done it since 1963. His net-rating (point differential per 100 possessions while he's on the floor) is -41. His PER - a stat where league average is 15 - is 1.6. His previous lowest was his rookie year at 17.6. His turnover percentage (exactly what it sounds like) is 23%.
He'll come around and show signs of his former greatness, but only after the Monstars give his talent back.
The Cavs can't shoot
A remarkable thing is to look at the Cavs' BR page and look at the "team and opponent stats" section. It's the first one. It shows the Cavaliers' numbers, their league rank in those categories, and their year over year change. Take a look and count how many seem to be going the wrong way. They're currently taking 28% fewer three-pointers and making (gulp) 41% fewer than last year. I know, Isaiah Thomas's health would change that, but it's almost like a team that was built around three-point shooting was taking a major risk by signing guys who can't shoot three-pointers. JR Smith has been visibly off since being relegated to the bench, and his shot has suffered. He's hoisting shots that seem odd even coming from him - creating off the dribble, forcing goofy-angle threes, and jab-stepping and firing contested efforts - and he's 2-13 from downtown. Wade, Rose, and Green are a combined 2-10. Kevin Love is 1-12.
Obviously, we're looking at a small sample size, but the spacing has been atrocious, and that has resulted in the Cavs having fewer open looks from outside. And it's not just that side of the ball.
The Cavs aren't rotating on defense
The short explanation here is that these guys aren't used to playing together and they aren't communicating well. The evidence is that the Cavs are 27th and 28th in the league in three-point attempts allowed and three-point makes allowed. None of the teams they've faced are show-stoppers from outside. Boston could still be that way, but Hayward's absence will hinder that a bit.
Derrick Rose is an odd fit
Rose was impressive insofar as he looked like both knees were working and he moved quickly. He made some great drives and solid finishes. He also is the starting point guard who handed out three assists in 54 minutes. That's sub-Kyrie range. JR Smith has a higher assist-per-36-minute rate than the starting point guard. That's not good. In any case, Rose got hurt in Game 3 — surprise!
There may be some discontent bubbling up
I alluded to JR being visibly askew, and it's been hinted that a few players aren't thrilled right now. Why should they be? Tristan and JR were starters for each of the past three NBA Finals and they're both coming off the bench now. Richard Jefferson was a beloved-by-everyone bench player who still brought some energy when needed, but he got cut in favor of Jose Calderon because the team needed a point guard. When Rose went down and Calderon started, he lasted seven minutes and was promptly benched until the game was well out of hand. Couldn't Richard Jefferson have matched that level of utility? Guys should be irritated about that. Ty Lue has to manage egos, but the only ones he's satisfying seem to be the new guys, none of whom are playing well.
It's early. There's a ton of time to straighten things out and the Cavs still have a staggering amount of talent on their roster.