Friday 19 January 2018 / 12:59 PM


We’ve touched previously on how the Cavaliers have taken a slight slide down in their efficiency in articles in the past couple of weeks. This time two weeks ago, the Cavaliers started a losing tilt that saw them move to within the striking distance of the Celtics and rest of the Eastern elites.

Fast forward two weeks, however, and the slight slide down has turned into a full freefall. The Cavs have descended into purgatory on defense, and dropped well below .500 in the month of March. The decline has them dead even with the Celtics in the East for the number one overall seed, and only up two games over the Raptors and Wizards.

And now, the Cavaliers will roll into the last stretch of 10 games in a race with the Celtics to hold on to home court advantage, and in position to lose that spot. The Cavaliers play the sixth-toughest schedule in the NBA over the last stretch.

And to make matters worse, they’ve got the Spurs up next. The Celtics play an easier stretch, and the Cavaliers are going to have to overcome some serious odds just to keep their home court advantage, as ESPN’s has them with only a 28% chance of taking the East’s number one seed through their loss to the Wizards.

But seeding notwithstanding, the Cavs have even bigger problems going for them on the defensive side of the ball. The Cavs were sitting at 21st overall in defensive efficiency a few weeks ago, but they’ve seen that torpedo down to 25th since. That doesn’t include the 29th worst points per possession rating in the month of March.

And before you hit me with the obligatory “but Austin, LeBron and company always turn it on in time for playoff time!”, let me tell you how this time may be different. In years past, the Cavs have in fact turned it on as the season dragged on. And even expanding that scope to Miami during LeBron’s tenure, James’ past teams have all kicked it in to a new gear in time for the postseason.

But in years past, the team has shown signs of life before cranking it to 11 in the postseason. This year, they are sliding backwards. Even before March, the Cavs tanked down in December, stabilized slightly in January, and then careened down starting in February.

Kyrie Irving is being targeted on drive attempts to the basket, and James’ on-ball defense isn’t enough to offset the backcourt mismatches. JR Smith is missing a step this year, Kyle Korver’s shoddy defense and Iman Shumpert’s lack of shooting has also culminated in the perfect storm to allow Kyrie to be attacked mercilessly – and it’s happening against almost every team.

But they’ve been especially poor against the playoff teams. The Cavs haven’t held a team currently sitting in the top four of either conference under 100 points since early January, and got blitzed by the John Wall-Bradley Beal pairing.

And if you think I’m just being hyperbolic, just take a gander at this quote from head coach Tyronn Lue after the Cavs gave up 70 points in a half for the second straight game:

“I’m not confident, but we have to,” he said when asked if the team’s defense would get where it needed to be. “We have to.”

Yeah, that sounds like a guy that’s really optimistic about his team’s hopes going forward on the defensive side of the ball.

But wait, things get more interesting. Before that quote, Lue promised that he does in fact have a plan to fix the defense. And rather than explain it myself, I’ll just let maestro Lue do it for me:

“We’ve got to hold back. We can’t show our hand early because … these are some good teams and we don’t want them to be able to come into a series and be able to adjust to what we do. We just have to be able to play our normal defense until we get there and then we will see what happens.”

Lue added: “I think the rebounding hurt us. Rebounding. But it will be different once some other things happen. … Their two-guards, their threes, they still crashed the boards. But we have something to fix that. Just not right now.”

That’s right. The Cavs have a secret strategy to fix their defense. And I’m sure it’s something that rhymes with JeBron Lames. But even with James playing at a higher level than ever before, he can’t defend the other four spots on the floor.

The Cavs need to be worried.

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About the author

Austin Albertson

Austin is CBS' senior NFL and NBA analyst, bringing you commentary on everything between the lines and inside the hashes, from the film room to the scoreboard.

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