Early-season NBA Quibbls

Trouble in Cleveland?

Quibbl overreacts to the first 10 games of the NBA season

By Michael Zhou

After a tumultuous summer where elite point guard and former number one overall pick, Kyrie Irving, was traded, the Cavs still came into the season with the same sky-high expectations: Championship or bust.

However, as has been the common theme for many LeBron-led teams, the regular season has seemingly been just a warmup for the playoffs. The team started off sluggishly to say the least, stumbling their way to a 4-6 record, good for 11th in the mediocre Eastern Conference. Cleveland entered Friday’s game against the Wizards on a 4 game losing streak, with alarming losses to the Nets, Pelicans, Knicks and Pacers. Each of these teams were projected to finish at the bottom of their respective conferences prior to the start of the season, but to give the Cavs some credit, they have each shown flashes of promise this season.

DeAngelo Russell has instilled hope in Brooklyn with his leadership and scoring ability, while the Twin Towers combo of Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins have always had immense talent. Kristaps has taken over Madison Square Garden with Carmelo Anthony gone, and Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis have been two very impressive pieces from the Paul George trade this summer.

Nonetheless, the Cavs were supposed to be the class of the East and coast again to a finish within a few games of the #1 seed. Their disappointing start has alarmed even the most casual Cavaliers fans, many of whom are missing Kyrie’s flashy ball handling and elite shot-creating ability. While new additions Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade are perfectly adept at putting the ball in the basket on some nights, they haven’t been a consistent third option behind LeBron and Kevin Love.

It’s safe to assume that the offense will come around as the fresh faces get accustomed to a new system, but the biggest issue thus far has been the Cavs’ defense. Ten games into the season, Cleveland sits in last place in Defensive Efficiency, allowing 111.7 points per 100 possessions. Coach Tyronn Lue decided to start Kevin Love, a below-average defender, at center, while moving one of the league’s best rim protectors and rebounders, Tristan Thompson to the bench. While this certainly helped Cleveland’s floor spacing by having more spot-up three point shooters around LeBron, their defense has clearly suffered as a result. Perhaps Coach Lue will consider reprioritizing his primary issue right now by reinserting Tristan Thompson into the starting lineup.

There’s an old saying that good offense always trumps good defense. That was exactly the case on Friday’s game against the Wizards where LeBron took over and scored 57 points against a tough Washington defense. Perhaps the Cavs will rely on the “Lebron-does-everything” strategy more and have him focus on scoring. He has had stretches where he had been absolutely dominant in the scoring column before, namely February of 2013 where he led the Miami Heat to their historic 27 game winning streak by averaging over 29 points with historic efficiency. That year was just the second year of his Heat tenure, and still without a ring, he had a lot of prove. While the stakes aren’t that high this time, LeBron still has to prove he can flourish as a 33-year-old without a youthful Kyrie Irving, especially with Boston currently leading the Eastern Conference at 8-2.

Admittedly, it is important to note that it’s only the beginning of November and we’re still barely into the season. The Cavs have a lot of time to make the necessary defensive adjustments, and they’ll be welcoming Kyrie-replacement, Isaiah Thomas, back from injury in the coming months. Before his injury last May, Thomas was a near-duplicate of Kyrie Irving in terms of playing style and scoring metrics.

In fact, last season, Thomas averaged an elite 28.9 points per game (admittedly function as the undisputed alpha dog in Boston) while Kyrie averaged 25.2 points per game. Both are very talented at creating their own shot through flashy moves, and have the ability to knock down threes at an elite rate. However, there are simply too many questions surrounding Thomas at this time. When will he return from injury? Will he be the same player? How will he fit into the Cavs offense? Reports right now indicate that Thomas will be back around January, which will be about 35 games into the season. With an epic matchup on Christmas day against Golden State, will Thomas rush back from injury to wear a Cleveland jersey for the first time?

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