Christmas is to the NBA now as Thanksgiving is to football. It’s a time for high-profile match-ups and reunions, like LeBron meeting his former team. TV ratings powerhouses like the Lakers and Knicks are always there, irrespective of how good their teams are. But there were other storylines too to close out of the year, and with a wide-open field of contenders there’s a lot to follow.
Cleveland’s Bad Hand
At a point after week 9, the Cavaliers were struggling, the Heat were toast, and the Wolves were abysmal. Often when a trade occurs, there’s some sort of equilibrium and if one team does better after the trade, the other performs worse. With LeBron’s team struggling in Cleveland, his former team could taunt — yet they’ve been a losing team. Minnesota fans could be happy that Love isn’t on the super-team he craved, but their season has been a nightmare. In fact, after the December 28th games, these three teams had a combined win percentage of 41.1%; last season it was at 51.6%.
Obviously, there are extenuating circumstances here. Rubio and Pekovic have been perpetually injured, while McRoberts is out for the season for the Heat and Varejao for the Cavs. But sometimes no one wins a trade and bad luck sinks an entire season. It’s supposed to be easy math here: LeBron’s wins are transferred to the Cavs. If he’s valuable, then Cleveland will be great and the Heat will struggle. Only one of those has come true, but if we embrace the stochastic nature of the game and all the little moves and effects the headlines ignore, it all makes a bit more sense.
Speaking of luck: Cleveland had one of the strangest blowout defeats in a game versus Detroit. They were without Irving, but they still had LeBron and Love and yet were buried under a deluge of jump shots. Detroit shot 31 three-pointers and the Cavaliers 29. Detroit, however, hit 55% of theirs and Cleveland 17%. Check out the below videos: in the first Jennings makes a crazy step-back baseline jumper, and in the second he takes another from the top of the key. Jennings, a poor outside shooter, made five of nine, including one in the last video where he hits one off the dribble with a hand in his face like Stephen Curry. Going to the shotlogs, Detroit made 8 of 17 “open” three-pointers and 7 out of 9 “very open” three-pointers. Cleveland, however, was 5 of 14 on open there’s and 0 of 10 on very open ones. Luck can’t be ignored.
Rookie of the Year, Mirotic, Not Enough Minutes
After years of enticing draft experts, Mirotic finally came over for the season and he’s been one of the few productive rookies. After Jabari Parker went down, the pool for legitimate rookie of the year candidates shrank considerably. Wiggins is now the only high-profile rookie who’s getting high minutes and a high points per game average. Mirotic is having a fine season and has had a few impressive games, but he’s stuck on the bench at power forward on the team with the deepest frontcourt in the league and a coach who rides his starters with heavy minutes. He’s played surprisingly few minutes at small forward, though his long-term position is power forward.
Mirotic had a good end to December and it bodes well for the rest of January. In the first video below, you can see his value as a stretch four: his big man defender was unwilling to step outside and he nails a shot after quickly jumping back. He’s not just a tall decent shooter who shoots from there because it’s the style now — this is his game. In the second video, he puts the ball on the floor, drives, kicks, creates a shot, and then crashes the boards for a put-back basket. His versatility on offense is important for Chicago, as you can see him post-up in the third video and draw foul shots. On defense, Mirotic is a little more limited because he’s not an ideal interior defender, but he’s definitely not a liability and is a good rebounder too. He will probably deserve rookie of the year by the end of the season, but it’s unlikely he’ll get the minutes to gain the votes.
Cousins the Bulldozer
Cousins has been on the warpath this season, and a new tool is a fun way to show how. With a minute to go in overtime in a game versus the Knicks, he catches the ball near the three-point line, splits the double-team, drives to the rim, and dunks while four Knick players surround him. Watch the number 15 (Cousins) get swarmed in this movement diagram; it’s how SportVU watches the plays. You can compare this to how the play looks in reality in the clip below.
Alex Len the Starter
Halfway through December, Alex Len took the starting job from Mason Plumlee and he had some of the best games of his career in week 9. He had another decent scoring game with 17 versus Dallas and Tyson Chandler, but he’s definitely not a creator at this point in his career. He scores via putback shots, running the fast break, and just generally being big and near the rim. In the first video below, you can see him cut into the paint for a layup when the defense briefly ignores him.
Defense is where Len is more intriguing. He’s had multiple four (or more) block games, and there’s a lot of potential there defending near the rim. You can see this in the second video below where he hurries back and blocks McLemore point blank at the rim. He then blocks the second attempt a couple seconds later. He’s fundamentally sound here too, keeping his hands high and staying on his feet until the last possible split second. Like many young big men, he can be too bouncy when defending, but he’s been pretty solid overall and his mistakes aren’t too grevious. For example, in the last video, he’s defending a pick and roll with the Chandler’s (Tyson and Parsons) and he edges over to Parsons and gives him a little too much focus, letting Tyson see the sliver of daylight he needs to dive to the rim. But he wasn’t terribly out of position, teams have their own coverage plans, and he recovered in time to foul Tyson instead of giving up a dunk.
Jimmy Butler won player of the week for the east He’s a leading candidate for most improved player too, having a huge increase in the metric that matters for the voters: going from 13.1 to 21.9 points per game. Some of this is because he’s averaging a league high 40 minutes a game, but he’s shooting more accurately and frequently by a huge margin. Some of this will regress to the mean, and it looks better in comparison with his disappointing season in 2014 where he shot a lot better in 2013, but he’s a really useful player for their motion, pass heavy offense.
What’s interesting is that Butler’s shot chart profile — where he’s shooting from — is essentially the same and he’s being assisted at the same rate on two-pointers as he has before. He’s just been a lot more aggressive and his jump shots are hitting the bottom of the net. It’s tough to figure out how much of this is sustainable because Butler could be using the errant summer negotiations as motivation and will cool off next season. Then again, something like assisted rate has its own problems. Check out the assist below from Noah where Butler catches a pass at the three-point line, pauses, fakes, then drives with two dribbles, and scores at the rim.
What’s Wrong in Cleveland?
Since the Cleveland experiment was a way to predict how well a team could do with mostly new parts and multiple all-stars. It’s a fun exercise, and I thought that some of the problems with so-called super-teams in recent seasons were to due to other factors like age. Historically, super-teams perform at their highest level the first season; there’s no “cohesion” time needed. Cleveland so far has been a massive disappointment, and there are a few causes here — but how predictable were these causes?
1) Fit: you can’t just add five ball-dominant scorers to a team and not expect some reduced effectiveness from at least one of those players. Thus, fit can’t be ignored, and Cleveland was adding two high scorers. There’s only one ball on the court, and roles are limited. But this shouldn’t have been too much of an issue for Cleveland. Love is a natural three-point shooting big man, something Miami forced, and a great rebounder — that works well with LeBron. Plus, he’s a great passer. While Kyrie Irving is a flashy off-the-dribble star, he’s a great outside shooter too; he can play off the ball without being a liability. Yet Cleveland has had some issues here integrating the star players into the system. Love has been reduced to a spot-up shooter far too often, and both him and LeBron are not committing on defense. But I think the fit issues are mostly due to the next problems.
If Love could flourish with a point guard who’s one of the worst shooters ever and a post-up center, then why would he have problems here? Even if a team needs an adjustment period, it’s true for defenses who haven’t seen these guys on the court at the same time before.
2) Injuries: this is what damaged some previous super-teams like the Kobe-Howard-Nash-Pau Lakers and last year’s Nets. Of course, those teams struggled even before injuries destroyed them, but it’s hard making up ground when you keep losing guys to injury. Varejao’s torn Achilles isn’t exactly surprising — he regularly misses a huge stretch of games every year — but it’s disappointing because we all knew going into the season their rotation would run into problems whenever he was gone.
Most season previews mention that depth is an issue, but few specificaly cite Varejao as the piece most likely to break down and cause problems. To my credit, and what’s scary, is that I called Varejao the bellwether for the team. But was also this little statement: “What will stop them is their defense and the health of Varejao.”
LeBro’s now out a couple weeks and Irving keeps missing an odd game or two, which is pretty common for him. Those are real problems and it’s scary for a team that couldn’t even play well when everyone was there. LeBron mentioned lingering back issues that could explain his scoring problems this year. On the bright side, with some rest he could come back better. But these aren’t totally due to poor luck — Varejao missed half-seasons with alarming regularity, Irving can’t stay on the court, and LeBron’s entering his 30’s.
3) Coaching: this is where I’m a bit miffed as I followed blindly in everyone else’s assessment of Blatt. He was highly praised by everyone, especially with his beautiful offensive sets. Cleveland has had boring action, lots of isolation and single pick and roll plays. Far too often a possession ends with some contested midrange shot, which unless you have Dirk Nowitzki is the kind of shot you want to avoid looking for a better one; it’s why we even run plays.
Yet there’s a glaring issue on defense where Cleveland plays an aggressive, hedging style that is clearly not working well. It’s a wonder if this was partly due to LeBron’s insistence because it worked in Miami — but they do not have Chris Bosh and they do not have Chalmers and Wade on the loose trying to create steals. It’d be best to emulate someone like Charlotte, drop back, and clog the paint, urging opponents to take midrange jumpers and seal off the rim, where they have problems contesting shots anyway. It’s hard to build a team from scratch, which is close to what Cleveland did in the summer, but I thought an excellent coach would expedite the process.
4) Bad luck: I touched on this at the top of the piece. What’s evident is that basketball has a lot to do with hoping that the opponents miss their shots, and that doesn’t fall on you. You can close out, contest well, and they can hit it anyway; or you can leave someone open and they crash it off the side of the iron. With enough games, this evens out, but it’s possible to over- or underachieve during the first half of the season due to issues like this.
Vegas still likes Cleveland for a title, though betting is about getting other people to turn over their money and not necessarily predicting anything. There’s still potential here, and the team shouldn’t panic. Their core players are young with the exception of LeBron, who’s only 30, and Varejao. Growth should be expected, and with better coaching you can get a lot more out of this roster. Basketball fans should be hoping this happens too — it’ll make the league a lot more interesting, especially the playoffs.
But what we might need is patience.