Does anyone in the NBA have a more difficult job than Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue right now? Four rotation players are hurt, LeBron James will be a free agent in July and the Toronto Raptors are playing better basketball than any Eastern Conference team that the Cavaliers faced en route to their last three Finals appearances.
With James on the roster, every season is championship-or-bust. This Cleveland team, however, does not appear to be in the same tier as the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets. And how could it be? The Cavs turned over their roster five weeks ago, but a series of injuries have meant that they will have hardly had any time to jell. If Kevin Love indeed , Lue will have 11 regular-season games to figure out where he fits in and what lineups can be trusted. He could still be experimenting during the playoffs, given that the sample sizes are going to be too small to draw definitive conclusions.
The Cavs are interesting because, despite the fact the postseason is only a month away, we still don't know what they are. As Sports Illustrated's Andrew Sharp noted, every single take about this Cleveland team has been wrong. Maybe James has enough talent to get out of the East for the eighth straight season. Maybe his supporting cast just isn't strong enough this time. Let's take a look at where the Cavs stand and where they're going.
So, what is going on with this crazy team?
Cleveland will visit the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday, and if you were to just look at these two teams' statistical profiles, you'd think Portland was significantly superior. This isn't even a case of being a prisoner of the moment -- beyond the Blazers' 10-game winning streak, they have the sixth-best offense in the 2018 calendar year and they've had a top-10 defense essentially all season.
Portland has continuity, chemistry and a clear identity. It is more than the sum of its parts. Cleveland has none of that. After winning their first two games with George Hill, Larry Nance Jr., Rodney Hood and Jordan Clarkson in the lineup, the Cavs are 5-6 since the All-Star break (and rank 12th in offensive rating, 15th in defensive rating and 12th in net rating in that same span). On the entire season, the Cavs are fifth in offense, 28th in defense and 16th in net rating, but they have outperformed their mediocre point differential because of James' heroics in crunch time.
It can be argued that none of these numbers really matter. Sure, they still routinely fail to get back in transition and miscommunicate while playing halfcourt defense, but the bigger problem is that their rotation is mixed up because of injuries. At the end of the first quarter against the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday, Lue played an all-bench lineup of Jose Calderon, Clarkson, Kyle Korver, John Holland and Ante Zizic. He went back to that group in the second half with James in Holland's place.
"Can you judge what we have on the floor?" James said after the 127-113 loss to the Lakers, via ESPN's Dave McMenamin. "I mean, you don't know. You don't know."
Here is a full accounting of Cleveland's injury woes:
- Love: Broken hand, out since the end of January, hopes to return next Friday.
- Cedi Osman: Strained hip flexor, missed last two games, out at least two weeks.
- Tristan Thompson: Sprained ankle on March 3, missed last five games.
- Hood: Back strain, missed last two games, day-to-day.
If you look through the Cavs' on/off numbers and lineup data, it's all sort of a mess. They have generally been terrible when either Nance or Korver has been on the bench. For the first time, Cleveland somehow has a better net rating with James off the court than on it. There is only one post-deadline lineup that has played more than 100 minutes together -- Hill, J.R. Smith, Osman, James and Thompson -- and it has given up 116.5 points per 100 possessions on defense. (For reference, the Phoenix Suns have the worst defensive rating in the league, surrendering 110.7 points per 100 possessions.)
What happens a month from now?
It is hard to imagine the Cavs becoming an above-average defensive team. Over the past few years, though, merely being competent -- and absolutely incredible on offense -- has been enough to roll through the East. The good news: If they are reasonably healthy in the playoffs, most of the players filling in right now will be completely out of the rotation. The inconsistent Jeff Green, who has made 29.8 percent of his 3s this season, does not need to play. Same goes for the defensively outmatched Calderon, who was actually a steadying influence when Cleveland had its best stretch of the season in November and December. I'm guessing these will be Lue's top 10 players:
- Point guards: Hill, Clarkson
- Wings: Hood, Korver, Smith
- Forwards: James, Osman
- Bigs: Love, Nance, Thompson
Everybody on Earth pointed out at the trade deadline that this is a much more balanced roster than the Cavs had at the beginning of the season. James will have to do heavy lifting, but there are secondary playmakers -- Love, Hood, Hill and Clarkson -- and shooters to space the floor. Let's not forget that by the end of the 2016 Finals, Lue had reduced his rotation to seven players: Kyrie Irving, Smith, James, Love, Thompson, Richard Jefferson and Iman Shumpert. (Mo Williams also played five minutes in the clincher.) Cleveland no longer has another creator like Irving, but it is more versatile.
That championship team, however, found a bit of magic when it needed to. It lacked dominant defenders, but it locked in and executed its game plan. It didn't have a beautiful, free-flowing offense, but all the role players knew where they had to be to complement James and Irving. These Cavs might never get close to that kind of cohesion. A couple of weeks after Smith threw chicken tortilla soup at assistant coach Damon Jones, Lue benched Smith and the guard said he'd have preferred a conversation about it rather than just a text message, via ESPN. If Lue wants to stick to a seven- or eight-man rotation in the playoffs, it's not obvious who will be left out.
The most pressing question here is just how healthy Cleveland will be when it matters. Will it get the version of Thompson that was so crucial in the Finals two years ago? Will it get the version of Hill that makes opposing point guards miserable? I haven't seen those guys in quite some time, but if they still exist, then the Cavs might not be as fundamentally flawed as they look. If they don't, then the Cavs probably can't stop anybody.
So, we don't know anything?
It's more that we don't know enough, and thus I have no strong takes for you. Will Love go back to being a power forward when he returns so that both Nance and Thompson can get minutes? Would Lue try playing Nance and Thompson together for an advantage on the glass? How much of Cleveland's defensive struggles can be attributed to James giving less than maximum effort? I could come up with 15 more questions, but you get the point. It is mid-March, the time of year when most teams have long since figured out what works and what doesn't, and we can't even be sure what Lue's preferred starting five will be.
If you are optimistic about Cleveland's chances, you can point to the fact that James has experience with patchwork rosters and less-than-ideal conditions. Three years ago, he dragged a shallow, beaten-up Cavs team to the Finals and took a 2-1 lead without Love and Irving. It is getting harder and harder to argue that Cleveland is the favorite to get back there again, but it remains unwise to underestimate what James can do.