The Cavs’ very dry spell the last few weeks has caused all sorts of drama internally and externally. Was letting Kyrie Irving go for Isaiah Thomas hurting the team? Cleveland reportedly had a heated meeting where Kevin Love was considered the primary culprit for the losing because he did not play through illness and left a game early. I don’t mean to dismiss the team’s anger at Love or the fact that Thomas has been downgrade from Kyrie (so far) but the obvious answer is clear from a quick look at the Cavs’ team ratings since LeBron James came to Cleveland:
-2014-15: Offense 111.1 (3rd), Defense 106.3 (18th)
-2015-16: Offense 110.9 (3rd), Defense 104.5 (10th)
-2016-17: Offense 113.6 (3rd), Defense 110.3 (21st)
-2017-18: Offense 112.1 (5th), Defense 112.2 (29th)
The Cavs’ offense remains potent offensively but they are abysmal defensively (this is the worst defensive rating in franchise history). If they can’t get back to, at least, slightly below average on defense, Cleveland will not get out of the East. Since LeBron James returned to Cleveland, the Cavs have always been more of an offense-first team that needed to defend just well enough to win. The 2014-15 Cavs fixed this problem by overpaying for Timofey Mozgov and getting some young legs in Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith (not a great defender but spry enough to help). The 2015-16 Cavs canned David Blatt and caught lightning in a bottle thereafter. Last year, no one really noticed but Cleveland really regressed defensively. Now, that defense has gone from regressed to cratered.
Why did this happen? According to DPM, the entire team is below average defensively except LBJ and Dwyane Wade. The Cavs have consciously surrounded James with three-point shooters. These shooters, however, can’t guard anyone. Thomas and Derrick Rose have played very little but have been the worst defenders on the team. Veteran role players like Shumpert, J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver, Jose Calderon, and Channing Frye look very long in the tooth on defense in particular. Love’s defensive effort also hasn’t been great but he is still one of the best players on the team and hardly the main problem here.
The Cavs very much need a reset with some energy players on defense. Jae Crowder and Tristan Thompson were supposed to fill that role but just haven’t done so yet. The Cavs now have a delicate decision to make. They need to make a major trade to be a serious contender. Their primary asset is the Nets’ draft pick (currently projects to be eighth overall), which they want to use to start a rebuild in case James does not choose to return.
This is a key decision making point for the franchise. Is it worth giving up a pick for one last run? That depends on a variety of factors. With no inside knowledge of the situation, I would speculate that James is unlikely to return. The Cavs look stale and this is the exact same time when LBJ left the Heat a few years back. James is getting a little older and he will likely want to choose a team he doesn’t have totally carry.
This year, though, the Cavs still have a puncher’s shot of winning a title like they did in 2015-16 (assuming the defense is fixed). The Nets’ pick has value but isn’t likely to yield a star. That being the case, Cleveland should consider trading the pick for defensive help and live bodies they need. A good candidate would be a team with some talent that has given up on the season (like the 2014-15 Knicks did when they gave Cleveland Smith and Shumpert).
Who is the closest version to those Knicks? Charlotte Hornets seem very similar. They are out of the playoff picture and have no need for a vet like Dwight Howard (he has one more year left on his deal at $23.5 million) with Cody Zeller playing the same position. Howard is still a very effective defender and could be part of a deal if the Hornets also want to consider tearing down some other solid pieces (Kemba Walker?) for that high Nets draft pick. Other deals could also make sense (DeAndre Jordan, Tyson Chandler, Marc Gasol) but it’s hard, in the abstract, to speculate on a trade. It is fair to say that the Cavs should be willing to take another Finals appearance over have a head start on the likely rebuild.