10:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Cleveland -5
Growing pains continue in Cleveland as the struggling Cavaliers conclude their recent road trip out west with a trip to the Pepsi Center to face the Denver Nuggets. After the highly-publicized return of LeBron James and the acquisition of Kevin Love in the offseason, many in the basketball community crowned the Cavaliers (1-3) as NBA Champions. Now as premature as that may sound, the last time that LeBron moved to a new team and teamed up with a pair of All-Stars he immediately took the Miami Heat to four consecutive NBA Finals, including a pair of Larry O’Brien Trophies. However, four games into the campaign and one thing is clear: this is a team that needs to build some semblance of chemistry on both ends of the floor. Offensively, it’s been far too much one-on-one, while on the defensive end of the court they’ve looked largely disinterested. Indeed this is quite a task for Head Coach David Blatt, who is coaching in the NBA in any capacity for the first time of his career. While the German has quite a decorated resume’ overseas, it’s become clear that he too needs time to adjust to a new league full of new players. Case in point; after getting drubbed in Portland (101-82) Tuesday Night, Cleveland turned right around and was narrowly defeated at Utah in a 102-100 loss. It was there that they managed to dish out a glaring six assists en route to shooting a poor 41.7% from the field. On the second night of a back-to-back, the Cavs looked stagnant on offense, but still had an opportunity to win the game late on the strength of James who scored six of his 31 points inside the final fifteen seconds of play. Unfortunately, the Jazz held serve for the last possession as Gordon Hayward drilled a fadeaway 21-footer as time expired to seal the deal. Afterwards, James proclaimed to the media that “Rome wasn’t built in a day”, and he’s correct; it took he and his teammates in Miami two months before they finally built the requisite chemistry to win championships, and there is no doubt that it will be a process in this, his second stint in Northern Ohio.
When watching the Cavaliers play there are a number of issues that Blatt and his charges are going to have to sort out. First and foremost, they’re going to have to perform better on the defensive end, for they’ve been dreadful thus far. Through four games, the Cavs have allowed 101.5 points (23rd overall) on 49.5% shooting (28th overall), including 54.1% from within the arc (29th overall) and 38.2% from beyond it (24th overall), all the while being outrebounded by 2.5 boards per game (19th overall) and yielding 25.5 assists (29th overall). Furthermore, they’ve relinquished an effective field goal percentage of 55.0% (27th overall) while mustering a defensive rebound percentage of just 71.4% (23rd overall). When James was with Miami, they set the tone night in and night out on defensive, with an aggressive, swarming style that created a wealth of turnovers enabling he and his cohorts to get out in transition. Cleveland has the athletes, but they simply haven’t developed that mindset yet. The other primary issue as been ball movement, or the lack thereof. While Blatt had played and coached for ages overseas, he played his college ball at Princeton and has looked to incorporate that intricate passing style in the NBA, but the players have not taken to the scheme at all, as the Cavs rank dead-last in the league in assists. Granted, James and Love have excellent court vision and have proven to be willing passers throughout their careers, but not everyone on the court shares that sentiment. We’re looking at you Kyrie Irving, the electric Point Guard who has dominated the ball throughout the early stages of this season. In his defense, the former No. One Overall Pick was in Cleveland before James and Love were acquired, but then again, that style of play hasn’t bred success for the franchise in recent years. Despite averaging 22.0 points, Irving has attempted eighteen shots per game, and has only netted 40.3% of those attempts, while dishing out just 3.8 assists. The loss at Utah best sums up his play this season; the 22-year old scored a game-high 34 points on 23 shots, but failed to serve up one assist in forty-five minutes of action. Ultimately, Blatt may be better served at playing James as a de facto Point Forward, allowing Irving to play off the ball more, but that goes against him operating in the post, where the four-time MVP was so effective over the past four seasons in Miami.
Meanwhile, while not entering the season without a sliver of the hype as their counterparts tonight, the Nuggets (1-3) have also struggled out of the gate, losers of three consecutive games. Everything started well for Brian Shaw and his charges, who handled Detroit in the opener in a 89-79 victory, but have since seen that optimism dissolve with three straight losses. It all came to a head Wednesday Night at Sacramento, where the surprising Kings issued the visiting Nuggets a 131-108 beatdown, that could very well put Shaw on the coaching hot seat. In a game where defense was largely omitted, Denver shot 45.1% from the field, dished out 24 assists, and netted 26-of-31 free-throws (83.9%), with twelve different players finding the basket, five of which ended the night in double-figures. Point Guard Ty Lawson totaled thirteen points on 3-of-7 shooting (42.9%), with three rebounds, nine assists, and a pair of steals, while Randy Foye emerged from the bench to lead the way with nineteen points on 7-of-11 shooting (63.6%), including 3-of-5 from downtown (60.0%), with a pair of rebounds and assists apiece. And speaking of the bench, the reserve unit accounted for a whopping 72 points Wednesday Night, with the trio of Foye, Nate Robinson, and Darrell Arthur combining for 42 of that total alone. Unfortunately, Sacramento was better, shooting a blistering 55.3% from the field, while taking residence at the charity stripe where they drained 30 of their 50 free-throw attempts (78.0%). The visitors simply had no answer for the tandem of Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins who together scored 59 points on 19-of-26 shooting from the field (73.1%) and 18-of-21 from the free-throw line (85.7%), with fourteen rebounds, three assists, and three steals. It was the second consecutive meeting between these teams, as the Kings also triumphed in the first half of this home-and-home set in Monday’s 110-105 win.
Like their opposite number tonight, the Nuggets have been dismal on the defensive end to this point, ranking near the bottom of the league in a number of categories. Through four contests, Denver has allowed 105.5 points (28th overall) on 44.9% shooting (20th overall), including 49.6% from within the arc (21st overall) and 29.3% from beyond it (8th overall). Now while those may sound like some respectable percentages, you have to remember that when dealing with a team like the Nuggets who typically push the tempo, particularly at home, it’s all about quantity over quality. Though they’ve only played four games, Shaw’s outfit has seen the opposition attempt the fourth-most shots in the league against them (321), while making the fifth-most field goals (144). Furthermore, only two teams have sent their opponents to the free-throw line more than these guys (28th overall), giving up 112 freebies in the process (28th overall). So let’s take a minute to break that down; despite attempting nineteen more shots than their opponents, the Nuggets are minus-six in field goals made, and minus-21 at the charity stripe. Because of the their penchant for fouling, their Free Throw/Field Goal Ratio Allowed is the worst in the NBA (34.9%). Even though Shaw has tried considerably over the past season and some change to slow this team down and institute his take on the Triangle Offense form his days as an assistant with the Lakers, this team is still built to run at every opportunity. However, with so many fouls there simply aren’t as many opportunities; statistically speaking, Denver operates at the second-fastest pace in the league, averaging 98.7 possessions per 48 minutes, but imagine what that figure would like if they cut down on 29.8 personal fouls they manage to accumulate each night? And these guys absolutely need those extra possessions, for they only shoot a mere 40.6% from the field (28th overall) and rank next-to-last in three-point shooting (29th overall), leading to a predictably poor effective field goal percentage of 44.6% (28th overall).