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Honeymoon Is Over, But Cavaliers Will Figure It Out

Spencer Davies offers his takeaways Cleveland’s new team five games in, their struggles this past week, and why they’ll be okay in the long run.

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You know the saying, “What a difference a week makes?” Boy has it ever applied to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the month of February.

Their very first game, on the 3rd, they got—putting it favorably—trounced by the Houston Rockets on national television at home. Then came an embarrassing 18-point loss to the Orlando Magic on the road, a game where the wine and gold were up 16 at the half.

If that two-game sample didn’t make it clear enough, something had to change. In their final time sharing the court together, the old Cavaliers won an emotional overtime game against the Minnesota Timberwolves in an instant classic. But even with that victory, it was only a matter of time.

Five days removed from a complete blitzing by James Harden and company, Cleveland had thoroughly re-shaped its roster. Out went six players and in came four new faces.

The excitement in general manager Koby Altman’s voice was palpable. The sense of relief on the remaining roster was evident. The enthusiasm from the fresh crop of players was obvious.

Even more so, it sparked the short-handed Cavaliers to play free and easy to start their three-game road trip, leading to a lopsided visitors’ victory over the Atlanta Hawks. A short 48 hours later, Cleveland’s face-lifted group made an outstanding debut against the Boston Celtics at the T.D. Garden, winning their first game together in convincing fashion.

The roadie concluded with a stop in Russell Westbrook country, where the Cavaliers bared down and defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder for their second straight win on national television. They had lost all eight previous games in those scenarios.

All in all, the trade acquisitions looked good in their respective roles.

Jordan Clarkson stood out as an energetic dynamo that ran the break and scored with ease. Rodney Hood played with more of a deliberate tempo, but shot the ball extremely well and defended his assignments admirably. Larry Nance Jr. provided the dirty work on the glass and in passing lanes while putting on a show with his patented dunking abilities. George Hill took some time finding his niche offensively, but really put a stamp on guarding his assignments.

Then, unfortunately, the All-Star break came. It slowed down the momentum that Cleveland had after four straight wins, with two of those coming courtesy of a re-invigorated roster.

“I think that was one of the worse things we had to deal with,” Hill said. “Finding that rhythm and then taking that 10 days off. But we can’t make excuses.”

Hood and Clarkson agree with the veteran guard about the ill-timed hiatus.

“Just learning each other,” Hood said. “The break just kinda hindered what he had going the first two games. We’ll get it back.”

“All-Star break kinda didn’t help us,” Clarkson said. “Have to get in a groove with everybody offensively and defensively. It just shows that we still got a long way to go.”

Since then, the Cavaliers have gone 1-2 and hit a bit of a setback for the first time.

The sample size is rather small, but telling enough to draw certain conclusions from. In five games together, here’s what we know about the Cavaliers.

The Rims Have Been Kinder Away From The Q

In the last two games Cleveland has lost, the team’s three-point percentage was one more miss away from being identically awful. Both times, they only knocked down eight threes and attempted over 30. Contrary to the poor shooting before the deals went down, these guys are capable of hitting outside looks. Sometimes it’s poor offense and selection, but in the case of games against Washington and San Antonio, it’s flat-out misses and unfortunate luck.

“We’re gonna have some games where we look great, we’re gonna have some games that we don’t look as great,” LeBron James said. “I think we played well [Sunday]. We just didn’t make shots. Same thing with the Washington game—I think we played well that night.

“It’s not a surprise, not to me. I know. I’ve been through this. It’s gonna be a transition period and it’s gonna be some games where we play exceptionally well. There’s gonna be some games where we could’ve played better. But one thing about it, I don’t fault our effort. Not [Sunday] or the Washington game. Our effort is there.”

The Half-Court Offense Is…A Work In Progress

Notice that in those defeats, James has had to carry the load as Cleveland’s everything, which makes sense considering that somebody has to make shots. But when he’s out there as a one-man wrecking crew for the entirety of a game with others struggling, that’s not the recipe for success and wins with this kind of roster.

Starters have not done their part consistently enough. Cedi Osman brings the energy, but has shown his first sign of rookie struggles in the last two home games. J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson are fine contributors when they’re playing up to their abilities, yet absolute team killers when they’re not doing their part.

The Cavaliers are going to need Clarkson, Hood, and especially Hill to convert those perimeter shots on a nightly basis. Kyle Korver can benefit from other shooters being on the floor to draw attention away, so he’ll likely get going again.

There will be off nights for sure, but those threes give them that extra push. They’re getting into the paint and finishing inside for the most part, but when it turns into drive and kick, the shooter’s got to hit.

Of course, this is only an issue when the pace slows down. A crucial reason why the trades went down in the first place is that Altman was looking for speed and athleticism. That’s the pace Tyronn Lue likes to play and it’s worked out well for the most part so far.

It’s been proven with every game so far that Cleveland is at their best when on the fast break. If there’s a miss after a defensive stop, they’re off and running. If they get the ball after an opponent makes a shot, the tempo blatantly lets up and there’s discombobulation as a result.

Larry Nance Jr. Needs To Play More

Tinkering with rotations is not an easy job. Lue has been under fire for the majority of the year. With all the injuries and moving pieces and parts, he’s been the guy people are pointing the finger to — and the wrong source of blame.

That being said, he is a little too stubborn for his own good. There’s a loyalty to the guys that brought the Cavaliers their first championship in franchise history, almost to a point where he plays favorites. He elects to let Smith and Thompson figure things out a little too long and in some games, it costs the team.

Which leads to this: Nance Jr. deserves more run. Let’s face it, he’s probably been the most productive piece acquired the deadline as far as a two-way player goes. Yes, he has issues staying out of foul trouble at times. But aside from that, he’s disruptive to the opposition with his versatility and length, leading to aggressive steals and rebounds to get the Cavaliers out in transition, where, again, they do the brunt of their damage.

He fills the lane on those fast breaks beautifully, catches lobs from teammates on backdoor cuts and is a hard roller off of screens. Simply put, Nance plays with conviction and brings more than numbers to this team. Finding less than 25 minutes for him is foolish, and fewer than 20 minutes is not acceptable. And matchups are not an excuse here, because he is slotted at the five and can truly guard forwards, centers, and hybrids of those. It’s early and they’re trying to look at rotations, but there is no reason this should continue.

A Little Adversity Isn’t A Bad Thing

Basketball Insiders asked Cleveland’s four newest guys about experiencing some adversity after the loss to Washington. All of them concurred it can be taken as a positive as they try to put this thing together over the final stretch of games before the postseason.

Hill: “Definitely so. We’re still learning each other, still learning defensive schemes and offensive schemes here. We’ve still gotta learn plays, coach gave us a small playbook so far.

But we’ve still got a lot of plays that we need to learn just when we’re out there in different situations where things may not get to move, the ball’s not moving as much as we would like it to, to call different things. We’re still learning, but we’ve gotta take it one step at a time.”

Hood: “I guess you could say that. Just getting acclimated. Being in a close game helps. Being in different situations—gotta foul at the end of the game, gotta get a bucket at the end of the game, whatever it may be—it’s good to be in those positions and as we do more of those, I think we’ll come out on the other side.”

Clarkson: “I think so. It’s still early, but feeling it a little bit is pretty good for us. But you know we’re coming in here to win every game. Stuff like that happens—missed shots and making mistakes defensively, they just capitalized.”

Nance: “I agree. Better now than June, obviously.”

Spencer Davies is a Deputy Editor and a Senior NBA Writer based in Cleveland in his third year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past five seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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