Don’t be Fooled; Cleveland Still has Serious Issues

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Last night’s game three between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Indiana Pacers was one for the ages. The Cavaliers came back from being down 26 points against the Pacers to win the game by five. LeBron James proved his greatness once again with a 41 point, 13 rebound, 12 assist, two block, and one steal masterpiece, shooting 51.9% from the field as well. Because of this, one might believe that the Cavaliers’ regular season problems have been fixed, but in reality, they have gone no where.

It is actually discouraging, if anything, that it takes one of LeBron’s best games of all-time to win against a very underwhelming 42-40 Pacers team. These are the defending champions, the de facto kings of the Eastern Conference, as Boston has the one seed technically, but the defense of the Cavaliers has simply not been at a championship level.

Not only are the Pacers one of the easiest match-ups in the playoffs, but Cleveland has been among the worst defensive teams in the playoffs against them. In fact, in terms of opponent field goal percentage, only Indiana and Memphis have been worse:

Opponent Shooting Table
Rk Team FG%
1 Indiana Pacers .545
2 Memphis Grizzlies .504
3 Cleveland Cavaliers .503
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/21/2017.

Even the Oklahoma City, who was blown out by the Rockets and their uber-efficient post-modern offense game one, hasn’t surrendered as high of a field goal percentage. Nor has Portland, who are playing against the Golden State Warriors and their historically efficient offense. The fact that James and the Cavaliers, who are playing against Paul George and a rag tag group of support players with a mediocre head coach in Nate McMillan and an exactly average offensive rating in the regular season (15th,) are allowing the Pacers to score this easily is alarming.

Yes, the Cavaliers are 3-0 this series, but those games have been decided by an average margin of 4 points. Each and every one of those games wasn’t decided until the very end.  The Pacers don’t have the power to make Cleveland pay for their defensive woes, but you can bet that if Cleveland plays this way on defense against Golden State, San Antonio, and even the top Eastern Conference teams, then they will not win.

Mitchell Leff /2016 Mitchell Leff

Cleveland has relied on insane offensive production from their players. LeBron’s performance last night make his averages 32.7 points, 10.7 assists, 9.7 rebounds, 2.7 steals, and 2.0 blocks per game on 55.2% field goal shooting and 47.1% from three. Kevin Love is putting up 19.0 points and 7.0 rebounds per game on 53.6% shooting and 47.1% from three as the third option, and besides Kyrie Irving (24.0%) and J.R. Smith (46.2%,) every single other Cavalier who has attempted a three has shot 50% or above from behind the arc.

Similarly to how a team with more offensive fire power is going to expose their defense, a team with more defensive prowess than Indiana’s 16th best defense this season is going to slow down their offense. LeBron’s teams have been unable to win even with a great defense in the past, there is a very low chance they make history again this season without a defense. Here are LeBron’s teams, their defenses, and whether or not they won.

Team Defense Rank Championship?
2011-12 Heat 4th Yes
2012-13 Heat 9th Yes
2013-14 Heat 11th No
2014-15 Cavaliers 18th No
2015-16 Cavaliers 10th Yes
2016-17 Cavaliers 21st ?

I  chose not to include the 2010-11 Heat on part of their finals loss being attributable to an offensive choke by LeBron instead of their defense. But in the last five seasons, LeBron has only won championships when his team has had a top-ten defense. The Cavs didn’t even finish top-20 this season.

In short, unless drastic improvements are made defensively, don’t count on the Cavaliers to win the championship this season.

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