Are the now-.500 Cleveland Cavaliers back on track or do they have bigger problems? What moves can they make to ensure a Finals rematch?
Our NBA Insiders go 5-on-5.
1. Now that they’re back to .500, the Cavs’ mood should be …?
Jackie MacMullan, ESPN.com: Buoyant. LeBron is energized from trolling Enes Kanter, Frank Ntilikina and the city of New York, and his brilliant decision to turn the game into a “subway series” has only enhanced team chemistry.
Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: Indifferent. They have proved their mood isn’t affected by their regular-season record. Even though there are seven new players, the team’s mood goes as LeBron’s goes. Over the past few years his intensity level varies widely in the first couple of months of the season, and we’re seeing that again.
Chris Herring, FiveThirtyEight.com: Not nearly as playful and haughty as its been so far. I’m sure it’s just LeBron’s lingering resentment for Phil, but the jubilant social media posts from him and Isaiah Thomas were a bit much. The Cavs are still playing largely awful basketball.
Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com: Patient. Cleveland is without three of its top nine rotation players right now. Until Isaiah Thomas, Tristan Thompson and Derrick Rose are fully healthy with this group, who is to say that they’re destined to be a .500 ballclub?
Kevin Pelton, ESPN Insider: Glad things aren’t worse. Given Cleveland’s minus-2.7 point differential, the team could easily be a game or two below .500. But their ability to turn things on late in games, such as their fourth-quarter comeback Monday at Madison Square Garden, has allowed the Cavaliers to survive their poor start without greater damage to their record.
2. The Cavs’ 30th-ranked defense is …
A) a problem.
B) irrelevant to their postseason hopes.
Herring: A. Last year’s NBA Finals — a span in which the Cavs surrendered 113 points or more in each contest — highlighted that Cleveland can only flip the switch so much come postseason. Yes, rim protector Tristan Thompson is out. But let’s be clear: The Cavs would have absolutely no chance to beat Golden State with the sort of defense they currently play.
Pelton: I guess that depends how you define their postseason hopes. If it’s getting back to the NBA Finals, the Cavaliers should be able to improve enough to get by against Eastern Conference foes. But failing to build good defensive habits will matter if Cleveland gets that far and faces the Golden State Warriors or, really, whoever comes out of the West. And I think their hopes include another title.
McMenamin: C, an embarrassment. Yet, recent history shows us they ratchet things up for the playoffs, which not-so-coincidentally happens when LeBron James gives his all to all aspects of the game. So, please, criticize them for being a terrible defensive squad in the moment, but don’t waste our time if you want to make that moment signify proof of a sure postseason collapse.
Windhorst: A. Defense is about building habits. That’s coachspeak, but it’s also the truth. The Cavs didn’t have good defensive habits last year and it came home to roost in the fourth quarter of Game 3 of the Finals, when they couldn’t get a single stop to save their season. Ty Lue knows it, he has tried to issue the warnings and the veterans don’t seem to care much.
MacMullan: A. If you want to win championships, you cannot rank 29th in opponents’ 3-point shooting percentage (39.7 percent) as Cleveland does. Defensive transition also needs to be tightened up dramatically.
3. What move or kind of move should Cleveland make?
Pelton: A rim-protecting center would be a useful addition for the Cavaliers. I’d consider offering little-used Channing Frye and a second-round pick for such a player. Could that land Dewayne Dedmon from the Atlanta Hawks with John Collins looking capable of taking on a larger role, for example?
Herring: The Cavs will likely just wait for their injured guys, Thomas and Thompson, to come back. But a part of me thinks old hand Matthew Dellavedova, now with Milwaukee, would actually be a decent stopgap until then. Not totally sure it’s worth unloading someone like Iman Shumpert to swap salaries. But Delly is a more natural point guard, can shoot from outside and also helps provide some defensive resistance.
MacMullan: If I were the Cavs’ GM, I’d be trying to acquire a 3-and-D player to help bolster those anemic defensive 3-point numbers. Relying on Derrick Rose, Wade and Isaiah Thomas won’t cut it.
Windhorst: They should add an offensively dynamic All-Star level point guard. Thomas believes he’s going to be that guy and they need it. But in the spirit of the question, they could really use an athletic big man who can protect the rim to give their defense a protective layer.
McMenamin: I was talking to a prominent agent before the Cavs played the Knicks on Monday, and he was adamant that Cleveland needs a rim protector on this roster. Does he represent someone with that skill set? Sure. But that doesn’t mean he’s wrong. I think this team needs more time together before it’s worth exploring a more drastic transaction.
4. On a scale of 1-10, how much of the Cavs’ issues will be solved by the return of Isaiah Thomas?
Windhorst: No clue. I have no idea what sort of condition he will be in. I will say this: If they could make a few more 3s and make the other team inbound the ball instead of take off on a fast break after a long rebound, that would help their defense.
MacMullan: I will give this a 4. IT will help lighten LeBron’s load offensively and help keep him fresh for the postseason, but Thomas was dead-last in most defensive metrics among point guards. Everyone simply shoots over him.
McMenamin: 6, taking the conservative route. IT, if the healthy player he was in Boston last season, will give Cleveland a much-needed secondary scorer behind James and also shore up their spotty outside shooting. Also, considering his contract situation, Cleveland will get a motivated player added to the mix that wants — no, needs — to have a successful showing with the Cavs to lock up millions upon millions of dollars of future riches. That said, Thomas is a minus defender and he will need time to fit in with Cleveland’s sometimes cantankerous group, so it’s not like his addition won’t have its challenges.
Pelton: 6? Thomas himself isn’t going to be the solution to Cleveland’s defensive woes. However, his shooting at point guard would make it much easier for the Cavaliers to create the spacing necessary to play Kevin Love with Tristan Thompson, which would help on D.
Herring: I’d give it a 4. Assuming he’s fully healthy once he comes back, that will help. Going from Shumpert or Rose to Thomas will make a world of difference on offense, especially once Thompson is back, too (for screening purposes). But their biggest problem is on D, which is the last thing the 5-foot-9 Thomas would actually help.
5. Fact or fiction: Cleveland and Golden State will have a fourth straight Finals matchup.
McMenamin: Fact. Haven’t seen anything in the first month of the season that has been so radical that now is the time to come off that prediction.
Windhorst: It’s fiction to think I’d make a prediction in November.
MacMullan: Fact. While the Cavaliers are flawed, they still have the best finisher in LeBron. Boston’s young stars need more seasoning, and the Celtics still miss too many shots.
Herring: Fact. We still haven’t seen Cleveland at full strength yet, and LeBron is still LeBron. That may be enough to get the Cavs back on the biggest stage once more. But given how terrible the Cavs’ defense is, it’s hard to imagine how they realistically compete in a rematch without some massive changes taking place between now and then.
Pelton: Faction. If I had to pick who will win the East, I’d probably still take the Cavaliers despite Boston’s 13-game winning streak. But their chances aren’t anywhere close to 100 percent at this point.