The Cleveland Cavaliers arrived in Texas looking to build some momentum after a quality win over Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday. Despite stellar efforts from LeBron James and occasional superhero Jeff Green, though, they came up short, falling 117-113 to the Houston Rockets thanks to a big game from James Harden, and timely contributions from center Clint Capela and pitbull forward P.J. Tucker.
The three-time-defending Eastern champions now sit at 5-7, 11th place in the conference. They have the NBA’s seventh-worst net rating (measuring whether you outscore your opponents over the course of 100 possessions, or vice versa). Whatever they might become, the Cavaliers are a bad team right now, a top-heavy and shallow collection of hastily assembled, ill-fitting pieces in need of an infusion of game-breaking talent.
It’s a good thing, then, that the Cavs have an All-Star point guard working his way back to health and availability — and that when he comes back from the right hip injury that’s sidelined him since May, Isaiah Thomas expects to hit the ground running.
Other stars who have had to acclimate to playing alongside James — a four-time Most Valuable Player who dominates attention, touches and focus — have described the process as more challenging than outsiders might expect. Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Love and, most notably, Kyrie Irving have all had their difficulties adjusting to life alongside LeBron — a life that brought more success than any had known previously, but that also necessarily shunted them all into 1A, second banana or third wheel roles in the process. Thomas, however, says he doesn’t expect such a rough patch when he gets back on the court, according to Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:
The third go-around for James and a second dynamic scorer is coming in the form of guard Isaiah Thomas, who envisions a smoother transition than certainly James and Irving had in 2014-15.
“It’s definitely going to be an adjustment period but me being older, me knowing the game a little bit more and being a student of the game, I’m going to be able to adjust quicker than somebody else could,” Thomas told cleveland.com. […]
Last season, with James and Irving sharing the court, the Cavs ran more isolation offense than any other NBA team. This year, they’re eighth.
Thomas was not among the top 10 in the league in iso plays last season (Irving and James were fourth and fifth, respectively). He insists he’ll be fine playing off the ball and waiting for James to pass to him.
“I mean, I had the ball a lot (last year with Boston) just because I had to have the ball,” Thomas said. “A lot of the times, seriously, last year in the playoffs I played off the ball. So I’m fine with that. I’m a scoring guard. Like, off the ball I can catch and shoot. I can do things like that, but I think, the more we get with each other I think it’s going to be an easier transition.”
As I wrote at the time of the Irving-Thomas blockbuster, I think Thomas might be right. If he’s fully healthy, he should be devastating in Cleveland, both playing off LeBron and serving as an offensive fulcrum capable of keeping the Cavs afloat when James hits the bench — something neither Irving nor Love could credibly do. He’s one of the league’s most dynamic and efficient pick-and-roll playmakers, an accurate high-volume long-range rocket launcher off the dribble, an excellent marksman off the catch, and a player with a track record of producing at elite levels when sharing the floor with co-stars like DeMarcus Cousins, Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe.
Thomas has a skillset tailor-made for maximizing the opportunities he gets on a team oriented around James … provided he really is cool with taking a step back and accepting a spot lower on the food chain than he’s become accustomed to over the past two years. It’s not unreasonable to wonder if a player who has made it clear that he wants to prove he’s not the damaged goods he’d been portrayed as while the Celtics and Cavs went back and forth over his hip before finalizing the trade, and who has frequently and openly discussed his expectation of getting the “Brinks truck” backed up for his services when he enters unrestricted free agency this summer, will really be willing to ride shotgun, even if the King’s the one behind the wheel.
But even if Thomas comes back exactly as advertised and fills precisely the complementary role he expects to as easily as he anticipates, he won’t save the Cavs by himself. He can’t, and no less an evaluator than James knows it. From Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com:
“To be honest, I don’t think it’s too much expected [of Thomas],” James said before shootaround Thursday morning, ahead of the Cavaliers’ game against the Houston Rockets. “I don’t think we’re relying on IT to come back. We want him to take his time. When he feels he’s ready, he’s going to fit right in.
“We can’t rely on just one person. We can’t rely on just one person for us to be as good as we want to be, whether it’s IT or myself or Tristan [Thompson] being out. We have guys who have to step up.” […]
“IT is definitely a big piece of what we want to do, but IT hasn’t stepped out on the floor in a Cavs uniform yet,” James said. “We know what he’s capable of doing, but he hasn’t played with us, so we don’t want to put that type of pressure on him, even though he loves it.”
If he’s healthy enough when he returns in January (or sooner) to recover the burst he’s had to this point in his career, Thomas will undoubtedly add punch, variety and fluidity to the Cavaliers’ offense, while also relegating other contributors — Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, et al. — to lower-wattage roles to which they might be better suited, and in which they might produce more effectively than they have thus far. Ultimately, though, the Cavs’ chances of making a fourth straight NBA Finals and having any hope of toppling the best of the West will hinge on their ability to improve on the defensive end.
Nobody’s giving up more baskets more easily than Cleveland. Nobody’s even close: through 12 games, the Cavs are allowing 113 points per 100 possessions, and the distance between them and the 29th-ranked Bucks is equivalent to the distance between Milwaukee and 20th place. Cleveland doesn’t finish possessions, posting a bottom-10 defensive rebounding percentage, and the Cavs are giving up the fifth-most 3-point shots in the NBA, and the fourth-most from the high-efficiency short corners. Opponents are feasting on those looks, shooting 41.1 percent overall from deep and a blistering 51.6 percent from the corners — both far and away the highest marks in the league.
It wouldn’t be surprising for some of these issues to improve a bit as the season moves along. A Cavs roster that added eight new pieces this offseason should develop more continuity and, ideally, more cohesion. The return of Thompson from his calf strain should improve the defensive rebounding problem; the Cavs pulled down nearly 82 percent of opponents’ misses with Thompson on the court before his injury, a top-four mark. Regression to the mean should cool those 3-point shooting numbers a bit. Introducing Thomas into the starting lineup could turn around the Cavs’ penchant for getting off to sluggish starts. It’s possible that time, reps and improved effort could bump Cleveland from the NBA’s basement up toward, say, 20th in points allowed per possession.
That’s still not going to be enough to matter against real serious opposition, and it won’t even get them a game against the Warriors. Thomas will help, and will help an awful lot if his transition goes as smoothly as he believes. The Cavs’ issues reach much farther than that, though — maybe farther than a 5-foot-9 point guard could be expected to reach.
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