LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers have tricked us before but they're no treat right now

Jay Asser 09:00 31/10/2017
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Full disclosure: this was pre-written and slated to run sometime before the All-Star break, but since the Cleveland Cavaliers have fallen into crisis mode several months earlier than usual, it has been updated to reflect their current state of free fall.

This Halloween, nothing has been scarier in the NBA – the general state of the world being another issue entirely – than the Cavaliers’ horrid play through seven games of the new season.

It’s admittedly early and the league’s overall start has been fraught with weirdness – injuries, head-scratching results and the Warriors looking mortal, to name a few – but it’s been difficult to downplay just how off Cleveland have looked.

It’s October, so no one should be expecting teams to be playing their best basketball, let alone ones that are favourites to reach the NBA Finals. That leeway is amplified even more when the side in question has suffered significant turnover, which certainly applies to the Cavaliers after they lost Kyrie Irving and brought in Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade and Jeff Green.

And guess what? They still have LeBron James, who even in his 15th season and at 32 is putting up a 25-7-7 stat line in his sleep.

When you have LeBron, you have the benefit of the doubt. The pieces around him have changed over the past seven years, sometimes significantly and at other times marginally, but each one of those seasons ended with James’ team playing in the Finals.

So why are these struggles and this year any different?

Well, primarily, the Cavaliers’ current issues can’t be boiled down to effort like they could have in the past when the team had the ability to flip the proverbial switch. There are real personnel and fit issues that have somehow been exacerbated instead of improved upon through the summer’s moves.

As it turns out, Wade and Rose are not good defenders and that’s putting it lightly. J.R. Smith, meanwhile, hasn’t looked like feisty on defence for some time now and Crowder, who was supposed to be a crucial 3-and-D asset, has done neither of those things all that well. Add in a couple one-way players in Kevin Love and Kyle Korver, an out-of-sorts Tristan Thompson and LeBron, who won’t exert energy on defence until April, and you have a recipe for an imbalanced squad.

Cleveland’s defensive rating of 109.8 points allowed per 100 possessions, which ranks 27th in the league, doesn’t begin to tell the whole story.

From lack of communication to complacency to lack of lateral quickness and everything in between, the Cavaliers’ defence has been bad in every sense of the word. And Thomas’ return, whenever that is, definitely won’t help.

Cleveland’s best hope is for Crowder and Smith to regain some of their old form on that end of the floor and be above-average wing defenders, affording the team a lineup with more two-way players than it features now.

But how many minutes they’ll be on the court is no given as coach Tyronn Lue continues to toy with lineups and rotations.

That’s the by-product of having depth that doesn’t exactly fit. It’s hard to maximise players and their value when they’re not logging consistent minutes.

Yet, despite the rough start, it’s fair to have faith in the Cavaliers turning it around, but it’s also fair to remember this isn’t the same team we’re used to.

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