NBA First Half Awards
With the season just over halfway done, let's look at the major awards. Feel free to disagree but it's James Hardens world right now and we're just living in it.
There is no questioning LeBron James greatness, clearly he is one of the best players we've ever seen (I'm not ranking him in this article I'm not getting into that debate). However, the Cavaliers are truly vulnerable this year. For the record I felt the same way last year and the Cavs ran into very fortune injury luck. They faced Toronto without Kyle Lowry, and the version of Isaiah Thomas they traded for. Unless they run into the same type of injury luck (which is a big part of the playoffs every year) LeBron James streak of reaching seven consecutive finals is about to come to an end.
It's amazing how overrated players get once they play next to LeBron. Looking back at the trade deadline the Cavs acquired Rodney Hood, George Hill, Jordan Clarkson, and Larry Nance. Think about who they were at the beginning of the season. Rodney Hood was an inconsistent injury prone bench player for Utah, who was replaced by Donavan Mitchell. George Hill signed with Sacramento was unhappy with the situation (how does that make sense by the way) and wanted out, was ranked in the 83/103 per ESPN defensive real plus minus (a defensive rating metric used) at the time of the trade. Larry Nance was the Lakers third string power forward behind Julius Randle and Kyle Kuzma, and Jordan Clarkson was a bad contract the Lakers were trying to move.
Their holdover rotation players are JR Smith, Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Jose Calderon, and Kevin Love. Kevin Love is fine, JR and Korver have obvious limitations, Jeff Green is on his fifth team in four years (for a reason), and Calderon is on his sixth team in six years. Anyone heard from Tristian Thompson? Besides Kevin Love, how many of these guys would you consider to be acceptable starters on another team? Maybe JR, the same guy who was given away by the Knicks. This Cavaliers team feels a lot like the 13'-14' Miami Heat, where LeBron is trying to carry a dismal roster to a championship.
LeBron has to do EVERYTHING
The past few years, LeBron had a sidekick in Kyrie Irving. Kyrie has his flaws but is an offensive superstar. LeBron plays so many minutes and exerts so much energy on both ends of the floor, he needs to take possessions off, everyone does. The Cavaliers offense ran smoothly with Kyrie at the helm and LeBron could rest on offense.
In this first clip, the Cavs try to get LeBron the ball in the post but Bojan Bogdonovic does a good job of fronting him preventing it. With about ten seconds left on the shot clock the Cavs realize they have to try something else, and it turns into panic. The possession ends in a forced Kyle Korver turnaround jumper.
This next clip it's pretty apparent the Cavs are trying to give LeBron a possession off, he's camped in the weak side corner with his hands on his hips. It's a George Hill - Larry Nance pick and roll, which gets smothered by the Pacers. Nance tries to kick it to Korver (who has nothing either), Love flashes for a cut which is covered as well, and Korver tries to get the bell to LeBron for a bailout. Bogdonovic reads and and intercepts it.
The third clip is a designed Rodney Hood pin down. Oladipo avoids the screen nicely, and forces Hood into a tough contested jumper. LeBron was trying to catch a breather, but he ends up having to sprint back in transition. These are a few examples of how ugly the Cavs offense is when LeBron isn't involved.
Part of the Cavaliers defensive struggles this season can be attributed to the fact that LeBron has to rest on the defensive end of the floor. He is often guarding the least threatening offensive player, and is not engaged on the defensive end of the floor (he's very good at finger pointing and yelling on defense though). The Cavaliers do not have good defenders in general, and when LeBron shows little interest on defensive, how can he expect his teammates to pick up his slack?
This first clip is a Victor Oladipo - Myles Turner dribble handoff. LeBron is on the weak side of the play in a two on two with Jeff Green, guarding Thad Young and Darren Collison. Oladipo gets to the free throw line and pulls up for a jumper. LeBron gets caught ball watching, and doesn't even attempt to put a body on his man, Young. Love and Green do a good job of boxing their guys out, but Young is completely unguarded waiting for the rebound.
The Cavs are fortune that the ball took a high bounce and were able to come up with the loose ball.
The second clip is an Oladipo - Domantas Sabonis pick and roll. Oladipo splits the defenders, and finds LeBron's man Lance Stephenson in the weak corner. Stephenson is wide open and LeBron makes zero attempt to close out. It seems as if he is playing percentages (giving Stephenson open looks) but Jose Calderon failed to get the memo. Calderon tries to sprint over from the middle of the floor to contest the shot.
Love the effort, but I don't think it affected the shot.
One reason the Warriors have had success against the Cavs is that LeBron didn't have anywhere to hide on defense. He spent a lot of the finals guarding Klay Thompson, and Kevin Durant which is extremely taxing. Having to work that hard on defense means he can't be as involved on offense, and in the fourth quarter of the games he was completely gassed. Similarly Klay Thompson spent a lot of time guarding LeBron and he has struggled mightily in the finals. Two years ago when Steph Curry was banged up, the Cavs made it a point to go after him with Kyrie and LeBron. Is it a coincidence he struggled on the offensive end of the floor?
This is common around the NBA, think about how few players there are that are the primary offensive option, and best defensive player. Joel Embiid, Victor Oladipo, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, and Jimmy Butler are the only ones that I can think of (obviously Kawhi too). It's not even a clear cut yes with Giannis, and Butler. Davis finally had help this year with half a season of DeMarcus Cousins and the emergence of Jrue Holiday. Embiid has excellent defenders around him, and the Sixers can run their offense through JJ Reddick and Ben Simmons. The Pacers are comfortable with their secondary options running the offense as well.
The Path is Extremely Tough
I did expect the Cavaliers to beat the Pacers in five games, but the Pacers look ready to make it a series. Looming ahead are the Raptors, and the 76ers (barring unforeseen circumstances). This iteration of the Raptors is very different than the past few years. Per nba.com The past two seasons they were dead last in the NBA with a 51.1% assist percentage in 15'-16', and a 47.2% in 16'-17'. This season they've improved up to 11th at 59%. Similarly they were 19th in 15'-16' attempting 23.3 threes per game, and 22nd in 16'-17' with 24.3 attempts. This season they're up to third attempting 33 per game. They look very different despite bringing back basically the same team.
The 76ers are a looming giant if Cleveland can make it past the Raptors. They are devastating defensively, finishing third in the NBA with a 102 defensive rating. The 76ers have a tough path themselves but if both teams make it they match up extremely well with Cleveland. The 76ers have multiple defenders they can throw at LeBron, and Robert Covington and Ben Simmons may be two of the few defenders that can match up with LeBron one on one (to some extent). Per NBA.com in the four games regular season games Covington and Simmons guarded LeBron 207/298 possessions, 69% of the time. The Sixers also have the second best starting five in terms of net rating (200+ minutes), with an impressive +21.4. With rotations shrinking in the playoffs, expect the Sixers to rely on their starters heavily where they have an advantage over almost everyone.
LeBron has proved me (and many others) wrong before, and I'm sure he'll do it again. Just not this time.