Every morning, we compile the links of the day and dump them here… highlighting the big story line. Because there’s nothing quite as satisfying as a good morning dump.
The dynamics of the Cavs’ on-court struggles are interesting. The offense is still elite (fifth in NBA), but the defense has plummeted to 28th overall. This group can’t stop anyone and isn’t scoring enough to make up for that fact lately. These developments don’t have the national media concerned just yet about the state of the three-time defending Eastern Conference champions, and that’s understandable to a degree. LeBron-led teams have faltered at various times of the regular season over the past three years, losing six of eight last January and dropping to sub .500 at one point during January 2015 (19-20 overall) before cruising through the East in the postseason.
Will history repeat itself this year or do the problems go deeper than normal? And if so, do the Cavs have the resources to fix themselves this time around? Let’s take a look at why this year might be the exception rather than the norm.Where’s the defense?
The Cavs have had subpar defenses in past seasons (18th, 10th, 21st finishes in team defense over last three years), but they’ve reached a scary low halfway through the 2017-18 season, allowing 109.3 points per 100 possessions (29th overall). Outside of not sending opponents to the free throw line often, the numbers indicate they don’t do much of anything well defensively. They are in the bottom-five of the league in field goal defense, defensive rebounding and turnovers forced. They allow teams to shoot more 3-pointers than any team in the league and opponents hit 37 percent of them (third-worst defensive mark). All of these numbers have come despite playing the third easiest schedule in the league to date.
BSJ: Will Cavs Figure out the Vulnerable East (subscription)
I’m trying to ignore the Cavs regular season struggles. I want to believe it’s all smoke-and-mirrors, that Cleveland’s poor performance is a function of a veteran team playing a long (and largely meaningless) regular season. Despite their shockingly poor defense, I’m calling bullshit on any “Are the Cavs in Trouble?” headlines.
Over the past four seasons, the regular season struggles of LeBron-led teams led the media to question whether they’ll reach the finals. I’ve been fooled into thinking last year’s collapse – when Cleveland’s post all-star break record was under .500 – was indicative of deeper problems. Too many people said the scrappy Celtics could pull off an upset, and three seasons ago, everyone thought the 60-win Hawks were better than LeBron’s new-look Cavaliers. LeBron had the last laugh in both situations.
Obviously the defensive ineptitude is concerning for Cleveland, and it adds fuel to the Celtics hype train. But it’s still January. Playoff basketball – with increased physicality, shortened rotations, and slower pace – is a different game. LeBron is still, inarguably, the league’s best player. When the conference finals roll around, and guys feel the grind of playing 90+ games over a seven month span, LeBron’s 6’8″ 275 point physique almost always wins out. His team’s have reached seven straight finals, a feat not even accomplished by Michael Jordan.
But here’s where Celtics fans should be optimistic. Boston has multiple guys to throw at LeBron. Jaylen Brown’s no longer a rookie and made significant strides with his 1-on-1 defense. When fully engaged, Marcus Morris is a high-level perimeter defender (ask James Harden). Jayson Tatum gets so much love for his offense, but his defensive prowess has largely been overlooked. Lastly, Semi Ojeleye has the physicality to bang with LeBron on the block.
It’s such an improvement from last season, when Crowder got torched by LeBron in the conference finals. Seriously, watching these highlights makes wanna buy into the “Crowder is a bum” narrative. This year’s team has four guys to throw at LeBron.
The Cavs don’t have anyone who can guard Kyrie, and he’ll want to stick it to his former team. Brad Stevens was flummoxed by LeBron’s dominance last year, now he has an extra year of playoff experience and better personnel. Although he takes the belichickian “one game at a time” approach, you’ve gotta believe Stevens has been thinking about new strategies to defend Lebron, that he has a new-and-improved game plan after last year’s conference finals embarrassment.
Cleveland’s inconsistent effort and lack of accountability is indicative of a poor organizational culture. The Celtics have demonstrated the exact opposite. They were able to withstand the Hayward injury because of the great culture established by Brad Stevens. Which brings me to my next point…
Page 2: Where Accountability Isn’t an Issue
When the viral video of the James rant was posted on Instagram, Irving gave it a “like” that sent NBA social media circles stirring.
Irving was not necessarily drawing a comparison between the situations on Saturday, but he did elaborate on how the Celtics have repeatedly handled adversity with defiance and lack of finger-pointing — at least publicly — on their way to the top spot in the East this season.
“We demand excellence,” he said. “If we’re not getting it, [Celtics coach] Brad [Stevens] will bring in the team and have a talk. Or I will say something. Or Al [Horford] will say something. Or Marcus [Smart] will say something. That’s just holding everybody accountable whether you’re a rookie or you’re in your 11th year.
“You’re able to communicate best like that when you hold everyone accountable and there are no ill-will feelings toward what you’re saying. Or someone being kind of ‘in the moment’ and demanding something out of someone.”
NBA social media went crazy after Kyrie liked an instagram video of LeBron yelling at his team during a timeout. I’m probably looking into this too deeply, but this innocuous “like” is indicative of why Kyrie wanted out of Cleveland.
In the article above, Kyrie speaks about the Celtics culture of accountability. Everyone has the same rules, no matter how many years they’ve been in the league, no matter how many all-star games they’ve made. NBA coaches have trouble critiquing star players and holding them to the same level of accountability as lesser talents. When seeking change, NBA owners and general managers will always side with the superstar ahead of the head coach. It creates a toxic environment when teams pander to a star player at the expense of its non-stars.
LeBron has an unprecedented level of power within the Cavs organization. The return to Cleveland – while branded as an “I’m coming home” fairytale – was largely a power grab.
LeBron knew he’d never have this kind of power with the Heat. He was pissed when Pat Riley amnestied Mike Miller and added Michael Beasley and Greg Oden as replacements. He didn’t like how Erik Spoelstra used him as a post-up player, and preferred to run spread pick-and-roll as the de facto point guard.
The Cavs were an organizational mess before LeBron returned. He and Dan Gilbert had a “secret” meeting before the move, where presumably, LeBron wanted to ensure that Gilbert would open his pockets for whatever Lebron wanted, and because of this influence with the owner, he could ultimately control personnel decisions.
As a result, Tristian Thompson got a 5 year/$80 million contract, and JR Smith got 4 years/$57 million. Both players employ Rich Paul as their agent – LeBron’s business partner and closest friend. He demanded they acquire a back-up point guard last year. He ordered the Cavs to get rid of Dion Waiters, and the front-office traded two first-round picks for Timofey Mozgov because LeBron wanted another big man.
With this type of power, how much is he gonna listen to Tyrone Lue during a film session? How many players are gonna speak up, tell him he fucked up a defensive assignment? Whose gonna talk back after he rants in the huddle?
Kyrie had enough of it. He couldn’t develop his game without playmaking responsibility, and LeBron always had the keys to the offense. He was sick of LeBron chewing out guys for missed defensive rotations when LeBron only played defense selectively. He didn’t like how the primary offense was “give LeBron the ball and spread the floor.”
As a result, Kyrie was omitted from All-NBA for the past two seasons. He couldn’t expand his game in that environment, and ultimately got tagged as a score-first player who was a nice second banana, but couldn’t lead a team on his own.
During his first few months in a Celtic uniform, Kyrie surprised everyone with his tough defense and commitment to the offensive system. The days of hero-ball were behind him. He understands that when a team’s best player follows the lead of the coaching staff, younger players fall in line. When guys like Irving and Horford put the team first, guys with less talent must follow that lead. The Cavs struggled throughout the second half of last year. Although they made the finals, Kyrie wasn’t happy with the environment LeBron created, and vowed to change that in his next situation.
And Finally… Televise the Damn All-Star Draft!
Word probably will get out somehow, but the league has said there are no plans to televise or publicize the order of picks. There was the concern that picks would be made based on friendships rather than merit and that feelings would be hurt.
But just think of the reality-show drama and gossip that would be created if it was all out in the open. Motives, real or not, would be ascribed, which would no doubt add spice to ensuing regular-season meetings.
And what if a captain didn’t pick a teammate? Ooooh, the intrigue.
The question we’re left with is simply this: If the NBA was worried about bruised feelings and appearances of pettiness (will LeBron James pick Kyrie Irving? Or vice versa), why choose this format in the first place?
The NBA is missing a huge TV opportunity by not televising this All-Star draft. It would get a better rating than most national regular season games. The personal dynamics of every selection would be scrutinized by every NBA podcast. It would create endless content, and its the perfect way to spice up the otherwise lifeless all-star game.
Ultimately, the intriguing nature of the draft order is why the NBA is doing this behind closed doors. Players would get hammered with annoying questions.
“Hey Steph, why did you pick Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, but not Draymond Green?”
“Draymond, why did your teammate not pick you? Is there a rift in the locker room?”
“LeBron, you picked Paul George, does that mean you’ll join forces next year?”
“Kyrie, is it weird that LeBron picked [insert inferior point guard] over you?”
Despite some players agreeing the draft should be televised, I understand why others wouldn’t want it public. It would put them in a weird spot, and maybe, the captains would only make “safe” picks to avoid media scrutiny.
Regardless, it’s a bad move to keep it behind closed doors. Over the past decade, the gossipy, reality TV nature of the NBA has helped increase fan and media interest. With shorter contracts and constant player movement, the personal dynamics between star players have emerged as dominant story-lines.
Additionally, remember last year’s all-star game? It’s easy to forget, unless you like half-hearted effort and no defense. That game wasn’t basketball, and it certainly wasn’t Harlem Globetrotters entertainment. No, we don’t typically see 100 percent effort in all-star games, but last year was a new low.
If anything, televising the draft should be punishment for last year’s disgraceful performance. From a business standpoint, it makes too much sense. I’d imagine the players would eventually learn about the draft order, and it might even get leaked to the media. If the game isn’t any more competitive, I’d imagine Adam Silver would consider televising the draft for next season.
The Rest of the Links:
Patriot Ledger: Celtics Back to Work this Week
CBS Sports: Irving, Brown, Reddick Agree One Rim was Crooked
Mercury News: Warriors Get First Glimpse of Isaiah Thomas on Cavs
Straits Times: Marcus Smart Uses Troubled Past as Motivation