The Real Reason Behind the Cavs’ Woes

Sam Bisno, Editor-in-Chief

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It’s no secret that the Cavaliers are struggling. They’re 6-13 since Christmas. At the time of writing this article, they’re 30-22, having fallen to a virtual tie with the Wizards for third place in the East, as the Bucks, Pacers, and Heat have all clawed their way to within two games of the 2016 champs, while the next best Raptors and frontrunner Celtics have pulled away with 6.5- and 7.5-game leads respectively. During this stretch, they’ve won by an average of just 8 points, with half of their victories being decided by less than 5. Meanwhile, their losses have been blowouts; they’re getting outscored by an average of 13.1, including 28-, 34-, 24-, and 32-point differential drubbings at the hands of Minnesota, Toronto, Oklahoma City, and Houston. They’ve blown leads as large as 22. Since their 99-92 Christmas day defeat to the Warriors, they’re 0-7 against teams with better winning percentages than them. LeBron James, who astoundingly has had the worst plus-minus rating in the entire NBA for the duration of that roughly month-and-a-half-long span, summed up his team’s misfortune following yesterday’s 116-98 collapse to the 17-36 Magic on the road – a game in which they had the edge by as many as 21: “It’s been tough….If we’re still serious about the season, then we’ve got to play some good ball at some point.”

This trend has left many pundits wondering the same thing: why? Why are the Cavs floundering so? What exactly is causing this downfall? And they all seem to be arriving at the same conclusion. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski: the Cavs are “failing to defend”. CBS Sports’s Chris Barnewall: the Cavs’ defense is “horrendous”. SB Nation’s Paul Flannery: the Cavs must “fortify their defense”. NBA.com’s Tom Withers says that Cavs fans have “grown tired of their lack of defense”. And so on.

When I watched the Cavs get trounced 120-88 at home just four days ago without mustering a lead even once throughout the three-hour humiliation, this narrative was perpetuated by broadcasters, coaches, and players alike: defense, defense, defense. Now, I’m no basketball expert, and I certainly don’t wish to challenge the consensus of some of the top minds of the games, but, at least from my casual standpoint, the numbers seem to point in a different direction.

Let’s take a look at that February 3rd game, for example. The Rockets are averaging 114.1 points per game. They scored 120. So, six points above average. That’s three layups, maybe a couple of corner trey’s. The Cavaliers are averaging 109.0 points per game. They scored 88. That’s a difference of 21. For a team whose main weakness is supposedly its defense, it’s odd that they managed to contain what is widely considered to be the second-best offensive unit in the league, and yet they didn’t even touch 90 on their side of the scoreboard. Over and over again, however, the viewers were reminded by the commentators of how bad the Cavs’ defense was, with almost no mention of what was going on on the other side of the ball.

This pattern continues. Cleveland shot an abysmal 39.1% from the field – just 26.7% from beyond the arc – and dished out just 22 assists. Meanwhile, they grabbed 47 boards – more than the average of the league-leading 76ers (46.7).

“But Sam,” I hear you saying, “That’s just one game.” You’d be correct, dear reader, so let’s broaden our lens a bit, and return the infamous 19-game ruination the Cavs have suffered since Jesus’s birthday. Before the rough patch, they were scoring 111.3 per game and allowing 107.6. During the spell, their offensive production has plummeted to a measly 104.8 points, while their defensive output sits at 113.3 allowed per contest. Granted, both numbers have gone in the wrong direction for the C-towners, but their ability to score has worsened more so than that of their foes.

At the very least, it’s hard to definitively say that poor defense is the major factor at play. At most, everyone is pursuing a red herring, and the Cavs should just quit trying to stop their opponents from making buckets in a game where Giannis Antetokounmpo can dunk from practically the foul line on a regular basis and Stephen Curry can pull up 30-foot jumpers in his sleep, and get back to executing plays like that sexy Wade-to-LeBron turn-back-the-clock alley-oop against the Thunder last month with consistency.

Whatever the reasons may be, they’re scuffling, and they’re going to have to figure something out sooner rather than later if they want a chance at making it to the finals for the fourth consecutive year.

Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball-reference.com, and NBCSports.com.

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