LeBron James doubled over, the ends of his shorts balled up in his fists, the weight of 84 minutes of work over the weekend washing over him. The Cavaliers righted the ship, momentarily, with a win over Washington on Friday behind a superb 57-point, 11-rebound, seven-assist effort by James. Yet there was James on Sunday, watching a Channing Frye three bounce off the rim, a Dwyane Wade putback do the same and Cleveland’s momentum stopped in its tracks with a 117-115 loss to lowly Atlanta.
There is no panic in Cleveland — yet. “Have to keep showing film and continue to keep talking about it,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue told reporters Monday. “Make sure we’re aware of it, and I think guys are embarrassed and should be embarrassed of how we’re getting beat.” Yet you can’t chalk up a 4-6 start to annual Cavaliers struggles, either. “It’s completely different,” said an Eastern Conference assistant coach. “Because they are a very different team.”
Yahoo Sports spoke to six coaches, advance scouts and team executives about the Cavs over the past week. A recurring theme: defense. Cleveland sits at the bottom of the NBA in defensive efficiency, while it’s scoring defense (29th) and defensive field-goal percentage (27th) are not much better. A recurring target: Derrick Rose, the ex-MVP manning the point guard position until Isaiah Thomas returns. “He’s been terrible,” said a scout. “That’s the point of attack. If you can’t stop the ball, you can’t stop anybody. And he isn’t defending the ball at all. If you put him in a pick-and-roll, you are guaranteed to get any shot that you want.”
The Cavaliers have never been loaded with plus defenders. Kyrie Irving — whose presence Cleveland desperately misses on the offensive end of the floor — was a sieve last season, and the addition of Jae Crowder, Boston’s most effective frontcourt defender last season, should be an improvement. Yet the Cavs have been routinely gashed for big chunks of points in the paint (44.8, 19th in the NBA) while opponents are connecting on an NBA-best 41.7 percent from 3-point range.
“They aren’t playing with maximum effort on that end,” said an assistant coach. “You make a couple of extra passes and they just say, ‘Ah, [expletive] it,’ and give up an easy shot. There’s no connectivity to that defense right now.”
Another problem: Cleveland doesn’t have the personnel to get significantly better defensively, either. James will. The NBA’s best player is clearly working his way back into shape after missing most of training camp with an ankle injury. Several scouts have remarked that James looks heavy, with the added weight contributing to some of the defensive problems.
“Usually early in the season he comes in super lean,” said a rival team executive. “He doesn’t look as flexible. He looks like he has bulked up. He’s not moving as well as he used to, especially laterally.”
James, though, is one of the few Cavaliers with a defensive upside. Crowder figures to improve; his uncertainty on offense, where his scoring has dipped to 8.2 points per game, is likely contributing to his ineffectiveness defensively. “The new guys they got are not used to standing around and watching LeBron play,” another rival executive said. “Crowder came from an offense where there was movement. There were a lot of cuts to the basket. They really don’t do that in Cleveland. LeBron handles the ball and directs traffic.”
Yet the backcourt lacks plus defenders. Rose is below average. Wade, too. J.R. Smith has regressed on both ends of the floor. Iman Shumpert is effective in spurts, but his minutes have been spotty as Lue has mixed and matched backcourt rotations. Up front, Kevin Love offers floor spacing offensively at center, but Love has struggled defensively, getting beat up on pick-and-rolls while providing little rim protection. “He is going to struggle to defend any five on good teams,” said the assistant coach. “The Joel Embiids, the Karl-Anthony Townses, the Kristaps Porzingises, when he’s a five, they are going to kill him. “If Tristan was healthy, I would start Tristan and bring Kevin off the bench.”
The Cavs will get better. They are an older team, with a core coming off three straight trips to the Finals. “They are kind of like an old car revving up,” said the scout. “When you have a team of older guys, it’s January before they are going full speed.” The expected return of Thomas will obviously help, too. “They lost an elite point guard, and the guy they got to replace him isn’t playing,” the first executive said. “Let’s not forget how good Isaiah Thomas is.”
He’s right. Still, Thomas won’t plug a leaky defense, and the Cavs need to be careful not to burn out James — who will turn 33 next month — in the regular season. The Eastern Conference is deeply flawed, but for the first time since James’ return to Cleveland, the Cavs look flawed, too.
The rise of Jayson Tatum
Remember when Danny Ainge was catching heat — ahem, here — for punting on the top pick, trading down and drafting Jayson Tatum? Me neither. Tatum has been a wunderkind early, starting every game and quickly emerging as a reliable offensive option. In a ragged win over Atlanta on Monday, Tatum posted a career-high 21 points, including a corner 3-pointer that swelled Boston’s lead to four with less than a minute to play.
Since summer league — when Celtics coaches were comparing Tatum’s footwork to Paul Pierce’s — Tatum, 19, has shown a knack for scoring, and his confidence is growing by the game. He doesn’t force many shots, routinely attacks off the dribble and has shown flashes of a midrange game eerily reminiscent of another elite scorer: Carmelo Anthony.
Gordon Hayward’s season-ending injury was crippling, and given Cleveland’s struggles, it’s fair to wonder if Boston, with a healthy Hayward, would be the overwhelming favorite in the East right now. But Hayward’s injury opened the door for extended playing time for Tatum, and the rookie has taken advantage of it.
The Pistons right the ship
Detroit’s struggles last season were puzzling. After all, the 2016-17 Pistons were largely the same team that scrapped their way to 44 wins in ’15-16, snuck into the playoffs and duked it out with Cleveland for a couple of games before eventually getting swept. They were young, physical and well coached. That they fell apart was always something of a mystery.
Detroit is 7-3, with a win over Golden State in its pocket, because the team does look like it picked up where ’15-16 left off. Andre Drummond is back to terrorizing opponents in the paint, and his 75 percent shooting from the free-throw line scares the bejesus out of opposing coaches. Similarly, Reggie Jackson, a dud last season and on the trading block for much of it, has bounced back. The Drummond-Jackson pairing, viewed as a fearsome young duo two years ago, is finally playing like one.
Can they sustain it? Avery Bradley will help. Bradley continues to be a consistent offensive player — his 16.3 points per game mirror his production in Boston and his 3-point shooting is above 42 percent for the first time in his career — while providing sturdy perimeter defense. Bradley is a no-nonsense guy, hardened as a young player on the Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce Boston teams and a big part of the Celtics’ conference finalist last season. With Bradley on board, the Pistons can be a high-level defensive team — which alone should keep them well above .500 in the East.
James Harden: MVP front-runner
To be clear: Houston doesn’t want James Harden to have to score 56 points for it to win. A big reason the Rockets aggressively pursued Chris Paul last summer was to take some of the burden off Harden, who ran out of gas in the conference semifinals last season after carrying Houston to that point with an MVP-level campaign.
But with Paul out, here comes Harden, whose 91 points created — adding his 13 assists to the 56 he scored against Utah on Sunday — is the third-highest total behind Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point, two assist game in 1962 and Harden’s own 95-points-created performance last season.
Make no mistake: The Rockets need Paul to assume some of the scoring burden, just as they need Ryan Anderson (37.9 percent from three) and Eric Gordon (34.8 percent) to continue to space the floor if they want to have any success in the playoffs. But after near-MVP misses to Stephen Curry in ’14-15 and Russell Westbrook last season, Harden isn’t leaving any doubt early as to who the NBA’s best player is this season.
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