LOS ANGELES — It’s way, way too early to hit the panic button in Cleveland. A month from now, when the playoffs start, this weekend of ugly losses in Los Angeles could be lost to the dustbin of history.
Kevin Love should be back in a week or so, providing an offensive boost and a passer out of the post/elbow in the half court the Cavaliers need. Tristan Thompson will be available again to bang with guys like the Lakers’ Brook Lopez or Julius Randle (that pair torched the Cavs to the tune of 58 points Sunday). Rodney Hood and Cedi Osman should be back and providing depth and shooting. Once guys are healthy, the rotations should stabilize and improve. Plus, with more time together for this revamped roster, the offensive sets and defensive communication should improve. Coach Tyronn Lue said pregame they were still in the “simplistic” phase of implementing what he wants this team to do on offense.
Still, Cavaliers fans might want to locate that panic button. Just in case.
Since the All-Star break the Cavaliers are 4-6, with the 13th ranked offense and 22nd ranked defense in the NBA. Cleveland just got swept in Los Angeles over the weekend where in consecutive games the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan and the Lakers’ Julius Randle bullied Cleveland’s small-ball lineups to the tune of 56 combined points.
With those two weekend losses, the Cavaliers have fallen back to the four seed in the East, half a game behind Indiana (which beat Boston Sunday). In Los Angeles, the Cavaliers did not look like the team Toronto and Boston have to go through to reach the Finals, rather it appeared to be the other way around.
Which tends to fuel the “LeBron is leaving Cleveland for X” rumors (which were alive and well in Los Angeles this weekend). All of those rumors are crap, LeBron hasn’t made a decision yet, his next decision a topic for July.
Right now, injuries are at the forefront of that in Cleveland.
“At the end of the day, you have to want the most out of whoever you have on the floor,” LeBron said Sunday night. “You want the most from whoever is playing, but sometimes you just can’t overcome this many injuries. We have pretty much five guys out of our top nine or 10 out of the of the rotation or not playing because of their injuries. In this next man up (mentality), sometimes you just fall short.”
However, injuries are not all of it.
Cleveland’s new, younger core is at least trying on defense — a step up from what the Cavs did in January — but this not a team of great individual defenders after LeBron. Plus, building a cohesive team defense takes time this group hasn’t had (and will not have enough of): Cleveland’s communication on things such tagging roll guys, helping the helper, and challenging shooters at the arc have a long way to go. On Sunday, the Lakers’ league-leading pace scrambled the Cavaliers defense on multiple occasions (the game was played at a 104 possession pace). Most glaringly on Sunday night, the Cavaliers just did not have an answer for the Lakers’ big men Randle (36 points, a career high) and Brook Lopez (22 points).
“We knew if we got out in transition on this team, we could have some success,” Randle said.
“I think the rebounding hurts us, I think the physicality on the block, having to double team the post left us scrambling around,” Lue said after the Lakers’ loss. “That’s what we have to do right now, so no excuses. But we’ve got to play better.”
There are a lot of issues to address and not a lot of time to do it. The Cavaliers’ offense often gets stagnant and ends with LeBron in isolation — against the Clippers 38.5 percent of LeBron’s offensive possessions (where he finished the possession) were in isolation, and if you combine isolations and postups and it gets to 50 percent of his possessions. Against the Lakers 38 percent of LeBron’s possessions were isos or post ups. It can work for the Cavaliers because LeBron is so dominant a scorer, and because he is a brilliant passer.
Right now, LeBron just doesn’t have the guys around him to take advantage of his skill set or the MVP-level season he is in the midst of (he will finish in the top five in MVP voting).
Sunday, the Cavaliers tied the game up at 76-76 in the third, then the Lakers went on a 22-6 run and that was ultimately the ballgame. LeBron played well at the start of the fourth, but the Cavs couldn’t get stops and Los Angeles was never really threatened again.
Walking to the bench after a timeout midway through the fourth with his team down 19, LeBron had a look of frustration and disgust on his face — the same look he had through much of a dismal January.
Come the playoffs (and, more importantly, July) those looks may be a thing of the past, something long forgotten in the grind of a long NBA season.
But it’s something to file away. Just in case.