All is not well in Cleveland.
The Cavaliers (45-18) tout the best record in the Eastern Conference, but the team has lost four of its last 10 games — including a tragic showing Monday against the Memphis Grizzlies, who were playing without four starters and had an eight-man rotation. The loss was the low point of a season that includes a coaching change and LeBron James’s comical and seemingly relentless social media controversies. After the loss, James quipped, “I can sit up here and say that we’re a team that’s ready to start the playoffs tomorrow, but we’re not. We still have things that happen on the court that just, that shouldn’t happen.”
A portion of the team’s recent struggles has been laid at the feet of Kevin Love, and for good reason. The 6-foot-10 forward has increasingly been stationed around the NBA perimeter since he arrived in Cleveland. He’s taking the second most three-pointers per contest of any season in his career, second only to his final season in Minnesota, in which he was given the green light to essentially chuck the ball from any position on the court.
Since the all-star break, he’s shooting a dismal 22.2 percent from beyond the arc, while attempting 4.5 three-pointers per contest. His true shooting percentage has fallen since the break, too, as has his rebounding average.
“Truthfully, I’ve been getting a lot of great shots, a lot of wide open shots…and it’s hitting the back rim,” Love told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin. “Those are ones that usually fall for me, just lately they haven’t.”
Love’s correct about the open looks: Since the all-star break, he’s taking 6.8 field goal attempts per game contest where the closest defender is more than four feet away — which is defined by NBA.com as an open shot — but is shooting just 32.3 percent on those looks. Compare that with his pre-all-star break figures: Love attempted 7.6 field goals per contest with the same distance between him and the closest defender, and made 40.1 percent of those looks.
That Love has struggled with his shot this season is well documented. According to data compiled by Todd Schneider, he’s shooting worse than league average in above-the-break three-pointers (33.5 compared with 34.8), shots from the restricted area (51.3 compared with 60) and from the left corner (32.6 compared with 37.2).
The Cavs’ struggles go beyond Love’s shooting woes, though: Cleveland is self-destructing on offense while attempting to play at a frenetic pace. After Blatt’s departure, Coach Tyronn Lue made it a point to say his team would start “playing faster,” which would require the Cavs to get in better shape.
Consider that the team’s pace before All-Star Weekend was 95.2 possessions per 48 minutes, which ranked 28th in the league. Since the break, that number has risen to 97.4, which ranks 22nd, and over the last three games, that figure spiked to 101.5, which ranks in the top 10. Should that average hold for the next seven games, it’ll not only be the highest 10-game pace of Cleveland’s season, but the highest 10-game pace of James’s regular season career. His previous high was 99.2, set in the first 10 games of the Miami Heat’s 2011-12 campaign.
With that rapid influx in possessions comes considerable growing pains, on both ends of the floor.
The team’s assist-to-turnover ratio over the last three games, 1.24, looks alien compared with its season average (1.64), which ranks ninth among all teams. Should it hold steady over the next seven games, it would be the lowest of any 10-game stretch since James returned to Cleveland. Take into account the team’s 16.1 assist ratio, or the number of assists divided by possessions, and you’ll find what’s projected to be the second lowest (by 0.1) of any 10-game stretch since James left Miami.
In total, the team’s 17.6 turnovers per 100 possessions over the past three games would also equal the worst 10-game stretch since James’s arrival, should the average hold steady over the next seven games. These turnovers are turning into scoring opportunities for opponents, too.
Perhaps it’s unsurprising, then, that the Cavaliers’ defensive rating has fallen to ninth in the league over the past 10 games, while opponents are scoring the most fast-break points (12.8 per contest in March) of any month this season.
“We can’t play basketball like this going down the stretch,” J.R. Smith said Feb. 28. “It’s 24, 25 games left in the year, and you talk about contending to be a championship contender, and you get blown out by a team…you come out and get thrashed. We can’t do that. If we’re serious about who we’re supposed to be, then we can’t do this.”
It isn’t just Love who is struggling for the Cavaliers; there are larger conversations to be had about where the team hopes to go offensively. The rate of play is a cause for concern in Cleveland, and there are plenty of questions that need to be answered before Lue can guide his team on a postseason run.
Josh Planos has been published at the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the Guardian, the Pacific Standard and VICE, among other publications. He has been heard on CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. Planos is currently a Digital Editor at KETV NewsWatch 7 and a freelance writer.