Why Cavs' defensive struggles are bad news for a potential Finals rematch with Warriors

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DENVER -- LeBron James was pissed. 

Not frustrated. I’ve seen him frustrated. Not upset, I’ve seen that too, after Finals losses. He was pissed. Short with reporters, snarky, and fuming about his Cavaliers’ defense, which once again got shredded. It’s not November, anymore. It’s late March, and the Cavs’ defense is horrible. The question is, what are the Cavaliers going to do about it? 

The Nuggets sliced, diced, shredded, and flambéed the Cavs in Denver Wednesday night 126-113, putting up a 128.9 offensive rating per 100 possessions on the reigning champs. Cleveland is now 26th in defense since January 1st, 29th since the All-Star break. Think about that. They have the second-worst defense in the league since the All-Star break. 

Why doesn’t this get talked about? Because the Cavaliers are the reigning champs, and we’ve seen this before. The Cavs were 20th in defense in 2015 and made the Finals. Everyone knows the deal. This team doesn’t care about the regular season. It never has. They’ve been a sloppy, lazy regular season team the past three years, and they’ve still made the Finals twice and are as close to a lock as you’re going to find for the East again this year. 

So there’s nothing to worry about. They’re going to be fine. They’ll flip the switch, and destroy everyone, and look like the dominant team they were last season when they lost two playoff games before the Finals, then won the championship over the 73-win Warriors. They’re fine. 

... Probably. 


In the span of about a four-minute post-game interview session, James blasted the Cavs one-on-one defense and, most concerning, their toughness. 

One-on-one

“We’ve got to take the one-on-one challenge seriously,” James said (via the Athletic). “We’re relying on help too much instead of taking the one-on-one challenge first and then knowing that your teammates are going to cover for you.”

The Cavs aren’t stocked with great one-on-one defenders. Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, Channing Frye and Kyle Korver (at this point in his career) are all minus-defenders, and as seen above, J.R. Smith has not been the lockdown guy he was last year since returning from injury. 

Those guys will play with more intensity in the playoffs, but one-on-one defense being this much of an issue is problematic. The Cavs are 30th in transition defense, and 28th in guarding the pick-and-roll ball handler, per Synergy Sports. In isolation, they’re great, ranking third overall. But that’s typically against players who isolate a lot, and therefore are guarded by the Cavs’ best perimeter defenders in James and Shumpert. 

If you’re looking for a bright side for the Cavs’ defense, this is it. 

Help defense

Next on our escalating list of worrisome comments comes this one from Kevin Love: 

14. “Our rotations weren’t there, help defenders weren’t there,” Love said. “Too many offensive rebounds, too many extra possessions, too many times where we could’ve helped our brothers out there and we didn’t do it.”

via Final Thoughts: With time running out on regular season, Cavs have plenty of issues left to fix on defense – The Athletic.

You have to help the helper. 

Not so much, here: 

There are breakdowns on these plays at every level. 

The Miami Heat with James were built on a string of hyper-athletic help defenders who brought the highest basketball IQ you could imagine. Like the Cavs, their effort and intensity waxed and waned, but they had the capacity to devour you defensively.

The Cavs became great last year in the playoffs, both individually and with their defensive recognition. What worries you is how much those playoff performances seemed like outliers in the careers of those players. That switch we all believe in, for good reason, is built on defying the massive amount of evidence we have that says J.R. Smith spaces out, Kyrie Irving gets lost, Kevin Love can’t connect fast enough, and Channing Frye has neither the mobility nor the physicality to attack. 

(One side note: you notice in both plays above that Tristan Thompson struggles. If that’s the case in the playoffs, then yeah, the Cavs are toast. But Thompson above all other non-LeBron, non-Kyrie Cavs has had the most value in the playoffs, and he’s the difference-maker. Cleveland has a 106 defensive rating when James shares the floor with Thompson, which isn’t great, but it drops to 110 when James is on the floor without his Klutch Sports cohort.)   

This Cleveland team has earned trust, but there’s a reason those that watch the league night in and night out continue to shrug and try to shake off concerns about this group’s defensive apex. 

But what is the most concerning thing about their defense lately?

Toughness

“You can’t preach toughness, you gotta have it.” 

James called out the team’s physicality, as did coach Tyronn Lue. The Nuggets are not some super-tough, grind-you-down opponent. They have the 29th-ranked defense and are guided by a goofball Serbian passing big man. The Memphis Grizzlies, they are not. 

This is the element that needs to make Cavs fans legitimately nervous. Not about the playoffs, they’re probably fine there, though Boston and Washington both bring firepower and physicality to the fight. But for two years, the edge the Cavaliers have had over the Warriors has been their physicality. They brought more toughness. Matthew Dellavedova eventually got torched by Steph Curry in 2015, because Curry is amazing. But he didn’t back down. And last year, with a core that is essentially the same as this season’s, the Cavs made the Warriors “feel them,” as players say, more often than the reverse. The Warriors were the ones going for home-run 3’s and getting outworked down low in their small-ball lineups. 

(And it almost worked as they came up one game short.) 

This year? The Warriors have Zaza Pachulia and David West. JaVale McGee is still a space cadet defensively, but he is going to bring the physicality along with his athleticism on every play. The Warriors have Kevin Durant, whose frightening athleticism combines with his defensive ability to revamp what the Warriors look like. Durant will never be the strongest guy. The Warriors have never been the Bad Boy Pistons. But there’s way more nastiness from them compared to last season. 

And that element is completely absent on Cleveland. The Cavs have constantly turned to more and more offensive threats. For one, they want to help make the most of James’ abilities. And two, they want to match Golden State’s firepower. The Cavs own NBA records for regular season and postseason made 3-pointers. But the only real move they made to address their defense and toughness was Andrew Bogut... who fractured his leg in his first game. 

There is no cavalry coming to save them from the outside. There is no other player who’s going to come back from injury and change all this. As James said, the Cavaliers have to find it inside themselves. They can shoot boatloads of 3’s while Kyrie Irving crosses dudes out of their shorts and James rams the ball down and through their throats in the East, but eventually they are going to face the Warriors. They cannot be this team, or anything remotely like it, or they are not defending the Land, nor its title. 


The last thing James said in his interview? “Playoffs aren’t here, yet.” 

Then he grabbed his coat and turned to leave, ending the scrum. For the second year in a row, LeBron is not happy with his team. But then again, James himself admitted there were times when he could have been better defensively vs. the Nuggets. And throughout the seasons, there have been times where he has genuinely failed to set the tone or example for his team’s defensive effort. It’s only natural after a billion Finals appearances in a row. 

But that’s kind of the identity this team takes after him. The Cavs want to dominate their opponents in the regular season, and do it without really trying. They want to have their cake and eat it, too. As good as this team is, it’s not good enough to do that. Not right now. Not this season. While there are elements and results that carry from year to year, we should remember that you still have to be the best version of this year’s team. The Cavs have not been there since December. 

His statement about the playoffs not being here is reflected across the board. This team has been here, and done that, so of course they trust they’ll be ready when the time comes. We all trust that they’ll be the monster we are accustomed to seeing. They kicked Detroit down a flight of stairs and then threw the Hawks around the street like a plaything, before comfortably and confidently moving past Toronto. They’ve earned that trust. 

But they’ve also earned this caveat. 

The Cavs will be fine.

Unless they aren’t. 

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Moore's colleagues have been known to describe him as a "maniac" in terms of his approach to covering the NBA, which he has done for CBS Sports since 2010. Moore prides himself on melding reporting,... Full Bio

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