MIAMI — In a league defined by high-tempo offense and a large number of 3-pointers, the Cleveland Cavaliers are a plodding group that relies heavily on mid-range jumpers.
Beyond their numerous complexities, the Cavs have an identity crisis.
Following recent losses against Chicago and Memphis, swingman Cedi Osman lamented Cleveland’s slow pace. He wasn’t the only one. Since training camp, the Cavs have spoken about how much better they function when playing fast.
“Our pace was just slow in the second half,” Osman said following the 20-point loss against Chicago. “We can’t play like that because other teams, they want to run. And with that slow pace, we can’t do anything on offense. And obviously they’re trying to run, they find easy baskets and then everybody’s heads are going down, and we can’t let that happen.”
And yet, it still does. According to NBA.com stats, the Cavs play at the second-slowest pace in the NBA. Only Memphis is slower.
But the Grizzlies are able to survive because of their suffocating defense that currently ranks fifth. Keeping the possession count down plays right into their hands. They can frustrate opponents, forcing them to continuously operate against a lengthy, athletic, swarming set defense in the halfcourt.
The Cavs? Well, they rank dead last in defensive rating. They don’t gain any schematic advantage slowing the game down. If anything, it makes them worse.
Through 35 games, the Cavs have taken 925 shots in nine seconds or less. They are shooting 49.8 percent from the field on those looks. Inside 15 seconds, Cleveland is shooting 42.0 percent. Most of their attempts come between seven and 15 ticks, which is average in the NBA. But they are only shooting 43.9 percent on those tries.
“Our defense as a whole has to make that happen,” Larry Nance Jr. said prior to Friday’s shootaround in Miami. “It’s hard to take it out of the net and beat them down the court. When we’re playing so poorly defensively we can’t really run.”
It’s hard to envision a huge leap on that end. Tristan Thompson’s return will help. He’s the mouthpiece on defense. David Nwaba returning to full strength will provide a bit of a lift, as he’s one of the few players capable of providing resistance against the opponent’s best threat.
There’s a reason the Cavs numbers are worse defensively than even a year ago. But numerous other poor defensive teams are finding ways to quicken the tempo.
The Sacramento Kings are 22nd in defensive rating. They are second in pace. Laughed at for years, Sacramento has found a working formula, one that has them in the Western Conference playoff mix. Given their issues on defense, playing fast while bombing 3’s and hunting shots early is really their only hope.
So can the Cavs find a way to run, to play the fast style they covet, without improving the woeful defense?
“That we haven’t figured out yet,” Nance said. “We’re better in the fullcourt than the halfcourt and that’s something that we need to see if we can get more of. On the break, we have five guys that are pretty dangerous out there. Halfcourt offense, teams are starting to stall us and slow us down a bit. Something we have to stay focused on.”
Cavs head coach Larry Drew says everything starts with him. He’s constantly staying on rookie Collin Sexton, whose speed and quickness should be an advantage. Drew is also reminding backup point guard Matthew Dellavedova to seek easy baskets in transition — even though he’s more sluggish in his approach.
“I’m the guy who has to make sure these guys play with pace,” Drew said. “My message every day is to play with pace. But you have to be smart, especially on the road. When we come into tonight’s game, and this is a very tough arena to win in, we have to play with pace and get the ball up the floor. But that doesn’t mean quick-shooting the basketball. Every game we play, we have to pick up the tempo so we get some easy baskets. We can’t be a predominantly halfcourt team and try to rely on our halfcourt offense to get us baskets.”
The Cavs are 23rd in fastbreak points, averaging just 10.7 per game. That puts constant pressure on the offense to execute, which has been a season-long problem, one that has only worsened given injuries and personnel changes.
Kyle Korver and JR Smith are gone, having an impact on Cleveland’s outside shooting. Kevin Love, the team’s best player, has been missing since the fourth game. The rest of the roster is made up of sporadic drivers, leaving Cleveland with very few quality options in the halfcourt.
The Cavs rank 22nd in offensive efficiency, 29th in assist percentage, 27th in 3-pointer frequency, 2nd in mid-range frequency and 29th in effective field goal percentage — a metric used in the NBA that adjusts for the fact that 3-point field goals are worth 50 percent more than 2-point field goals.
Their NBA-worst 8-27 record reflects those marks. Their style doesn’t fit this era.