BOSTON — Sitting on the sidelines often provides a unique perspective.
Because of a sprained MCL, Larry Nance Jr. has been forced to watch helplessly as the Cleveland Cavaliers have dropped seven of the eight games without him.
During that time, he has taken mental notes. And when he returns to the lineup, which he told cleveland.com is supposed to happen Friday night, he’s bringing a stronger voice.
“There’s nothing good coming from this,” Nance told cleveland.com following the Cavs’ 123-103 loss against the Boston Celtics. “This isn’t good for anyone.”
Before Tyronn Lue was fired as head coach six games into the rebuild, he said this season was about “wins and lessons.” Losses were, no doubt, expected. But they were supposed to provide a roadmap back to respectability. The Cavs were supposed to study those defeats, figure out where things went awry and, well, learn from them.
“We’re not learning from these losses,” Nance said. “We are still not playing the right way.”
Nance said Wednesday night he is ready to step into a bigger leadership role. He plans on taking a different approach, even being the bad guy if he has to.
With other team leaders Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love still out, someone has to come forward and alter the message. It’s all coming from the right place, with the goal to spark a positive change.
“Guys haven’t been receptive to it all the time because it’s been positive and nice,” Nance said. “It’s time to shine a light on the issues.”
Against Boston, the game followed a familiar script. The Cavs started off strong, even taking a lead into the second quarter. Early on, they were moving the ball, dishing out seven assists on 13 made shots. Instead of settling for poor mid-range jumpers, the Cavs were seeking good looks, scoring 30 points on 13-of-23 from the field and 4-of-9 from 3-point range in a quarter where six guys scored at least one bucket.
Then, like most nights, they started to crumble and couldn’t do anything to piece themselves back together.
Cleveland finished with as many turnovers (20) as assists and watched another team top the 120-point mark. That makes three of the last five opponents.
“I don’t care about offense. I don’t,” Nance said. “Have you seen our defensive numbers?”
Yeah, those. Well, they remain horrible.
Ante Zizic was terrific on the offensive end, scoring double figures for the fifth straight game. But his slow feet were problematic against the speedy, athletic Celtics. The Cavs were outscored by 22 points with Zizic on the floor. That was the second-worst mark of any player.
Collin Sexton got torched by every player he tried to guard, finishing with an individual defensive rating of 130.8. The Cavs keep trying to hide him, but opponents find him and switching puts him right back into a tougher matchup. Jordan Clarkson was horrendous at that end of the floor as well Wednesday night. It’s tough to point the finger at Cedi Osman on this night. He had a career-high 25 points. Still, he was again overpowered while playing out of position.
The Cavs finished with a defensive rating of 121.8. It’s the ninth time in the last 12 games with a defensive rating over 120.
This isn’t about just one or two guys. This is a team-wide problem that needs to be corrected. Even if it doesn’t lead to wins this season, perhaps there’s still enough time for good habits to be cultivated.
Nance — and others — recognize that the team has been hit with a sledgehammer of unfortunate circumstances. Take Wednesday night’s game against the Celtics, for example. Nance was out with a sprained MCL. Love didn’t play once again, as he continues to recover from foot surgery. Thompson was in street clothes because of a sore foot. David Nwaba missed his 15th straight game with a sprained ankle. John Henson was walking around in a cast. The Cavs, of course, knew when they traded for him as part of the George Hill-Matthew Dellavedova swap that Henson was unlikely to play this season.
Against one of the best teams in the NBA, Cleveland had essentially 10 healthy bodies and just two bigs.
Love was supposed to be the team’s anchor, the lone All-Star capable of taking pressure off the youngsters so they could develop properly, at a pace that was suitable to their growth.
Then Love went down after Game 4 and is still not ready to return. Hill entered the year as Sexton’s mentor, the guy helping the rook navigate the treacherous NBA waters while also serving as a potential life preserver. When things weren’t going well for Sexton and he wasn’t executing properly at either end, coaches could yank him out of the game and turn to the veteran.
It’s all played a part in where the Cavs are today, with the worst record in the NBA, a pile of bad habits, Sexton’s development seemingly stalled, team-wide growth at a standstill and Osman and Zizic showing warts — yes, even on a promising night for both of them.
It’s the last thing the Cavs wanted this season, especially when it comes to Sexton.
The rookie continues to put up solid numbers, just as he did with 16 points on 6-of-14 from the field against the Celtics Wednesday night. But he isn’t making a noticeable impact, his defense hasn’t improved and he’s still not seeing plays develop fast enough.
One game after finishing with zero assists, Sexton had just three against four turnovers, as the Celtics’ pressure had him completely out of rhythm.
So with player development being at the center of this grand plan and the team approaching a dangerous line of hindering that, one veteran told cleveland.com recently it’s time to “remove the crutches.”
That’s precisely what Nance plans on doing.