CLEVELAND, Ohio -- It wasnt finger-pointing. It wasnt criticizing one specific player -- or a coach. Wasnt intended to be malicious or damaging.
But Cleveland Cavaliers team leaders -- Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson and Larry Nance Jr. -- wanted to make something clear late Thursday night, as they were trying to grasp their latest double-digit loss against a team in a similar rebuild position: The Cavs should be better, further along, than they are right now.
Were kind of just at a standstill, Thompson said. Teams are trending up, playing better basketball, weve got to figure out what were going to do.
Members of the organization knew a fast start was highly unlikely this season. Eleven of the first 15 games were against either playoff teams from last season or ones projected to be in that mix in 2019-20. They were relying on a young backcourt, starting 19-year-old Darius Garland at point guard and 20-year-old (now 21) Collin Sexton in a new position. As one scout said to cleveland.com at a recent road game, Young guards will get you beat. A stranger in his own locker room, head coach John Beilein was trying to avoid the numerous chuckholes along his first-year NBA journey.
But after that early onslaught, playing what has been labeled the third-toughest schedule according to basketball reference, things were supposed to soften a bit. And they have, with matchups against Memphis, Chicago, New York and Washington -- all teams sitting below .500 on the season. Only the Cavs havent capitalized. If anything, as a team, when judging the sum as opposed to the parts, theyve regressed.
Asked if the Cavs should be better, Love quickly said, Yes.
I think we start taking steps forward and then we just a take a step back here and there, he admitted. Definitely tough. Obviously we have had injuries, were coming off a long road trip and now we have to find ways to get better in less than 10 games before the All-Star break.
"We have to start trending in the right direction again because we felt like we were playing good basketball, even in a couple of the losses we had, and these are uncharacteristic -- losing by double-digits to these two teams. Nothing against them, we just feel like similar records and these are teams we can compete with, especially on our home floor. We should have a chance to really win.
The Cavs are just 2-20 this season against teams with a record above .500. Competing with those high-level foes is out of the question. The Cavs recognize that. They shouldnt be measured that way. Not for another, say, three or four years? But while the losses were piling up early in the year, many were clutching to an ability to compete -- and beat -- teams on their own level as a sign of progress.
Thats not happening anymore and its fair to wonder why. They are 1-7 in those matchups over the last three weeks -- a disheartening stretch that began by blowing a game against Charlotte. Thats been a trend in many of these defeats. The Cavs will play well for stints. But with little margin for error, theyve been unable to sustain it, not quick enough to make the requisite adjustments.
I think theres good moments in every game for us, Love said. But were a young team that needs to continue to put it together. We just have some slip-ups. Weve had a number of times now in the past two weeks where weve got up double-digits, had leads and it seems like in minutes we let them slip away. We have to find ways as players to continue to stop the bleeding, get buckets and slow the game down or speed the game up and dictate the pace on that end.
Coming off the 11-day road trip that began in Detroit, went west and finished in Chicago, the Cavs were exhausted -- and sick.
Illness hit Dante Exum, which led to him losing around five pounds. He didnt even join the team until they were about to head to Los Angeles, their third stop on the six-game trek. Then rookie Darius Garland was hit hard by the flu bug, he told cleveland.com, and is still trying to recuperate after losing some weight. Hes felt that sickness in the last two losses, which helps explain some of his struggles. Right as Ante Zizic was pushing his way into the rotation, he got clubbed in the head by Denvers Mason Plumlee and Zizic has been dealing with scary vertigo-like symptoms that have sidelined him indefinitely.
Add in injuries to both Brandon Knight (knee soreness) and rookie Kevin Porter Jr. (sprained knee) because they clearly have hampered Clevelands bench, one that is still feeling the loss of Jordan Clarkson. The Cavs were hoping Porter would be ready to take the bulk of that second-unit responsibility, that he would give the group a similar shot-making and scoring profile. Then Porter went down awkwardly in early January, exacerbating the Clarkson loss, contributing to persistent bench woes and late-game issues.
Then theres the reality of playing at home for the first time after a road trip, Mondays confusing blowout against the Knicks, who entered the night with just 11 wins and left tied in that column with Cleveland, which has now lost six straight and eight of the last 10.
But the latest puzzler against the Wizards called for a different response.
A loss is a loss, so anything in that L column hurts, Nance said. But this team, the Knicks, our last game in Chicago, these are all games we should be very competitive in. The fact that we havent been, other than Chicago, especially on our home court, is a little bit disheartening. Go back to the drawing board. Its not like anybody feels sorry for us, so we cant for ourselves.
The Cavs justly had low expectations entering the season. There wasnt any talk of an outside chance at the postseason. At least one member of the front office said 24 or 25 wins would be a good outcome. Most nights, they are out-talented. Beilein is making rookie coach blunders. The rotation has been a constant experiment. One of their best players in the first few months is now in Utah. The organization-wide inexperience has shown, with growing pains on and off the floor.
Weve got a lot of young on this team, Nance said. Darius is young, KP is young, Collins young. Theres a learning curve for Coach as well. Its something that weve all got to figure out and what are we, 45 games in? Half the year isnt something that Im going to sit here and get too down about. We still have half the year left. Who knows what can happen in that half?
Even though many of these stumbles were anticipated, players have become perturbed with the occasional lack of competitiveness. A few who suffered through last seasons injury-filled struggle, stretches where they had to use two-way guys for big minutes and didnt have Thompson or Love for extended periods, have pointed to the obvious talent difference between the two groups and wondered aloud why, with more talented -- and healthier players -- they arent better this season.
Technically, they are. But not by much, which is getting harder to accept.
Id rather be in a close game than get boned by 30, Thompson said recently.
Last season, the Cavs finished 19-63. They had a point differential of -9.6. Their defense was the worst in NBA history, allowing a whopping 116.8 points per 100 possessions.
This season, the Cavs are currently 12-33. They have a point differential of -9.2. Their defense, which was surprisingly respectable early on, has plummeted to 29th, allowing 114.8 points per 100 possessions. When asked for the common denominator during this losing skid, thats where Thompson pointed first. But the problems, clearly, run much deeper than just that end of the floor.
Were not defending at all, not at a good level, Thompson said. Youve got to do that consistently in this league for a long period of time and were not doing that right now.
Reality is were at where were at. Just got to keep plugging away, keep pushing through, thats all we can do. We cant feel sorry for ourself. Teams know they can be physical with us and if they move the ball, they can get in our paint. No ones going to feel sorry for us.
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