The Cleveland Cavaliers stumble into Madison Square Garden to take on the Knicks at 8:00 EST this evening. Like the Celtics — never a good way to start a sentence — the Cavs are not playing good basketball right now. To help get a better idea of what we should expect from the club tonight I brought in Conrad Kaczmarek of Fear The Sword and Eric Maroun of Hardwood Paroxysm. Enjoy!
The Cavs have lost four of their last five games coming into tonight. What have been their biggest problems, and how can the Knicks take advantage?
Conrad: The Cavs are an incredibly inconsistent team, specifically on offense. They’ll look great and fluid for one quarter and then be absolutely horrible the next. Honestly, if the Knicks just give solid effort for 48 minutes and don’t really mess up, then the Cavs will probably go through such a horrible dry spell that they’ll beat themselves.
Aside from offense, defense, and coaching, the Cavs have been great! In all seriousness, the offense becomes stagnant far too often, and the play call is basically “Pray that Kyrie Irving can make something happen in isolation.” The team was constructed around Irving, a ball dominant guard, which is fine in theory except for the fact that they surrounded him with similar type players who need the ball in their hands in Dion Waiters and Jarrett Jack. Although CJ Miles has played well this year, they lack consistent outside shooting as a whole. Waiters goes through stretches where you feel like he’s a threat from anywhere on the floor, but then he’ll go 3-14 the next game.
For instance, in his last seven games, he’s scored 18, 9, 0, 15, 13, 4, and 21 points. You literally have no idea what you’re getting from him on any given night. In the post, they don’t have a reliable post up threat as Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao tend to score on the basis of their offensive rebounding abilities. Tyler Zeller has looked much improved from last year, but he still needs to add muscle to his frame because he gets pushed around by the bigger centers in the league. Defensively, they are extremely weak at the guard positions with Irving being the primary culprit. The Cavs also rank 26th in the league in fast break points (the Knicks are 30th) which means that they are not creating turnovers that lead to easy buckets. When you have a bland offensive system, you need to be able to score easy points if at all possible, and Cleveland has struggled with that all year. Coaching wise, I’m not sure what Mike Brown says in the locker room, but it’s clearly not working. Too often, the Cavs find themselves in first quarter holes that they can’t recover from or teams pull away from them in the third quarter.
The most notable instance of this was this past Sunday when they were outscored 25-6 in the third quarter by Phoenix. And don’t even get me started on their out of bounds plays which have been nothing short of an abject disaster all year long, peaking with a five second call with two seconds left in the game last week against Dallas when they were going for the tie. All of that being said, the best way for the Knicks to take advantage tonight is jump out to an early lead. The Cavs are not built to come back from large deficits so if New York can pull away early, you can just about chalk up a W.
How has Luol Deng fared thus far in Cleveland? I found it pretty interesting the team has a +/- of -22 with the Irving/Waiters/Deng/Thompson/Varejao lineup, but +16 with Irving/Miles/Deng/Thompson/Varejao. Why do you think that is?
Conrad: Deng’s been pretty good. He’s still adjusting to everything and it’s obvious that there isn’t much chemistry there yet (although to be fair, there’s no chemistry between any players on this team). That’s not a surprising stat to me. The Cavs’ best lineups are often the ones that have the most veterans in them. This team is just so incredibly young that any time there’s too many young guys on the court, everything falls apart.
When you’re running some combination of Earl Clark, Alonzo Gee, and Anthony Bennett out at the SF for the duration of the season, there are few players that wouldn’t be an upgrade. Adding a former All-Star like Deng to man that position was a bonus for the Cavs. I think Deng is still fitting into the system, and mentally needs to adjust to being around a team that is simply not used to winning games the way that Chicago has for Deng’s career. As much as we joke about the term “veteran leadership,” that’s really what Cleveland needs as their entire core of Irving, Waiters, Bennett, Thompson, and Zeller are all under 24 years old. Irving in particular has never been around anyone who is used to winning like Deng. He needs to be a sponge and soak up as much knowledge as he can from Deng while he is here.
Regarding the +/- discrepancies, as I touched on in the last question, having two ball dominant guards in Irving and Waiters makes the offense stagnant at times. Miles has shown the ability to spot up from beyond the arc and knock down shots which allows Cleveland to stretch the floor when he’s on it. Deng has also been a pleasant surprise from downtown since coming to Cleveland. He was shooting 27.4% from 3 as a Bull, but in 10 games with the Cavs, he’s connecting on 37.0% of his three point shots.
The Knicks obviously struggle defending quality point guards and Kyrie Irving is obviously one of the best in the East. However, his offensive numbers are down this season and his defense hasn’t really improved that much either. What’s your take on Kyrie’s season thus far?
Conrad: His defense has gotten better, but it’s obviously not where we need it to be yet. His offense has been fine. He had a disastrous November shooting the ball, but since December started, he’s been extremely efficient. The problem is that this is his third year in the league and everybody was expecting him to make some giant leap into that super-elite level. Obviously that hasn’t happened. He’s still very good, it’s just not the improvement that we had hoped for.
Disappointing? Frustrating? Infuriating? All of the above? I absolutely love Kyrie Irving, but it’s safe to say he has taken a step backwards from where he was last year. I’m not sure if he’s been reading his press clippings too much, is clashing with coaches and/or teammates behind the scenes, or something else, but his attitude has been subpar both on and off the court. Even his most dedicated fans and ardent defenders are starting to get fed up with him treating defense as a completely optional endeavor.
On the offensive side, he’s forcing shots up late in games that aren’t dropping like they did last year, and all too frequently he simply takes too long to get going in a game. Plus, Chad Ford said in his chat today that Irving has been telling people privately he wants out of Cleveland which certainly won’t help his cause with the fan base. While he was hurt for most of the past two years, this is three straight seasons now that the Cavs have been dismal, and since he is the cornerstone of this rebuild process, Irving is going to take the majority of the heat. On the plus side, he’s still just 21 years old, is starting in the All-Star game, and when he’s feeling it, is still one of the most fun players to watch in the league. So he’s got that going for him which is nice.
The Cavs offense is a mess, but they do have a DRtg that puts them at 19th in the league. What do the Cavs do well defensively? Should we expect a lot of Deng on Melo?
Conrad: Deng will absolutely be guarding Melo, unless the Knicks go small and then he’ll probably be matched up with Tristan Thompson. The Cavs aren’t great defensively, as indicated by their below average ranking on that side of the ball. I think the effort level has been better at times and guys generally just know where they’re supposed to be. When they’re at home, they can play some very good defense. Unfortunately, it all kind of falls apart when they go on the road. Where’s this game being played tonight? Oh crap.
Eric: They play in the East against some pretty awful teams which greatly helps matters. However, they are still in the bottom half of the league defensively, so it’s hard to say that they’re doing anything extremely well. Anderson Varejao has certainly lost a step, but is still a very good pick and roll defender. The flip side of that is the aforementioned disaster that is Kyrie Irving as the other half of that defensive PnR combo. Tristan Thompson and Varejao are also excellent at cleaning off the glass which has been a main driver behind the Cavs posting the eighth best DReb% in the league (per NBA.com). While generally a middle of the pack defensive team, they are still much improved from the 27th ranked defense in DRtg that they had last year. Deng is far and away the Cavs best wing defender, so he should be glued to Melo at all times if the Cavs want any chance of winning this game.
With all that said, how do you think the game this evening plays out?
Conrad: I think one of these teams will win. Since the Cavs are such a disaster on the road, it will probably be the Knicks. I expect Kyrie Irving to score lots and lots of points though.
Eric: Trying to predict anything involving the Cavs is about as difficult and messy as nailing Jello to a tree. Earlier this year they knocked off the Clippers and Knicks in back to back games, held a lead against Indiana for three quarters, and played two wildly entertaining games against Portland. On the other hand, they lost by 44 to the Kings and blew an 18 point lead in the span of one quarter against Phoenix this month alone. Anyone that says that they know what they’re getting from this team is either a psychic or a liar, and I don’t believe in psychics. Since you asked though, I’ll take a shot and say Knicks win 98-89.