Opponents are scoring 112.4 points per 100 possessions against Cleveland, the highest mark in the league. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

Considering their championship expectations, perhaps no team in the NBA has failed as miserably on defense as the Cleveland Cavaliers have through 11 games. Opponents are scoring 112.4 points per 100 possessions against the Cavs, the highest mark in the league and the third-highest mark by any team as of Nov. 8 since the lockout-shortened 2011 season. Basketball Reference, which uses a slightly different model, has Cleveland’s defensive rating at 115.2, on pace for the worst mark since 1973.

While last season showed that James could take a bottom-10 defense to the Finals, that appears to be a statistical outlier. On average, James’s Finals-qualifying teams ranked 10th in defensive rating and 10th in points allowed per possession. This season, the Cavaliers rank 30th in both despite playing against the sixth-easiest strength of schedule to date.

The recently acquired Derrick Rose, Jae Crowder and Dwyane Wade aren’t helping the Cavaliers chase shooters off the three-point arc, nor has the decision to reinsert J.R. Smith into the starting lineup. Opponents are attempting 31.6 three-pointers per 100 possessions against the Cavaliers, nearly three more than the team allowed last season, made worse by the fact that opponents are making 41.9 percent of those three-point attempts, a figure that would represent the highest opponent accuracy in league history, if maintained for the entire season.


(NBA Savant)

Catch-and-shoot looks, spot-ups and run-of-the-mill jump shots are riddling Cleveland’s defense, too, and the team ranks no higher than 29th in points allowed per possession against those play types, according to data provided by Synergy Sports. Late switches and blown assignments have led to many of these shots going unchallenged. Last season, Tyronn Lue’s club contested three more shots per game compared to what we’ve seen thus far.

Season Contested two-point shots per game Contested three-point shots per game Contested shots per game
2016-17 39.3 21.8 61.2
2017-18 34.5 22.1 56.6

On the interior, opponents are scoring a hearty 1.025 points per possession on post-ups, one of the three highest marks in the league, according to data provided by Synergy Sports. Cleveland has ranked in the top half of the league in the metric each season since James returned to the franchise in 2014. Average out the team’s points allowed per possession on post-ups over the past three seasons, and you’ll find that the Cavaliers are allowing 20 percent more points per possession on post-ups this season. Expect that to get worse before it gets better. Tristan Thompson, who has guarded the low block for years, is projected to miss a month because of a strained calf, leaving Kevin Love, a less physical defender, to man the paint.


Which brings us to Cleveland’s half-court scheme. A staple of James-led rosters is a secure half-court defense, as he can guard every position on the floor. In each of the past seven seasons that he reached the Finals, his team nearly always ranked in the top half of the league in points allowed per possession in the half court. The one time it didn’t, it still ranked in the top 20. This season, Cleveland ranks 30th, failing to force deflections or generate fast-break opportunities.

Season Points per possession allowed in the half court Rank
2010-11 0.87 4th
2011-12 0.85 4th
2012-13 0.88 10th
2013-14 0.89 8th
2014-15 0.90 19th
2015-16 0.91 11th
2016-17 0.94 13th
2017-18 1.0 30th

Also consider that Isaiah Thomas, the team’s projected starting point guard — who ranked 467th out of 468 eligible defenders last season in Defensive Real Plus-Minus — hasn’t been added to the equation yet.

The notion that LeBron’s teams find a higher gear as the postseason approaches holds water. However, the fact that the league’s oldest squad is surrendering points in bunches to bottom-dwellers such as the Atlanta Hawks and Brooklyn Nets is alarming. And with early indications of issues James’s teams have not exhibited before, it’s worth asking whether the Cavs can solve them in time to get him an eighth consecutive finals appearance.